This discussion took place on a bright summer morning in late June 2015 at the studio of Juan Navarro Baldeweg in Madrid. It was a conversation between two friends who have known one another for more than forty years and whose interests span the worlds of art, architecture, and ideas. As they talked, they moved from room to room among paintings in process.
Juan Navarro Baldeweg (JNB): The way you write is very fluent and easy for the reader. _x005F_x000D_
William Curtis (WC): There is a wonderful passage in one of the essays of George Orwell where he talks about being a writer and says “Good prose is like a window pane, transparent.” You don’t know that you are reading, you go straight to the sense. There is no interference. In the catalogue of my forthcoming exhibition in the Alhambra, ‘Abstraction and Light,’ which is in production now, I have this condensed poem ‘Mental Landscapes’ which defines my reaction to nature, to light, and to the revelation of things. _x005F_x000D_
JNB: The presentation of your book on Le Corbusier was very pleasant and in many ways, rich. You moved from general ideas to specific things, including psychological approaches, and in a fluent exposition. It was very meaningful because it is a transcending vision. You are looking for what is more universal; for the essential aspects of the natural._x005F_x000D_
WC: This is exactly what I aspire to in the exhibition ‘Abstraction and Light’ which includes photographs as well as paintings and drawings referred to as ‘mental landscapes.’ You feel you are dealing with an ancient landscape, which is partly a haunted or inspired landscape. So the framing of the view is particular to a place, and yet, because of the way it is taken, universalizing: it becomes something general. And that is the reason why a part of my exhibition in the Alhambra is called ‘Cosmologies.’ _x005F_x000D_ Something like this happens in the black and white photographs I have taken in the Canary Islands, photographs of lava and clouds in particular. The island of El Hierro is like the beginning of the world. It was a revelation for me. In the autumn of 2001, I also went to La Gomera. I was impressed by the power of these islands with the clouds coming out of the Atlantic and then piling up, and by the volcanoes. Everything is liquid becoming solid or solid becoming liquid. This relation between clouds and solidity recalls calligraphy for me. There is a wonderful statement by Paul Claudel, when he describes Japan as an archipelago of islands resembling ‘solidified clouds.’ These are phenomena observed in a sense, through architecture, but then they metamorphose into something else. For me there is a back and forth between the person who understands or writes about architecture, and the person for whom architecture is a sort of lens through which other things may be understood. _x005F_x000D_
JNB: It is like a travesía or passage to something else. I was recently in Ronchamp, and it is a mystery: Where is Ronchamp? Where is the work of art? Is it between the person and the wall? Where is it? It is a mystery because it is in between. The interior is an individual experience, it is a mediation. When it is full of people, I have to go out and come back later because the experience is completely different. Outside it is the contrary. In your book there is a picture where the exterior, open air chapel is full of people. The extremes: it is this that creates an incredible energy. _x005F_x000D_
WC: It has to do with the spaces, and with the dialogue between the interior and the exterior, and with the horizon that suddenly becomes an interiorized experience. The building is like a high tension membrane. _x005F_x000D_
JNB: It is so present that it is like the shell of an egg: very thin; but in fact it is not thin. Everything is ambiguous. And there are very mature decisions because they are taken at once, not in different stages. _x005F_x000D_
WC: In this precision of thinking in materials and ambiguity in terms of perception and weight, Le Corbusier is a master. In one of the chapters of my book on the genesis of forms I say that we can examine the process, but that we should never forget that many of the key decisions in it are not documented in any form. They are in the mental life of the architect thinking into space and light directly. Beyond the drawing there is another level of space. The thing about Le Corbusier is his great spatial imagination. Even the greatest of his drawings is just an approximation of what is being transmitted from him as an architect into the final thing.
_x005F_x000D_ I discovered that the color of the roof of Ronchamp, for example, which is this wonderful contrapposto in bare concrete sitting on a crack of light, was originally supposed to be white, the same as the walls, right up until the last minute; but then he saw it going up and said: “no, no, no…”. This is an amazing decision because it would have been so much less interesting if it were white. As it is, there is the contrast between this thing which is apparently heavy, and the discovery inside that it is floating on light. I think that this relatively small work sums up almost everything in terms of the perception of light, shade, weight, or flotation. And yet it is not overloaded, it is subtle._x005F_x000D_
JNB: Le Corbusier, also as an artist, had an enormous capacity to shape things. To make forms. Nevertheless we cannot say that this was done in a formalist way. _x005F_x000D_
WC: It is the end of a line of thinking. He kept exploring a meaning, often in a very subliminal way. He knew when something was going wrong, and he would stop the project immediately. I remember talking to Jerzy Soltan, who was very observant of his time in the atelier, in the late 1940s, “Le Corbusier’s eyes would turn inward, but he always knew when it was forced, he stopped” he said. Le Corbusier was always looking for a language, for elements, for types. In the late works, there are auto-referential details done deliberately. This poses a problem at times, almost a kind of mannerism in the late works.
_x005F_x000D_ Le Corbusier moves back and forth in his own oeuvre, especially in the late works. In the Curutchet House at La Plata in Argentina (1947-49), the section is very like the ones in some of the villas of the 1920s; the exterior vocabulary has changed, but the basic structures of spatial thinking are embedded. One of the themes which I explore in the book concerns the way that the internal mental structures of Le Corbusier combine different strata. The more recent ones are in connection with the earlier ones, and sometimes he jumps over two levels, returning and bringing something back in an unconscious process. Equally it is a kind of search, so it is like the layering of volcanic lava: the ones from the beginning are always there. Then he filters them through history, the way he draws ruins for example. Le Corbusier incorporates schemata from diverse sources: from Cubism, from aspects of Surrealism, from cosmic features in the late works._x005F_x000D_
JNB: Do you find a link between the first works and the latest? Because in general, the feeling one has is that at the beginning he was interested in the prototypes, the industrial shapes, and in the late works the types are more cosmological. _x005F_x000D_
WC: In fact, the matter is more complicated than that. It does not concern just architecture: it is also about a way of looking at nature. In his early formation in La Chaux de Fonds, L’Eplattenier encouraged him to observe nature, to abstract it and to make an emblem out of it. Le Corbusier leaves his early regionalism behind but the way of thinking about nature remains with him until the end. So he has this great capacity to look at a shell, or a boat, for example. In the 1930s he transforms such things into a language, and that is in a sense the beginning of Ronchamp. Ronchamp really starts with the drawings of boats and shells years before. So, where is this building in time? There is a drawing in my book, with the boat hull and the shell, the coque and the coquillage. The coque is the boat and the coquillage is the shell. This game of words – and remember, there was Surrealism at the time, but he never adhered directly to Surrealism – he did not need to, because he always thought in this way of ambiguity. In his early texts, from his travels, he talks about basic visual words which do not mean anything, but which have a potential of meaning. They are like a fundamental grammar of shapes, and this is the way he thinks as a painter. _x005F_x000D_
JNB: For me, the work of art is a kind of mediation, like The Mediation of Ornament by Oleg Grabar. I like very much this title, I think it is very profound. Art in general is a mediation. You don’t know where the work is. Very often I say, perhaps as a provocation, that the art is a parasite of the work of art. For instance the purple color comes from the cochinilla, an insect living in the cactus. That is what I feel about a work of art. Where is the work of art? Is it in the cactus? No. It is in the distillation, it is something that happens at the end of the process. Your mind is following this and you achieve a sort of ecstasy when you find the color. And it happens in Ronchamp very often. You are sitting right there, in the benches, and then you feel you walk inside, in a kind of ecstasy, and that is the work of art. It is that moment, and it does not happen very often. Probably one has to go there in solitude, the interior of Ronchamp should be experienced in solitude. _x005F_x000D_
WC: About this argument of mediation: in my text ‘Abstraction and Light: a Vision of the Alhambra,’ I describe when I went there for the first time in 1981, February, in the freezing cold, with Catherine. We had been in Morocco, we came from the south to the north. I already knew Morocco, Syria and Egypt; I was deeply interested in Islamic architecture. It was a last minute decision, we had some extra days, and we decided to cross to Spain. We took the ferry to Málaga and the bus to the Alhambra. It was very, very cold, and no one was there. The Alhambra was less restored then, it was somehow decrepit, it was very beautiful: with the clouds and the freezing winter, one had a kind of epic vision of the place – very strong –, and I was carrying with me the knowledge of previous visits to key Islamic buildings, gardens and landscapes. For me the Alhambra is the north of something, not the south. Many Europeans think that it is the south. For me it is north, and the way I came is the way that one should come. So the Alhambra is like a magnet to me. It has this kind of attraction. It is a force that comes in different times in my life but for different reasons. I remember running into Oleg Grabar in 1978 when I was also teaching at Harvard. It was just after the vacation:
_x005F_x000D_ -Hi Oleg, how are you? Did you have a nice summer?
_x005F_x000D_ -I am in complete panic! He said.
_x005F_x000D_ -What is the matter?
_x005F_x000D_ -I am writing a monograph about the Alhambra, and I am late… and I don’t really know about the Alhambra.
_x005F_x000D_ And he wrote that book: the monograph on the Alhambra. And I reread the book recently. The strong side of Oleg’s vision of the Alhambra is meaning. It is the investigation of meaning: understanding the symbols in relation to the political context, etcetera. The weak side is perception, form, space, and the vibration of the work of art.
_x005F_x000D_ To me the Alhambra is just the visible veil over all kinds of things which are invisible. As a larger atmosphere it is an extraordinary garden, it is a palimpsest. It is in fact many, many things. You cannot say what the Alhambra is exactly, yet everybody can feel its presence. Everybody is moved by it in some way or another. But what I wanted to do is to reveal through the camera lens some of this poetic presence: especially through water, light, transparencies, things dissolving, the depth of shadows, the vibration of forms, the ornament. I thought a lot about the notion of mediation. The other thing which I enjoyed very much in exploring the Alhambra is that everything is a microcosm. In the Palace of the Lions an inscription refers to it as “an infinite ocean.” There are allusions to the great universal images from the Quran, of the heavens, light, water. There is also much ambiguity in the texts and in the reality, because the stone becomes water, the water becomes stone, and both are dissolved in light, and light becomes something else. _x005F_x000D_
JNB: There is a wonderful book which deals with the matters you are talking about: Eye and Mind by Merleau-Ponty. He mentions: “I am looking at the swimming pool and the reflection in the water, but where is the swimming pool? Where is the reflection? It is not in the water, it is not in the swimming pool, where is it? Is it in me?” Phenomenology is very important to me, to clarify all this things._x005F_x000D_
WC: Of course, water is in the center of everything. Water is an inner world, and an outer world. Water in Islamic architecture transforms into the paradise garden, it is revelation, it is purity. In the Quran it is said: “This is what we are made from.” But water was also agriculture, power, and the mirror of the universe; water was in turn about control. The Alhambra was the jewel in the crown of a system of irrigation. In the Nasrid Palaces there is the image of the ocean and of the world, but there is also the control of the waters. The reflecting water surfaces are the perfection of an entire system of irrigation in a whole wider landscape. For me water is one of the keys to the Alhambra.
_x005F_x000D_ So what does all this mean in the end? It has to do with perception. You go into a place and are moved by it. You can do nothing, or else something goes on and you want to record it. But it is not a direct record, it is ‘mediated.’ You do a sketch and years later you do a painting that you are not even aware is related to that experience, but it is indeed. This is important because for me abstraction is a means of compression. It is the opposite of formalism. It is not making shapes to make shapes. It is involved in feeling, in memory, and in the unconscious. Things are what they are, except that they are never what they seem! It is like the swimming pool of Merleau-Ponty, if it is a swimming pool?_x005F_x000D_
JNB: The water clarifies what is painted because the water is liquid and it is a surface. The three-dimensional world is reduced to its two-dimensional shape. Everything is there: the reflections of the sky, of an object… Bringing together all the three dimensional objects, but as a surface. It happens a lot with Cézanne. I do not know if you have read Adrian Stokes. I like his writings very much, especially because he wrote a lot about the process of formation of stones. This is a beautiful idea. This recalls your way of looking at the universal via the concrete thing. _x005F_x000D_
WC: And it is also the interrelation between the image made by the artist and the inner life of the stone. And they are not necessarily in harmony. _x005F_x000D_
JNB: Stokes is not well known in Spain. He wrote beautifully. A little bit like Ruskin. _x005F_x000D_
WC: He spoke of “stone bloom,” as in a flower. Interestingly, in the catalogue of the exhibition, Alvaro Siza has written a very compact text and at the beginning he has a quotation from Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons. It is very interesting that he would know that. It is a description, at the beginning of the book, where the author is in Venice on a boat and he describes looking at the city seeing it reflected and fragmented in the water and then recalling the experience, saying “it is as if it was reconstituted in my mind through layers of rice paper as in an abstract picture.” Siza said, “William, surely that is you!” I loved the way he chose that particular English author. _x005F_x000D_
JNB: Stokes and Ruskin wrote beautifully. And I mentioned Cézanne: Cézanne through the eyes of Stokes. He says that to understand Cézanne you need to have a sense of water. And this is very clarifying._x005F_x000D_
WC: My ‘mental landscape’ drawings are often on cardboard, which to me is a fantastic material. You soak it, and you rip it, and you turn it into something else. And similarly, with the kind of liquids: I often use industrial paints, because they have a kind of density, like the night. And the black and white photographs of the volcanic landscapes are like Chinese paintings done with ink. I don’t intend that, but they are. This is not a deliberated method; it is more a way of seeing. Back to Le Corbusier: he had a way of seeing, and I have learnt from him as an artist that way. The other thing I learned from Le Corbusier, is the importance of metamorphosis through drawing. _x005F_x000D_
JNB: Le Corbusier is like an explorer, he clarifies the mind. _x005F_x000D_
WC: Yes of course, because the sketches come from the mind. When as a young man he draws the houses of Pompeii, or the Parthenon, he is drawing these buildings, but he is also drawing his own mental world of forms. So the drawing is a way of clarifying the inner world through the outer world, and vice versa. This in itself is abstraction of a kind.