by Salvatore PelusoNov 26, 2022
For France-born artist and architect Didier Fiúza Faustino, the act of destabilising an architectural program by pushing the rules of body, space, and form is key to every project. Operating between the comfort of familiarity and the tension of incertitude, dysfunctioning situations are upheld in his practice, and hope and positivity are rarely put on the table. His recent book-manifesto—Architecture for Disquiet Bodies-published by Lars Müller, surveys over three decades of critical work by the Paris and Lisbon-based founder of studio, Mésarchitecture. The book invites the reader to examine how disquietude and a contrarian consciousness is received in the architectural world today, how such bodies navigate spaces, what they seek, and what is it that they question for tomorrow.
STIR had the opportunity to speak with Didier F. Faustino recently, where we discussed more about the book and his fascinating practice.
Zohra Khan: Tell us about your beginnings. What was it like growing up in a family of migrants?
Didier Fiúza Faustino: It was the 70s in Europe. France was a very wealthy country, and at the same time, quite racist, very sure of itself, a very dominant society. Coming from a poor country, I would say I grew up in a family where people were submissive, who tried their best to work in this foreign country, like shadows where nobody would pay attention to them. They just wanted to succeed, and so as a kid I grew up in this context, with no understanding of the situation. I had a feeling that it was not fair, and I wanted to go against the system and the disparition of identity and culture of my family. Strangely, that's why they gave me the French name Didier, while the rest is Fiúza Faustino, which is my family name. I became the symbol of both integration and disparition, and at the same time, it generated in me this necessity to claim my difference. The big thing is— all these contexts generated a contrarian in me.
Zohra: How did architecture find its way in your life?
Didier: My studies were filled with unbelievably beautiful moments. I arrived in architecture with no plan to become an architect, I didn't even know what architecture was. I grew up in a very simple cultural family, we were not intellectuals. Since childhood, I wanted to be myself and to discover my voice, and one of my fascinations was drawing. I drew all the time. So from early on, I was obsessed with drawings, I would interpret cartoons and films. Maybe my culture came from this substitution of reality, giving me a possibility to escape. The reality of my family was joyful, but the context was not, people at my home worked like ghosts in society. This got my attention to cinema narratives and fictional reading. The visual component in these readings was cartoons, which were a combination of writing and drawings. On weekends after school, I used to go to work at construction sites with my father, but my interest was in studying and learning about drawings. I could not attend the fine arts school I wanted to, but since I had construction skills and the awareness that I could learn to draw, I chose architecture. Since I grew up around construction sites, and in a world where an architect was considered the enemy, who doesn’t know anything about building skills, architecture didn’t interest me from the start. The only point of attending an architecture school was to spend a year learning drawing and perfecting it, before escaping and switching to a fine arts school. But what happened was not what I had expected. Architecture fascinated me; I had never imagined it would expose me to such a rich world where I could learn not only to draw but also sociology, philosophy, construction, history, writing, and technology. It was like being in a school of cinema.
Architecture was not about construction for me, because I feel there are others who are better at building than architects. I think architects are better at telling stories, and proposing new ideas, and this was something that put me on fire. When I was in school, I did not follow the requirements of doing projects perfectly. I was rather obsessed with conceptualising ideas. My interest was more in the context than the practice of an architect or the building itself.
For me, tomorrow is about questioning. It’s all about enigma, uncertainty, and fragility.
Zohra: In your book Architecture for Disquiet Bodies, what kind of a human engagement are you pointing towards with the word disquiet?
Didier: One thing that the title of the book talks about is doubt. It's really interesting. The book happened because we were invited as a practice for an exhibition in Lisbon at the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT). It was a moment to look back on what we have done as a studio until now, and for this I didn't want to produce a retrospective. I instead wanted to do a prospective, because it is something that doesn’t exist but puts into perspective what tomorrow could be. I particularly wanted to question my projection for the coming years and the kind of projects I’ll be doing.
The title of the book is essentially about questioning who will be my next target clients, and what will interest me in the coming 10 years. And it went very far with this idea of disquiet; it’s about people who are not quiet with themselves and with society. They could come across as arrogant, but these are the people I want to work with. There is no real definition of who these people are, but I know that they are those who are not comfortable with the world they live in.
Zohra: I was reading one of the essays in the book, in which you were discussing the idea of tomorrow, and the fact that there's a looming narrative where people talk about hope in the context of the future, but for you, tomorrow is about questioning. You mentioned that to over-consume the present and to feel the tension of life is the only way to survive and go to the future. Could you elaborate on this?
Didier: I speak a lot about tomorrow. There is a quote that says, "Tomorrow doesn't exist as tomorrow, it exists as a hope for today. Past doesn't exist as the past, it exists as a memory today.” So everything is about today. For me, tomorrow is about questioning. It’s all about enigma, uncertainty, and fragility. We cannot think, talk, and reflect about tomorrow with insurance; tomorrow is all about insecurity. And this is what I like about architecture. I don't want to be the architect or the chief of a practice of certainty. I like the thing about results not being a guarantee. My first company was called Mésarchitecture, where the possibility of doing wrong interested us more than doing right. I have always been more interested in failing than complaining, specifically in architecture where each project is an experience, a prototype. There cannot be a recipe to succeed in architecture because it’s not about us—the architect—it’s about those who ask us to design something for them.
Zohra: You mentioned words like fragility, doubt, uncertainty, failure, questioning, imbalance… Are these words also a part of how you operate in your creative practice and life in general?
Didier: I am not a philosopher but I believe that ignorance can be creative and that what you see is not what you get. I like to stay naïve and to continue seeing the world through the eyes of a child while not knowing too much. I think this book is about generating the feeling of uncertainty because one could question if it’s talking about architecture, art or the pursuit of being human. And I like this nebula of things, and what is important for me through this project is that the reader can make its own trajectory, and its own narrative. The book is like an archipelago of ideas, tests, and experiences.
As an architect, I don't like imposing the plans of a building on its users. I try to put dysfunctioning situations into projects - moments where you are not sure whether these are to be celebrated or avoided. Take the example of a project from the book – a public space titled Stairway to Heaven. It's all about ambivalence. It amplifies the fact that our public spaces can be spaces for individual use. The design projects a moment of doubt whether we should accept or reject this norm.
Zohra: Speaking of your practice, you like to work on things that you relate to, but you always find it fulfilling when the result is unexpected. How do you balance these polar components – the comfort of familiarity and the tension of incertitude—in the process?
Didier: It’s interesting because it's never fully calculated. I always try to work with the form of the space and the situation, in the most efficient way. But what we do is, when we begin the process, we introduce something visible to destabilise the program. It’s not about the design itself, it's more about the program getting perverted. I always take care of what the client wants from me, and at the same time, I bring them to a point where they accept the introduction of an uncertain element in the program. Consider the example of a retail design that we did for a young fashion brand (Panic Room, Paris). The program was about representing a punk rock hedonist brand and there was luxury associated with the narrative. Instead of accepting it as an element of exclusivity, we created a situation where once people get inside the space, they feel a sense of dissatisfaction and disconnection from the world, as if they have entered a jail. So what I am trying to say is—it is always at a moment during the design process where we like to introduce a contradiction. It's not pre-written, sometimes it’s quite invisible. There is another example, in the book, that explains this. It’s a chair called Delete Yourself. We work with norms of ergonomics to realise a perfect chair, but what happens when you try to push the material against the idea of what constitutes a chair? And this approach, led to the realisation of a super idiotic chair which had no seat, but whose legs are large enough and on which one can sit. It's a chair but not really a chair; it’s something else. It was a question at the beginning of the process when we decided to play with the norms; reflecting on why they force us to behave in a certain way.
Zohra: What is your biggest fear as a creator?
Didier: My biggest fear is probably working on something I don't like or don't believe in.
Zohra: Is there a dominant narrative in the architectural industry today that you believe is sheer nonsense?
Didier: I started in the 80s, where I was fascinated by some postmodern masters and I admired the idea of beauty. Then the digital era arrived, where the narrative was around efficiency of the form. And now the industry is oriented towards austerity because the planet is dying. The dominant narratives today are interesting but I find them weird because they favour the majority, i.e. the producers of the discipline, and this has become a way to make money.
For instance, I do drawings digitally but they look quite analog. I like that balance. Today, when there is so much discussion about greening the planet, people expect my drawings to show that I am using trees, to make the project valid. Planting, of course interests me, but the project could be talking about, say, social housing. It’s all about the topic that I am working on, and if it doesn’t need to have green on the top of the building, my drawings won’t show it. I believe in focusing on what the topic is rather than what we need to sell our projects.
Zohra: Is there a piece of architecture which you think comforts, calms, or stirs up the disquiet?
Didier: I always dream of going back to the SESC Pompéia Factory in Sao Paulo designed by Lina Bo Bardi. It has been the most beautiful experience of architecture I have witnessed, and this is the place where I learned about fragility and how we can build upon disquiet situations.
To be disquiet with positivity, for me, is about being in comfort. One needs to fight that.
Zohra: Is there someone in architecture or beyond whose philosophy you strongly relate to?
Didier: French photographer and writer Hervé Guibert is someone I greatly admire. In his book VICE, he talked about his nightmares and dreams. The book comprises a short one page text titled Règlement (meaning Regulation) which has a statement that I find particularly fascinating. It reads, "The vice should be a free public service and government should organise competitions to give prizes to people who are able to create architecture and vicious machines that don’t exist.”
Zohra: Is there a question that you are putting forth for reflection through the medium of your book, Architecture for Disquiet Bodies?
Didier: I’d say, 'why should we accept following norms?' and 'why are we so submissive?'
Zohra: What is that one challenge that keeps recurring in your way of operating your creative practice?
Didier: The challenge is more of my own doubt, of whether I’ll be able to finish a piece of work or not. I prefer not to talk about it.
Zohra: For those who consider themselves disquiet, contrarian beings, what would you advise them?
Didier: The days are getting more and more beautiful for these people. I mean it’s still a fight, but continue following your beliefs. Remember to say no. Don't accept the impositions. Chase your desires.
Zohra: Is it easy to follow one’s desires if one is not hopeful? Is hope necessary?
Didier: It’s not easy; I’d say try to remain in discomfort. Don't fall for rest and certainty because these make you lose time. Equilibrium is the danger. To be disquiet with positivity, for me, is about being in comfort. One needs to fight that.
Zohra: What is NEXT for you?
Didier: I have no idea.