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"Architecture needed to be liberated from itself," says James Wines of SITE

Vladimir Belogolovsky speaks to James Wines, the architect behind iconic BEST Products stores that critiqued the nature of architecture, shopping, and suburbia.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Aug 30, 2022

It is said that the indeterminate façade building designed by James Wines of SITE (Sculpture in the Environment) for BEST Products Company, or simply BEST, and built in suburban Houston in 1974 appeared in more books on 20th century architecture than photos of any other modern structure. The iconic building was commissioned by Sydney and Frances Lewis, prominent art collectors — they amassed important works of contemporary art (in the process, they became close friends with many of the leading artists), as well as Art Nouveau and Art Deco, and were major benefactors of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Virginia — and the founders of BEST, a chain of American catalog showroom retail stores from 1957 to 1997. At its peak, the company ran well over 100 showrooms in more than half of the states. The Lewises commissioned SITE to design about a dozen of their stores. Nine of them were built: Peeling Building (Richmond, VA, 1972), Indeterminate Façade (Houston, TX, 1974), Tilt Building (Towson, MD, 1976), Notch Building (Sacramento, CA, 1977), BEST Anti-sign Building (Richmond, VA, 1978), Cutler Ridge Showroom or “Jigsaw Puzzle” building (Miami, FL, 1979), Rainforest Building (Hialeah, FL, 1979), Forest Building (Richmond, VA, 1980), and Inside/Outside Building (Milwaukee, WI, 1984).

James Wines, who turned 90 this summer and remains enviably active by taking on new design projects and, with the help of Zoom, as well as in person, lectures widely, is world famous for such projects as Ghost Parking Lot (Hamden, CO, 1977), Highrise of Homes (theoretical project, 1981), Highway 86 (Vancouver, Canada, 1986), Shake Shack (Union Square, Manhattan, 2004), Fondazione Pietro Rossini Pavilion (Briosco, Italy, 2008), and Off-White Showroom for Virgil Abloh (Ginza, Tokyo, 2021). Yet, it is his BEST stores that are most widely talked about. They introduced and shocked the world with many of his revolutionary ideas. Their unorthodox facades quite literally displaced people’s expectations and assumptions about the nature of architecture, shopping, and suburbia. He turned his buildings into remarkable artworks that provoked conversations, questioning, amusement, as well as misunderstanding, and even protests. By the very act of placing art where people least expect to find it, Wines taught us how to be more observant, curious, and critical of our everyday environment. His efforts expanded the profession by making buildings more artistic, imaginative, process-oriented, open-ended, and of course, more integrated with nature.

James Wines – self-portrait in response to four years of living under a Trump residency | James Wines | SITE | STIRworld
James Wines – self-portrait in response to four years of living under a Trump residency Image: Courtesy of James Wines of SITE

In my previous interview with Wines, he summarised the essence of his practice in a single phrase: “The point is to attack architecture!” In our most recent conversation that follows, apart from the ideas behind his BEST stores, we discussed the artist’s transition from abstract form-making early on to his interest in environmental art, mostly artists and some architects who influenced his thinking and career the most, why humour should be a part of the profession, and about being at odds with the professional architectural community all his life, but not anymore.

  • Anti-sign Building for BEST (Richmond, VA, 1978) | James Wines | SITE | STIRworld
    Anti-sign Building for BEST (Richmond, VA, 1978) Image: Courtesy of James Wines of SITE
  • Cutler Ridge Showroom for BEST (Miami, Florida, 1979)| James Wines | SITE | STIRworld
    Cutler Ridge Showroom for BEST (Miami, Florida, 1979) Image: Courtesy of James Wines of SITE

Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): How did the commission for your now iconic BEST stores come about?

James Wines (JW): As you know, I started my career as a sculptor, a successful one, I should add. And Sydney and Frances Lewis, apart from being business owners of the Best Products Company, were major art collectors. They acquired a few of my pieces and they were aware of my public art sculptures. Around 1970, they contacted me about the possibility of putting a sculpture in front of one of their stores. By then I had already a change of heart and was beginning to get tired of doing sculptures based on shape and form-making. A few years before that, Frederick Kiesler who befriended me for the last four years of his life and became a real mentor to me — he liked my work because it had a very architectonic feel — said, “James, abstract art is very old-fashioned. Are you sure you want to be a modernist or constructivist?” That was the time when I began to be interested in environmental art.

VB: Why environmental art?

JW: I lived on Greene Street in SoHo and all my artist friends — Gordon Matta-Clark, Robert Smithson, Vito Acconci, Alice Aycock, Hannah Wilke, Nancy Holt, Alan Sonfist, Michael Heizer, Mary Miss, Dennis Oppenheim, and others — with whom I interacted daily, were all trying to get out of the art galleries. Nobody wanted to do objects anymore. Everyone wanted to be on the street, out in the landscape or doing some kind of performance art. It was a real revolution in art. I was interested in architecture from an early age (I learned a lot about construction, tools, and materials by helping my father who was an engineer and he built summer houses for sale), so it was all genuine to me. The discussion with the Lewises started shortly after I formed SITE, which was all about a fusion of art and architecture. So, I suggested doing something in a more integrated way. They loved that. I conveyed to them my love for Renaissance architecture, as I lived in Italy for a decade. I said, “In Italy, buildings speak to you.” They do, they are so rich in iconography and people react to that. Of course, transferring that idea to the commercial street in America was a challenge.

VB: Was the Peeling Building that was built in Richmond, Virginia in 1972, your first project for them?

JW: Yes, they had this really ugly building there that they wanted to redo. That’s how we started.

Peeling Building for BEST (Richmond, Virginia, 1972) | James Wines | SITE | STIRworld
Peeling Building for BEST (Richmond, Virginia, 1972) Image: Courtesy of James Wines of SITE

VB: And it became your very first building. You never worked on architectural projects before that time, right?

JW: Yes. Before that, we did large sculptures, installations, and exhibitions, and we did environments — earthworks type or landscapes — that weren’t built. So, the Peeling Building became our first real building. And it was an adaptive reuse project. The Lewises were the first clients who commissioned us to do a building at a time when architecture needed to be liberated from itself, particularly the modernist or constructivist model.  

The peeling façade feature instantly attracted a lot of attention. It was probably the first time that architecture was used as a kind of critique of itself and in a humorous way. But of course, so many AIA architects were outraged. They would say, “Oh, that’s not real architecture. There is no place for humour in architecture.” But it caused controversy and the Lewises loved it. Soon they told me about a new building that they were planning to build in Houston. 

Indeterminate Façade for BEST (Houston, Texas, 1974) | James Wines | SITE | STIRworld
Indeterminate Façade for BEST (Houston, Texas, 1974) Image: Courtesy of James Wines of SITE

VB: That was the Indeterminate Façade that was built in 1974.

JW: Yes. We used the big box shop archetype that everyone would recognise, and the idea was to create architecture that would become its own critique. At the opening, it was covered in a huge shroud that was lifted by a helicopter. It was very dramatic. The day it opened it became world news. It was the most published building at that time in the world. And just about every day now I get requests to publish it, even though it was destroyed 20 years ago. But at that time, it was more about the controversy and there was a wall of resistance coming from the architectural community, especially in the US. But curiously, this attention helped the Lewises to become celebrated art collectors. They were world famous. Anyway, when these publications started pouring in, Sydney called me and said, “I love it! It is perfect, let’s do another building!” [Laughs.]

VB: And the public loved it too.

JW: Because there was humour in it. And there was a kind of self-mockery, which is used by great performers. And people did like a kind of self-effacing attitude coming from a commercial company. People understood what I did, while the architectural world did not have the remotest clue. But very soon we had very good reviews in professional magazines, particularly in France and Italy. Then that started spreading to other countries. In fact, in Italy, my biggest advocate was Bruno Zevi. He even wrote his text for our first book SITE: Architecture as Art. It was published in 1980. He was a classic modernist scholar. So, I was very surprised when he liked our work. He said he liked it because it was not slavishly Euro-centric. He complimented me for being truly American. That was very encouraging.   

Tilt Building for BEST (Towson, Maryland, 1976) | James Wines | SITE | STIRworld
Tilt Building for BEST (Towson, Maryland, 1976) Image: Courtesy of James Wines of SITE

VB: How much freedom did you have while working on the BEST buildings? Would the Lewises ever give you a brief?

JW: Not really. What was amazing about them is that they understood that to get the best work out of an artist you don’t tell him how to do it. Of course, they were surprised about how the Indeterminate Façade was done, everybody was. In a way, it was obvious that I was making fun of their whole business. But they accepted it. After all, they were collectors of Pop Art, and, of course, the whole idea of it was to question the meaning of art. So, the notion of questioning architecture, questioning stability, and permanence appealed to them and they kept commissioning me with more buildings.

Parking Lot Building for BEST (Houston and Los Angeles, 1976)| James Wines | SITE | STIRworld
Parking Lot Building for BEST (Houston and Los Angeles, 1976) Image: Courtesy of James Wines of SITE

VB: Apart from the nine BEST stores that were built, there were those that did not get realised, right?

JW: And I particularly regret that the Parking Lot Building did not get built. We designed it for locations in Houston and Los Angeles in 1976. But it was going to be too expensive, as I wanted the whole parking to ripple and cover the building, turning into its roof. It was quite difficult to achieve. The idea was to make it look casual. It couldn’t be contrived. We wanted it to be completely arbitrary looking, not static. That would have made the building really stand out. You couldn’t confuse it with a Walmart or Kmart, that’s for sure. [Laughs.]    

VB: You said, "Each of these architectural concepts treated the standard ‘big box' prototype as the subject matter for an art statement. By means of inversion, fragmentation, displacement, distortions of scale, and invasions of nature — these merchandising structures have been used as a means of commentary on the shopping center strip."

JW: Yes, that was the point. Subconsciously people had thought of these strip mall stores as very banal places. They went there to make a purchase and go home. They were not expecting to find anything else there. So, we would always start with this question — what would be people’s expectations? And then we would try to invert that and play with it. And the highest compliment I ever got for those buildings was from a lady who said, “I never thought of buildings before.” So, the point is not just to make a building but to provoke people to think about it. Inversion of people’s expectations is crucial. That’s what Robert Rauschenberg said: “If you walked to a work of art you have never seen before and it doesn’t change your mind about something, there is either something wrong with you or the work of art.” I really believe that. Your obligation as an artist is to be evocative or provocative or at least informational. You have to be able to change people’s minds, not just be a confirmation.

  • Forest Building for BEST (Richmond, Virginia, 1980)| James Wines | SITE | STIRworld
    Forest Building for BEST (Richmond, Virginia, 1980) Image: Courtesy of James Wines of SITE
  • Conceptual sketch of the Forest Building designed by James Wines | James Wines | SITE | STIRworld
    Conceptual sketch of the Forest Building designed by James Wines Image: Courtesy of James Wines of SITE

VB: Sadly, the BEST Products Company went out of business in the late 1990s and almost all your buildings for them were lost to either complete or partial demolition. Your Forest Building in Richmond is the only one out of nine stores that still exists, as it was converted into a church. Its message remains to be relevant today, which is about our attachment to nature, right?

JW: The sad part is that even the Forest Building was virtually destroyed as well. The church maybe had good intentions — imagine having a church in the middle of nature like that — but they went to a local architect who surgically removed every element that looked suspiciously like art. They couldn’t change the basic shape, but they destroyed much of the landscape by putting concrete over it. When we did this building, we brought a lot of landscape expertise there to save the existing trees and soil. A lot of it was lost in this very unfortunate conversion, including some of the original oak trees. The building had a very strong message, which is acutely relevant today — why should landscape architecture always have these cute little trees and squiggles on a cutely manicured lawn? My point was — just let nature do its thing!   

VB: I like your quote, “Architecture is an orchestration of human interaction. Architecture has a responsibility to engage with the public.” And here is one question that seems to be quite central in your work: “How can you change a building to change people’s attitude about buildings?”

JW: Sure. And the BEST buildings have become the symbol of this attitude. They introduced the forbidden thing — humour. I know graduate students who have done a thesis on humour in architecture and they asked me to be their consultant. By adding such things to your vocabulary, you expand the dialogue. You absolutely do. My problem with many younger architects is that they often try to create shapes before there is an idea. It should be the other way around. There is a lot of imitation because they like a certain shape, fragment, or detail.

Inside/Outside Building for BEST (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1984) | James Wines | SITE | STIRworld
Inside/Outside Building for BEST (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1984) Image: Courtesy of James Wines of SITE

VB: Your work has a lot to do with the context and process. Who would you credit most for influencing you to go in this direction?

JW: My main influences came from art, poetry, literature, dance, and so on. I would name Rauschenberg; years ago, I renovated his studio on Lafayette Street. I was in awe of his inventions. He really did change the idea of painting, that’s for sure. It was not about just a painting on a wall, it could also wander into the room, and suddenly become a part of a real space. Of course, Marcel Duchamp was the pioneer of conceptual art and the very idea that art can be about ideas. When he said, “I am not retinal” he meant he was tired of doing paintings and sculptures the old way. He was searching for new ways of thinking about art. Isn’t that the motivation behind what all creative and imaginative people do?! But looking for something new doesn’t mean you have to hate what others have done before you. I love the work of Mies. But why should I do what Mies van der Rohe did so well? I want to do something else. That’s exactly what Bruno Zevi told me. He said that the work I do is not a part of his scholarship on modern architecture but that’s exactly why he was attracted to it. It was different. This search for something new is important. Chuck Close, who was a friend, said the same thing. He was irritated when he saw people imitating his photorealistic portraits. It made him nervous. The only artists he liked were the ones who could surprise him by doing something entirely opposite of what he was doing. I have the same attitude.

VB: And earlier you also mentioned Frederick Kiesler.

JW: I met Kiesler at an opening at the Leo Castelli gallery. I didn’t know him but when he came all the major painters who were there rushed to talk to him — Rauschenberg, Jasper Jones — so, naturally, I was curious and went up to meet him. We were instantly drawn to each other and since he also lived in SoHo, soon, we would often have two lunches in the same week. I spent time in his summer home in the Hamptons. So, we had very long conversations and he really did influence me greatly. But as far as my thought process, many very different people contributed to it. And, of course, Mies and Le Corbusier were very influential on me too. Not just because they were such great masters but because they were originals. They were visionaries. I am also a great admirer of Louis Kahn. We taught together at Penn, and we became good friends. In fact, we lectured together on a couple of occasions. He was an early supporter of my work as well.

Let me also say a few words about Emilio Ambasz who was very supportive from the beginning and it was him who convinced Arthur Drexler, a curator and director of the Museum of Modern Art for 35 years, to acquire some drawings and models of the BEST buildings for their collection. In fact, it is now the most complete collection of this series anywhere. And Drexler curated a show in 1980. It was called Buildings for Best Products which included six of our buildings that were built by that time and six architects — Stanley Tigerman, Robert Stern, Charles Moore, Anthony Lumsden, Allan Greenberg, and Michael Graves — were asked to design their versions in response to those by SITE. It was a great exercise. And speaking of Ambasz’s own architectural oeuvre, I have to say that his Fukuoka Prefectural International Hall, which was built in 1995, is a very powerful and admirable building, especially for how it impacted the community. And it pioneered the idea of making vegetation an integral part of buildings. I think that this now widespread concept is not credited enough to him.

James Wines at the Indeterminate Facade building | James Wines | SITE | STIRworld
James Wines at the Indeterminate Facade building Image: Courtesy of James Wines of SITE

VB: Lastly, I want to summarise the importance of the BEST stores by emphasising that for you it is the idea of assembling new meanings, not merely creating new forms, that serves as a driving force.As you said in our interview a few years ago, “With every store I tried to do something about the construction — inverting, fusing, exaggerating, taking apart, doing something about the process of building.” Is there anything that you would want to clarify about your work?

JW: What else is true is that my BEST buildings, Highrise of Homes, and the Ghost Parking Lot are the three most talked about projects in my career. Most of the inquiries I receive are about these three projects. What I still would like to see is for someone to write an interesting overview to offer new meaning and understanding of what they are about to surprise me with literary insights. Because most of the reviews are about choosing the right words to describe these buildings. People offer different names for these projects, whether to call them deconstructivist, crumbling, falling apart, decaying, or whatever. But it was really not about that. It was about other things. I am not interested in hearing what was said too many times. I want to be surprised. And finally, I want to say that I was always at odds with the professional architectural community and now that I turned 90, I was invited by the American Institute of Architects to speak at three places — the Center for Architecture in New York, the Monterey Design Conference in California, and another event in Florida. I was never invited by the AIA before. They resisted me for so long and finally, they recognised I am here. Isn’t it ironic?! [Laughs.]

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