Cyprien Gaillard : I guess it started a long time ago, way before I got to thinking of making art. I grew up in California, in San Francisco, and as a teenager I used to be into skateboarding, and I can remember really well all the places in San Francisco we used to skate in. A lot of them were going to be demolished – and some of them were, for example the Justin Herman Plaza better known as the Embarcadero. It was the Mecca of skateboarding, the most iconic American skatespot in the history of skateboarding, in my opinion. When they decided to demolish it or regenerate it as they say, that was the first time I came across this kind of "negative" or forbidden architecture. In a way, it was my first encounter with something that's become a central question in my work. Even then, it was very clear to me that this was a kind of form of State vandalism, eradicating a process of spontaneous appropriation by the people. At the start, though, before I even began thinking of making a work of art about that, I was attracted to the idea of the modern ruin.
At some point, it's like my work is also trying to link different sites and put everything on the same level. I don't see any difference anymore between a Glaswegian tower block and a Scottish castle. They're both ruins and both very expensive to renovate. So, one case is considered a kind of an unofficial ruin, something that we need to get rid of. The other one is preserved or listed, something we should pass on to the future. And so I was always kind of questioning, when does it become archaeology and when is it worth preserving, and when does the consciousness of our ruins come. You have people like Owen Luder, the brutalist architect. In a few years all his work will be wiped out, every trace – all his concrete towers are going to be torn down. It's a fate shared by other intellectuals in the modernist movement. But it's not so much about modernism or about social context. It's just a question of landscape and tension within that landscape.
The demolition programme is only just starting, and it is expected to continue for the immediate future. It seems to be a programme that will affect both Western and Eastern Europe.
I mean, it became this kind of obsessive thing for me. When I was 21 or 22, I would go around cities in Western and Eastern Europe, places like Warsaw, Kiev, Belgrade, Glasgow, Sheffield, Newcastle. I had no idea what their centres looked like, but I had a very good understanding of their suburbs. When I got to Rome, the first thing I did was go to Corviale. I was going to different places where there were empty buildings, or whole areas that had been abandoned. They were totally empty of any kind of social reality or economic context: these structures had a life on their own, these places are much more complex and interesting than most people think. In Glasgow, and in American cities like Detroit, Cleveland, or even Pittsburgh, you have entire neighbourhoods that are totally empty, places that are completely derelict. Just think, the population of Detroit has shrunk by almost half. About 200,000 houses have already been demolished there, and there's the same number to go soon. I've seen over 30 demolitions in my life. Tearing something down has a huge cost, even just in terms of money. There's a powerful ritual involved in a demolition, and there's also the spectacular side. When the State arrives to demolish something it built 30 years before, you get protests – I've seen them in Glasgow – but the moment that the building falls, the spectacle is so incredible and violent, it creates such a powerful impression on you, that it legitimates the whole process. There's a moment of euphoria when you witness a demolition. This cloud of smoke goes up and, when it's gone, you can see the new space, and that almost makes you forget the reason why it fell in the first place. I went to Glasgow to witness a demolition at night – it was going to happen at midnight exactly. They had to demolish this building on a Saturday night because it was too close to the train tracks linking Glasgow to Edinburgh, and they couldn't stop the traffic during the day. The whole structure was lit up in the dark. For more than 20 minutes it was just standing there, under the floodlights – in complete silence. It was like a monument, for that lapse of time this Sighthill tower block was united with Edinburgh Castle in the night, both monuments lit up. And then suddenly, in a moment, it was destroyed. My favourite time is really the last 20 minutes of a building's life. You have all the official apparatus surrounding it. The building is surrounded by police, almost as if it were an official building, more police than in front of any American embassy around the world, and then it's destroyed and it collapses in a cloud of smoke and dust.
So here you have two central themes of my work. The first is that I work most of the time outdoors, en plein aire. I've spent so much time in these places that it feels like the buildings themselves have become the material of my work. And this leads to another central idea: though people think I have this deep fascination with modern ruins, in reality what's interesting to me are the mistakes. Human beings have always made mistake after mistake, and I'm interested in the fact that people such as urban planners and architects keep on making mistakes, and I like this idea of a monumental mistake, a mistake on the scale of a landscape, the mistake of a mayor made in the '60s and the mistake of a mayor made in the '90s, and that's why these things that we find so ugly and so monumental are in reality very human.
Your work could be seen as a kind of documentation of places that will soon completely disappear. Since you're living in Berlin now, let's take the Wall as an example. Its demolition marked the beginning of a new era in history, but as Rem Koolhaas said, "After the demolition of the Wall, the first thing to disappear was every trace of it."
My work does not give any solutions. It raises the question of who decides the future of a landscape. It's something that worries me because architecture is awful today. It's Potsdamer Platz wherever you are – it's spreading everywhere. I also think that it's a kind of arrogance towards history to think that the buildings we are putting up now are better, and that they are going to age better, than the ones being torn down. I think it's interesting to consider the situation from the point of view of entropy. Do you know the story of Pruitt Igoe? I'm really fascinated by what happened to the buildings there. It was a massive public building project: 33 buildings, 11 storeys each. There's now a huge forest in the middle of St Louis where it used to be. Charles Jencks said that the day Pruitt Igoe was demolished in early 1972 marked the end of American modernist architecture. The most interesting thing, though, from my point of view, is that the architect who designed Pruitt Igoe – Minoru Yamasaki – and who had his buildings destroyed by the federal government, was the same one commissioned later to build the Twin Towers. So his buildings got destroyed again, but this time as the result of a terrorist attack. This shows how demolition can be carried out, on one hand, by terrorists, and on the other, by urban-renewal planners. It's like both sets of buildings shared the same destiny. And I find it interesting to think in terms of terrorism in both cases. There's the story of the sculpture that was positioned at the base of the Twin Towers – The Sphere by Fritz Koenig – which for me is one of the most incredible works of art that I've ever seen. I have a picture of my mother in the '80s on a visit to the Twin Towers with that huge golden globe in the background. It wasn't the best public sculpture ever when it was standing at the bottom of the building, but the point is that it was found when they started removing the rubble after the Towers collapsed, moving it to New Jersey. Imagine Smithson seeing this happen, while they decided what to do with it all. They didn't know whether to restore the sculpture or throw it away, but in the end they decided to keep it as it is was, as a ruin, and just move it a few blocks away, down to Battery Park. And now it's a monument to the victims of 9/11. That's what it is officially, but to me it's a monument to dead buildings. Anyway, it has never looked as beautiful as it does now, now that it's a wreck. And I believe that idea ties up with my work as well. Even just from a formal point of view, things look better when destroyed.
Can you tell us about your project for transferring some of the demolished concrete buildings to a park, almost transforming it, in a way, into the romantic idea of the parc aux ruines?
It's a project that's just beginning, but it's something that will probably take up a lot of my time over the next few years. Since it's really hard to get enough money to transport buildings whole, I started shipping them as rubble. This was how I managed to get a part of a building from Glasgow to London. It was something that I'd had in mind for a long time. With the 30 tons of concrete that we managed to bring to London I made an obelisk in the Hayward Gallery called Cenotaph to 12 Riverford Road, Pollockshaws, Glasgow, after the name of the building in Glasgow that had been demolished the summer before. When a building is demolished, with the ecological consciences people have now, the contractors have the problem of how to recycle all that material. So they start by taking away the elevators, the doors and the windows, and so on. When that's done, they move on to the actual demolition itself, and the building comes down. That produces storeys' worth of rubble. Then you get the bulldozers, and they crunch the debris up into small rocks – and this very same material is then sold to the companies in charge of the construction in the city. All the new buildings, their foundations, all the new parking lots, schools, all the roads – they are all built from the remains of these modernist buildings. So it's a situation just like you had in ancient times, from the pyramids of Egypt to ancient Rome, where temples and other sites that have become main archaeological sites were just used as building quarries, stealing stones from Giza for constructions in Cairo, or dismantling some Roman temples to build churches. There are a lot of examples, from French castles taken apart piece by piece and rebuilt somewhere else. Just look at the Nubian Temples saved by UNESCO: entire structures moved in order to preserve them. My idea is really similar – to create a park where you can move buildings that are endangered. You'll be able to find a building from the Paris suburbs next to ones from Glasgow, Manchester or Sheffield. Everything in one park, like into those 18th-century English gardens, like a capriccio, a riunion of monuments. I guess you could say that the idea is totally crazy, but I believe that this is my life's work.