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Interview with Rick Bell

On the 1st of February 2013 Thomas Delamarre and Kathryn Hamilton of the Cultural Services met with Rick Bell, Executive Director of the American Institute of Architects New York Chapter, at the Centre for Architecture in New York, to talk about French philosophers, working in Cameroon, and hitchhiking adventures through France and Morocco.  You can read an edited version of their conversation below, enjoy!

Thomas Delamarre: How did your relationship with France begin?

Rick Bell: Language.  Language in school.  Language education now in the US is abysmal, but it wasn’t that way when I was growing up, and there was a teacher who inculcated a love of language, and the French language because of the sound, but also because of the literature. From the beginning the idea of the language was associated with the ideas that could be expressed in it. And I think the language because associated with a different way of living. So when I finally had the opportunity as a nineteen year old  - I had been driving a truck to pay for school, but I saved enough to pay for school and then some, so I decided as a nineteen year old never having travelled out of the country that I would hitchhike from Paris to Dakar. I suppose it’s possible, but I never quite made it…  I got to Fez and worked in Fez, I fell in love with it. I learned a little bit of Arabic, but was able to get by in French with the people who admit to speaking French. In any case, I became a tour guide, and I would lead people around the old city. Well how could you be a tour guide in a city you don’t know?  I fell in love with the architecture, and it was a fashion of living that was very different. I got back to Paris, stayed there a little bit longer and caught my breath, then went back to school, there is probably a song about it somewhere. But it reinforced the idea not just of my capabilities of the language but my love of the language. And seeing it both in France and in Morocco where my accent wasn’t deemed abominable, was a reinforcement that I could try anything. I went back to school and tried to learn Arabic academically, (much trickier), and resolved then to travel as much as I could.

I’ve heard Antonin speak about the necessity of reinforcing both the university programs, but also the primary school programs, and that can’t be stressed enough.  If those skills are not reinforced in the US education system adequately, the losses are cultural, they are not just linguistic and literary, they are about an understanding that the world is more than your own town, your own place. 

Talking about French literature, what books were you reading?

I’ve subsequently had the opportunity to work in francophone Africa, so I could talk about Cameroonian authors who are writing in French, but I’d rather talk about the classics, and what we were reading in high school.  And what I was subsequently reading in college and for my own pleasure. The three writers I’m going to talk about later in my own remarks start with Victor Hugo, and then go to Proust, and then one of the formative writers, then translated into cinema, for me in the time I was living in France was Marguerite Duras.  I think in terms of political thought, I remember early on in high school reading the existentialists, and I never got over that quite.  And in high school we were reading Pascal and Descartes, and the instructor to her credit was getting to allow students to see that it wasn’t about verb conjugation.

What would be your number one memory from your time in France?

I wrote a short essay on living as a stagiaire (ie intern).  And the thing I learnt, the thing I tried to take away was what you could call a joie de vivre, but it was also a façon de vivre, a way of living. That sense of communality was part of that take away, that way of living were things slowed down.  And I’ve seen that in Paris too which is why I don’t think it's just the difference between urban and rural.  No matter how busy architect friends were in finishing projects on deadline and working through the night there would still be a break at lunchtime to catch one’s breath.  In New York architects work absurd hours, but they don’t stop for lunch. And that difference in the manner of living has less to do with the food, less with the clock, less with the entitlement of work rules, than with people.  The meal time was social time.  Even in isolation, in a small farm house in an architectural atelier where there were only three of us, the meals became the time where we all came together.  

You work along in symposiums you organize on future developments of cities, what do we have to say to each other on this topic?

I think people learn from each other. I think cities learn from each other, perhaps governments and countries learn from each other, we could stretch it to that.  But I think about cities a lot.  Except for that one year I’ve never lived anywhere outside of a city, I’ve lived in several different cities but always coming back to New York, so New York is the frame of reference. Here at the Center for Architecture the exchanges have been mostly municipal because we are related to the city of New York politically, in the same way perhaps that the Pavillon de l’Arsenal (www.pavillon-arsenal.com) is linked to the city of Paris.  We also have aspirations similar to the Institut national du patrimoine (www.inp.fr) and we benefit similarly from relations to federal agencies. And we also relate to some degree to the Maison de l’architecture at Les Récollets (www.maisonarchitecture-idf.org) and what they do in that wonderful former monastery. So there are structural parallels. […] We have a similar plurality of design centers in New York:  the Architectural League, the Store Front for Architecture.  All of us look to Paris for the kind of institutional advancement about dialogue in design that these three institutions do. So that is a starting point.  We collaborate a little bit, and look to do more.  But apart from the institutional place based groups that I mentioned there have been, because of our space here, the opportunities to do partnerships where it is a displacement and a conversation through displacement. The conferences we organize bring people together who are doing equivalent things, parallel universes, and are so busy in what they do that there isn’t often time, except some conference or other, to connect to people who do the same thing. What does this center do to foster that communication?  Create opportunity for that, and to some degree get out of the way, or to some degree provide the translation, not literally, figuratively.  To use the metaphor of simultaneous rather than sequential translation, I’d like to think what we are providing is that simultaneous translation so that things don’t get lost in the re-interpretation and delay and in shortening, but they are there in real time, and we are the vehicle.