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Antoine Predock: “You keep the doorway open”


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Antoine Predock
Courtesy of Antoine Predock Architect PC
Short Profile

Name: Antoine Predock
DOB: 1936
Place of birth: Lebanon, Missouri, United States
Occupation: Architect

Mr. Predock, as an architect living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, what does the desert mean to you?

There’s a latent power, a mystery about the desert that has always intrigued me. My desert exposure started when I was a kid and I guess it really stuck with me — it’s a hypnotic kind of place and my beginnings in architecture are obviously here. My earliest memory of architecture would be coming to New Mexico in the 50’s and seeing the power of the big, blank adobe wall — especially the church in Las Trampas, New Mexico. The big, mute wall really compelled me. There’s an aura in the desert that is inescapable.

An aura? What do you mean? 

I don’t think you can think about aura — aura is like some essence that’s ineffable, intangible and indescribable. It’s like what you get to Ryoan-ji in Kyoto: of all the gardens there, this is a spectacular garden of gravel and stone — period. Here’s a way to think about that: the great Spanish poet, Federico García Lorca talked about “duende.”

“The Pantheon is imbued with such power and I think it’s mysterious. You finally get to the point where you can’t explain why.”

You mean like a spirit or soul?

Right, literally translated from Catalán, duende means “soul.” A spiritual aura. Conceptually, he thought of it as most clearly embodied in the flamenco performance, yet a poem can obviously contain duende, as can a performance or even a building. Take the Pantheon for example, there’s something about it, it’s transcendental; it’s mystical like the Alhambra in a way. And you can say, “Well it’s a one-liner building,” because you walk in and it’s just a big dome. But it’s imbued with such power and I think it’s mysterious. You finally get to the point where you can’t explain why.

Is that something you think about when you’re designing a building?

Well, you can’t make it happen. You can’t say, “I’m going to put some duende in my project now.” Something from within you — through process, through hard work or maybe this is really easy sometimes — comes out and touches other people in the way that García Lorca’s poetry has touched people. I think that it’s something you can’t strive for. You keep the doorway open. And sometimes it’s the side door where something can sneak in. It might surprise you. It might be more authentic than your central focus.

How do you keep that doorway open for yourself?

I used to ride motorcycles across the desert — I still do. A motorcycle is a tool, but for me it’s a spiritual companion. And riding a motorcycle is very much about architecture.

Nelson Fine Arts Center at the Arizona State University, 1989
Nelson Fine Arts Center at the Arizona State University, 1989 © Antoine Predock Architect PC

In what ways?

Well, through the experiential contact with the landscape and the world. I was camping in Chaco Canyon and there is an incredible ruin there called Pueblo Bonito that is from the medieval times, built around the 12th century. And I was sleeping there under the stars — and a kangaroo rat got in bed with me! Kangaroo rats are really cute, you know. (Laughs) And I just said, “Okay, he’s just getting warm,” because the desert night here is very different from the Mojave Desert for example, where it’s like being in a furnace all the time. This was the desert with extreme diurnal temperature swings: it’s cold at night and really hot in the daytime. I could go on and on about my desert experiences!

How does this fascination translate to your work as an architect?

Here’s an example… I found a beer can in the Arabian desert when I was working in Qatar and the desert climate had sandblasted it. It was pure, beautiful aluminum and on the other side where it was buried you could see the Pepsi Cola brand. That became an iconic thing for me, a symbol of what it was like to work in the desert — you don’t mess around! You don’t just bring things you’ve done in the rest of the world to some new place and just put them there for the hell of it , because you can’t think of any kind of response.

César Pelli said that it’s a mistake for American architects to go to other countries and design an American building.

Right, that’s just lazy to me. And that can be the case anywhere, not just in the desert, I’m going to think about the same stuff. But I am like a closeted cultural anthropologist! (Laughs)People used to say, “Oh Antoine, you’re just a regionalist from New Mexico.” I’m proud of that! But I’m a portable regionalist because I take what I learned here anywhere I go.

“What I do is a dance with the client. It’s a poetic encounter.”

Regionalist yet very forward thinking, almost futuristic. Your CLA Building even plays a central part in the sci-fi film Gattaca

Being site-specific doesn’t mean that it’s nostalgically site-specific. It has nothing to do with that. Site-specificity has nothing to do with architectural style. It has to do with the spirit of the place, “alma de lugar” as they say in Spanish, “soul of the place.” When I make my work, I think of me being like a movie director or a choreographer because what I do is a dance with the client. It’s a poetic encounter. And a dance is back and forth, right? You have a client who is a believer and most clients are not going to connect me with me if they’re not some kind of believer.

But you’re also trying to make the viewer a believer as well, right?

Exactly, you’re making an episodic, yet connected, experience for the viewer. That building is a very exploratory building and there are choreographic intentions about space: it’s about connecting points in space with the body — I think architecture is definitely choreographic. This kind of thinking bypasses rational understanding and goes directly to an inner impulse. This is an old-fashioned way of thinking, and that extends into my work at every level, it’s not a clear-cut intellectual process. Architecture is a ride, for sure. Take a ride, and let your thoughts give you a ride. And don’t control them too much!