Meeting Yona Friedman

Lost animals
A conversation between Yona Friedman and Cesare Griffa

On the 30th of November 2017, I met 94 year old architect, Mr. Yona Friedman for almost two hours in his Paris home-studio. We talked about humanity, dogs, lost animals, abstraction, cities, energy, biology, security, language, maths, people, and the balance of the universe.

Mr. Friedman introduced the idea of looking at humans as lost animals. In his vision, we are obsessed by too many abstractions, like language or mathematics, that are certainly powerful instruments, but also inhibitors of our innate capacity of improvisation. Abstractions mortify our instinct, and suddenly things become complicated.

He is known to be a visionary architect that inspired generations of architects since the sixties. I wouldn’t define his work theoretical since he is a pragmatic visionary, and he is not interested at all in abstract speculations. He is one of these extraordinary human creatures like Michelangelo or Frank Lloyd Wright that at more than ninety years old keeps a freshness that most young people have already lost.

He received me in a white shirt. Very kind. He sit on a chair and kept moving all the time while talking with his delicate voice. He probably can talk for hours, and I was almost useless in the development of the conversation.

Mr Friedman’s apartment is at the fourth floor of an eighteen century building in the Faubourg Saint Germain, not far from the Paris headquarters of UNESCO, and from the Tour Eiffel. The room in which we talked was blue with walls covered by drawings of people doing things. Carpets on the floor, and an impressive collection of Mr Friedman wire models, and other objects that he collected during his long and adventurous life.


CG: I prepared an imaginary map, a conceptual map, a little fantastic territory based on your ideas, with continents, Islands, oceans… In this map there are four continents. The first continent is about creativity…

YF: for me it’s very important the behavior of animals. I have learned from my dog at least as much that from University. I make sometimes the joke that my dog knew about the Newton theory with the apple, excluding the maths. When I through him a ball, he knew the trajectory and catch it. It’s the Newton dynamic without math. I often look at the way of human living and I think we also are animals, with some peculiarities.

For instance, let’s take a human society. If I compare it, let’s say, to an animal society. We are a little bit under developed. Let’s say there is a pack of dogs with a leader. The leader doesn’t give orders, he doesn’t even have the possibility. Those who want, follow him. Those who don’t want, they leave. There is a self-regulation system in that society without any artifices.
We have invented too many abstract things, and we are victims of abstractions. We talk about conquering nature. It’s an absurd. We have to adapt. The dog adapts his behavior. He doesn’t try to change the nature. This is probably the first deviation that we have. It’s not a sign of intelligence. Intelligence is, on the contrary, adaptation.

About technology, we are very proud of our technology. It’s very questionable. I accept it, I won’t make critics. But very often, technology is badly used. We are the only among the so called higher animals that build a shelter. We have invented the exchange. Until today, we are victim of it. Exchange has modified out society. Our economy increases our natural aggressiveness. Exchange has been a catastrophic attitude. Animals have priorities. They eat and after they leave. They don’t do exchanges in the abstract as we do, so they don’t have a system of values of which they are victims. It’s been a major invention.

A second major invention it’s been counting. We are the only animal that counts. This capability has strongly changed us. If we consider our science, it’s mathematizable, but math is ambiguous. And often we forget about that. It may seems strange, but if I consider an equation. The left side says something, and it’s not the same that is on the right side. But it’s not true, it’s only the same number. Because a mathematic expression is an operational sequence, and the one on the left is not the same operation than the one on the right. It’s only the same number as final result. Math is not capable of writing a process, and it’s the process the important. If I have to go from a place to another, I can take different routes. The place in which I arrive will be the same, but not the route.

Obviously, language is another major invention. For us it’s communication. But for me communication is not about talking, saying something, it’s more about fabricating something. With the language we have more practice. With maths it’s more problematic because it tends to falsify our visions.


CG: I believe that there is a certain human condition that goes back to the very beginning of humanity. The very first humans had to build instruments because they were the only ones around without fangs and nails. What they had was a brain bigger than the other animals. Making tools to modify nature was the only way for survival… Then with the passage of time, we might have gone a bit too far…

YF: Tools have been invented already by our ancestors the apes. They throw stones on other animals. This means that it comes from our hands, and it’s very efficient. But the making of tools has been developed in directions sometimes questionable. We should have had instruments that might have worked better with adaptation. But this remains a theoretical question because we cannot do much on the real situation.

There is something I believe important talking about architecture and cities. We have become a different species, meaning that humankind with its inventions has changed. We talked about language before as a form of exchange of informations with an articulated system. Also other animals exchange informations, but without this articulated system. After having invented the language, we have invented how it’s transmissible in an indirect way: writing. A generation can transmit information to another. It’s been a major development. I don’t find that negative, at the opposite, it’s probably the major advantage that we have.
After having learned to write, we had a great revolution in the XIV and XV centuries with the invention of printing that allows to multiply the writing. Humankind changed with these inventions. The man of the period of printing is not the same of a thousand years before. The species has changed. And today, the digital revolution is another major revolution. I can talk to anyone, anywhere. I can augment my memory.

I am very interested in the city. The city has been an entity of defense, an entity of security, sometimes combined with stockage. Then communication developed. The city today suddenly has become obsolete. The city a hundred years ago was a secure place. Today it’s danger. Toady communication doesn’t require proximity, and so security is against proximity. Revolutionary changes are happening in the organization of work. If you consider an office tower, workers stay at their computers all day, and they can do the same from home. I can work in China being seated at my table in Paris. Concentration is not necessary anymore for the work. Considering the supplying system, it’s not about stocking as it has been in the past, it’s now based on ordering goods directly from the web. An important thing is that we rely on electricity. You brought here some electric instruments, but you have no plugs.

CG: I have a lot of batteries…

YF: Battery is the last revolution that makes the city superfluous. I’m going soon to Pasadena, California in my daughter’s house. It’s a city that demonstrates for me the direction in which the city might evolve. It’s the dispersed city. There is no space for gathering, because you move only by appointments. For the supplying chain, nobody goes in the markets. The market as a communication place as it used to be a hundred years ago, it doesn’t exist anymore. For working, as I told you, there is no necessity for concentration. One last thing is electricity. In Pasadena, at my daughter’s house, they collect solar energy, and they are connected to the electricity network. If there is a problem in the energy supplying, nothing changes. It’s important to remember that it’s an area of earthquakes.

Considering water, people have little confidence in the water supplying network. It’s very efficient but there are alternatives with rain water collection. A hundred square meters of rain water collection surface can produce important amounts of water.
In the dispersed city, there is a big surface for water collection, a big surface of solar energy collection, and supplying networks become superfluous. The last justification of the city, the rentability of the networks, is a false argument today. In normal condition, the light that you receive in all inhabitable regions is enough. And, coming back to technologies, these are probably important technologies to be further developed.

The last thing important is trees. The City Council of Pasadena had the idea fifty or sixty year ago to plant trees along all the streets. It’s a sort of forest. This concept of city solves also problems of traffic. In such city, ten lane highways are not necessary. Regular streets for few cars are enough. I know from my experience that in Los Angeles the highway system is magnificent, there is only one problem: that is jammed all the time.

The dispersed city is a low density inhabited territory but still an entity. There are other entities. Consider the network of high speed trains. When in the fifties I dared talking about that, I was considered a fool. Europe is a hundred and fifty cities, connected by a network of high speed trains. Today, with high speed trains, London is the suburb of Paris, and the other way around.

Next week I’m going to China, I was the first time in China fifteen years ago. At that time, going from Shangay to Beijing was a long trip. Today it’s three hours. Chinese understood the potentials, and they are developing very high speed networks. It’s becoming like a huge city. They have this tradition on China. Old cities used to be connected by channels other than by streets. Streets used to be insecure, channels were necessary. In ancient Chinese books, trips are always by boat using the channels.

Species are defined not only by their biological, but it’s also the behavior. There is the famous example of crickets. The solitary cricket and the social cricket, for a long time biologists thought that they are not the same species. It’s not about class, or race, it’s about living routines.

In the last fifty years, it’s been quite a revolution. There are always been the tendency to conquer territory instead of adapting. But the ancient dynamics of conquering have changed. We are discovering a new kind of conflicts. It makes no sense. It’s all based on the concept of property, that is an abstract concept.


CG: For a city to exist you need energy. And energy today, it’s quite easy to produce it locally using the sun or the wind. And that’s fantastic. Then you need water, and you need also economy, and politics.

YF: The concept of economy is abstract. If you consider the most powerful economic groups, they are not powerful. They become powerful only if you obey. Politics also are abstract. What is real is the behavior. The unconscious behavior. That’s why I consider so important what defines the species is our behavior. Look, I am 94 year old. It’s almost a century. The way I behave today has nothing to do with the way I used to behave when I was a child. It’s completely different. People think that they behave like they wish. It’s totally untrue. We can use language to change words. But we are humans.

CG: Do you think that the human species is changing, is adapting to a new world, partly artificial and partly natural? Is there a possibility for a symbiosis?

YF: It’s a natural process. What I was discussing on maths earlier, it’s typical of our nature: we don’t see the process, we neglect the process, we look only at the final result.

What I’s saying with regards to the cities: there are high speed trains. These trains don’t break the landscape. It’s the landscape that can change to include them. It’s Europe with its hundred and fifty interconnected cities.

CG: Speaking about sustainability, I have to say that I don’t like much the word Sustainable, because it’s not about making better, it’s more about avoiding to make worst. Usually in the sustainability field you find on the one hand the technocrats, people thinking that technology will be the solution to use clean energy and save the world, and on the other hand the moralists, claiming that we have to behave in a certain manner in order to get things properly working. Couldn’t we be more instinctive?

YF: It’s simply that the balance of the Universe is stable. It’s impossible to unbalance it. We can use a mathematical expression. In the physical world, there is no unbalance. The minimal changing in the balance, is immediately compensated. This might be also true about societies. A society is a universe. Every change is immediately put in balance. I believe that unbalance in society are often generated by abstractions.

There are 7 Billions of people, everybody with its own little behavior. There is at all times little local upsets that are rebalanced. In 1970 I wrote that it’s impossible to put a dog in an uncomfortable position, because he moves until he gets comfortable. With a dog, it looks like a joke, but it’s an order of nature.

CG: I like very much the image you propose to consider the man like a lost animal. Are you saying that the man is lost because he thinks to know how to sit, and that makes it difficult to sit for him, while the dog is not lost because he just sits, and that’s it?

YF: Because we invented the abstractions. All these examples show the abstract interpretations. We talked about the language. Language is based on abstraction. It means that you assign a signal to something. In a way, it happens something similar to the example of equations, with the left and right side that have different processes. An event affects reality in the moment in which you talk about it. It’s the power of abstraction. Abstraction became a property of our species, so it does not make sense to oppose it. It’s just like that.

CG: Sometimes you use abstraction by writing, drawing, developing and transmitting knowledge…

YF: Sure. There are positive ratings. It’s exactly the reason why I use the drawings in my manuals. The same text becomes a bit dis-abstracted with the drawing. This is interesting, it works very well. It’s a communication technique that I used a lot, in different languages, in Arabic, in Chinese… It always works. What is very important to me is to make very simple drawings, that anybody could do. It’s different from comics with pseudo-realistic drawings, but simply, three lines to represent a person. Everybody can do that. When I first was in China, I was visiting a small city. To get back, I was looking for the station… How do you ask somebody, having no language in common? I made a little drawing of a train, and I’ve got the indications, and I found the station. There is a technique that we don’t have to learn, it depends on the kind of people’s intelligence, to make very simple drawings that you think that other people will understand. All these subjects, very dispersed, come to a unique point.


CG: The idea of the little sketch that anybody can draw with three simple lines comes back to your idea of an architecture made by people, by individuals. One of the issues here would be that sometimes people they just don’t know what they want.

YF: I know. That’s why I began what I called Mobile Architecture. The idea was that people wouldn’t know, couldn’t explain their desire, but it’s like this! I must conceive an architecture anybody can improvise. Architecture can be direct, immediate. I have done up to now many experiences. The first has been by chance in Venice. I was doing a construction, and I had the idea of asking the organizers some hula-hoops. It was very successful. There were some students explaining to people, child and moms, how to make the construction. In four different locations in Venice, we made constructions. It was bystanders who did them.

People architecture is possible. I have made it in multiple places, also in China, and I believe that architecture is the intermediate. The architect is superfluous. In the process, there is the user, a specified technical process within the reach of the user both economically and technically. Often young architects ask me the question: Then what is the need of having architects? My reply is very simple: today everybody has smart phones and take pictures, but there are professional photographers, artists. The architect can be exactly the analog of that. He can be the artist. The artist of what? I have to make a critic here with the so called contemporary vanguards architectures. There is a misunderstanding in having enlarged sculptures. Architecture is not sculpture, there is also an interior. And strangely, I don’t know of any example of new inventions in interior concept since millenniums. We also remake the same boxes. But there are possibilities of inventing other kinds of interiors. I call that weaving, meaning spaces that don’t follow the geometry. It’s spaces that can be improvised, like they were conceived in the Ville Spatiale. It’s unpredictable.

CG: Like the sitting dog…

YF: Yes. Architecture today can be open to improvisation. Technically it’s perfectly possible. And new architecture has to be invented yet. We don’t know how it will look, because it will be improvised. This what I tell to young architects: you have things to invent.

CG: We can maybe work more on the process like you are saying than on the final form.

YF: Exactly. We enter in the same general vision: the operation balance itself. You see this space frame? You cannot even draw it. You can only make it. This is what I’m saying. It’s improvisation. My proposal is very simple: there is this table. It takes a certain surface, and more space is needed to use it. Imagine simple boxes which contain some particular equipment and the space to use it. We can make that, let’s say as an example, at the incredible price of 150 Euros. The user is not interested by space, but by the equipments, and space is only necessary to dispose the equipment. A home is an assembly of such boxes.
CG: So the architect can be the one that creates the conditions for things to happen by people.

YF: You know, when I was talking about photography, the artist is the one that invent the aesthetic. The architect can be the one that invents the aesthetic. Afterwords, it has to be feasible, and everybody do it in its own way. Writing is the same thing. Everybody can write, but not everybody is a writer.

Maybe the architect will need to be formed in a different way, less dogmatically and more oriented to invention and improvisation. We always have the necessity of that. Generally speaking, architecture is not anymore the architect’s domain.


CG: I have a very dry question for you: you have been talking about aesthetic… the more ancestral question is then: what is beauty?

YF: A dog recognizes what it considers ” beauty” It’s simply there. It’s beautiful. That’s it. It’s your attention that makes things beautiful. It is individual, and depends on the context. When I said that the architect has to focus on improvisation and invention, it’s not at all about establishing new dogmas, but it’s simply the example of looking at things and saying “oh, look, it’s beautiful!”. I have another everyday example. Take cooking. There are important chefs with amazing recipes, but housewife do their own way. The important chef creates a trend. It’s about direct democracy. Same as in clothing… It’s simply a regular animal behavior.

CG: So beauty might simply be the place in which the animal is less lost.

YF: Exactly. When I have an idea, I use to think at how a dog would have done. We have to say that the dog is not particularly inventive. He has only the first idea. By chance I was lucky enough to have a dog for quite a long time, and I have observed his behavior. For sure, any shepherd will take care of his sheep.

I look at plants as well. Also plants behave. If somebody takes care of them, in agriculture as well as in gardening, he will realize that. It’s organisms that improvise. You cannot predict the shape in which a plant will grow. Plants improvise, the adapt themselves to the conditions.

Living organisms is about that. I always use a very simple example: by being here, I am in a state of providence of a hundred million of cells. The hundred million cells don’t have a general director. My brain cannot tell them what to do. It’s democracy. My brain drives specific trends that are also quite independent. The fact that I am alive is the consequence of the fact that every single cell cooperates with its neighbor. If they would not cooperate, my doctor would say “you have a cancer”. There is no rule. It’s the local behavior that is crucial, and centralized systems are relatively reduced. My brain cannot give orders to my cells, but my liver neither. Single organs are independent. When you talk about an organism, that is the example.

CG: There is something that I wrote down in one of the little islands of my map: Size Matters. Dimension is important. In specific, the dimension of organizations, big organizations. This often makes a lot more difficult the instinctive behavior.

YF: It’s clear. I have been writing of that in what I called the Groupe Critique. Dimensions matter, but it’s not only about numbers. We can calculate more or less precise numbers, but dogs don’t calculate. They know exactly. When I first published on the Groupe Critique during the sixties, I was invited by the Zurich Museum of Natural History, I’ve been asked to make a manual, because they said they have found that in all animals. An elephants group goes off, a dogs group goes off, a birds group goes off. It’s not precise, it’s about magnitude. It’s not the number that counts but the size. In the example of my body cells, my health depends on the fact that my cells know the concept of Groupe Critique.

We can know go back to the city, it’s again the same thing. My body model is working also for the continent with a hundred fifty interconnected cities. It’s exactly the same thing. That’s why I say that I take this balance principle as one general law of nature.

CG: We could use a metaphor of the human body characterized by a sort of diffused intelligence, with every single cell having a bit of this intelligence, and a central organization that is very weak because everybody know what to do.

YF: It’s mutual adaptation, obviously. And that’s why if a single cell says, Ok I will do the conquest, everything fails. I call it a general law of nature, valid also for dogs that can invent it. Like the newtonian system. A dog can invent it. He knows about it. Only he cannot do the maths.

CG: So the sickness of humankind can be related to a question of domination?

YF: Domination exists in all animals, but it’s always concrete cases with self limitations. We have done abstraction…

CG: … that has no limits.

YF: The colonial countries have dominated over the colonized countries, but they didn’t realize what they were doing. It was abstract. What counts is the concrete case, and when they passed a certain limit, it all failed.

Take communism. It’s a great thing, but it’s abstract. And that’s why it’s theoretically in balance. It has been worked out and formulated abstractly. Reality is different. It’s concrete cases with a system of instant self-regulation. Take another example: the beach. Every day people get there, they occupy territories with their towels, then they go home at night, and the next day when they come back they occupy a different territory. It’s the same in the metro trains to take seats. There is no rule. It’s automatic. It’s not abstract.

Everything works on this principle of self-regulation and balance seeking. It’s not abstraction, and not all the political bla-bla, it’s simply reality. If I’m not comfortable, I change position. That’s it, but it’s fundamental. Almost every scientists think that human intelligence consists in the fact that we have discovered complexity. No, intelligence is simplicity, and then we play!

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