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The Levitating Mailītis 0

Interviewed by Agnese Čivle,

The name Austris Mailītis is a new entry in the encyclopedia of Latvian architecture. Having received the “Architect's Footprint” award from the Fund for Encouraging Architecture in 2011 – for his design of Latvia's pavilion at the international exhibition EXPO 2010 in Shanghai – Mailītis began 2012 by concentrating on a new, large-scale “levitation” project in Shaolin. “The Temple of the Flying Monks” is a unique project – its architectural concept strongly respects the location's historical and environmental context, and there are plans to also develop the area surrounding this cradle of Chinese civilization. A film about the course of the project is in the making, and Mailītis is currently working on its pre-production in New York.

In 2012, the architect also began work on: the pavilion for Riga's stint as European Capital of Culture 2014; a vertical wind tunnel in Bahrain; and the master-plan for the Jinpeng district in China.

Austris Mailītis looks for inspiration in nature, respects the union of rationality and natural forms in architecture, is interested in the interactions between physics and metaphysics, and in his work – attempts to combine faultless functionality with the world of emotions.

You are the offspring of artists (Mailītis' parents are Ivars and Inese Mailītis). Was it just natural that the creative environment of your childhood led you to a career in architecture?

As a child, it was such a driving force! There were a lot of interesting people around; it was a beautiful and inspirational environment, and I was conscious of how great it was already then. My parents are connected to art, film, design and architecture, and I also want to express myself in a creative sense. It is not important whether it be architecture, art, or maybe music – what is important is the idea and the emotions that I want to articulate. I must admit that I don't feel as if I am an architect to the core. Architecture is just one of the paths in which ideas can be brought to life.

In 2011, you received the “Architect's Footprint” award from the Fund for Encouraging Architecture, for your design of Latvia's pavilion at the international exhibition EXPO 2010. That was followed by a new offer of cooperation in Asia. Having been recognized at the very beginning of your creative career, are you ever beset by the fear that you could run out of ideas, and therefore may not be able to keep up your reputation?

I don't want to say that I am frightened, but thinking about that does have an impact. In contemplating this, I have come to the awareness that it is important to me to be able to express myself creatively; so I know that everything will be alright. I feel good about it.

Isn't recognition important to you?

Being social beings, I think that it is important to everyone. Recognition is something that helps one reach a state of satisfaction.

What about doing something “for yourself”, as many creative personalities are so fond of saying?

That is a deceptive assertion. In my opinion, it is posturing. It is one thing to play some music for yourself, at home, but it is something completely else to create public objects, such as buildings. Then it is important that they are good for people. That is important to me.

What is the anatomy behind the architecture that you create?

When planning buildings, I place just as much focus on speaking to people on an emotional level as I do on making sure that everything works faultlessly. I'm interested in instincts, emotions and the subconscious level, and even a world beneath that. There are things to be found there.

National Open Air Stage in Mezaparks

Is there anything that you would like to build for Riga, for Latvia?

I am absolutely sure that I want to build and create for Latvia. I feel that I belong to it. In answering this question, I'd like to mention a project that has already started, namely, the Song Festival amphitheater. At the basis of the idea is how the subconscious relates to the collective consciousness, which is an aspect that interests me very much. The Song Festival movement is a movement of the national consciousness, and the amphitheater is the site of its culmination – it is like holy ground. By resonating with the people's consciousness, but not being just an architectural reflection of what has already been done, one must offer something entirely new.

The project is also interesting from an architectural and functional viewpoint, because in terms of acoustics, the outdoor music amphitheater is a very unique place. In the whole world, only the Baltic countries have structures like this – the Estonians have a very scientifically correct one, the Lithuanians have a very big one, and now we, too, are attempting to expand ours. In terms of acoustics, an expansion project is a very daunting challenge – to ensure perfect sound for a choir of 10,000 people, you have to turn to metaphysics first, and then translate that into physics. It is an interesting assignment and, in its own sense, an adventure.

This project on structurally rebuilding the existing stadium, and giving it a new character, was started during the economic recession, which is why it was put on hold for a while. It has taken 20 years for the National Library to be built, and it is finally almost finished; that is why I hope that, sooner or later, this project will also be brought to fruition. This venture is very special and exciting to me.

But what I could create for Latvia could be something besides a building. Maybe – music...

What does music mean to you?

I like to play instruments.

There are many unifying elements in the creative disciplines, for example – composition. When you immerse yourself in one discipline, it is possible to understand something more about another.

It is similar with learning about different cultures. Working in China, and immersing myself in its culture, I can look at Latvia from a thoroughly different viewpoint. These different viewpoints work  wonderfully well, which is why traveling experience is so utterly valuable.

And how do you view Latvian identity?

In attempting to understand what “our thing” is – our signature – it became clear to me that identity forms directly through the creative process. Only when we express ourselves, do we become, and become something that differs from others.

This moment of identity definitely exists, but it may have not yet formed.

We look around, and that is great and necessary – because we're a small nation and we can't live closed off from others; but in my opinion, the next step should be in the direction of self-assuredness. If we can be unafraid of being a little bit different – maybe even “outsiders”, we'll be convinced that that which we do is good, and that it is needed by us and the world; then our identity will form, and we will become full-fledged participants in the world.

 During EXPO 2010 you were offered a job in Shaolin. Could you elaborate on that?

Shaolin's natural environment and history make it beautiful. It lies beneath China's central holy mountain, Song Shan, and next to the surrounding plateau and Yellow River Valley. The foot of Song Shang is the cradle of Chinese civilization – it is the birthplace of China's first dynasty and its ancient capital cities. It was in Henan Province that the compass, gunpowder and paper were invented. It is the site of thousand-year-old observatories and a university of Confucianism. Confucianism, Zen Buddhism, Taoism and the martial art of Kung Fu arose in Henan Province, and it is also the place where levitation is being researched.

Panorama view to the foot of Song Shang 

Confucianism still plays a large role in why China is such a unique place; Confucianism dictates how people think, and what their value system is like.

Zen Buddhism, which began in the Shaolin Monastery (turning Buddhism towards a “zen”, or meditative form), on the other hand, takes into account the following of a physical discipline. In a sense, the monastery was the people's guardian and government; the monks had to protect themselves and the people, who were basically their “parish”. They developed physical activities and the art of Kung Fu, which is also a form of meditation. A part of the system's concept is based on the phenomenon of levitation, which the Shaolin monks have been researching for centuries. This place, and its connection to levitation, has recently come onto the global pop-culture scene – mostly thanks to the Hong Kong film industry.

Shaolin flying monks temple / Vision.  Mailitis A.I.I.M 2010

Taking inspiration from the place's powerful natural environment and culture, and in cooperation with Aerodium, I've offered up an architectural concept – “The Temple of the Flying Shaolin Monks” – a never-before-seen structure/platform for levitation performances. It is similar to an open-air amphitheater, with bleachers for the audience and dressing rooms below them, and with a stage and wind tunnel in the center. “Shaolin” means “mountain in the forest”, which is why the project makes use of the mountain and forest metaphors. The wind tunnel is designed like a forest, and the structure – like a mountain. On an intuitive level, the concept is one of human activity taking place on both the horizontal plane of the Earth and in the vertical column of spirituality. It is planned that the monks will show their performances here.

The physical ability to levitate with the help of a wind tunnel, combined with the Shaolin monks' levitation on a metaphysical level, could become an interesting event with an unknown outcome.

Park of the Shaolin flying monks temple / Vision.  Mailitis A.I.I.M 2010

Besides the main object, there arose the need to organize the valley's surrounding environment – ski slopes, outdoor activity spots, and walking trails that lead to the historical objects and sites in the natural landscape. That's why they went with an architectural style that's built into the mountains, and that through its shape, allows one to take in the message that the place sends out.

In creating this project, what is always being kept in the forefront is that the story of this place must be experienced both in physical and spiritual terms.

Alongside the architectural planning, I take note of the spiritual, cultural and environmental context of the specific setting, and use a more encompassing set of characteristics attributed to China, namely – the phenomenon of Chinese rice terraces, the Great Wall, the mountains and mists – as well as the associated emotional sensations that they evoke.

In compiling these values into a contemporary composition, I'm creating something entirely new, but I still make use of locally available materials – such as bricks and roof tiles that once made up multistory houses, and that have possibly been used many times before over the centuries. In this way, I'm trying to get a grasp on a unified conception of the past, present and future – a feeling that transcends the bounds of time.

Maybe I'm talking a bit mystically about this... But that's the way it truly is – mystical.

Is there a contextual aspect that you are deliberately not making use of?

I'm making use of the most influential and impressive aspects. I may be making less of the context that is linked with the chaos that is characteristic of a new city. As a result of swift development, the construction of new buildings is being done in an extremely rational way, which in this case, means discordantly.

It is possible to build the flying, skiing, hotels, and everything else that is being planned for this valley, in a very simple, pragmatic and rational way, but I believe that one of the objectives could be to organize and bring harmony into the environment – so that a person feels good there.

I really like the old cities of Europe; I feel very much at home there. Eastern cities are tremendously interesting, but everything is just thrown together in a whirlwind there. Peace wants to return.

In addition to your ideas as a Latvian architect, does the project foresee any other features linked to Latvia?

The mountain cabins that will be built into the cliffs are modular structures made of wood, and the factory in which they are made is one of the most modern in Europe. The Chinese have also shown an interest in “Laima” brand chocolates.

Also, a part of the project production team is working in Latvia.

Shaolin flying monks temple / Vision.  Mailitis A.I.I.M 2010

Tell me about the Chinese work ethic. How are the cultural differences impacting the completion of the project?

To work successfully in China, you have to learn a lot about the people themselves. Working there is a massive challenge. During the EXPO construction, every day was a wonder!

What are their main characteristics?

The Chinese respect Westerners, but they have their own conviction of how things should be. In the West, problem resolution is based on the system of argumentation, whereas the Chinese don't debate. At least not in the way that Westerners do. It seems as if they follow other universal principles, and which are known only to them. It is quite possible that Confucianism plays a big part in this.

It often seems as if everything happens flowingly, in succession, and that the situation itself will show the way. You could start to think that the main reason behind meetings is to simply come together – which is very important to Easterners – instead of trying to resolve some concrete issue. Often times, queries about the work schedule and deadlines incites confusion. It seems that they expect things to happen on their own.

Sometimes the smiling Chinese become surly. It turns out that we've forgotten something essential. We're used to forging ahead until we're done, whereas for them, eating and sleeping are sacred. That is something one must learn.

Civil relationships are very important; first you must become a friend – be sincere – and only then can you begin thinking about cooperative undertakings and deadlines. This could seem annoying to Westerners. In truth, many – quite possibly the most crucial – issues are dealt with whilst sitting at a round dinner table. Overall, it's hard to avoid the round table.

That's the way it is; you can't actually miss out on anything. The Chinese culture has been around since ancient times, the country is heading towards a bright future, the people live in harmony with one another, but exactly when is something going to be built – that's not the most important thing. There is, however, an inkling that processes are being controlled by some other consciousness. One comes to the realization that in the context of China, things and time have another meaning.

This was a surprise and, for a while, it was like running into a wall. With time, you come to understand that you don't have to run into a wall – that's just the way things happen. Everything happens differently. But how? I'm still getting to know China.

The Chinese are very open and ready to accept new ideas. They are disposed to development and everything new.

Do you still use a pencil and paper when working on projects?

I work by hand, and my goal is to increasingly do that. The drawing-in of precise details and calculations is transferred to the computer, but a pencil and paper is the most direct way to “draw out” the idea from your imagination. It is like the process of thinking and coming up with ideas. There are programs that allow you to “think” on the computer, but sometimes the computer drags down the creative process – on the computer, you can get stuck and come to a standstill. This mechanism has a different system of thinking, and a person in the midst of the creative process has difficulty adapting to it. But that is neither good, nor bad. There are things that the computer can provoke during the creative process; for instance, it used to be that when making visuals, the computer didn't have the capacity to deal with textures, so as a mistake, small tiles would be arranged in a repetitive pattern. Later on, the same technique was deliberately used on the facades of some buildings. An interesting computer phenomenon.

Latvia Pavilion Expo 2010 / Kinetic facade EXT .  Austris Mailitis

Which periods of architectural development are the most inspiring to you?

To me, architecture seems to have both a mandatory and rational side, and at the same time, it reaches towards nature and speaks to the human emotional world. That's why I don't want to mention specific periods and things.

An interesting time was when, along with the industrial revolution, new building materials were put into use – metal, reinforced concrete and glass; but at the same time, they thought about form and structures that were linked to nature and man, such as in Art Nouveau. The Eiffel Tower is an interesting example – it has a rational, clever approach to the natural world; but at the same time, it is a key to the emotional world of humans.

Modernism has proved itself to be good and worthwhile. But I like what's going on today, all of this searching. It's interesting that it still hasn't been given a name.

Whom do you look up to in architecture?

Those would be several Japanese and European architects. The Japanese architect Ryue Nishizawa's Teshima Art Museum – by all appearances it is simple, but it is poetic and communicative, and philosophically full of minimalistic forms of expression. It reflects the Japanese people's accomplished approach to the simplest of things, which ends up conveying a lot – just like haiku.

I admire the fact that the Japanese learn a lot from nature, and it seems that Latvians also have opportunities to do that. Simplicity is the direction in which one can still head and do investigation. To observe what has been, what is, and to create something new – continuing to create our identity.

I recently saw in Japan an amazing building designed by Kengo Kuma – the Prostho Museum Research Center. It's built from simple wooden poles and looks amazing – a bit mystical, kind of simple and old-fashioned, but at the same time, very exquisite. The effect that you can achieve with the ostensibly simple idea of creating a space is surprising. I really like it when things have the quality to transcend time. The usual talk goes that architecture must reflect the times, but in my opinion, if we take that as dogma, you can't evolve.

What, in your opinion, is the preeminent material to use in architecture?

Any material, depending on what you plan to do with it, can be preeminent.

For instance, the idea at the core of the EXPO structure's facade was to attain a feeling of nature – the play of light and shadow, the breaking of light through the tree canopy – but we made it from plastic. It may sound strange, but it is an ecological material that demands less energy than metal, and it is easy to melt down. Plastic is very accepting of creative manipulation – you can mix in colors, introduce pearlescent powders, make it translucent...

What sort of feelings does the creative process instill in you?

At times, it pulls you down, and you feel as if you can't go on. But when you think of something that solves the problem, and everything falls into place – then there is such joy and elation! It's the same with technical issues (of which there are many), and even if it turns into a mathematical assignment, there is joy and a sense of accomplishment when you solve them.

I'd like to ask a creative favor of you... Could you sketch out what a spatial expansion of would look like?

(Thinks for a moment.) The first thing that comes to mind is... a long table. Like an analogy of a scrolling blog with a white tablecloth. At one end there is, for example, a fashion show; on the other end – one after another – discussions. After the discussions, the table is not cleared; after each meeting, traces are left – footprints on the ground, chairs pushed back, cups, drawings and sketches... There are conversations taking place, everybody is showing something and explaining, the table continually lengthens, it goes over hills, along the seashore. If Tērbatas Street will become a pedestrian thoroughfare, it could be located there. Possibly, something could also be going on underneath the table (as a child, I loved playing under the table...).

A long table