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October 22, 2004

Serving as a foil

I was able to interview very briefly architect Daniel Libeskind a few days ago, but I�m not very pleased because it was done in a rush, between a lecture and a book signing. I got a few good sound bites and was at least able to engage personal contact with him, which will be useful in the future. I have scheduled an interview with another architect, Paul Schulhof, with the firm Tod Williams Billie Tsieu, who was involved in the design of the American Folk Art Museum on West 53rd street (completed in 2001).

The goal of the interview is to have an architect explain in practical terms the relationship between his design and the memorial/museum object he works on: the relevance of the site�s history; the interaction between the architect and the curator/program director, between the building and its content. When dealing with monuments or historical museum, how much does the architect talk with people who participated directly in this moment of history or this ethnic community? How does the architect position himself vis-�-vis the type of museum he�s building? How does he think of the museum not only in terms of the past, but also of the future? [Emphasis on how questions rather than why questions].

I would like to enrich my own perspective by hearing someone who works in the field of museums, but whose work is grounded in reality, and complete what I can learn from scholars, theorists, curators and witnesses. This interview will help me at the beginning of my research, because it will contribute to my general knowledge and start making me sensitive to different issues faced by architects, and raise questions that relate to various actors involved with historical museums and memorials. As Weiss writes, � anyone who has anything to teach us is a desirable interviewee� (29). This holistic approach of comparisons and relations seems appropriate when embracing a vast topic.
This interview is not about authenticity; it�s about contributing to a picture. As Denzin says, �we do not ask if the representation is true. We ask instead, is it probable, workable, fruitful, does it allow us to see things differently, and to think differently� (9).

Before the interview, I will visit museum(s) that this architect has worked on, in order to ask specific questions on a case study, and see how they relate to another, if they reflect a style, school or trend. It is also a matter of respect for the interviewee and his time that I have studied the field in advance.
During the interview, my goal is to remain as silent as possible. My presence, constant attention and body language should help the interviewee feel safe, be part of a conversation rather than a formal interview, even though he is doing most of the talking. My short questions are simple devices to unroll the storytelling and, if necessary, to remain in focus or to ask for specifics. I serve as a foil to the interviewee. As Denzin suggests, a feedback interview could illuminate aspects of architecture, for example, a photograph depicting a detail of the building, or showing visitors attending an event in the museum. I could also have the architect react to a comment written in the guest book, or to a newspaper clip from the time of the inauguration (I should look for specifics, whether original, negative, daring, or striking).

The next step is to expand beyond the case study, and try to find underlying principles in museum architecture, or new concerns for architect designing such building (how to handle crowds; security; the combination of �serious� displays with �leisurely� components such as a cafeteria, an auditorium, a kid�s corner, a gift shop). Even when talking about general issues, I have to keep specific examples in mind to illustrate my questions. The other caveat � especially with architecture � is to avoid falling into abstraction or theory. While architects deal with concrete buildings grounded in reality, there is natural tendency for them to describe their work in sometimes opaque terms, whether borrowed from science or philosophy. While I should keep my interventions to a minimum, my job is to make sure that the interviewee remains clear and concrete in his answers.

After the interview, I have to make sure that the transcription is rather a rendition of a performance: even in a printed version, I have to express relevant silences, laughs, emotions, hesitations, self-corrections. I have to depict the tri-dimensional, the human, not just a story in a tape recorder. I like Denzin�s idea that �the text can be a collage, a montage, with photographs, blank spaces, poems, monologues, dialogues, voice-overs, and interior streams of consciousness.� (7).
Weiss� methods of data analysis are especially helpful: the issue-focused analysis allows a multiple-perspective reading of an issue, and would work well in my research, since it involves subjects with very different perspectives. I also looked at the analyses of case studies that enable to generalize or validate a theory, but I am not sure if a researcher can select the method before having gathered most of the data. In other words, the data will certainly influence the method of analysis

What I need to keep in mind all the time is that an interview is a performance, and just as there can�t be two identical artistic performances, there can�t be two identical interviews. An interview is shaped by the present; it reflects what comes to memory now, what thoughts go through the mind now, what is associated with the question now, and how the interviewee feels now. A second (and subsequent) interview with the same person can bring very different results.

I haven�t quoted much of Weiss (or the others) even though I find his book to be an exceptional source for interviewing. It�s only because I work more intuitively when I interview people rather than stick to guidelines, and that I could relate to most of what he said from my interviewing experience.

Posted by Brigitte Sion at October 22, 2004 12:55 PM


Excellent ideas for feedback interviews and use of prompts. Also, the cautionary note about concreteness vs tendency of architects to philosophize. And, issue-focused interview.

Posted by: bkg at October 25, 2004 11:36 AM