AD Interviews: David Gianotten / OMA

During the Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture, we had the opportunity to speak with David Gianotten, partner-in-charge of OMA’s Hong Kong office. Gianotten launched the Dutch firm’s Asian headquarters in 2009, where he supervises major projects such as the Shenzhen Stock Exchange and the Taipei Performing Arts Centre.

Standing outside of the recently completed Stock Exchange headquarters, he answered our questions about urbanization, innovation and the intricacies of running an office in an environment with such rapid urban growth. Shenzhen has proven an experiment of economic openness and is a vivid example of China’s recent growth. The city’s skyline is practically a physical graph of an upward-trending economy, with buildings designed by nearly every internationally renowned architecture firm. But OMA’s Shenzhen Stock Exchange building stands apart from the rest not only because of its impeccable construction (a rarity in the fast-paced building booms of Chinese cities), but also because it houses the institution that lists China’s biggest companies.

The 254 meter tower is an elegant structure that combines pure volumes with an exoskeleton grid clad in translucent glass. It represents a characteristic OMA-approach to innovative architectural solutions, made possible by extensive programmatic and technical research.

Read the full interview (which includes Gianotten’s insights on the study of architecture, the role of architects, and the importance of simplicity when communicating complex innovation) after the break. 

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ArchDaily: What is Architecture?

David Gianotten: Architecture is something that facilitates how people interact and encounter each other. Architects create spaces in which people can perform or meet or actually be part of the surrounding culture. I think it’s part of the obligation of the architect to create a space where people are discovering themselves newly, discovering the surroundings newly and interacting with people. I’m therefore most interested in making spaces that accommodate meeting and fun. 

ArchDaily: What should the role of architects in society be?

David Gianotten: Architects can be catalysts in a dialogue between many layers of the society that come together in the physical environment. I think its very important for an architect to facilitate the process by injecting ideas, but also by taking the ideas of other people and highlighting or enlarging them in the overall context. And because of that they can come up with a solution that responds to many of the ideas expressed and many of the ideas that are needed to really develop or change a situation. 

ArchDaily: How is OMA Asia addressing China’s rapid urban growth?

David Gianotten: We are much more interested in transformation. While here urbanization very often means taking away history and completely creating something new, we’re very interested in the Asian context to look at what the history is, what the situation on the ground is and how we can slowly transform it by including the people that already live there or the people that are part of a smaller society that grows extremely quickly. Also, when urbanization is happening something is left behind—namely the countryside. And you see that especially in Asia, at this moment in time where the urbanization rate is about 30 times the speed that it had when in industrialization in Europe and America happened, and also with a much shorter timeframe (only 20-30 years), it leaves behind large openings and large gaps in the countryside. Smaller societies were functioning very well but now because of the people that left, we come into a situation with all kinds of question marks: how do we go towards the future? How can we revitalize our environment which is not, per se, an urban environment, but an environment that is crucial for a country like China? The countryside is still crucial for production. It’s very crucial for all the food supplies. We’re also interested to look at that part of urbanization. To not only create transform parts of a city, but where the people come from and what the impact there is.

ArchDaily: What’s the importance of innovation in your designs?

David Gianotten: Innovation of ideas, innovation of the physical environment and therefore tweaking of the context—a lot of people know to create a surprise and therefore a different interaction with people that are actually there—is the driver behind our architecture. We do a lot of research on the program. We do a lot of technical research. For example, how a theater really operates and how we can innovate in that operation to make it possible to make a stage from 100m in length and 40 m in width with people looking from three sides. To be able to do that you need to have a lot of programmatic knowledge, technical knowledge and then to be bold enough to propose innovation. Very often clients don’t ask for that innovation, they ask for what they already know. Therefore it’s not always accepted to do it. But the way of expressing the innovation, the way of explaining it, needs to be extremely simple so that they immediately get that, “Ah, yeah. That is what it can give to us. 

ArchDaily: What is the intention behind the design of the Shenzhen Stock Exchange?

David Gianotten: When we started the project we did a lot of research of what a stock exchange was. It was moving from a physical stock exchange, where trade really happened between people, to a digital stock exchange. It was also very important to look at what was the economical factor of this institution in the city then, and what it will be 10 years from now. That growth was similar to the growth of Shenzhen from a fishing village 30 years ago to now a city of 14 million people. That growth of the stock exchange had to be embodied inside the building.

What we were aiming for in the design was to portray to the city that a symbol of economic progression could actually contribute to the urbanization and the physical public space, and that it would be approachable. In many countries these buildings are locked down. Wall Street, even—it’s in the heart of Manhattan but it is very difficult to come close. We really wanted this building to be approachable and at the same time still express this economic role it plays.

ArchDaily: What can you tell us about leading an architecture office?

David Gianotten: You’re always balancing between what a business can handle and what the creative-ness needs. That balance and that tension is super interesting to me. How people respond to that context; how different people need more space in the creativity; how other people immediately grab the business side of an architecture office. For me, leading a group of more than 80 people is constantly challenging this balance and challenging the context outside of the office. And at the same time trying to create super innovative buildings and make a business is exciting and I still learn every day from my staff. And they learn everyday from me. That, in the end, is progression. 

ArchDaily: What advice would you give to someone who wants to study architecture?

David Gianotten: I think it’s very important when you start studying architecture to not only look at architecture. To not dive into architectural history, or to only dive into your own design projects and because of that focus on an architect will do in his daily operation, but to really broaden your perspective. Because to make with architecture you will have to connect to all kinds of knowledge, all kinds of specialties around, and you will have to tie it together and make it part of a physical presence in the city.  So explore as much as you can. Also many institutions these days teach a style or a way of a process. Discover your own. Don’t simply listen to your teachers. Really discover what fits well to you and how you can explore and bring that a step further. Because that is, in the end, what every teacher will recognize as a good project—when you can tell a story that shows your exploration and your growth and learning curve through it. That’s what you need to drive through, because you will have a lot of fun. And only when you have fun will you be able to keep up with this profession. 

About this author
Cite: David Basulto. "AD Interviews: David Gianotten / OMA" 12 Feb 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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