Material Minds, presented by ArchDaily Materials, is our new series of short interviews with architects, designers, scientists, and others who use architectural materials in innovative ways. Enjoy!
Arthur Andersson of Andersson-Wise Architects wants to build ruins. He wants things to be timeless - to look good now and 2000 years from now. He wants buildings to fit within a place and time. To do that he has a various set of philosophies, processes and some great influences. Read our full in-depth interview with Mr. Andersson, another revolutionary "Material Mind," after the break.
AD: Can you explain your overall approach or process to materiality in architecture:
I think it comes from two main things. We tell the clients we want these buildings to look better over time, not worse. We start with that mindset or framework. Rome has buildings a couple thousand years old and they are still standing. Many are made of stone and the Romans were one of the first cultures to invent a form of concrete. The Pantheon’s Dome is made out of concrete during emperor Hadrian’s time, a few thousand years ago. So we try to view things from that perspective. Therefore, we use a lot of concrete and stone. But, even if the building is wood -- like the stave churches in Norway that are six hundred years old, we try to understand the weathering of materials – it’s important to us, its important to me.
We could comment on our culture today of strip architecture and sprawl and all that good stuff – the emotional charge you get from those buildings is in my opinion a very negative one - it’s a very desolate place. But the emotional charge that you get from buildings that are made out of something that has something more to it than that – I think it affects people emotionally, in a good way.
I went to architecture school at the University of Kansas and then to the University of London. When I was in London my teacher said work hard in your classes, but get the hell out of here and go travel while you’re here. So before I really even knew very much about Lou Kahn and his view on things, I became very interested in ruins. I would go to these old castles that were literally just old foundations. It’s not a castle but Stonehenge is a good example -- There is a tremendous presence there and it has literally nothing to do with anything, except the materials-- these old stones sitting in a landscape. There are lots of examples of abbeys and things of that sort and it got me wondering, what is it about these places that makes me so excited to be here? And it gets to this Emersonian idea where he said “admiration of the antique is not admiration of the old but of the natural.” So it’s almost like when buildings go back to nature, in the case of a ruin, there is something very powerful there.
So conceptually here at the office we talk about how to build ruins, to not only think about what will the building be like in 2000 years but what are the fundamental and basic characteristics that will make them interesting today. Lou Kahn when talking about his projects in India (I believe) talks about “wrapping ruins around functional spaces.” And it is that layer or outer crust that creates a relationship between what’s protected inside and the nature outside. So that’s one thing…
Another aspect of what we call materiality is just the pure joy of trying to make buildings out of things that have a tactile presence to them, which really moves people. Kind of an obvious thing, but in today's culture it's not always obvious... So we are always trying to make decisions that have meaning – which doesn’t mean more expensive. We are doing a church right now with a number of ancillary spaces, offices, classrooms etcetera, but we are exposing the framing of the building. Its not like it is fancy framing, it’s 2 x 10’s with plywood decking, so we are creating our palette based on things that are available for the particular project -- and we embrace that.
We also make these choices based on budget. As a young architect I worked with Charles Moore, and he had an adage that “every project benefits from a 30% budget cut.” And if you don’t know anything about Charles' work, it wasn’t exactly built for the ages – he would just go ahead and make it out of plywood and that was that. But the strategy is utilizing materials and techniques that are available today, which is a really interesting challenge for architects, using what’s available. We don’t get too much into prefab buildings -- but I’m sure interested in them. I’d like to do that sometime. So it’s not always concrete and stone, sometimes it is using materials that are much more off the shelf than that.
AD: Where does your material palette take shape in the process and where do you look for inspiration in a place?
A couple things really affect the palette – one is obviously location of the project and the materials readily available. The projects we have done up in Montana for example, are wooden buildings, because well, they have lots of wood. Projects that we do down in Texas tend to be more masonry based and I don’t mean stone -- I mean concrete block with plaster on them, because we discovered a pretty rich culture of people who are good with those materials. What is interesting about that, is not only materials available and the technique -- but also the climate.
In Austin we have made houses and buildings that barely need air conditioning. We use the thermal mass of a thick wall, a big air space with plaster on the inside and out. But the temperature inside the structure doesn’t change much when the weather gets fairly hot down here. You maintain thermal protection from the sun – and that leads to aesthetic. So with plaster, the design aesthetic becomes the celebration of natural light and how it falls on these surfaces.
Georgia O’Keefe made a great painting of the Rancho De Taos in New Mexico and its shape -- it’s a lump. But her paintings of it express what it really is – it’s a beautiful piece of sculpture, where light hits differently during the course of a day. I’m not from Texas, but I have been here for a about thirty years now and it's so different, the sun is so bright and you get such a palpable difference between the play of light not only on surfaces but within rooms – its different than other parts of the country.
The wooden palette is a whole different kind of aesthetic. Our project up on Flathead lake is an expression of this. In the Stone Creek Camp project we utilized wood that needed to be cleared from the site because of the pine blight of all of the fir trees. We lost a lot of the grand firs and some of the douglas firs. So we harvested them and then made the walls of the building out of those pieces. So that created an aesthetic – it becomes not so much a piece of architecture but a piece of environmental art – something someone like Andy Goldsworthy would do (not to compare ourselves to him). But you know if you can use the pieces that are available to you, you have the capacity to transform it into something that’s not just a normal looking building.
AD: What is your approach in using low-tech materials in new and innovative ways:
The approach varies project to project. It’s really about an attitude, we not only like to use materials local to the project but we like to use artisans who are local. We talk about what technologies and techniques can be utilized by people who enjoy their craft. Unfortunately, there are not very many skilled craftsmen in the world anymore. So you want to get someone who has passion for what they are doing and their own aesthetic, that becomes transformative for the project. I don’t think I personally could have built those walls at Stone Creek Camp the way the guys who did them did them. We gave them parameters and said lets make the wood like cordwood, chop them into triangular shapes with semi-circles and we’ll see in a couple weeks. And it worked out. I think if you gauge the people you’re pulling in, it takes on a whole new and positive energy.
Yeah of course, I mean an obvious one is Italian Architect Carlo Scarpa. He influences us a lot. He had a capacity to look at aspects of buildings almost in a different scale -- like they are pieces of jewelry. He would combine bronze with something crazy like teak – it is almost like he was a jewelry designer. I’m really drawn to that level of thinking, transformative quality and depth. It was Scarpa designing a building not as a building. I always say in my office, let’s treat it like we are designing a toy, or a little object. Let’s get our heads out of the building part, (we can figure that out later) but let's make it look like something fundamentally different – I think our work does that. Another is Frank Lloyd Wright. Not to compare ourselves again, but Wright’s work had an amazingly intimate scale (the fact that he was about 3 feet tall probably helped), but it really does -- and I think our work is intimate as well.
AD: With new materials, techniques and technology constantly changing – what do you see as the future of materials in architecture?
One thing close to us is the whole subject or topic of glazing. It’s rapidly changing and evolving for the better. We have used a lot of high performance glazing in some of our larger commercial work and with great effect. This is not stuff built by unskilled laborers, this is high quality material. There is glazing now we used on the W-Hotel that looks beautiful from the outside and transmits something like 85% visual capacity, but cuts out 98% of UV rays. So glazing has really evolved and continues to evolve. Within the broader culture and making big buildings, which we will continue to do, it makes a big impact. It can withstand the rigors of things like LEED certification. The W-Hotel is over a million square feet and the largest LEED-certified building of its kind in the southwest. In other words, you can do big buildings now and they can be extremely energy efficient.
AD: How can architects use materials to solve real problems, such as energy consumption or emergency relief?
First of all, I think the new Pritzker winner Shigeru Ban’s work with emergency relief is really commendable. It’s a tough question – I think from a sustainability standpoint, one thing I learned early on is that since the invention of air conditioning architects have gotten pretty lazy. I know we need it, but you look at buildings designed before air conditioning and they are much more attuned to their environment -- much more efficient in terms of layout.
I kind of came to this conclusion when I went to New Orleans for the World’s Fair in the early 80’s. I noticed all the buildings I liked the looks of were the old ones. It was because they had layers to them. They had porches and verandas; they were sited in a way that took advantage of prevailing breezes. They allowed different amounts of sun and shade in. So I think in a broader sense there is that passive (not machine driven) or intuitional design sense that we have to not lose sight of. I think if we do that, our buildings will have a positive influence.