Interview with Asymptote Architecture: “We Are Spatial Engineers”

Founded in 1989, Asymptote Architecture is one of those rare practices that gained their initial notoriety despite the fact that in the early years of their practice most of their designs went unbuilt. As a result, only in the last decade or so have the practice's futuristic and parametric forms truly been tested as physical architecture, with projects such as the Yas Viceroy Hotel in Abu Dhabi. In this installment of his “City of Ideas” column,Vladimir Belogolovsky speaks with Asymptote founders Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture about their inspirations, the creation of space and whether architecture can ever be thought of as solving problems.

Interview with Asymptote Architecture: “We Are Spatial Engineers” - More Images+ 36

Vladimir Belogolovsky: I noticed little arrows at your reception saying, “Administration” to the left, “Picabia” to the left, “Studio 2” to the left, “Duchamp” to the right…What are these things?

Hani Rashid: These are the names we have attributed to our meeting spaces using the names of the influences that are acting on us, our cultural ghosts. For example, the room we are now in is “Constant” referring to the great visionary Constant Nieuwenhuys but also a play on “constant” as a verb meaning something is always happening here. [Laughs.] And this naming system also serves to remind us that the work that we do here is not only about the “business” of designing buildings but more importantly, it has to do with the nature of our thinking and a shared passion in this office for developing new and insightful ideas.

Lise Anne Couture and Hani Rashid. Image © Naho Kubota Photography

Since we began some years ago more like an art practice than a typical architects’ office, we found ourselves working a great deal on experimental architecture and theory, and exploring more esoteric aspects of our discipline. So over the years, we have methodically transformed Asymptote step by step into a new variation on an architectural practice. The work here is centered now more on building projects, clients’ needs, efficiency, and attention to budgets and deadlines while maintaining our work as research, experimentation, and provocation. So when we are in the middle of an intense meeting in one of these spaces, these room names keep us in check with our real priorities as we design, discuss, and make things.

Steel Cloud, Los Angeles West Coast Gateway Competition, 1989. Image Courtesy of Asymptote Architecture

Lise Anne Couture: The idea here has been from the very beginning to have an atelier rather than a traditional “office” environment. We relish the possibility here to be able to produce large scale models and it's important our being able to also display them in an ever-changing gallery environment that we have here as part of our work space. Space itself is obviously extremely important to us so besides having a large open studio environment we also have made all our conference and presentation spaces open and an integral part of our overall working atelier. And it is no accident that a third of our entire building is given over to a five-thousand square foot model shop.

166 Perry Street Condominium, New York, 2006-10. Image Courtesy of Asymptote Architecture

VB: I heard phrases from you such as “impeccable spatiality” and “asymptotic trajectory.” What animals are these?

HR: Well, our real focus here is centered on exploring new spatial possibilities in architecture. We are often described as architects seemingly preoccupied with form and its manipulation with computers and software. However, beneath that “superficial” reading of what preoccupies us is our primary concern that has always been the problem of spatiality itself. In every one of our projects, we attempt to define and explore very precisely what we might call an “impeccable spatiality.” Not that we are alone in this quest, but for us such spatiality is central a focus. The use of parametric tools or on another level the desire to address environmental issues, or even our interest in reinventing formal aspects of architecture are all components of the same problem - that is, divulging some sort of new and transforming spatiality. It is the notion of space itself as the protagonist in form making as in meaning when it comes to making architecture here.

LAC: Another way of putting it is to think about our asymptotic trajectory as a practice. As you know, mathematically, an asymptote describes a curve that approaches a straight line but never meets it. There is something of an analogy here as to how art and architecture relate to each with the stark difference that architecture is really about problem solving. However, in reality and ironically, I don’t think that architecture solves problems. Sure, we are interested resolving issues, but they can be elusive at best, and as you get closer to a solution, you then discover something else as a provocation and a new problem arises… So for us an asymptotic trajectory is something that is at once attracting while it is also repelling as we arrive anywhere near it. The closer you get to it, the more you discover, yet the more questions you have and therefore the more goals you set.

The HydraPier Pavilion, Haarlemmermeer, The Netherlands, 2002. Image Courtesy of Asymptote Architecture

VB: I heard you say, “We are architects, more or less” and another one, “We are spatial engineers instead of architects.” Could you elaborate on these phrases?

HR: [Laughs.] “More or less” is a play on Mies’ “less is more.” This does raise a point however on how seriously or not we should take ourselves as “architects.” For example, some artists and architects these days are tending to cross over from one discipline to another. Today we have artists working as architects and that begs the question, can architects take themselves a bit less seriously and find a territory to work a bit more freely within the realm of art? This makes for an interesting and intriguing ambiguity with the possibility of eliminating traditional boundaries, artists becoming architects and architects being artists, both are somewhat misaligned trajectories but I believe highly pertinent trajectories today, more or less.

As for the term, “spatial engineers,” that is something we call ourselves. It is also a way to get our students to question their work and their desire to be and act as architects. We completely trust “engineers” to make sure that things work well, that planes fly, bridges and buildings stand up, and so on. However, in our discipline the notion of expertise is often misunderstood and for me that expertise is in the realm of creating spatiality. Therefore, a way of calling attention to this is to describe our role as spatial engineering, not just design. Of course, something similar can be said of such artists as James Turrell, Olafur Eliasson, Dan Flavin and many others, but their works tend to focus on a narrow bandwidth of spatial and optical effects. For us as architects, our focus is more broad and I suppose more prosaic as we deal with functionality, viability, utility, as well as meaning, exploration, and other aspects. Our creative work needs to focus on a sort of spatial engineering where a larger sphere of complexities are called upon to form space and by extension, architecture.

Guggenheim Museum proposal, Guadalajara, 2005. Image Courtesy of Asymptote Architecture

VB: I am still digesting Lise Anne’s remark about the fact that architects don’t solve problems.

HR: We do solve problems that problems create. Don’t you think so?

LAC: Well, not really, we don’t solve problems as much as we resolve solutions. There is an important difference between the words “solve” and “resolve.” Resolving is more of a negotiation where one accepts something in return for something else. That’s what we are supposed to be doing as architects, not just solving the problem but resolving the most efficient and hopefully perfected spaces possible. Also let's not forget other aspects such as quality of light, interfacing with sound, utilizing other senses, and the perception and value of a perfect sense of proportion. Essentially it is the overall experience that we are after. In other words, it is give and take that in the end is much more subjective and enigmatic to enact than a purely scientific approach might otherwise be.

166 Perry Street Condominium, New York, 2006-10. Image Courtesy of Asymptote Architecture

VB: What drives you? What are your goals as architects?

HR: I think that the search for us is to figure out what aspects of our discipline can touch the human soul and spirit. It is a difficult thing to do because architecture in respect to this attitude is something more ineffable, metaphysical, and transcendent. Our goal is to build beautiful, desirable, and intelligent architecture primarily targeting cities. We really believe that our buildings have the inherent possibility to change the way people think about their cities and architecture.

LAC: What we are trying to do is to offer our intellectual expertise above all else. We aim at contributing something to the larger issues at hand as thinkers, as opposed to seeing ourselves embroiled in a kind of service industry. We look at what every specific situation entails and where it might lead to, formally, programmatically, and urbanistically. We always assess where we are today and how we could move into an interesting future. The idea is to drive each project with a personal vision, not merely compiling a to do list of things to pass to a team of consultants but rather to place before clients, consultants, and users alike a real set of possibilities and provocations.

Yas Viceroy Hotel Abu Dhabi, UAE, 2010. Image Courtesy of Asymptote Architecture

VB: Some of your inspirations come from digital delirium, film, computer animations, clouds, aerodynamics, high performance cars, organic tissues, flying, movement, speed, amorphic shapes, infinite space, etc. And speaking of your Yas Viceroy Hotel in Abu Dhabi, you said that you desired it to be a fascinating and seductive creature-object with animal-like skin. Could you talk about the intentions behind these inspirations?

LAC: I wouldn’t say that the architecture we create is about looking like anything in particular. For example, if we refer to or are influenced by an intriguing geometry that has in the end an animal-like skin or aspect, it’s the tectonic condition of a field condition that we are after. These elements, by virtue of their ever so slightly arrayed surfaces, play off light, cast shadows, create interesting optical effects or seem to suggest new geometric shapes. But what is important is that this project is not just about seeing an object. Instead there are many different levels of experience. Approaching such buildings and surfaces would reveal many interesting qualities. You begin to experience its screening wall conditions, texture, and so on in very different ways. Such an architecture filters the surrounding environment, frames views, provokes thought, etc.

HR: The genesis of the Yas Hotel was being shrouded in a mercury-like liquid veil. That led us to the grid-shell design and the need to use sophisticated software to design the skin with parametric software. The tectonics of speed also played a part because the building is the setting for the Formula 1 races each year; they celebrate speed and fluidity. Also this extra layer or skin on the Yas hotel acts as a cooling aspect for that building located in a desert climate. Interestingly that was never our intention to make it look like anything recognizable, be that an animal or object, however that it could at once be referenced and then instantly completely blur into its surrounding intrigued us. That is our constant desire for our work, that is to merge architecture and form with the surrounding environment thereby finding ways to not only express complexity but also to tweak out what is the most elegant, pristine, and integrated architectural and urbanistic solution we can come up with.

Virtual Guggenheim Museum, 2005. Image Courtesy of Asymptote Architecture

VB: Are your buildings as strange as advanced digital and construction technologies can allow or is there an independent agenda? In other words, what is the ultimate intention of your work?

HR: We are curious as to what new and advanced technologies can bring to the table. And needless to say we are compelled to use whatever technologies are available to us, including some analog techniques and old school methodologies, as they continue to hold promise in our creative process. So the challenge is how to enfold and capture both old and new techniques when creating a work. However, it is imperative we don’t simply fetishize technology. For us a successful project is not the result of our use of technologies but through the appropriate use of technologies and their inherent possibilities and provocations. So one could say that the asymptotic line that we move along in each of our projects is to seek out a kind of perfection and sophistication in the outcome. But, nevertheless, we are always working within limits and the struggle for timelessness, elegance, and some semblance of ethereal beauty is for us the goal. So as we go forward we also need to constantly look back to history without becoming problematically fixated on any one particular aspect, style, architect, or movement.

Hermitage Museum, Moscow, 2015. Image Courtesy of Asymptote Architecture

VB: Speaking of your museum project, currently being designed in Moscow for the Hermitage you said: “It is a model of perceiving the world.” What in your view should a contemporary art museum be like?

LAC: I think one of the main concerns we have today is that of the relationship of the museum to the city. What is the relationship of art to the building and the building to the public realm? How do we collectively experience art now and define culture? How do people encounter art in the digital age? And how do people really encounter ideas and each other in the space of ideas? The creation of any new museum today should be a balanced dialogue between the architect, artists, curators, and the public. A museum today for us should be a key place in which to debate what art might be.

Steel Cloud, Los Angeles West Coast Gateway Competition, 1989. Image Courtesy of Asymptote Architecture

VLADIMIR BELOGOLOVSKY is the founder of the New York-based non-profit Curatorial Project. Trained as an architect at Cooper Union in New York, he has written five books, including Conversations with Architects in the Age of Celebrity (DOM, 2015), Harry Seidler: LIFEWORK (Rizzoli, 2014), and Soviet Modernism: 1955-1985 (TATLIN, 2010). Among his numerous exhibitions: Anthony Ames: Object-Type Landscapes at Casa Curutchet, La Plata, Argentina (2015); Colombia: Transformed (American Tour, 2013-15); Harry Seidler: Painting Toward Architecture (world tour since 2012); and Chess Game for Russian Pavilion at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale (2008). Belogolovsky is the American correspondent for Berlin-based architectural journal SPEECH and he has lectured at universities and museums in more than 20 countries.

Belogolovsky’s column, City of Ideas introduces ArchDaily’s readers to his latest and ongoing conversations with the most innovative architects from around the world. These intimate discussions will be a part of the curator’s upcoming exhibition with the same title to premier at the University of Sydney in June 2016. The City of Ideas exhibition will then travel to venues around the world to explore ever-evolving content and design.

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Cite: Vladimir Belogolovsky. "Interview with Asymptote Architecture: “We Are Spatial Engineers”" 19 Feb 2016. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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