Where does originality and independent thinking come from? The answer is prosaically straight forward – from an inquiring individual, and an experimental environment wouldn’t hurt to stimulate it. Rem Koolhaas is credited with fostering such an environment, both through building his practice, Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), a 300-architect network of seven global offices, and teaching at Harvard’s GSD, as well as lecturing all over the world. Koolhaas now has eight partners. One of the eight, since 2008, is Shohei Shigematsu who heads OMA New York since 2006. The studio originally numbered just a handful of people and over the years has grown into a large practice of 75 architects with a focus on projects in North America.
City Of Ideas: The Latest Architecture and News
Meeting with many leading, independent Chinese architects and visiting their built works throughout China in recent years has shaped my understanding of their contributions as regionally sensitive, poetic, photogenic, and even seductive. Yet, so many of these projects can be confused as being produced by a single, narrowly-focused practice. These works are often small in scale and built far from urban centers where ordinary people could benefit from them most. There is a lack of diversity and risk-taking. The following excerpt from my interview with Beijing-based architect Li Hu on his recent visit to New York overturned my doubts and gave me much hope for China’s urban future.
“Form-Generating is Similar to Music – You Try to Compose Music and Suddenly the Melody Comes”: In Conversation with Kevin Roche
American architect Kevin Roche passed away this past Friday, March 1 at the age of 96. He was born in 1922 in Dublin, Ireland, educated at the University College Dublin (1945) and Illinois Institute of Technology (1948). In 1966, he formed Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates (KRJDA). He has designed more than 200 buildings, including renovation to the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2012), National Conference Centre in Dublin (2010), Lafayett Tower in Washington DC (2009), J.P. Morgan Headquarters in Manhattan (1992), Central Park Zoo in Manhattan (1988), The Knights of Columbus Building Headquarters in New Haven (1969), The Ford Foundation in Manhattan (1968), and Oakland Museum of California (1966). In 1982 he became the fourth Pritzker Prize winner and in 1993 was awarded the AIA Gold Medal. The following excerpt is from our 2011 interview at the architect’s office in Hamden, Connecticut.
The following excerpt from my recent interview with Tianjin-based architect Zhang Hua continues an ongoing series of interviews that I’ve been conducting during my frequent trips to China. Zhang Hua is leading his design studio, Zhanghua Architects, which is a part of Tianjin University Research Institute. Professor Zhang Hua’s work follows his uncompromising form-generating theory, which is based on the desire to capture the progression of transformational processes. In his many built projects, the architect examines and expresses such formal transformations as turning from something basic to complex or from monolith to disperse. The focus is on the state of transformation itself, how a form is changing and morphing from one state to another. We spoke with Zhang Hua through an interpreter at the institute, with half a dozen young architects and researchers from his studio, seated all around and taking notes.
“A Building Created Just to Perform a Particular Function is a Dead Building”: Pei Zhu of Studio Zhu-Pei
Since the early 2000s, China consistently has been surprising the world as the playground for international superstar architects’ most daring creations. It still does so, but the element of surprise is gone, and with increased concern for building more pragmatically, resourcefully, and overall responsibly, we are much more critical of these spectacular buildings. The script has been flipped: it is the architecture that is produced locally, with humility and social relevance, that attracts attention these days. Nowhere is this process more evident than in China, where the projects led by homegrown talent are by far the most relevant and meaningful architecture that is being built in the country today.
I think that the conversation with Junya Ishigami at his experimental (and very international) studio in Tokyo was one of the most memorable experiences of my recent trip to Japan. Junya's visions for not just of his own architecture but for the profession were wholeheartedly inspiring. He thinks that architecture today is “not free enough.” He wants to diversify it, liberate it from so many architects’ insistence on following particular building types and, in general, our narrow expectations. He wants his architecture to be soft and loose and finds inspiration in such improbable metaphors as clouds or the surface of water. “We need to introduce more varieties of architecture to better address peoples’ dreams…I want to expand architecture into the future by creating new comfortabilities,” says Ishigami, whose two recent manifesto-like exhibitions in Paris questioned the very nature and purpose of architecture. He is a visionary and essential voice in what is perhaps the most unsettled of all professions.
“Architecture Should be About What It Can Do, Not What it Can Look Like”: In Conversation with Michel Rojkind
Born in 1969 in Mexico City, Michel Rojkind was educated in the 1990s at the Universidad Iberoamericana, while also performing as a drummer in Aleks Syntek’s popular rock band la Gente Normal. He opened his practice Rojkind Arquitectos in 2002. Among his most representative built works are Foro Boca for the Boca del Rio Philharmonic Orchestra in Veracruz, a newly expanded film complex Cineteca Nacional in Mexico City, a pair of factory additions for the Nestlé Company in Queretaro, and the Nestlé Chocolate Museum in Toluca, all in Mexico. We spoke about how his architecture engages with people, why architects should assume roles that extend beyond architecture, and the importance of generosity and not worrying about designing everything 100%.
The following excerpt from my interview with Rojkind completes a series of conversations that I conducted in Mexico City while preparing my exhibition “Something Other than a Narrative” from the Architects’ Voices and Visions series at Facultad de Arquitectura Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, UNAM.
The architectural approach of 2011 Pritzker Prize-winner Eduardo Souto de Moura can be difficult to summarize. His convictions on matters of aesthetics and design are strongly held, but also highly individual and at times even unusual. In his work, this translates to buildings that are enigmatic, yet not flashy—in the words of the 2011 Pritzker Prize jury, “His buildings have a unique ability to convey seemingly conflicting characteristics—power and modesty, bravado and subtlety, bold public authority and sense of intimacy—at the same time.” In the latest interview from his “City of Ideas” series, Vladimir Belogolovsky speaks to Souto de Moura to probe his architectural mind and understand the thinking behind these powerful yet modest works.
Beijing-based architect Zhang Ke was educated first at China’s leading school, Tsinghua University, going on to later graduate from Harvard’s GSD in 1998. The former equipped him with technical know-how, while the latter encouraged him to question the essential elements of the profession, such as why we build. After working for three years in Boston and New York, Ke returned to Beijing to open his practice in 2001.
One of the immediate impressions that I formed of the Beijing-based architect and Tsinghua University Professor Li Xiaodong (b. 1963) is his reassuring self-confidence. Following our interview, Professor Li asked me a question of his own - would I like to teach at his school? “I never taught in my life,” I replied. He quickly countered, “I know. You can teach. Yes or no?” If I have learned anything about life, it is that when opportunities come you should grab them first and think later. "If he is so confident in me, why shouldn’t I trust him?” I reasoned.
It is now expected of architects to turn away from designing iconic buildings/objects and focus instead on creating engaging built environments; from imagining idealistic, form-driven projects driven by the artistic pursuit to focusing on downright pragmatic solutions. China, of course, holds a large mirror to these tendencies, as so many Chinese architects quickly produced exactly the kind of projects that critics favor – modest in scale, straightforward in their expressions, reliant on indigenous construction techniques, and with inventive use of traditional materials. The results, however appealing, seem to lack both variety and risk-taking. There must be another way, not so formulaic.
Architect Jürgen Mayer H. founded his firm J.MAYER.H in Berlin in 1996. He studied both in Germany (Stuttgart University) and in the US (Cooper Union and Princeton). Back in 2010, Mayer H. told me that while his solid professional education in Germany equipped him with the know-how about the technical and practical aspects of architecture, he still lacked a clear vision about how to develop his own thought and an architectural language.
Years of questioning and experimenting eventually led to the development of his own distinctive voice. Mayer H.’s buildings have brought unique identities to many places around the globe, particularly through his use of data protection patterns that triggered the creation of architecture unlike anything seen before. On my recent visit to his studio in West Berlin we discussed the architect’s identity. When I confronted Mayer H. about what he thinks about his signature style at the times when it is no longer celebrated by the media he said, “This started as my voice and by now it is the contribution of an entire team. There is no intention or strategy, just our own capacity to work with the medium of architecture.”
The dominating news of the week came courtesy of RIBA and IIT, with the two announcing this year’s laureates of the Stirling Prize and Mies Crown Hall Americas Prize, respectively. Foster + Partners were awarded RIBA’s Stirling Prize for their Bloomberg HQ in London. Said jury member Sir David Adjaye, “Bloomberg is a once-in-a-generation project which has pushed the boundaries of research and innovation in architecture.” The project has been a controversial choice, with some citing the tension between the building’s massive price tag and the current UK housing crisis.
In the last few years something has happened to architects’ willingness to strive for originality. The boldest visions now often come from the old guard of architecture - and frankly, I enjoy conversations with them much more. The current insistence on having common ground pushed so many younger architects into a zombie-like copycat state of mind. But to me, common ground means not to think alike – then there is space for discourse.
My most recent conversation with Helmut Jahn at his Chicago office is a case in point. “Architecture is all about going with your gut. I prefer when form follows force rather than function,” he told me. His distinguished career has been one of twists and turns, and he is not planning to give up exploring new ideas any time soon. His 1985 quadrant-in-plan Thompson Center reinvented a mundane government typology into a soaring public place, with its curved colored glass facade decisively welcoming a postmodernist period to Chicago (one we thought had finished, but now seems to be ongoing, encompassing all of post-Modern movements as its mere shades and variations.) Jahn’s architecture shook and modernized a number of global cities, and with time and experience, what began as a rebellion against Mies’s “less is more” modus operandi matured into nuanced, measured, though unquestionably gutsy, production of towers, airports, convention centers, headquarters, and, most importantly, public spaces. As Jahn himself says, “...anything you don’t need is a benefit. Not only you have to have less things but with the things you have left you have to do more.”
After graduating from Tecnológico de Monterrey, a leading technical school in Mexico, Francisco Gonzalez Pulido worked on design-build projects for six years before leaving for the US where he earned his Master’s degree from Harvard’s GSD in 1999. The same year the architect started working with Helmut Jahn in Chicago where he stayed for 18 years – from intern to becoming the president of the company in 2012, at which point he renamed the firm into Jahn. By then he developed his own body of work there. Last year Gonzalez Pulido started FGP Atelier in his adopted home city.
Today the studio, counts a dozen of architects and is overseeing the design of a couple of high-rises in China, a baseball stadium in Mexico City, and university buildings in Monterrey, among other projects. The following interview was conducted at FGP Atelier in Chicago, during which the architect was explicit about transmitting his view: “Architecture is too rigid, too formal. It is time to break free…I want to build lighter. I want to build smarter.”
“We Learn From the Ordinary as Well as From the Extraordinary”: Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown
There are so many complexities and contradictions in life in general and architecture in particular. I am writing this intro to an interview I held in 2004 with Robert Venturi and his life-and-architecture partner Denise Scott Brown, while visiting Beijing’s Tsinghua University where I was invited to teach this fall. Was it simply a coincidence when, at the last moment before leaving my New York City apartment I would, almost by chance, grab a 2001 issue of Architecture magazine with Venturi on its cover and his contradictory quote, “I am not now and never have been a postmodernist.”
I learned of Venturi's passing last week on my first day of teaching at Tsinghua; the news arrived as I and the students discussed their proposals to improve their campus. In yet another strange coincidence, Venturi and Scott Brown had, just prior to our interview, been working on their own proposal for the very same campus. It was a pleasant and bittersweet surprise then to hear my students speak of freeing up the campus in much the same ways as Venturi's Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture attacked then domineering architecture of minimalism and abstraction over 50 years ago.
His and Scott Brown’s ideas for this campus did not materialize but their analytical and often rebellious thinking greatly influenced how students here and architects all over the world approach architecture. It was Venturi who freed our discipline, it was him who set us all free and encouraged to ask our own questions, to get away from all kinds of dogmas and to provoke ideas of hybridization. What follows is an excerpt from my conversation with the architects at their office in Philadelphia 14 years ago.
"Making Problems is More Fun; Solving Problems is Too Easy": Liz Diller and Ricardo Scofidio of Diller Scofidio + Renfro
It is so refreshing to hear the words: “We do everything differently. We think differently. We are still not a part of any system or any group.” In the following excerpt of my recent conversation with Liz Diller and Ric Scofidio at their busy New York studio we discussed conventions that so many architects accept and embrace, and how to tear them apart in order to reinvent architecture yet again. In New York the founding partners of Diller, Scofidio + Renfro have shown us exactly that with their popular High Line park, original redevelopment of the Lincoln Center, sculpture-like Columbia University Medical Center in Washington Heights, and The Shed with its movable “turtle shell” that’s taking shape in the Hudson Yards to address the evolving needs of artists because what art will look like in the future is an open question.
Manuel Zornoza of LATITUDE: "We Were Fascinated by this Idea - How do You Build a City from Scratch?"
Manuel N. Zornoza grew up in Alicante, Spain and, following studies in Madrid (UAX) and London (the AA), relocated to China in 2010 to avoid the economic crisis stifling architectural work in his home country. Over the last eight years, the young architect’s small but thriving studio has built more than a dozen projects, from shops, to factory space conversions, to a traditional Chinese hutong - all in China. But that’s not to say Zornoza’s left his roots behind. He now also maintains a small practice in Madrid, which handles projects in both China and Spain.
This interview was conducted on a bullet train ride from Beijing to Tianjin, where we ventured in search of the recent architecture that has brought so much media attention to this emerging metropolis.