For this weeks Theme Week we are introducing young architectural offices from around the world, more particularly one, in our eyes interesting one from each continent. You are British, have lived and worked in Switzerland for a long time but in 2009 opened your office in Seoul. Could you tell us a bit about your practice, please?
Opening my own office was less a choice but a necessity in my case. After working for over 10 years for several architectural companies I realized that if I didn’t cut-off the professional umbilical cord it would be a case of gradual asphyxiation.
When I eventually opened the office, I never considered what it should be like or what model to follow; it was simply a case of finding a space and group of people that wanted to embark a similar journey. Whenever people ask me how the office works, I often refer to a garage, where you take your vehicle to be fixed. The mechanics don’t really know why they fix cars and don’t rely on any engineering physics to fix it: through shear experience they “recognize” how to fix an engine; they use sound/touch/grain to intuitively arrive at the solution. I like this raw approach to architecture, no formulated system, this is the broadly the way the office works.
We are now an office of 6-10 staff depending on the projects, with two experienced architects and the rest students and interns straight out of school. I like to work with young people, and deliberately try not to employ older staff. Young people bring energy and I thrive on the fact that they don’t have prescribed solutions, they are naïve and this brings an edge to the work.
Why did you decide to open your office in Seoul? Was it merely a strategic decision?
Again it was more a gut feeling that London and Europe generally, the places that I had been based all my life, were becoming dormant and a little stagnant. Seoul (I had visited several times before moving), on the other hand had an edge, it was a city waiting to become, a city “in-process” not really certain whether it should look to the future or fall back some form of mutated history, but definitively a place with a huge amount of latent energy to tap into.
Having worked here now for more than three years, I can safely say that it’s a city unashamedly confused, where however much people (Politicians/Planners/Architects) try to sanities it, it always fights back. Seoul is now my daily source of inspiration, a place that has taught me how to read the metropolis in a different way. For example rather than locate our office in a swanky downtown space, as most architects seem obliged to do here in Seoul, we are located above a vibrant street market where the colours, smells and constant bussing keeps my imagination alert.
After having been Associate at Herzog de Meuron and project architect for the Caixa Forum Madrid for example, how did you experience the transition of working on your own after this large-scale office experience?
The CaixaForum project, a project I oversaw at HdeM for more than 5 years, from conception to completion was without doubt the most formative professional and educational experience of my career.
The project was an atypical project in every sense of the word: firstly the ambition of the client to retain the existing building and at the same time insert more than 5 times the existing area into the building (economic suicide); the location of the site in the heart of Madrid seamlessly merged into the existing historical fabric and finally the cosmopolitan project team, where there was no single member coming from the same country. All these factors combined with others rendered the project unique.
If there was one lesson I took away and that somehow follows me in all my solo projects is the belief that an architect has to make the client dream, see beyond the multitude of obstacles, beyond the practical and bureaucratic steps that can render architecture banal, mundane and worst of all predictable.
Buildings are about people, about forming relationships with teams, clients and staff. Something students never learn at school the social/political/business side of our profession, to a certain degree designing is the easy part, finding a client and constructing a building (retaining your philosophy) is a different story.
Within a short period of time, your team grew and right now about seven full time architects are working for you. How is your office structured?
I need to design, to be close to the project at all times. Hence I try to delegate all administrative matters to others, such as contract, email and daily running of the project. I try to draw at least 4 hours a day, mostly sketching and looking at models. At the moment because we are running out of space, the office has become an obstacle course, but this sense of compression engages me with the models, with the physical dimension of the spaces we are designing.
Regarding the structure of the office; we operate with a loose system, with few rules, encouraging all to can participate in the process. I have always been a little suspicious of offices that have rigid working systems, designing is not a science and the generative process requires cul-de-sacs to arrive to a possible alternative. Process is my form of experimentation, where the process generates a by-product, what I call “waste”.
I have been interested in the concept of waste for quite some time and recently made an exhibition about it, here follows a small extract from the text of the exhibition.
“I rely on this material to form the basis of my architectural research; each study model, each reference; each drawing creates an archive of knowledge, a taxonomy of imagination. In a world where hyper-real visualizations are the apotheosis of architectural representation, architectural waste epitomizes and embodies architectural thinking and an important antidote against the vacuous infatuation of renderings.”
You are being invited to competitions, at the same time you are working on commissions and entering open competitions. On how many projects are you and your team usually working simultaneously?
For the first two years we only worked with one project at the time, doing between 6-8 projects a year (usually 4 competition and 4 commissions). These days we are getting more work so are currently working on three projects, which I think is a sensible and enjoyable number.
Each project has a person responsible at the beginning who prepares the project, liaises with the client, arranges the meetings, etc…. When deadline approaches, or we have a submission we gather together and join forces. In this way everyone works on all project, I am sure in the future this will change but for the moment it works. Of course this has a large impact on the skills people need. Each staff has a special skill that can contribute and improve the project.
Being placed in Korea, are your projects mainly in Korea or are you operating on an international scale? Does a geographical location matter for the initial entering of projects?
People talk a lot about the globalized environment we work in, yet I think architecture has an important local dimension. In our case we visit all the sites we work on, we seek to form a bond with the client that is not simply virtual (emails and web-hards). I want to speak to the client, tailor the building to his/her needs rather than work from abstract conceptions.
On the other hand there are many new markets in Asia which I am very interested in, last year we did a small project in Beijing and now we looking at working in Shanghai with a Korean Client. The important factor is to retain your working philosophy, not feel pressurized in adapting your architecture to the demands of the local market. Often clients in Asia talk in terms of renders, they don’t have time and patience for drawings, they want to be seduced and forget. Most of our output is model based, and I think 80% of the models the client never sees.
When browsing your website one notices a lot of competition entries and invitation for museums such as the Olso National Museum, the Korean History Museum, the Whaki Museum. Also you were nominated for the prize for Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul, you were invited to participate in a new construction for the Busan Opera House and most recently joined the competition for a new national contemporary Art storage of Korea. Is the link between architecture and culture an important one to you?
I am interested in architecture as a spatial conception; how spaces are formed, the hierarchy of spaces, interstitial spaces, open and closed spaces, generally how spaces form and guide our experience. Museums and cultural spaces generally offer a huge experimental ground for this investigation; from how light enters the galleries to how you circulate (being constantly compressed and released into rooms) hence on that level I think there is a link between architecture and culture. I don’t believe (and never have) that art should affect architecture in a literal way, as so many of my contemporaries believe.
There is however a dimension between culture and architecture that is fundamental and that is the social dimension. Nowadays both in the profession and in the education establishments the social dimension of architecture has become oxymoron, an irrelevant anachronistic dimension that has been relegated to the back seats.
On this topic I am currently reading a book by the founder of Olivetti, the Italian manufacturing Company that in the 50’s and 60’s revolutionized the industrial system by creating a utopian community where architecture and culture where at the heart of the project. There is a lot of hype about Apple these days and their design philosophy but few have heard of Olivetti, this is an indication of what design is becoming, where the aesthetic dimension has buried the wider and more important agenda.
What are from your point of view the interrelations between arts, design and architecture and what impact does this have on your practice?
I believe architects should be generalists, i.e. dip their fingers in many pots, rather than specialists in a single field (sustainable/digital/contextual). Art and design are elements that have always interested me but I am very aware that the work I make is not Art neither is it Design. I think this distinction is important otherwise architecture becomes a pastiche an amalgam of pseudo artist and scientists references
Scale is an important dimension of my work; I apply the same thinking when working on a small door detail as I apply to large scale masterplan projects. I think the issue of scale relates to your question as Artist and Designers have no fear of working at freely with the same idea at different scales, while architects (for some weird pedagogical reasons) are taught to change their methodology when considering the city compared with designing a domestic space, resulting in an architecture that is confused and somehow compromised.
Besides running your office, you are actively involved in teaching architecture, first at the Architectural Association and today at the Seoul National University. Is the academic work a major influence of your practice or is it just a means of staying informed and ‘up to date’?
I think teaching is an integral part of being an architect for me, and I would say the same applies vice-versa, being and architect is an essential part of being a teacher.
It would be impossible for me to teach without practicing, I would be lost. Being in contact with the profession, from making prototypes to the construction site, practice is part of how and why I teach. Architecture is about asking questions: conceptual, practical, logical and from these questions drawing conclusions. I am definitely not a teacher that imposes neither a path nor a direction, if that were the case I couldn’t teach.
My teaching at the AA revolved around breaking the rigidity with which we approach architectural thought, i.e. the architectural concept. Students usually have either a preconceived idea or insist in using a metaphor as their concept. For this reason I developed a process where students were taken out of his/her comfort zone and were asked to produce a concept through the medium of film and video. Because as architects we are not use to the medium, working with film as a medium allows a more naïve and hence fresher response to conceptual thinking. I often use this method in the office, taking away the tools that I feel comfortable with and generating a solution simply by describing it in a written text. To paraphrase McLuhan’s sentence, “The Medium Subverts the Message”.
At SNU (Seoul National University) my interest has changed from film to publications. Students work on a collective book throughout the semester. By making a book students are obliged to work in teams, they have to decide and agree on a format and importantly work with systems and structures they didn’t create. I like to transport this working reality into the design studio.
Fundamental to your teaching is the understanding of architecture as a thinking process where concept and observation are fundamental to the process of generating spaces. How is this thinking process reflected in the physical outcome of your work?
I am very pleased you describe my teaching in this manner. In my work I the exact same process, the only variant is the actors and the dialogue changes. In the office the process is more charged, the time scale to test and take decisions is much faster
You are stating, that the fragments and its ultimate experience to the user are stronger than the whole. You define “fragments” as the juxtaposition of different ideas that generate the single project – for yourself seen as a narrative telling multiple stories. Are these rather architectural elements or can one truly think of almost cinematic experiences?
I like the fact that you leave this question to the end, and it is a good point to summarize and to conclude the interview. Actually I had been thinking in terms of fragments a long time before I wrote this passage that you mention, I simply didn’t realize these thoughts were actually about fragments.
You are correct in thinking the concept is somewhat cinematic, David Lynch for one is a director that often works with fragments, letting the spectator connect the dots and form his own story inside the main story. However my thinking about fragments relates more to the writing by the Novelist/
Philosopher/Social commentator Fernando Pessoa, especially his enlightened book “The Book of Disquiet” published posthumously in 1935.
It is a book that is difficult to classify, at times a notebook and a dairy and at other times a Philosophical Tractatus , a book that describes the condition of looking and embraces the open ended question we live in and rejects the finished article.
Pessoa’s concept of fragments allow thoughts and observations to be taken out of context, to be juxtaposed to unexpected items, creating absurd, illogical and contradictory worlds where we can extract new possibilities. In brief this is how I see fragments and ultimately architecture.
I have never worried about the future and what comes next, I am always to busy in the present. Thank you for the questions and I am sure I will see you soon in Seoul/London/Berlin…