Nicolas Schuybroek

Minimalism with soul: a dialogue with architect Nicolas Schuybroek

In 2011, Nicolas Schuybroek started his own practice in Brussels, Belgium. His goal was simple: to design spaces and objects with great care, skill, and a warm feeling. Nicolas focuses on timeless minimalism and simplicity, using natural materials to bring his designs to life. His work is elegant and understated, appealing to those who appreciate subtle beauty.

Today, we have the pleasure of sitting down with Nicolas Schuybroek, the architect and designer behind the eponymous studio based in Brussels. Nicolas, thank you for joining us. What inspired you to start your own practice in Brussels in 2011?

The purpose was well defined: create and produce architecture, interiors and objects characterised by an acute sense of detail, craftsmanship and intuition, while retaining a feeling of warmth. The search for timeless minimalism and apparent simplicity have always been central in our work, as well as the love of unassuming, tactile, and raw materials. There’s no straining for effect, just a muted elegance. The essence is to conceive serene and pure, yet warm, comfortable, and authentic spaces. 

What is your perspective on the relationship between the socio-cultural system and design/architectural initiatives in Brussels? Could you share also a particular location in Brussels that holds a special significance for you?

Overall, Belgian architecture over the past few years has been enjoying a creative renaissance, thanks to a generation of talents who excel at blending earthy palettes, natural materials, and curated interiors. This philosophy has helped establish a contemporary Belgian architectural identity, which is more and more celebrated abroad.

Brussels is a city you need to discover, preferably with locals, due to the many gems hidden in a complex urban grid. Personally, I do enjoy most of the contemporary art galleries and love an early morning stroll through the royal galleries of St-Hubert in the city centre.

Your multicultural background and extensive travel seem to play a significant role in shaping your design perspective. How do these experiences inform your work?

International projects and the relationships which comes with it, deeply nourishes our work: it broadens our perspective in terms of cultural differences, languages, religion, local habits, craftsmanship etc. to name a few. Belgian remains a fairly mall country, and we feel lucky and humbled to be able to work on so many projects around the globe.

Could you discuss the inspiration and creative journey behind the Aesop Salone del Mobile project in Milan for this year?

The scenography is inspired by the Minimal Art movement from the 1960’s and 1970’s, including artists like Donald Judd, Carl Andre and Richard Nonas, whose works are reduced to the essential minimum. This movement has served as an inspiration for many years now and and shaped the base for this scenographic project for Aesop, known for its uniform and minimal packaging’s, accentuating the content of the bottles, rather than the bottles itself. The inspiration of Superstudio’s 1970s iconic grid structures is a hint to timeless Italian design. To emphasise the minimal character of the installation, we conceptualised a grid shaped screen wrapping the perimeter of the shop, only interrupted when needed for circulation.

Entirely built up with Aesop soap bars – used within a vertical brick pattern– the screen creates a soft, matte, and reflective installation. A strong serenity exhales from the design by limiting the walls to monochromatic materials and textures. The restricted use of using something simple as a soap bar – “a daily functional household item” – resonates yet to another art movement, the Arte Povera, which fits perfectly in this context. Within the screen, small rectangular cavities are shaped by removing soap bars, to generate viewing portals to small, intimate hidden boxes showcasing Aesop’s products at the centre of the installation sits a large silicon block, wrapped in a matte silicon envelope. The central island stands out without taking away attention of the soap wall and will be the centre stage to skincare performances and massages where spectators can gather around.

The structure takes its form from the regimented rows of Aesop products, following the formulation-first logic central to the brand’s philosophy. Within the assembly, small rectangular cavities are created by removing soap bars, generating portals through which to enter—via film—the sensorial world of Aesop’s products. This way of working is a good match between Aesop and my office. In our office we always kick-off with concept, context, and research before digging into designing. In that way we develop a clear formulation before creating. I think this is important to avoid losing yourself in later stages of design. Of course, this formulation can change during the process, which is another important stage. But for us formulation works as a compass during a project. 

What does “muted elegance” mean to you in the context of your work?

The essence of our work is to conceive serene and pure, yet warm and authentic spaces. Muted elegance is in my perspective the true definition of luxury today.

Few years ago premiered a Signature Kitchen for Obumex at Salone del Mobile. Can you tell us more about this project and your collaboration with Obumex?

In this first collaboration with Obumex, we designed a unique Kitchen which exhales a sense of profound serenity and yet, feels warm and authentic due the singular material used throughout the concept. It is also the first contemporary kitchen design finished with tin.

As a starting point for this design, we rethought the block-like typology of a kitchen island and transformed it into a dynamic shape, resulting in carefully proportioned shifts between the sculptural blocks. The design has been conceived as derivative of our studio’s architectural typologies and grants different views and perspectives around all four elevations, reinforcing the concept of a kitchen island as a functional sculpture.

The tin cladding, wrapping the entire volume, offers a high level of tactility paired with softness, which contrasts beautifully with the minimal geometry of the island. As tin gains a unique patina, the aesthetics of the kitchen will beautifully evolve over the course of time, resulting in every kitchen to be unique.

MM House in Mexico City, completed between 2014 and 2017, caught my eye with its intriguing design. Could you delve into the details of this project and share what inspired its creation?

While the main brutalist concrete structure was kept, we transformed it by adding new layers to the house: we came up with the idea of an interior patio with a small reflecting pool and a minimal spout to add a sense of calm to the space.

The sound of the water feature echoes throughout the house, linking the floors and rooms together, as is customary in many Mediterranean countries. We tried to create a very cozy and warm scale in a house for one and relied on the lessons of the potential found in augmenting a sense of balance through proportions. The placement of artworks, such as Terence Gower’s black-and-red steel sculpture The Couple that appears to float on a reflecting pool, provided a sense of drama that conceptually and materially resonated with other elements of the house, such the exposed raw steel staircase that created a similar juxtaposition of weight with a perceived sense of weightlessness. 

Through a great transnational collaborative process, we were able to transform the house from a closed-off heavy bunker into a home where air and inspiration could freely circulate. One way we achieved this was by leaving the ground floor partly open. Alberto had the brilliant idea to extend the concrete slab that was on top of the old entrance to create a garage and a suspended garden on the second floor, allowing us to close off the house from the street and create a small, secret, and secluded landscape within. The effect was similar to what we love in Belgium, where the exterior of a building can bely, the magic found within it. Alberto also added thoughtful landscaping to ground our project to the land of Mexico with a design scheme based entirely on native plants. A restrained material palette spanning the entire house, from polished concrete floors to cement finishes on walls and ceilings, Arabescatto marble for the kitchen and bathrooms, and locally sourced Parota wood for the millwork creates a sense of timelessness to frame a contemporary art collection that celebrates ruptures with tradition.

What are some upcoming projects or collaborations that you’re particularly excited about?

We are handing over three exciting projects right now, a private house/museum for an art collecting couple outside of Antwerp, a concrete “tropical” bunker on the west shore of Bali, Indonesia as well as an extensive townhouse renovation in NY (Larry Gagosian’s former house).

Finally, what advice would you give to emerging architects and designers?

Your education in architecture has hardly begun: work, stay curious, humble and most importantly by persistent and tenacious in all your endeavours.

In order of appearance

  1. NM House, Mexico City, Mexico, 2014-2017. Nicolas Schuybroek Architects. Photography by Nicolas Schuybroek Architects.
  2. Aesop, Lyon France, 2023. Nicolas Schuybroek Architects. Photography by Romain Laprade. Courtesy of Aesop.
  3. Aesop Salone del Mobile, Milan, 2024. Nicolas Schuybroek Architects. Photography by Romain Laprade. Courtesy of Aesop.
  4. Obumex Signature Kitchen, Milan, 2022. Nicolas Schuybroek Architects. Photography by Eric Petschek.
  5. NM House, Mexico City, Mexico, 2014-2017. Nicolas Schuybroek Architects. Photography by Nicolas Schuybroek Architects.
  6. NWJ House, Antwerp, Belgium, 2015-2018. Photography by Nicolas Schuybroek Architects.

    All images courtesy of Nicolas Schuybroek otherwise stated.

2050+

Designing diversity: a conversation with Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli and the transformative path of 2050+

An architect and curator thriving on diversity and multidisciplinarity, Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli honed his skills across various projects at OMA, ranging from the Fondaco dei Tedeschi in Venice to Monditalia, the expansive Arsenale exhibition at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale curated by Rem Koolhaas. Four years ago, he chose to return home to Milan from Rotterdam, taking a more independent stance to develop his own agenda. With a team comprising over 15 individuals, including architects, curators, researchers, and art directors, 2050+ has become a hub for diverse talents. We had the chance to catch up with him, delving into discussions about his agency, architectural practice, and vision.

In navigating the intersection of design, technology, environment, and politics, how does 2050+ function as an interdisciplinary platform, and how does the urgency embedded in the agency’s name, ‘+’, influence the nature of its projects and collaborations?

2050+ acts more as a platform than a traditional architectural office. Each project requires a different ecosystem of expertises and perspectives that are either present in 2050+ or are part of our network.

Through the past years we have worked with artists, filmmakers, writers, scientists, philosophers, technologists, etc. in order to dissect and reflect on today’s complexities. For us the only way to remain relevant is to multiply the point of views, to look at crucial and urgent questions from different angles, to constantly negotiate our position as spatial practitioners with other disciplines, while finding a common and actionable ground. We actively look for projects that allow us to remain political and to tackle urgent questions in line with our overall agenda. This is evident in our research work, often commissioned by cultural institutions, but it’s also a goal for the more commercial side of our practice.    

In what ways does 2050+ utilize spatial practices as a medium rather than a goal?

Often as an architect you are expected to imagine, design and build spaces to inhabit, but that is just a small fraction of what architecture means as a discipline. Anything we observe, from politics to technology, from science to policy making, from climate to fashion, etc. has spatial implications. Space is a lens to investigate and understand contemporary dynamics and the formats of such explorations range across writing, film making, performance, digital environments, exhibitions, installations and architecture. For these reasons we prefer the definition of “Spatial Practitioners” to the one of “Architects” as it reflects how expansive our definition of architecture is.     

Given your belief that emotional engagement has been the driving force behind your choice to embark on this new chapter, could you share which project from the last four years of 2050+ has had the most profound emotional impact on you?

It’s a difficult question and there is no straight answer. I develop different relationships with different projects and that depends on many factors: its political potential, the way it relates to bigger questions, its ability to speculate on alternative presents or futures, or simply its mere aesthetic qualities. If I need to really pick, I’m particularly moved by projects involving live performances, where narrative, space and time come together to deliver a powerful message. The recent scenography for Il Diluvio Universale by Gaetano Donizzetti in Bergamo falls definitely into this category.

Together with the duo of artists film-makers Masbedo, we worked on a version of the classic opera that reinterprets the traditional narrative structure of Il Diluvio Universale to give voice to the “unheard prophets” of today: through the trope of the flood, the opera urged us to face timely and urgent issues related to the climate crisis, social injustices and political instabilities. The imagery of the work was entirely based on climate activism and protesters.

It was a way for us to bring inside an institutional theater and through the medium of a classic opera  the instances of climate activists. That’s the reason why we collaborated with Sea Shepherd, a non-profit, marine conservation activism organization, which generously shared footage from their actions that was incorporated into the scenography.   

Which significant projects are currently occupying your focus and attention? 

We are about to open a research and installation at SALT in Istanbul focused on toxicity and the politics of air in Turkey and beyond. For this project we have collaborated with a local toxicologist and with an Italian AI artist, Lorem, who has produced the soundscape for the work. On the other side of the practice spectrum, currently we are also busy with a project of architectural transformation of the XVIII Palazzina dei Principi at Capodimonte in Naples, which will host the Marcello and LIa Rumma collection of Arte Povera. These are two examples of how schizophrenic life in 2050+ can be… 

Originally hailing from Sicily, you grew up in Milan, making your recent experience akin to returning home. A spontaneous question arises: as we look ahead, how do you foresee Milan evolving while maintaining its position in the central space between the Mediterranean and continental Europe?

Milan is a very dynamic city. It’s a relatively small metropolis with a global footprint, where creativity is truly multidimensional, combining design, fashion, art, photography, architecture into a unique social environment. At the same time I’m rather concerned about its recent development after the expo 2015. Milan is a place where real estate speculation is running wild, where inequalities are growing at escalating rates, where bigger and bigger sectors of society are being marginalized and pushed out of the city, where marketing has taken over and environmental policies are insufficient and very fragile. I’d like to live in a city that is open, inclusive, diverse, multicultural…but not just for the rich. Milan should look more to the south and not just to northern european or anglo saxon contexts. I feel Palermo or Naples provide far more interesting models than London in this particular historical moment.  

Discussing Milan, there has been a notable resurgence of interest in 10 Corso Como lately, piquing my curiosity to explore the project further. When considering the Project Room and the Galleria, you liken them to a flexible theater or a “transitory museum.” Could you provide insights into the modern significance of these analogies and explain how their flexibility addresses the ever-changing cultural and social demands that the space aims to fulfill?

“The Transitory Museum” is the title of an interesting book on Corso Como 10 by philosophers Emanuele Coccia and Donatien Grau. It argues that categories that have governed for long our modern lives, such as art, fashion and the museum are being redefined, and that clear boundaries between such categories are being dissolved. As the first ever concept store, Corso Como 10 embodies the notion of a transitory museum, or a space without a fixed role or identity, where the relationship between contents, audience, display and architecture is constantly reinvented. It’s a spatial manifestation of the current state of instability and uncertainty that our society is permanently experiencing – or of a “liquid society” to use the words of another thinker, Zygmunt Bauman – a condition accelerated by the continuous osmosis between our physical and digital interactions. 

Our approach to 10 Corso Como is not based on fixed categories – a retail space, a gallery, etc. – but rather on the underlying idea of a framework able to support a virtually infinite repertoire of curatorial configurations and experiences through a finite set of devices. In this sense, both the Gallery and the Project Room are vague spaces, ready to unlock any potential.      

Beyond their functional purpose, what narrative motivations led to the introduction of micro-architectures like the large pantograph tables in this specific space?

The pantograph tables respond to various needs and sets of inspirations: they refer to the subtle industrial character of the building and they give shape to the idea of machine or “flexible theater” that we had in mind for these spaces. These elements are adaptable, moveable, they can change height and configuration, or they can simply be stored away leaving an empty space behind. They are silent actors on stage, moving according to different choreographies. Like the moveable walls-units for the Gallery, they are tools at the service of our imagination.  

More in general, the entire project was premised on the idea to give a spatial translation to the interdisciplinary character of Corso Como 10, a place where fashion, art, photography, design, urban nature come together into an unicum. To do so we have operated following a principle of “selective archeology”, removing all the unnecessary layers and materials accumulated through time and bringing back the architecture to its original, gentle industrial character. This approach has allowed us to reconnect spaces which were once disconnected and to facilitate the osmotic flows of visitors across all its programs and experiences. In line with this attitude we have inserted a number of “micro architectures” – new stairs, service spaces, accesses, etc. This results in a system of new volumes marked with a different materiality (i.e. steel) that rationalizes the organization of each floor and connects all levels of the early XX building from ground floor to the newly renovated green terrace, through a continuous loop.    

Under the new leadership of entrepreneur Tiziana Fausti, 10 Corso Como appears poised to take a swift step into the future. If we were in 2050, how do you envision the gallery’s transformation?

I’d rather not say. The present is dense enough of challenges. Let’s focus on our time; maybe this the best way to address our future.

In order of appearance

  1. Nebula, 2050+
    Photography by Lorenzo Palmieri
  2. Synthetic Cultures, 2050+
    Photography Gaia Cambiaggi
  3. Henraux Foundation, 2050+
    Photography by Querceta
  4. Il Diluvio Universale, 2050+
    Photography by 2050+
  5. Il Diluvio Universale, 2050+
    Photography by G. Rota
  6. 10 Corso Como Project Room, 2050+
    Photography by Alessandro Saletta, DSL Studio
  7. 10 Corso Como Project Room, 2050+
    Photography by Alessandro Saletta, DSL Studio
  8. 10 Corso Como Gallery, 2050+
    Photography by Alessandro Saletta, DSL Studio
  9. 10 Corso Como Gallery, 2050+
    Photography by Alessandro Saletta, DSL Studio

All images courtesy of 2050+

b+

Prioritizing preservation: reclaiming cultural significance in the modern age

We currently live in an era where preservation often takes a backseat. Whether it’s deleting social media content after a season or neglecting human relationships and valuable spaces, we often fail to recognize the cultural significance behind our actions. It’s crucial to shift our mindset and prioritize gestures, people, and the environment around us.

bplus.xyz (b+), a collaborative architecture studio operating at the nexus of theory and practice, utilizes various mediums and approaches to tackle contemporary challenges, especially those concerning socio-ecological transformation and the adaptive reuse of existing buildings. With environmentally and economically sustainable solutions, b+ embraces the potential of our existing built environment and aims to unlock its latent possibilities. Through a collaborative model, b+ emphasizes working with diverse actors and stakeholders in project development.

To start our discussion, how does bplus.xyz (b+) practice address contemporary challenges like social-ecological transformation and adaptive building reuse with economically and ecologically sustainable solutions?

Jonas Janke: We as b+ understand architecture as an open process, and view buildings as part of larger systems that require a systemic approach. We see the given framework of existing buildings and legislation as an active design tool that carries the potential for transformation within. Thus, we celebrate the potential of the existing built environment, and aim to reveal and activate the latent potentials that lie within.

To do so we are working with different formats – films, political activism, campaigns, exhibitions, symposiums and of course our projects should serve as build arguments that represent an alternative approach and perspective towards the mentioned contemporary challenges.

Jolene Lee: Continuing on what JJ said, b+ engages in formats and fields “outside” of architecture or what is expected of architecture, especially legislation and politics because we understand how the decisions made on that level affect our built environment socially and ecologically. We strongly believe that to change the system is to work in the system. 

Therefore, our design projects are not unique design approaches to the reuse of existing buildings or structures, instead, they stand as built arguments, prototypes, models, and answers to our contemporary challenges (finiteness of resources).

I’d like to focus on the renovation of the Ernst Lück lingerie factory. How does the renovation of this factory in the former GDR extend beyond surface improvements, and what wider implications does this approach hold for architectural practice?

JJ: The Antivilla is a project where we were client, investor, developer, and architect all in one. The intention was to develop a case study that defines a new way of energy-efficient refurbishment.

The name “Antivilla” doesn’t protest against the concept and typologie of a villa, but critiques the resource-intensive lifestyle of villa dwellers. It raises the fundamental question about how comfort can be defined and redefined in the future.


For this reason, the energy demand calculation was applied differently than usual and off-standard solutions were also implemented – for which any other client would very likely have sued us, or at least wouldn’t be comfortable to accept this nonconformity. But we were confident and also couldn’t sue ourselves, so everything was possible.

The abandoned 500 square meter building was not appealing for future investors due to the high demolition costs. In addition, a regulation states that any demolished building could only be rebuilt with 100 square meters of living space, 20 percent of the existing volume. Demolition therefore would have caused a massive loss of gray energy in terms of both labor and material. The concept thus contains a number of selective measures that permit its new usage as a studio and a residential building and of course the aforementioned question how comfort can be defined or redefined in times of resource scarcity and climate-crisis. 

Furthermore a financing trick was applied: When buying the property from the former owner it was said: market price minus demolition costs will be the purchase price (what we pay), since the application for the new 100 square meter house was on the table. Towards the bank/credit institutions it was said: “Well, building-shell already stands, this is our own contribution, the transformation will be financed.” Interesting is that we gained value from something which is considered to have no value – a house which shall be demolished. Nice plot twist – right?

One widespread definition of architecture is: Architecture is everything that makes us humans independent of nature. Reyner Banham (architectural theorist) understands that we need to protect ourselves from certain extremes of the environment, but that the environment should be seen as a dialogue partner to architecture – as an integral rather than an external force.

The approach of Antivilla is rethinking Reyner Banham’s concept in The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment (1969) and combines his two distinct principles of space creation: Constructive- and Energy-supported Space Generation.

Constructive vs. energy-supported space generation: 

This can be explained quite simply with a short story, like Reyner Banham used to describe it: 

People, imagine for example scouts, are given wood to set up camp in the forest. 

One part of the group builds a roof and protecting walls with the wood > constructive space generation. 

The other part of the group takes the wood and creates a fire to warm themselves > energy-supported space generation.

The existing exterior walls are kept like they are – not insulated – comparable to the approach where the people used the wood to build a roof and walls > constructive space building.

The core acts like the central fireplace in a classical farmhouse.

This is comparable to the fire > energy-based space formation.

Around that core are translucent curtains installed. The curtains are a key element of the project – they allow different temperature zones to be set up without having to use permanent room partitions. In Winter, the heated room shrinks to an area around the core of about 50 square meters; in the Summer, it can expand and increase the usable area to up to 250 square meters. 

In this way, the curtains are allowing flexible climatic conditions. A temperature difference of 12-13 degrees is created because the curtains are not really insulating but they are stopping the circulation and loss of warm air.

The functional principle of the Antivilla could be described as the adaptation of “The Well-Tempered” to the “Differentiated Environment” through its adaptable climate zones but can also be described as: “New Primitivism” since it is actually following well-established traditional low-tech approaches.

The project gained widespread attention due to its visually striking architecture and its controversial but comprehensible approach. It was able to leave the architectural bubble, by being featured in publications like the New York Times Magazine. Only such projects have the potential to influence collective societal perspectives and raise a new awareness.

In the opening scenes of the film “Themroc”, Faraldo presents a society where strange creatures struggle to communicate amidst a cacophony of urban sounds—cars, horns, subways, doors, engines, coughs, and the bustling footsteps of commuters. How does Faraldo’s experimental film “Themroc” (1973) relate to the renovation project’s significance?

JJ: The creation of the holes in the facade was celebrated as a collective happening. Friends and collaborators were invited, food and beer was offered and sledgehammers were prepared to be used. As an Ad-Hock-Action, holes were punched in the face where needed – towards the lake and towards the forest. Logically, in a former production building, the focus was not on the view, so these window openings were missing.

Due to the new concrete roof which replaced the contaminated asbestos roof, a structural principle was created which allowed the freedom to punch holes in the facade wherever you want – the only requirement was to keep the corners of the existing perimeter walls. It was a celebration of the new acquired freedom to spontaneously shape views. Here again the processual thinking in a project can be recognised, which was mentioned in your initial question. 

But at the same time it raises again a question of standards and definitions – is an archaic hole in the facade also a window?  

So the spontaneous, archaic and rough celebration of this action can be also found in the movie Themroc, when he decides to live isolated like a caveman in his apartment and also punched a hole in the facade as an act of protest and liberation. 

Now I would like to talk about a project that in a way brings me back to my country. What inspired the idea of “San Gimignano Lichtenberg,” and how did it contribute to reshaping the narrative of the area?

JJ: For all those who don’t know the original “San Gimignano”. San Gimignano is a famous Italian village in Tuscany, which is known for its towers. Every year thousands of tourists travel to San Gimignano to visit the small historic village, which is situated on a hill, and experience “la dolce vita”. 

Now to our project “San Gimignano Lichtenberg” and why we had to borrow the image and history of the Tuscan mountain village with the towers. 

The two towers – one the former staircase tower, the other the former coal and graphite silo – are remnants of the state-owned company “VEB Elektrokohle” from the GDR era. After the fall of the Wall, the once divided Germany became one again. Many facilities and equipment were now duplicated, including the semiconductor factory in Lichtenberg. Its use became obsolete. Due to the high demolition costs of the two concrete towers, the properties were not very attractive to investors. The ruins remained unused and empty until 2010. 

Back then, one went to the bank with the idea of transforming the former silo tower into a prototype workshop and reported that these unbreakable concrete ruins in Lichtenberg were the starting point. 

This did not meet with much favor and funding was refused. 

But the invention of the story about the town of San Gimignano Lichtenberg brought the long-awaited success in a second attempt to acquire funding. The vision of San Gimignano Lichtenberg with its powerful words and images captured the imagination of the bankers and they began to believe in the place and the project. Financing was secured. 

The realization that a strong narrative, as the first non-architectural intervention in the project, was necessary and decided whether the project would fail or not, clearly showed us as an office that storytelling is a crucial tool for us architects. 

This led, amongst other things, to the reason why today the chair at the ETH in Zurich of Arno Brandlhuber “station+” does not teach how to draw floor plans, but how to do storytelling effectively and  convincingly – because this is a skill that is not usually taught as part of an architecture degree. 

How was the meaning of the two towers enhanced in order to shift away from the perception of them as mere ruins?

JJ: The towers, as they stand there today, embody more than a mere ruinous existence. Externally, they may have not changed significantly. Programmatically, however, they have. 

From the rooftop today, one ponders the future of architecture as a response to evolving needs and values, symbolised by the towers amid shifting political, economic, and ecological landscapes. Recent crises underscore the rapidity of change in local and global affairs. The imperative for fundamental change challenges the notion of no alternatives. Cultural values are embedded in the frameworks of daily life. Amidst zoning complexities and development pressures, the question arises: how will we live together? Architects must confront issues of speculation, segregation, resource use, and technology escalation, seeking strategies for a shared and improved future through adaptive reuse of existing structures.

The b+ prototype workshop is seen as a built argument and cultural capital. 

On the one hand, it is intended to highlight the potential of existing buildings and draw attention to the seemingly “useless”. The existing stock is a valuable resource – this we all need to understand. 

On the other hand, the site offers affordable workspaces for young up-and-coming practices and serves as a location for events and symposiums. 

Keller Easterling emphasises the importance of architects considering the broader cultural impact of their designs beyond their physical form. In what manner does architecture become an argument for the ongoing change in society? And, in your opinion, why is it crucial for architects to consider the broader cultural impact of their designs beyond their physical form?

Roberta Jurcic: We as architects have a complicit role in what is happening in the world around us, and often it feels like we have no agency and are forced to act based on the economical pressure. Therefore, our office’s main challenge, as architect and transformation scientist Saskia Hebert puts it, is to establish a self-sustainable practice in times of post-growth, where we engage with the projects that align with our agenda. Once you acknowledge your responsibilities, you understand that everything you do has a broader cultural impact – from window detail, to who is your client, to what competitions you partake in, and how you challenge the status quo. JL already mentioned, changing a sentence in the law often has bigger impacts on the built environment than a design for a freestanding family house. 

Speaking of social and cultural impact, I cannot fail to mention the Mäusebunker. How does the history of this building mirror broader societal perspectives on human engagement with nature?

RJ: Storytelling, symbolism, cultures, and society have a long, intertwined history. Is there a better story than converting a bunker-like former animal testing laboratory into a showcase for cohabitation between humans and non-humans?

What challenges does the Mäusebunker face in finding a new purpose, particularly in light of contemporary legislation such as the Climate Change Act, and how does the preservation and conversion of buildings like the Mäusebunker contribute to promoting climate neutrality by 2045?

RJ: The biggest challenge lies in finding a way to fit buildings that formerly had a different use into the building requirements of the new program. From the “unexpectedness” of the existing building to fulfilling basics like ceiling height, light, and air/ventilation requirements. This challenge can also be seen within the current topic of transforming office buildings into housing. The biggest contribution in terms of climate presents understanding that if we take these acts seriously, firstly, we don’t have enough “CO2-budget” to demolish buildings. 

Secondly, understanding that those buildings are massive storages of CO2, and their demolition can be compared to cutting down parts of forests. Finally, understanding that no matter how passive a newly built house can be, it can never compete when we count the invested energy into the existing building, the energy for its demolition, the energy for a new building, and then in the end comes the “maintenance” energy difference that is insignificant.

How does Germany’s commitment to reducing CO2 emissions align with the assessment of the existing building stock’s value, particularly in terms of invested energy?

JL: If we understand today the real price of CO2 emissions in terms of not only economical but also social and ecological values, then we know that our building and construction sector cannot continue business as usual – we need a radical change. Especially after the 2019 pandemic, we have seen what today’s world is capable of (pausing rapid consumption). 

We need to see our existing building stock as “storages of CO2” (Oana Bogdan, The Demolition Drama). Instead of the tabula rasa approach, we should regard our current urban fabric as the status quo, work with the existing, and take the challenge to “build on the built” (Herzog & de Meuron, The Demolition Drama). This is one of the ways we can contribute to the commitment of reducing CO2 emissions at a much lesser cost (if we assign values to material based on its finiteness and the catastrophic consequences of its depletion). 

JJ: Indeed and we should also see this as an opportunity for us as architects. You often hear fellow architects complaining that the enormous pressure from project developers, who have to keep within budget and cut costs, which in turn can only be done by saving on materials or labor, leads to the same architecture over and over again. 

You don’t want to design buildings for which plans just have to be pulled out of a drawer and applied to plots like stamps. 

That’s why I said that we have to see it as an opportunity to be creative with the existing and work within the context of the existing. The existing always holds new tasks and challenges in store – isn’t that great? 

HouseEurope! Tell me more.

Based on everything discussed, it is within the DNA of b+ to engage with the task of dealing with the existing, with something old, considered waste or valueless by coming up with creative solutions, both legislative and economic. This spirit has resulted not only in built projects, but as well in films and initiatives, namely, Legislating Architecture, The Property Drama, and Architecting after Politics as well as RGB 165/96/36 CMYK 14/40/80/20, and Global Moratorium on New Construction.

HouseEurope!, our latest initiative, is a non-profit organization which advocates for the preservation of the existing building stock against demolition by speculation. In the long run, building on the legacy of the investigations undertaken by b+ (formerly known as Brandlhuber+), HouseEurope! aims to be a policy lab in which the research on legislating architecture can manifest in different forms such as the upcoming European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) campaign. 

ECI is a tool for direct democracy founded by the European Commission themselves since 2011. Inspired by Swiss referendums that allow a popular vote on new laws, the ECI enables EU citizens to propose new laws or suggest changes to existing ones. 1 million EU citizens from at least seven member states can invite the European Commission to consider their proposal and dedicate a working group to assess their submitted claim. This provides citizens a direct say in the EU policy-making process and a platform to raise awareness on important issues.

HouseEurope! is a growing team of citizens that brings together diverse perspectives and expertise from the fields of architecture, labor, and politics. Backed by industry leaders and educators such as Lacaton & Vassal, Herzog & de Meuron and Architectural Council Europe (ACE), we are committed to creating precedents for the social-ecological transformation of how we live together.

Subscribe to our newsletter or take an active role here.

How does the HouseEurope! initiative aims to address the issue of building demolition driven by speculation?

Theoretically, we understand that this issue can be made aware through a trifecta of social, ecological and economic factors. If we take seriously the aim of the EU to be climate neutral by 2050, we have a lot of work to do. Looking at our building and construction sector, we are contributing 35-40% to CO2 emissions. On the other hand, the finiteness of building land and material leads to rising construction costs where the same building costs more and more. Yet, we are still building, but more of the same generic buildings that we can still afford, which is a result of reducing material and labor as mentioned by JJ previously. With these two arguments in mind, we are also facing a housing crisis where we are running out of buildings to house people. How can that be? Some food for thought.

Concretely, we identified several legal levers to incentivize the keeping of existing buildings which can be submitted through the tool of ECI that can tip the scales for the greater good. We are currently drafting the legal proposals with EU lawyers and advisors to be submitted this year. Alongside, we are also collecting successful renovation stories to showcase best practice cases of social-ecological transformation of the existing building stock through measures focused on building preservation, adaptation, renovation, and transformation.

How can we effectively promote the socio-ecological transformation of existing building stock, particularly among younger generations who will play a crucial role in deciding where and how to purchase homes in the future?

JL: To answer the first part of the question, I believe that transformation starts with education and public awareness. We are already seeing movements from the younger generation such as Fridays for Future, demanding issues to be tackled within this generation and not postponing it to the next (and the next). Perhaps the harm on the planet caused by the vicious cycle of demolition and rebuilding driven by speculation is niche knowledge today but it will very soon be common sense like deforestation and ocean pollution. As a practice, we take part in this mission to raise awareness through our previously mentioned initiative, HouseEurope!.

As to the latter part of the question or more like statement, I personally am conflicted at the thought of promoting where and how to purchase homes in the future because maybe homes should not be a commodity to be bought and traded, instead, evolve into a common way of designing spaces for and by the society by challenging the current model of asset ownership.

JJ: We have all understood (at least I hope we have) that we should stop using plastic bags and reduce traveling by plane to a necessary minimum in order to reach or come close to the climate goals we are aiming for. All these campaigns to raise awareness are being passionately supported by and thanks to the younger generations.

I think we have to continue exactly as they are showing us. Make built arguments (realized projects) accessible as positive examples. We give free guided tours of our projects almost every week for students, other architects and generally interested people. In this way you become familiar with our way of thinking and approaches and knowledge and information leave the architectural bubble.

However, easily accessible media such as film and exhibition contributions should also be pursued further. 

HouseEurope! is really exciting and has a dimension of political activism that we have never done on such a large scale before. But we are motivated, confident and optimistic that we will succeed. Imagine that, as architects, we can directly influence the legislation that affects our own actions. 

Where and how to purchase homes in the future. Good question! Especially in times when the chance that we will one day be able to call a house our own is getting smaller and smaller. The question of alternative ownership models is justified.  Or whether we should pool our strengths and financial resources and work together with several parties and people who have the same interests. 

“Renovate, don’t speculate” serves as a powerful life philosophy. In an era where preservation often takes a back seat, it’s crucial to activate existing spaces, adapting and renewing them to meet our needs. Achieving socio-ecological transformation requires empathizing with the space and the stories it carries. Personally, I’ve embraced this motto by purchasing a small space in a refurbished 1800s cotton factory, which I now proudly call home. Living here allows me to connect with local history, reflecting daily on the actions of those who worked here two centuries ago.

Credits

  1. Antivilla, 2010-2014. Berlin. Photography by Erica Overmeer. Courtesy of Erica Overmeer.
  2. San Gimignano Lichtenberg, 2012- . Photography by Erica Overmeer. Courtesy of Erica Overmeer.
  3. Mäusebunker, 2022- . Berlin. b+. Film stills. Courtesy of b+.
  4. HouseEurope! Film stills. Courtesy of House of Europe.

Makoto Yamaguchi

Architectural evolution

Embarking on the architectural journey of Makoto Yamaguchi, our conversation explores the evolution of his approach across various projects, spanning commercial offices, private residences, and museums. A significant focus lies on the acclaimed “Villa / Gallery in Karuizawa,” unraveling insights into the flexibility of its spaces. Transitioning to the distinctive MONOSPINE project designed for a game production company, we delve into its unique architectural elements. Our dialogue extends to considerations for newer generations and delves into the prevalent challenges in contemporary workplaces, specifically emphasizing well-being.

Dear Makoto Yamaguchi, I’d like to begin by asking: How has your approach to architecture evolved, considering the diverse range of projects you’ve undertaken, ranging from commercial offices and private residences to museums?

My  approach to design is the same regardless of the size or type of project. It’s about creating a scenery. I was originally very interested in how to create scenery.

Scenery, to me, means the same as so-called natural sceneries, which don’t seem to have any purpose. This is common to past projects, but I feel like I’m more aware of this than in my early projects.

When we mention “Villa / Gallery in Karuizawa,” the first thing that comes to mind is its recognition as the best residential project in the world in 2004. I can’t help but inquire for more details about this remarkable project. Could you elaborate on the flexibility and adaptability of the spaces within the residence? What considerations were taken into account to integrate kitchen and washroom facilities seamlessly into the concrete floor of the villa?

The clients for this project were a couple of musicians. After talking with them, we realized that the villa could be an abstract, empty space with no defined purpose. In this way, the kitchen and bathroom became no longer just places for that purpose, but places where the activities could take place. As a result, equipment was buried on the floor.

Amidst the increasing yearning to reconnect with nature, what specific elements of the local biodiversity influenced the client’s decision to select that particular location as the ideal space to build their house?

They are very good at cooking and like to cook. Before the building was built, when they entered the forest grounds, they always found edible wild vegetables growing wild and large leaves that could be used as plates. I have often seen the couple using them to create truly beautiful and delicious dishes. They enjoy discovering and using different things in a place.

Now, I would like to learn more about MONOSPINAL. Considering the project was specifically designed for a game production company, how do you perceive the current significance of video games as a social, cultural, and technological expression in contemporary society?

The name was given by a novelist who writes stories for games produced by the company. The games created by them are probably different from the video games that are generally recognized, and are characterized by their excellent story-telling. They have fans all over the world, and you can see many animations by other Japanese companies that have been influenced by the settings, lines, and scenes of their works, and you can feel the magnitude of their influence. can. We are paying attention to how these artists, who have such great influence in media culture, produce works of even higher quality.

What inspirations led to the selection of the term “MONOSPINE” for the design of the company headquarters? 

This word is a coined word that combines the words “monochrome” and “spine.”

The architectural element that most characterizes the space is the repeating pattern of sloping walls. How does this specific design contribute to the functionality of the new building in terms of lighting, ventilation, and acoustics?

Facing the site is an elevated railway where trains pass every 1.5 minutes on average both ways. The site is also surrounded by small-scale buildings, each with a variety of tenants. While the slanted walls enhance environmental elements of light, wind, and sound, every wall height is optimized according to the different purposes on each floor. For example, behind the third-floor walls are studios for recording the voices of game characters. They are heightened as much as possible to reduce noise from the railroad. While the walls block the views of the surroundings, they reflect natural light to bring in indirect light, maintaining the world and ambience of games during the recordings. On the fifth floor, which is vertically further from and with a lessened sense of connection to the elevated railway, the lowered walls provide a cropped view of the cluttered cityscape and the sky. With a great balance between direct and indirect lights, while steadily taking wind into the interior, the room offers a relaxing dining experience.

The slanted walls protect the interior from the external gaze, making it impossible to tell what the building is for from the outside. Not being able to see the purpose is much the same for natural landscapes. The slanted walls are made of thin, ten-centimeter-wide aluminum plates, a material of relatively familiar scale to humans. Rather than constructing a large building with large modules, we brought small-scale things together to create a bigger scale. This approach echoes the way nature is formed and grows. By adopting such a method of creation and making the building an object that does not give away information just like the natural landscape, the architectural work becomes part of a new townscape.

Among the newer generations, there is a growing acknowledgment of the vital importance of nurturing intercultural and intersocial dialogue to foster emotional connections and stimulate contemplation on various aspects of life. The communal table on the fifth floor stands out as an ideal setting for these endeavors. Could you share more insights and details about this space?

This table is where they eat lunch and sometimes dinner. For the staff, this building is more like a home where people from a wide range of age groups who share common values ​​can gather, rather than a company. They all gather around this table, eat together, and play their favorite games (which were made by other companies). All of the top creators are fans of the games they create, and that’s why they’re here. It’s the place where people with shared values ​​can relax, be inspired, and gain inspiration.

In the current landscape, the central challenge for workplaces is the well-being of employees, characterized by ongoing discussions about burnout and architectural deficiencies that exacerbate this concern. In response to this, how does the design specifically target the improvement of overall well-being and job satisfaction for employees involved in creative operations?

This is aimed to become a place for the highest level of creation that captivates fans worldwide and for supporting the foundation of the game production process. As almost all employees engage exclusively in creative operation, we focused mainly on providing a balance between concentration and relaxation while significantly removing the burden of operational work. We strived to achieve them by introducing slanted walls that characterize the exterior and a system to control all facilities, including security, with tablets.

We placed the areas mainly used by visitors on the lower floors, while the level of privacy and confidentiality increase as the levels get higher. On the second and third floors that face the elevated railroad tracks, we placed programs that require isolation from the outside such as the theater and the studios. The slanted walls are higher on the lower stories surrounded by existing buildings, whereas they are lower on the upper stories offering more sense of openness.

The landscape design, interior and exterior finishes, and fixtures all incorporate the style of the game world (the period and region in which the game is set, characters, items, etc.) created by the company as metaphors, which can be deciphered if you are familiar with the game. In other words, the headquarters building itself is made of the game.

Credits

  1. VILLA / GALLERY, Karuizawa, 2003. Makoto Yamaguchi Design. Photography by Koichi Torimura.
  2. OGGI Apartment Building, Japan, 2013. Makoto Yamaguchi Design. Photography by Koichi Torimura.
  3. VILLA / GALLERY, Karuizawa, 2003. Makoto Yamaguchi Design. Photography by Koichi Torimura.
  4. VILLA / GALLERY, Karuizawa, 2003. Makoto Yamaguchi Design. Photography by Koichi Torimura.
  5. MONOSPINAL, Tokyo, 2023. Makoto Yamaguchi Design. Photography by Koichi Torimura.
  6. MONOSPINAL, Tokyo, 2023. Makoto Yamaguchi Design. Photography by Koichi Torimura.
  7. MONOSPINAL, Tokyo, 2023. Makoto Yamaguchi Design. Photography by Koichi Torimura.

Monika Gogl

Monika Gogl’s architectural poetry: the story of Reethaus

In a challenging era dominated by the relentless race against time and the cacophony of voices that makes it difficult to discern individual expressions, Berlin gives birth to a truly unique space. This place pledges to redefine the value of time and space, placing a distinct focus on the act of listening. Beyond a gate, across a courtyard, stands a pyramidal tower almost entirely covered by a thatched roof of reeds. This building, known as the Reethaus, is a novel cultural space described as a “modern temple” for performances and rituals.

The structure is the brainchild of Austrian architect Monika Gogl and serves as the focal point of a campus named Flussbad. To fully immerse oneself in the experiences offered by Reethaus, visitors are required to leave their phones at the entrance – a ritual I, too, observe as I prepare to interview Monika Gogl.

Hi Monika, thank you for being here with me. I would love for you to guide us through the essence of Reethaus. How did the concept of slowness influence the architectural design of the Reethaus, considering its focus on reframing the way people live?

In a time when everything is getting faster due to digitality and development, where we have almost, to use Virilio’s words, reached “a racing standstill”, the task was to make the visitor aware of a transformation. The entire spatial concept is aimed at feeling energetic calm. The path, the special lighting, the simplicity of the material, the green atriums, the reed roof and the landscape are the elements. For example, the long entrance ramp (reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s flaneur and the associated small, slow observations in peace) causes you to slowly immerse yourself in “another world”.

Could you provide more insights into the vision behind describing the Reethaus as a “modern temple”? And, how did your childhood fascination with temples inform the conceptualization and design of this cultural venue? Furthermore, how did you balance this homage to ancient temples, caves with the need for modern functionality?

I think our understanding of the term temple is rather exaggerated, since the term means sanctuary and functioned as the seat of the gods in ancient times. In relation to our new way of life, the thatched house probably fulfills similar criteria and functions as a temple used to. It should be a place of transformation.

In my childhood I was very impressed by all sort of churches and temples because of their enormous space, their smell, their sound, their light and their energy. I have admired quantum physics since my time at the university, and I was also able to enjoy some of Mr. Zeilinger’s lectures there and delve deeper into it. I believe that spaces imbued with faith, a sentiment often experienced in my childhood, resonate with the principles of quantum physics. 

Just as all spaces carry the energy of their construction and use, it was important for me to incorporate these phenomena into the design of the Reethaus. The lighting from above, which completely changes the mood of the room at different times of the day and plays with the materiality and with the color of the materials. This creates very different spatial atmospheres (for the flaneur) over the seasons. Diving down into the earth via the ramp. The entrance situation, the arrival. How heavy is the goal in your hand? The exciting moment of stepping from the rather low, light-flooded foyer into the central, high room. Which door do I enter through? Narrow and high from the side or generous from the front. What does that do to me? I think the desired functionality is fundamentally to be fulfilled in every architectural intervention, the experience is the artistic and creative aspect. Every building should be sexy in a certain way. 

The use of “pure materials” like concrete, wood, stone, is a consistent theme in your projects. Can you elaborate on the significance of these materials in your architectural language and how they contribute to creating a harmonious and meaningful space?

Basically, naturalness is very important to me. Natural materials age beautifully, acquire a patina and are imperfect like everything in nature and like every living creature. You can play with any of these materials, with its surface, its grain, its color – it opens up an incredibly diverse field of possibilities. I think there is the right material for every spatial requirement. My actual favorite material is nature. A harmonious space concept not only includes materials, but also light and love. Love is a very important ingredient. 

The collaboration with Cédric Etienne for the Reethaus interiors aims to create a “sanctuary of silence” through the Still Room concept. Can you discuss how this concept influenced the design of the interior spaces and the choice of materials, such as cork blocks, meditation cushions, wooden seats, and woven tatami mats?

 The entire concept was aimed at “the immediate pure” in order to focus on the user’s awareness and subtle observations with little distraction. Since the Japanese culture in particular is very appreciative of crafts, tradition and simple things and the tatami mat is a great invention, the seating was also subordinated to the basic concept mentioned above and the low seating and the bench theme in the central room were celebrated . Cork is generally a very impressive natural material and Cedric creates inviting formations with these simple blocks.

The main idea is “simple , beautiful and convincing”.

The emphasis on maximizing natural light in the Reethaus is evident. Can you elaborate on the architectural strategies employed to optimize natural light, especially in the inner room, and how does this contribute to the overall atmosphere of the space?

Light is the real theme of architecture and of every space. Light and material create the appearance and atmosphere of the space. The light from above is unpredictable, but incredibly exciting.The result remains a miracle.   In the central room, at certain times of the day, the light can make the actually dark attic space appear very light and bright  or opposite . When the doors of the space are closed, an intimate, sacred feeling of space is created.  When the doors are open in connection with the façade to the outside, the inner space merges with the river and the landscape. The artificial light for the night and the performance also comes exclusively from above – it is an important part of the concept In principle. The artificial light should be positioned in the same way as the natural light. In the foyer, the light acts as a band from above and reflects the time of day and the position of the sun on the exposed concrete wall of the ritual room. The atria reveal ever-changing plays of light.

Collaborating with Monom suggests a focus on cutting-edge audio technology. How do you see advancements in audio technology influencing the future of architectural design, particularly in spaces dedicated to performance and immersive experiences like Reethaus?

For me, music is the most beautiful of all the arts, because it touches you directly. Sound creates incredible space and I was fascinated by how the new technology was able to produce such a full volume, or a sound that flies through the space like a bee. I think it’s great and I’ve learned a lot working together with William Russell of MONOM.  When you sink into a sound image, almost everything disappears. Here in the Reethaus it is also variable. The loudspeakers are hidden behind the wooden cladding of the dome,thats why it is a pure sound experience.  The live musicians or poets can be plugged into a special detail on the floor bar around the space . Comparable to a play by Antonin Artaud you can play anywhere. I think audio in this form is very fascinating and in combination with a harmonious space it creates a unique overall experience.

The Reethaus is described as an ideal venue for the combination of art, sound, and performance. How did you balance the aesthetic and functional aspects of the space to create an environment that seamlessly accommodates these diverse elements?

I think the spatial formation offers space for a variety of uses with different qualities and the materiality does not impose itself, but rather forms a wonderful stage.

In a challenging era where discussions about anxiety prevail, finding true calmness and disconnecting from daily pressures becomes especially difficult. Your objective of creating a space that aids individuals in gradually calming down is distinctive. How do you manage to strike a balance between the functionality of a space and its emotional and psychological impact, particularly when designing a ritual room?

That is a difficult question . Basically the idea is transformation, contemplation, calm and learning. Of course, many aspects of a design arise intuitively. I always design with the aspect of what I would like, how I would like to feel, what could irritate me and thus trigger my consciousness. There is never only one ingredient. In the Reethaus  is a path, a heavy door that leaves everything outside, a domed space that exudes security and full opening to the river and nature.

As we look forward, how do you foresee the architectural and cultural evolution of Reethaus over the next five years? Have you considered the notion of Reethaus as a nomadic architectural experience, and have you envisioned its potential setup in diverse environments or contexts?

I believe Slowness and the operators will develop it into a wonderful place for art and culture and tegetherness. When the entire campus is finished, the Reethaus will assume its central position in the ensemble.

Basically, the idea itself has the potential for reproduction, but in a design sense the Reethaus should remain unique, as it was designed in this form precisely for this location. So it remains a nomad. I think there are typologies that can, in principle, be reproduced. But the origin of every building is a site and since places and cultures are always different, reproductions generally fail.

Monika, I extend my heartfelt gratitude for generously sharing your visionary insights during this interview. I am eagerly anticipating the evolution of the Reethaus project and the transformative experiences it will continue to offer. I genuinely hope for the opportunity to meet you in person in Berlin and to partake in a captivating performance at the Reethaus. 

In order of appearance

  1. Photography by José Cuevas
  2. Photography by José Cuevas
  3. Photography by Daniel Faró
  4. Photography by Daniel Faró
  5. Photography by Daniel Faró
  6. Photography by Daniel Faró

Frankie Pappas

House Of The Pink Spot, Non-Negotiables and Banishing Egotism

Frankie Pappas is the collective pseudonym for an international architecture and design firm based in South Africa. They describe themselves as “a collection of brilliant young minds that do away with personal egotisms to find remarkable solutions.” NR Magazine joined Ant (I’d rather you didn’t use my surname please) in conversation. Ant is a storyteller, each question revealing more about the work of Frankie Pappas and the ideals and motivations behind the firm, each more interesting and radical than the last. 

Nicola Barrett: What was the process behind the creation of House of the Pink Spot and what were some of the challenges you faced on this project? 

That building came about because a friend of mine, Alicia, heads up this thing called Digital Disruptors. It’s one of her many projects. She wanted something to do in this area, Orange Farm, Drieziek in Johannesburg. She’d gotten some money and she didn’t know what to do with it. I said, well, I would approach it from an architectural perspective. I’m fascinated by how you can make small interventions in parts of the city and see what impact they have.

There are two stories that I told Alicia. One was of Guatemala. They were having these huge drug wars. I went there maybe ten years ago, just after these drug wars had kind of been quelled a bit in the urban areas. They were trying to reinitiate the use of these public spaces. So they just put massive amounts of really fast WiFi into these public places and a lot of light. When I went there these places were so full, everyone was working in their laptops. It was quite amazing. This idea that once you initiate people into a space, it inherently becomes a little bit safer. 

Another story like this that I like, is in Kenya, there is a main road to the airport that is incredibly well-lit. The reason is that the government wanted its dignitaries to have safe passage to the airport and back. I saw this one photograph, and it just stuck in my mind. It’s of these school kids sitting along this road, miles and miles of them because this is the only light they have access to. Doing their homework.  And it was just amazing. 

These two things stuck in my mind. I said, Alicia, this is probably what I would try to do. Bring light to the space and a hell of a lot of WiFi. Let’s find a spot where this could work. When we were there with GBV survivors and activists, they chose this one spot which was a dumping ground. We got that cleaned up and in essence, built this public park. I mean, it’s very small, but that’s what we had available in terms of the fund. We worked for free on this project because the budget was so small.

The construction of it is really interesting. It’s got to be the tallest building in Drieziek. We ordered the longest telephone poles we could get our hands on, painted them pink on the ground and then hoisted them up with solar lights on top of them. The seating is all just brickwork. It’s very simple stuff. All signage is hand painted by everyone. 

The challenges are numerous. The reason why it’s the Pink Spot is because we didn’t want it to be affiliated with a political party. The ANC, which is the ruling party, their colours are green, yellow and black. We went through all the colours of the parties and we were left with purple and pink. 

Nicola Barrett: Was it built on private land or public land?

Oh, my word. You’re going to get me into trouble here. I have absolutely no idea.

Nicola Barrett: Did you not come up against opposition when you start building in unclaimed places?

Well, it’s obviously someone’s land. And by someone, I mean, it’s some state enterprise. So it’s definitely not private property. Let’s call it municipal land for the sake of this conversation. It’s municipal land that is not only being under-utilised, it’s not being maintained. It’s a dumping ground.

Surely the city’s land belongs to citizens. I would expect that to not be a controversial statement. But it is. It’s on the bottom of a street that these activists live on. It is like an inherently unsafe space because it’s not being maintained. They said we’re going to try and make it safer for ourselves. We want a way to activate it, to maintain it. All we ask is leave us alone so that we can. Because our governments are so ineffectual, it has to be done by people who care, the citizens. It is like a type of guerrilla architecture.

Nicola Barrett: There are many unused spaces, particularly in urban areas, what’s your opinion of more radical ways of reclaiming these spaces?

I can only speak to it in a South African context. But I’m always surprised at the amount of legislation in the way between what exists and what I would like the city to be like. The offices that I’m in at the moment, this is our first development, because exactly this problem that you’ve spoken about.  What we are doing is not by the book. We’ve taken an Apartheid-era house that was not being utilised and we converted it into these six tiny little offices. It goes against every single regulation. 

But there’s a market for small office spaces. The smallest office space we can get is 45 square meters. Do we need 45 square meters? No, not really. Then we still have to pay for heating, for lights, for WiFi. Why don’t we do one ourselves where we make a seven square meter spaces and we make five other office spaces for other people with a shared boardroom and we get this thing off the grid so it’s on solar? We don’t need the municipality at all. 

If you don’t have the capacity as a citizen to change the city, I mean, what are we doing? I use the word citizen very deliberately because you choose to live in a city, so truly you should be able to change it in some way. It’s liberating, I suppose, in a weird way, to live in South Africa, where the protection of the law is so bad that you can implement this thing that you want to do.

Nicola Barrett: In what ways do you think people with fewer resources could potentially reclaim under-utilised spaces? 

This is one of the problems we’re trying to solve at the moment. Providing better accommodation and still making it economically interesting. Think £250 for two-bed apartment. That must sound insane to you. But is that achievable? Can we do it? Yeah, I think we can. It means finding spaces that are under-utilised in the suburbs, that’s easy enough to do because you have garages that are not being used. You’ve got people who are 65 years old who have a four-bedroom house whose kids have all left. Utilising those unused spaces could be done very well.

But the Gherkin can never be done well. In no world is that floor plan divisional.  All it supports is big companies.  It’s revered as this great piece of architecture by Norman Foster, but it’s a piece of nonsense. But it’s one of the things that’s so frustrating about the architectural world because it’s all about houses for really wealthy people, or big office buildings or the Line. But something like the Pink Spot, I think is a far more interesting project. If you build the Line, you will never be able to change it if you have a normal salary. The way to do it is to parcel land into small enough quantities that normal human beings can create change.  

And for architects to get involved in the curation of the city. You cannot be the servant of the rich and you cannot be the barefoot philanthropist, that’s the world. The role of the architect, I think, is looking after the health of the city. And so therefore, as an architect, you should be in the role of apportioning capital to projects that you think are valuable to the future city. The city you’d like to live in, as doctors, should be responsible for looking after the health of humans. Right. But we should afford architects this opportunity or this role. But of course, it’s not done that way. The people who are producing the city are developers who are, in essence working for provident funds or some sort of big capital-allocating entity, and that’s chaos.

Nicola Barrett: House of the Big Arch was designed with not only humans but local wildlife in mind. What were some of the challenges you faced doing this? 

I learned to say what is the non-negotiable. And a non-negotiable can be so philosophical and unattainable and unachievable in the beginning and then as long as you don’t move that line, it’s achievable. Can we build this building in a forest without disturbing a tree?

When you produce this very strict problem set, which is; we can’t disturb a tree, we have to get the materials from the closest town, it has to be all be carried by humans. How do we manage these extreme temperatures of 40 degrees? All of these are these very strict parameters that you can’t ignore. And once you are clear about them, it’s almost like linear programming, except not two-dimensional. Like a multidimensional linear programming problem where the problem space is so small that the form produces itself.

This architecture is not a function of invention, it is a function of discovery. Deciding on what those parameters are, that’s the real work. The rest, it just solves itself. Be real about what the problem set is and solve for that. And then you won’t get something boring. Not possible. I’m glad to say that’s the one thing I think all our projects, whether furniture or buildings or artwork, have that in common. Wonderfully similar but beautifully different. Because nothing looks the same. You wouldn’t think House of the Big Arch and House of the Pink Spot and House of the Flying Bowtie are designed by remotely the same people. 

Nicola Barrett: So you state that your collective pseudonym challenges the status quo. How so?

This was a joke. That statement is not a joke. But this was kind of poking fun at architecture firms named after the person who owns them. There is this inherent ego in it all. And I find that laughable. For multiple reasons. First of all, like, you have an infinite choice of names and you resort to your own, which you didn’t even choose for yourself. So you are both arrogant and stupid. Obviously, I’m being a little bit facetious, but I’m also not. 

I’d read a book by Willard Manus called Mott the Hoople, which is quite a funny book. The titular character’s friend was called Frankie Pappas. And I thought, Jeez, that’s my mother’s maiden name, and I’d never seen Pappas in a book. So I was like, oh, this is funny. And Frankie is gender-neutral. And I thought, that’s interesting, maybe there’s something there. Anyone can be Frankie. But I always laugh when there’s a man that comes through asking for Mr Pappas, and then I’m like, well, that person definitely hasn’t read what we’re about.

And the reason we were in search for this collective pseudonym is that there was a mathematician called Nicolas Bourbaki who was releasing all these amazing papers on math, but it turned out like he was ten twenty-year-olds who had decided to collaborate under this collective pseudonym and they just changed mathematics. I think he is still, to this day, the most published mathematician. He’s multi-generational and we liked the idea of a multi-generational architectural firm in South Africa, because there aren’t that many of them. That’s why Frankie is Frankie. 

Nicola Barrett: You state on your website that almost the entire tradition of Western formal architecture has produced sculpture rather than architecture. How so? 

I think for a long time it has been the case. Formal architecture has always been something that you have to sell to someone. So whoever is the client, you have to give them drawings and models. It’s very difficult to make a drawing and make someone focus on the stuff that is inside the drawing. Like how the space solves these issues. Or you discuss the sculpture of the model and someone says, I don’t know how that looks. How do you discuss the space inside a model? It’s impossible. Informal architecture has been one of, what do I need? I need to solve this issue. I have another child. Therefore, there needs to be another bedroom. It’s a very practical thing. 

I was in a competition and one of the guys was discussing the school he had made. This thing was clad in rock from the area and then one of these rock tiles had been removed, and then they put a stainless steel tile there. And he said, because we wanted the stainless steel to reflect the sky, and so, therefore, the sky would be bursting out from between the rocks. Why clad it in rocks in the fucking first place? There’s this obsession with what the thing looks like. 

The most amazing photographs of the Pink Spot are the ones taken by Tshepiso Seleke. He does not give a shit about the architecture. He doesn’t care. He’s just like, there’s a beautiful person. There’s another beautiful person doing something. Doesn’t even look at the building. That shot that he took of those kids with those go-karts is just my favourite thing ever. That’s what I mean. There’s this obsession with what this thing looks like. That’s not the important stuff.

Nicola Barrett: What advice would you give to young creatives working in our architecture and design?

My only advice is that in the contemporary world, I think we are solving a lot of problems that are not actually problems. It’s like this artificial intelligence. This is a problem that is being solved that isn’t a necessary problem to solve. What is the actual improvement? 

I suppose the thing is to see what are real problems and identify those as real problems and then solve those real problems. To actually be honest with oneself what real problems are. That’s not easy. We all get caught up in our own world. Taking a step back and thinking, where should I spend my time… Because you’ve got finite breath, right? 

Many of us are incredibly doubtful in ourselves, stressed and worried. We think we are not big enough to contribute or to change everything, and we see these problems. But I think there are these small little things that we can get right and we can just try. The Pink Spot, just for the photos of those kids enjoying themselves, that makes it worth it. I always tear up when I see them. It’s so beautiful. 

PPAA

An Open Process of Idea’s Rather Than Forms

PPAA Pérez Palacios Arquitectos is an architecture firm based in Mexico City that focuses on “the architecture of ideas and not forms”. Heavily influenced by nature, be it by inspiration or practical site locality, PPAA seek to create projects through an open creative process. Pablo Perez Palacios founded PPAA in 2016 after over a decade-long architectural journey. This journey began with an interest in architecture sparked during his time living in Florence. NR Magazine joined Pablo Perez Palacios in conversation. 

Nicola Barrett: You stated about Infinite Openness that architecture needs to recover the idea of presence, of being part of a place and time. What do you mean by that?

PPAA: When we do architecture, we really put it to the test. Once it’s finished, at least while we’re still doing architecture for humans, you allow the passing of time to become the real judge. The project only starts when it’s finished. So that’s what I meant by that. I have this saying that I believe that really good architecture is one that, with time, it dignifies itself. I always say that there’s nothing more horrible than a new building. You need to allow life to go through the building. It’s really about having an open process that allows multiple actions to happen inside that built environment.

Nicola Barrett: You also said with this project that architecture has lost its connection with nature. Do you think there are ways to regain this connection in pre-existing buildings/spaces/homes? 

PPAA: Architecture has become a fight between artificial and natural. What I believe now, especially for the new generation, is that architecture needs to connect with nature. A very simple example is, developing an office building that has a glass facade with an air conditioning system. It works because there’s the sun outside and you are cool inside. But that’s no longer the way to approach it, because if we keep doing that we end up with the issues we have now. So architecture needs to come back to the basic principles and a primitive way of doing things. That is what has been lost. We can still develop whatever technology we can, but in the long term, we’re messing up the natural environment.

 Also, one thing that I don’t know if I mentioned, as important as the space we build, is the space that we leave behind. The void, the empty space is even more important than the built one. And it was super evident during the pandemic, people were in desperate need of a balcony or a terrace. 

We have to come back to the primitive way of understanding that nature is always better than architecture or the artificial. The more we develop buildings around that idea, the more consciousness and the more sustainable they are going to be.

Of course, it’s harder to do with pre-existing architecture and it’s harder to adapt. But with pre-existing cities or structures that are already there, we can start thinking about the space between those buildings. I don’t think you can possibly change everything that is already there. But there are a lot of things that can be done in this empty space, the void between things. I would think about it as a way to connect things, rather than transform the things that are already there. So it’s more about the space in between or how you deal with the space in between the existing buildings rather than the buildings themselves. When you start connecting all the little abandoned spaces into something, that brings more value to the existing works.

Nicola Barrett: What were some of the challenges you faced when working on the Echegaray project and what was your process when deciding to flip the ‘conventional layout’?

PPAA: The biggest challenge was to try to communicate to the clients the idea that it’s on a rocky slope, it really doesn’t make sense to bring a machine and tear it down. It’s much more appealing than just getting rid of it. So once they understand that the rock has a beauty in itself, then the second challenge was to make them understand that due to the slope of the plot, it’s much cleverer to have the social area at the top. The house itself is in this black rock, then you discover this openness and this view for the social spaces at the top. I think in the end, they bought into the idea and were super happy with it.

Nicola Barrett: So the biggest challenge was getting them to agree with it, not the construction?

PPAA: Of course, if you don’t fight against natural elements, like you don’t need to get rid of all this rock, then it’s easier. Structurally speaking, you use the rock as a support. Yeah, it makes a lot of sense. But besides that, the social area at the top has this super light wooden pavilion and we just brought in the structure. Like it doesn’t weigh a lot. Everything starts to align once you understand the natural conditions.

Nicola Barrett: In Moliere the space can be divided by sliding doors. How does this work exactly with people living in this project, or rather how has it worked?

PPAA: You normally have this idea that, okay, this is a living room and this is a kitchen and this is a dining room or whatever. With the possibility of multiple configurations, there’s really something that happens in the natural way of using space. When we did this project, their children were very small, so the houses changes with the user as well. If you want to have an open kitchen facing the dining room, or you want to have it closed because you have small children you can do that with the sliding doors. That they really understood from day one because it just gives you a lot of ways to personalise the space. 

Also, something worth talking about, is that architects have this idea that we kind of control everything. We design and specify, from the door handle to the curtain or whatever. But in the end, people personalise houses, they end up doing what they want, so it becomes a home. In Moliere the possible configurations just give you multiple possibilities on how you make it your own. It’s a very simple approach because it’s just literally a sliding door. But with that simple gesture, you have a lot of ways to inhabitant that space. 

Nicola Barrett: In Las Golondrinas the house is divided into three independent volumes with free space between. Do you think this idea of separate spaces and then communal gathering spaces could really benefit people who can’t afford the current housing market?

PPAA: In that specific case, what we’re separating is the moments of how you exist in the house, like sleeping time or social. So that idea of configuring the house around how you use it, would be something super good to do on a large scale. You can definitely take advantage of sharing more of a public space. At the moment people cannot afford a house and it’s bad because developers are trying to squeeze everything that you need into a smaller space. Before you used to have separate rooms for everything. So the idea of separating the use of the space is much cleverer than rather than minimising everything into one single space. 

And I think that the way to approach the housing of the future should be, okay, we give you the essential spaces that need to be enclosed. Like you need a private room, of course, and a bathroom. But maybe the social area can be something that is shared and adaptable. So, yeah, I think people need to really understand, especially developers, that the answer to the housing problem is not just making everything smaller.

Nicola Barrett: Juan Cano I was designed to blend in with the environment. Do you think that this is something important to consider in projects, partially when building amongst older local buildings?

PPAA: I think this idea that it should blend with the natural environment is not very formal in terms of the way it’s done. It’s more conceptual. It has to be something that really blends not only in terms of architecture and what colour it is. If it’s in an urban location, we have to stop thinking that every single project has to advertise how new and extreme it is. The value is how it blends with the surroundings. It’s about doing an architecture that’s value is not in the formal aspect, but the concept behind it. 

Also, Cano is a townhouse and there were not a lot of townhouses in Mexico City. In the city, there were a lot of houses, the urban sprawl, all over. So they have these huge kilometres of city that is just single homes and then the nicest areas are starting to have flats, one on top of the other. A townhouse is something that is in between. People still want to have their own house with their own garden, but the point is maybe you cannot do that because there’s not enough space. But we can’t just have one flat on top of the other. So by introducing the townhouses in Mexico is something that we believe, in terms of urbanism, is a way of addressing this. It’s about being honest and doing architecture, and it’s about ideas rather than forms. The formal aspect of architecture is something that shouldn’t be the number one priority.

Nicola Barrett: What was the process behind building La Colorada?

PPAA: That’s a super good example for the previous question. La Colorada has this typical a-frame which is a structure that has existed throughout the ages. It’s a shape that is found in every construction from around the world The first part of this project was an a-frame that was brought to the site, and then our clients asked us to make it into a larger home. So we extended the a-frame and we created these covered terraces and put the rooms underneath. So basically here we really forgot about the architecture ego and said, we’re just doing an a-frame.

There’s no point trying to do something extreme in the middle of a nice forest. An a-frame made out of wood really blends with the nature. Forget about the architect’s ego. Just do something that really disappears. Of course, we needed to make the client understand that when you’re going down to your room, you go through an outdoor space. You’re going to go from inside to outside and then inside again. But it’s also a way to disconnect, you force the user to be outside, put on a jacket. It was a simple gesture that allowed us to create a space that really blends in.

Nicola Barrett: What are some upcoming projects you’re particularly excited about?

PPAA: We have a few. We’re doing this electric charging station for cars, like a system of gas stations for electric cars. It’s really interesting because we’re doing a system that can be replicated many times. It’s freestanding, and it has this solar-powered system. 

We’re also working on a project that’s kind of our first high-rise building in Mexico City, that’s actually a preexisting twenty-five-floor building. Instead of just pulling it down and doing another one with a glass facade and central air conditioning, we’re actually changing the concept of how we do something that is literally one floor above the other one. We are making it public so you can go to the restaurant on the seventh floor and the public bath house that we are doing at the top of the building, like old Russian public baths. We’re very happy to be working on that project.

We are also doing a project in Mexico that is made out of the earth from the site. So that’s really nice. It’s this compressed earth with very thick walls. And we have a lot of things going on.

We’re looking to get one amazing public project, that would be our dream to do. Something that really has a public character, like a library.

And the more we do things the way we believe it should be done, the more happy we are. We need to avoid trends in life. Because when you start doing things by a trend, it becomes almost like fast fashion. It gives a temporality to the architecture and it gives a value that is valid only for a small period of time. We believe there are people out there who value our ideas. I believe that the more time passes, the better the architecture is.

It come to a point that we avoid having architectural references or books or magazines inside our office because we don’t want to see them. Once a year we take all the physical models and break them. It’s like we can have a clear mind afterwards. 

Nicola Barrett: So where do you get your inspiration from?

PPAA: It sounds like a cliche but from nature. I still haven’t been in a place that can replicate having a nap underneath a tree in the park. Our biggest aim is to try to do something as nice as nature. And also to give the exact same value to the space that we left as to the space we built. A simple example of this is a house and a patio. The patio is as important as a house. The empty space or the void or what’s left unbuilt is really what gives value to what you build. We try to start from that openness. Forget about formal aspects, forget about if I want it to be round or square or black or white. It’s really about understanding that it has to be, ideally, similar to what you feel in nature and as open as possible.

Nicola Barrett: What advice do you have for young aspiring architects and creatives?

PPAA: Yeah, definitely do something that is personal. Of course, you need to read about everyone, but the more you try to find your own way of expressing yourself, the better. Of course, you need to learn basic strategies, but study everything else around it. Like, for example, if you study architecture, but at the same time you study medicine or anatomy, then you have a better understanding of how to do things. A very straightforward example, if they ask you to do an aquarium, then of course you need to know a lot about whales and fish. Don’t worry too much about trying to do something like someone else. If you try to get ideas from other architectural examples, you’re going to end up doing things the same way. Worry a lot about finding your own personal way of doing things and dedicate as much time as possible to reading, studying, and learning everything that is not related to architecture.

Credits

CLOUD designed by PPAA. Photography by Maureen M Evans
INFINITE OPENNESS designed by PPAA. Photography by Rafael Gamo
MOLIERE designed by PPAA. Photography by Rafael Gamo
LAS GOLONDRINAS designed by PPAA. Photography by Rafael Gamo
LA COLORADA designed by PPAA. Photography by Rafael Gamo
CLOUD designed by PPAA. Photography by Luis Garvan Located in Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Arkansas, USA

Ayşe Erkmen

Ayse Erkmen, Luminous, 1993-2015 
Installation view, SMAK, Ghent, 2015 Photography by Dirk Pauwele

Unhooked meanings transcending the worlds of architecture and spatial design

Ayşe Erkmen (born 1949, Istanbul, Turkey) is one of Turkey’s most important visual artists.  Her practice has long examined the social and political implications of physical space including infrastructure, urban planning and architecture. Currently based between Istanbul and Berlin, Erkmen transcends the world of architecture and spatial design and pushes the boundaries when it comes to the transformation of both indoor and outdoor sites. On Water, 2017, a beautiful installation that debuted at the international open-air exhibition, Sculpture Projects, in Münster, Germany, is one example of Erkmen’s visually striking site-specific installations and demonstrates the importance of the audience in the completion of some of her artworks. 

NR joins the sculptor and artist in conversation to discuss the influences that have informed her practice, how her work pertains both in Istanbul and Berlin and how it engages with specific histories and culture. Erkmen delves into the nature of a certain leitmotiv present in some of her work and the concepts behind Plan B, 2011, Pond to Pool to Pond, 2016 and On Water, 2017.

Ayşe is a beautiful name. I have read that it means happily-living one. Would you say you are? 

I think so too, Ayse is a beautiful name and I am grateful to my parents for giving it to me. It not only means happy but also moonshine and life, a very popular name, short and modest, shared by all generations and all social groups. Yes I am a happy person in general with lots of anxieties which strangely do not prevent me from being happy.  Actually I believe that anxieties are one important  ingredient of happiness. Happiness without worries would be a kitschy one.

You are recognised as one of the foremost Turkish artists. What does this mean to you? 

I don’t think I understand myself as one of the foremost Turkish artists. Actually I would not like to be known as a Turkish artist but I guess one cannot escape its origin. I like the fact that I am from Istanbul though, for having had the chance to being very familiar with this amazing, vicious city, an opportunity like my name, something that happened to me. My fame is kind of strange. Young artists know me very well and they appreciate me as I also appreciate very much this fact of being popular among young generations. I had been teaching in Germany for quite some time and I am hoping that I have had some influence on this. As to the  fact of being collected, earning money, being the muse of art fairs, etc.. this is not me. I guess, I have a special place in todays art context: people seem to like my work but they don’t know how to place it in their lives. I am hoping that the reason is that I am giving them something new that they have not yet known, they haven’t seen or did not think about before, therefore not confirmed yet!

Let us Cultivate our Garden (Group) (curated by Fulya Erdemci and Kevser Güler). Cappadox Festival II, Cappadocia (Turkey), 19.05. – 12.06.2016. Exhibited work: Ödül / Prize, 2016. 142 Site-specific installation Photo Credit: Murat Germen

You are currently based between Istanbul where you were born and Berlin. How do these two cities inform your practice? Do you see any correlation between the two?

I have to quote musician/artist Ahnoni here who once said: “I want to go but I don’t want to leave” on a similar situation of living in multiple places. I feel exactly like that, always looking forward to the other place but sad to leave the place I am in. Istanbul being a difficult city as it is, makes me happy by just being there, the shout of its seagulls, the smell of the seawater, the honks of the boats, even the most serious conversations ending with chit-chats, its noble stray animals and endless variations of life style.

Ayşe Erkmen – Half of (Solo). Galerie Deux, Tokyo (Japan), 14.09. – 22.12.1999. Exhibited work: Half of, 1999; Photo Credit: Artist archive

Berlin a contrast but a good companion to this city; being so peaceful, easy and quiet if it were not for the official gray recycled envelopes of bureaucracy which one receives frequently. There, the small talks do not continue long and conversations turn into culture and art which is wonderful. Berlin is a city with so many venues of art, music, theatre, etc that knowing that they are always there one neglects them and gives too much a rain check. Berlin is a city that supplies too and pampers its citizens whereas Istanbul does this only by being there in that location that every time it angers or disappoints the blue sky and the seagulls appear out of nowhere.

Water appears as a recurring element in your work. Why this leitmotiv and what is your relationship to it?

“Water is something I can’t escape as an art location whether it is given to me or chosen by me, be it a river, the sea, a canal or a small pond. I always have the strong feeling that I should not lose this chance of being on water or using water as material whenever I can catch the opportunity.”

Skulpture Projekte Münster, 2017 (Group) (Catalogue) (curated by Kasper König, Britta Peters, Marianne Wagner). Stadthafen 1, North side: Hafenweg 24, South side: Am Mittelhafen 20, Münster (Germany), 10.06. – 01.10.2017
Exhibited work: On Water, 2017
Site specific installation: ocean cargo containers, steel beams, steel grates, 6400 x 640 cm walkway
Photo Credit: Roman Mensing

These fortunate offers make the recurrence in my work, unlike other repeating elements like animals, like stones and rocks, archival images, etc that are much more of a choice of mine. Water is not stabile, it moves and makes things move, It has power to create unexpected occasions and coincidences. I am looking for these instances that surprise me as moments that I do not have much control over.  In some works I made buoys in water move balls on land which directly relates to the unpredictable movements of water’s effect on land. This makes continuously changing sculptural moments. In my work this is in general what I am looking for.  Things that happen without the artist’s intention, water is chance. 

“Besides there is the beauty of water that one cannot ignore although I would not want to be in a position of getting advantage from such a glorious appearance. I try to be  as neutral as possible mixing it with contrasting technical vehicles that are invisible, unwatched companions of water.”

Could you delve into the concept for Plan B, the installation at the 2011 Venice Biennale, that transformed the Arsenale exhibition venue into a room for purification?

Plan B was prepared in a very short time, I still cannot imagine how we could achieve that project in four months only. Fulya Erdemci; the curator was selected in December before. She had to think which artist to choose for about two months. After being appointed by her I had to think what to do  for a while but it did not take long as at our first location trip I saw that the place given to us as pavillon location at that time had the only window that opened to the sea/canal unlike the other rooms in Arsenale. This window to water told me that I had to find a way to bring it into this room one way or other. The canals of Venice that surrounds the whole city gave me the form and informed me that the room should be like the city itself surrounded by water. On the other hand the water needed to have an aim to come into this space. The most common thought about water is to drink it. There came the final idea.

Plan B (Solo) (Catalogue) (curated by Fulya Erdemci). 54th Venice Biennale, The Pavilion of Turkey, Artigliere, Arsenale, Venice (Italy), 04.06. – 27.11.2011
Exhibited work: Plan B, 2011
Installation: water purification system, pipes, pumps, cleansing machines painted in specific colors according to their function
Photo Credit: Roman Mensing

Then we found a very sophisticated water distilling company in the middle of Germany. Fulya travelled from Amsterdam, me from Berlin, we visited the company and started working to make the plan B exhibition. In four months time realised the work, we made an extensive catalogue edited by Danae Mossman from New Zealand together with Fulya Erdemci and we also made a wonderful tote bag designed by Konstantin Grcic. Our idea was that if people would not want to make the effort to come to our space almost at the end of the Arsenale, would definitely come to get their beautiful Grcic bags! And it happened! We met in London at Danae Mossman’s flat to make the interview for the book. Danae was living in London at the time, Konstantin from Frankfurt, me and Fulya from Istanbul but were in Berlin and Amsterdam at that moment. We met many times, travelled to Venice and to other cities, had lots of fun, all of us from different parts of the world. 

Plan B was created from one unit of a mobile water purifying machine rented for the duration of the biennial. This device was dismantled, its pipes between units  prolonged according to the proportions of the given space, heightened to various levels depending on the advice of technicians and at the end of the installation, we even added minerals for the sea water to became tasty mineral water. The pipes came into the room from the canal and went back to the canal. My first idea to make the visitors drink the water was given up and the title therefore became Plan B. Fulya Erdemci and I had a last minute thought that making people drink water out of this work would be a too easy gesture and make the work too popular and take it out of its real content.

Your work as a sculptor and artist transcends the worlds of architecture and spatial design. Have you ever wanted to also become an architect?

I never thought of becoming an architect. Architecture and design always  has purpose and function. I was and am still interested in purposelessness. I am always trying to achieve the most unhooked sense that aims to make the work be far from serving a reason or expectation.

U2 Alexanderplatz (Group) (Catalogue) (curated by “Arbeitsgruppe U2 Alexanderplatz”, Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst e.V. [NGBK]: Christoph Bannat, Uwe Jonas, Annette Maechtel, Tine Neumann, Barbara Rüth and Birgit

Anna Schumacher). Alexanderplatz, Berlin (Germany), 27.09. – 29.10.2006. Exhibited work: U8, 2006. Intervention: existing speaker, computer, sensor, two CDs (As each train pulled into the platform of line U8, dramatic-sounding music was played for the time it took the train to come to a stop. Two pieces were played, both in the fashion of trailer melodies used for television series.) Photo Credit: Artist archive

Each of your work engages with specific sites, histories, cultures and societies. How does your work respond to the situations you face?
A very good question and a very commonly asked one. Everyone asks me how my work responds to the site, its history, etc..The situations I face in a place is a very important part of this procedure. For example one of my most site specific work “Half of” for a gallery space of one room only (Galerie deux/Tokyo) was inspired simply by just the plan that was sent to me to introduce the gallery. Plan included the walls as well that when you folded the plan it became the maquette of the space.  This was my simple inspiration for the work I made there which was consisting of five maquettes hanging from the ceiling, one by one becoming smaller, each one being half of the previous one . All was made effortlessly out of rice paper and wooden sticks by competent Japanese hand-workers. 

Every work that engages with specific sites needs its own agenda which can be totally different each time and not necessarily with the expected inspiration. Sometimes it is history but a historical place can also get an artwork that has nothing to do with that because I also can have my kind of plans at the time which I want to realise urgently. Of course I feel the most successful when the work looks as if it had always been there or when I spend very little or no effort to make a work sparkle in the space or the best for me would be if I bring nothing to the space and only use the given elements of a space like my works with elevators for instance.



Pond to Pool to Pond, 2016, Japan and your most recent exhibition in Istanbul, I Insist, 2022 are other examples of your site-specific installations.  How do you channel the premises of the spaces you use into your installation to reveal the space’s previously concealed features?

Pond to pool to pond in Nara, Japan is another version of a water cleansing work. In this exhibition each artist had been given a Temple in Nara to work with. My Saidai-ji Temple had a small pond which was dirty, almost like a swamp with lots of mosquitos. My aim was to clean  this pond and to be able to do that, I installed a pool next to it. The shape of the pool was very much following the borders of nature placed in between trees and holy rocks.  Between the pond and the pool, I installed the water cleaning and pumping system, much simpler than the Venice one because this time it just had to clean the pond. The pipes were installed to go inside the pool and the pond, the cleaning pumps were working continuously and carrying the dirty water back and front. In about a few hours both the pond and the pool were crystal clean and frogs started coming to the pond. The much needed balance of nature came back here and a bright blue colour of water with an unusual shape.

Art Projects at 8 Shrines and Temples – Travelling over 1300 Years of Time and Space (Group Exhibition) (Catalogue) (curated by Toshio Kondo, Art Front Gallery Tokyo). Culture City of East Asia 2016, Nara, Saidaiji Temple, Nara (Japan), 03.09. – 23.10.2016
Exhibited work: pond to pool to pond, 2016
Site-specific installation: already existing pond in site, connected to pool constructed out of wood, concrete, mortar, water and connecting pipes, cleansing and pumping machines
Photo Credit: Keizo Kioku

“I Insist” is an exhibition that follows another exhibition titled “Ripples” in the same gallery and uses the leftover material of the previous show. The previous show Ripples was about the unfair gentrification of an area in Istanbul and also about making a first show in a gallery that is part of this gentrification. I cut out rectangles off the new plaster walls of the  clean, white cube like gallery space and hanged these wall pieces from the ceiling. The left over wooden panels on the walls at the back of these cut out plasters had white small circular traces created by chance.  Aside from this I made a sound piece out of the reading of the names of all the shops and studios on the street leading to the gallery giving reference to the fact that these  places will soon be the victims of this gentrification and will be gone in a short time. This was the sound of their archive, music of memories.

In the five years later exhibition “I insist”, I painted these leftover panels that had been hanging before; each one a different wall colour, each one a different size, handled with their cracks and breaks together and hanged them side by side on the walls of the gallery as if this is how they should behave, as paintings like what a gallery is for.

As can be seen in these three examples I have used the nature of one location/Saidai-ji Temple /Nara whereas I have used the politics of an area/ Dolapdere/Istanbul and in the third exhibition I have used politics of art /Gallery Space.


On Water, 2017, a beautiful installation that debuted at the international open-air exhibition, Sculpture Projects, in Münster, Germany took two years to be realised. People use it daily and the vision of passersby crossing the river whilst seemingly walking on water provides a beautifully striking scene. The public becomes an actor in this surreal scene. Could you talk more about the installation and its concept revolving around urban transportation and displacement?


The idea of the “on Water” installation came from the idea to be on Water. This was my second time of being invited to Sculpture Project Münster. My first contribution was moving sculptures on air by helicopter. The title of that work was “on Air” also giving reference to broadcasting. From being on air the first time around, I thought to be on the ground the second time would be too normal a gesture. In between the two exhibitions (1997 and 2017) I had taught at Kunstakademie Münster, therefore knew the city pretty well including this dead end/one way channel where a lively atmosphere was always existent; on one side art studios, galleries, restaurants, bars etc.. on the other part more industry and offices.  

Skulpture Projekte Münster, 2017 (Group) (Catalogue) (curated by Kasper König, Britta Peters, Marianne Wagner). Stadthafen 1, North side: Hafenweg 24, South side: Am Mittelhafen 20, Münster (Germany), 10.06. – 01.10.2017
Exhibited work: On Water, 2017
Site specific installation: ocean cargo containers, steel beams, steel grates, 6400 x 640 cm walkway
Photo Credit: Roman Mensing

As it is clear from the images I made a plan to make a bridge that goes under the water and connects these two shores that people experience the magic of walking on water and to have the miraculous and mystic image of people effortlessly standing on water.

Not only people of course, dogs, bicycles, ducks were also there. Some moms and dads were teaching swimming to their kids. People had the chance to chat on water. It became too popular always full of visitors. The walk on water was slow and thoughtful which made kind of ceremonial and somber at times.



Do you like for the public/audience to interact with your artworks? It feels in some instances such as in that the audience completes the artworks.
Yes, sometimes. In the case of “on Water” without the audience the work would have been invisible. The same goes for the work Shipped Ships where once people of Frankfurt were passengers in boats coming from Turkey,Italy and Japan. These two works and some more carried the risk of being unseen if not for the visitors.

“For some works lack of participants is not a problem. Mostly I like the audience to interact with works hoping they fulfil and feel my purposelessness.”


How influential is the audience’s perception of the themes you explore, to your work?

“I must say it is not very influential. I actually believe that the perception of the audience of the themes I explore should not be strong. I would rather give the audience something that they have not experienced before therefore their judgment as well as mine should not be accurate.”


You have explored the use of acrylic in your very first works (Yellow Plexiglas Sculpture, 1969, Istanbul). Why did you choose this material in particular? Which other techniques and media have you set in place to use?
In 1969, I was a student of sculpture in the Academy of Art in Istanbul and I found these two pieces of plexiglass on the street. Plexiglass was for me a very advanced material at the time. I was fascinated. Without knowing much what I would do with them,I bent them and rolled them in a huge pot with hot water and placed one inside the other and participated in the school exhibition “New Tendencies” with this work. I placed it on the grass outside the exhibition room, maybe my first art in public space and to my surprise got the award of the exhibition with some money involved. This prize was not as important for me as these shiny plexiglass pieces. After the exhibition I recycled them to make other sculptures with the same hot water technique until the two plexi pieces broke down and disappeared. 

I have great  interest in material and have learned a lot from professionals who are experts on these materials. I like to work with professional people and I am mostly ready to change my forms according to their suggestions. Therefore I feel free to work in any media or technique as I wish or as my idea suggests.


What is your approach to form?


The same applies to form. I don’t have a strict or steady style. I have given myself the freedom to work in any material, style, or medium although I believe that I have a good feeling for form as I have had a very classical sculpture education for more than five years.

“I have learned a lot from one of my teachers Şadi Çalık who always said: ‘Forms should be outward rather than inward,  as if they are hiding something inside, as if the inside is pushing from within’”

Kıpraşım / Ripple, 2017; Untitled sculptures, 2017. Site-specific installation, deconstructed plaster walls, revealed wooden walls; 19 aluminium sculptures: variable dimensions. Photo Credit: Hadiye Cangökçe.

He always thought that although we dont see the inside, the inside of a sculpture is as important as outside which meant one should give the same importance to parts that are invisible as the parts visible. This stayed with me and applies to everything in life, in my opinion.



Your body of work shows a dedication to long-term researched based projects. What is source material for new ideas? What books do you like?


I like fiction books. I also like lifestyle magazines to be informed of what is happening. I don’t watch tv these days. I watch a lot of films almost one every night some days. I love to go to cinema salons, even queuing for the ticket or popcorn is exciting for me but I am not doing it so much anymore because of the lazy comfort we have inside our homes now. I also sit on my own outside in a cafe and have coffee and watching the daily life. When I am involved in a project like on Water for example, I make lots of unnecessary research. I am not a research artist in the sense to display the outcome of research or knowledge as an art piece.

This issue’s theme is IN OUR WORLD. In your eyes, what does our world need less and more of?


I will have to give a very classical answer, maybe too much like a slogan but as it has high priority and urgency in these times when we cannot say “Our World” anymore like in earlier years :

“More peace, equality and justice, less discrimination, racism, less starvation.”


What are you working on at the moment?


I am very happy to be working on two permanent projects one for Japan/ Shikoku Island at the tip of a jetty and one for Istanbul right on the sea close to a shipyard from 15th century. The work in Shikoku island is almost ready, for the Istanbul one we will start working in August and will be ready for the 17th Istanbul biennial in September. I am excited for both as they will again happen on water.

Credits

Artworks · Courtesy of Ayşe Erkmen

Okolo

Riding Around: From riding bmx bikes to shaping a multi-disciplinary design collective, OKOLO strives on collaboration and presenting the unexpected

OKOLO is a Prague based design collective founded by Adam Štěch, Matěj Činčera and Jan Kloss. They operate in a multitude of disciplines ranging in research, design, curation and architecture. Their key focus is delivering educative content and experiences through various mediums such as graphic design, illustration, publication and curatorial projects.

For this issue, NR is in conversation with Adam Štěch, to discuss OKOLO’s individual and collective journeys as a practice to this point, and to hear more about their ambitions for the future.

Adam, Thanks for joining me today. We’re lucky to have you for this issue and I’ve been looking forward to our conversation. I want to start by asking you about how you all met. I’d love to hear about your individual backgrounds and journeys, and how you came together as OKOLO.

Of course. We really appreciate it too. It started when I moved to Prague in 2005. I moved here to study Art History at the university, so my background is in Art History. I’ve always been a curious person. I’d always go around and try to meet people. At that time I was, of course, studying, but I was quite into BMX bikes, actually, bicycles in general. This is quite a strong connection between all of us. I went to my classes in university and after that, in the evening or afternoon, I always went to some skateparks or street spots to ride my BMX. One day I met this group of guys that were even younger than me. One of these guys was Matěj, Matěj Činčera, who was still in high school. He told me I’m interested in art and want to study graphic design. We realised we liked a lot of the same stuff. So we started to go out for beers and taking about doing some projects together.

“This lead to the idea of OKOLO coming around because OKOLO means “around” in Czech.”

We wanted to express that we were interested in the things that we find in everyday life, things that we like and admire . Whether it’s the design of bikes, furniture, artwork or architecture, anything. So we said, ok, let’s start some projects. We started to make t-shirts with some illustrations of real design objects on them. These t-shirts came with a text, with a story of what was on the t-shirt. So these t-shirt’s were a curated selection of some specific objects from design history. This was the beginning of our approach, and I think it’s still rooted in the same idea that we always want to present something from design history in a new way, through a new contemporary curatorial and graphic approach. Then we made our first issue of OKOLO Magazine in 2009. Basically that’s the year that OKOLO started, and at that point it was Matěj, My brother Jakub and I. My Brother was is crazy for bikes. He’s probably one of the most knowledgeable guys around bikes and bike design.

A few months after we met Jan Kloss. Jan wasn’t really from the BMX community but he was more into skateboarding and rap music. Both of these are also very close to me. I loved skating for its lifestyle, and we were all really into rap, groove, funk and soul. It was really great that we all met like this and had a similar vibe and sense of humour, and had the same values in our lives. What was important was that we each had different skills. I’m the curator. I’m the guy who writes the content and comes up with concepts for our projects. And Matěj and Jan are graphic designers, but slightly different from each other. Matěj’s much more into working with materials. He works with paper to create handmade installations, but also makes objects out of paper. He’s really skilful in this because his father was a packaging designer as well. And Jan’s more into the visual side of graphic design, not only creating logos but coming up with visual concepts for our books and visual features for our projects. So this is a perfect match, as each of us brought something different to the table. This allowed us to work independently as group and create everything in-house ourselves. This, I think, is our biggest advantage. But we’re really open as a collective, and do different projects on our own. I’m teaching and doing books with other publishing houses. Jan has a sneaker brand called PÁR, which means “pair” in Czech. Matěj is also teaching. So there’s projects that we do completely independently, but if there’s an opportunity for all our skills to connect and it would benefit a project, we always connect and do it together.

It’s interesting to hear how far back you all go and what interests your relationship is rooted in. I can visualise a trajectory of the different points and happenings that connected you all, it’s meaningful to hear how that relationship has built up to shape the dynamic you share.

Exactly! it’s really nice that we’re really good friends. We can really party together, we can see each other and hang out in any situation. It’s really like we’re kind of family. But In the last few years we don’t get to see each other as much. Jan has a family and Matěj lives a bit outside of Prague, so it’s nice that the bond between us is very strong.

It almost sounds like a mechanism that you’ve developed together, that you can rely on. It’s an established dynamic that you can activate when something comes around that you can all work together on. Even if you’re all doing different things and living in different places.

I’d say it’s basically a system, you know, If someone approached us with a brief, we already know how to process it, how to approach it and start developing concepts together. So it’s really an intuitive process for us.

We talked about your interest in BMX bikes, but I also wanted ask you about your lager brand and your exhibition about bottle openers. One of the things that I found interesting, which you touched on, is your approach to curating your shows. You seem to have a collective emphasis to re-introduce objects in a new context or alongside other objects, to give them a new meaning or narrative. Can you explain why you gravitate towards this approach when re-introducing these objects?

I think mostly the topics we are curating, we are choosing just because we love them. You know, for example, this bottle opener, this idea was born sitting having beer because we really love drinking beer, you know, and we laugh and have a good time during that. Also, this idea connected with the opening of our new gallery and studio space. So it was perfect idea to open our new space with the exhibition of bottle openers. Small things, you know, nicely designed, which have value and are everyday life objects. But they are really beautifully made and beautifully designed.

“For me as a curator, it is interesting to always choose a topic, do research and then show the broad spectrum of the topic. All the versions of all the incarnations of this topic as possible. It’s always based on this process of choosing something familiar, but to show it in a selection, which nobody would’ve put together.”

We like to really make this effort to choose different examples. Bottle openers or lamps or whatever, and to make a story, that somehow links in between them and then presents them in, let’s say, a fresh way. 

I’m coming from an academic background, but I’m not really academic. I don’t like it so much, this academic environment, which is very traditionalist and old school in many ways. We always wanted to educate, to bring this academic information, interesting information that is not well known, and to present it in completely not academic way. To present it in an almost new contemporary way to the public. Because our public or our people who follow our work and they are not academics, they are basically designers. But of course, designers, they do their own work and they don’t always have time to study books and read books as I do for example. So I always wanted to spread this information, which I have in my memory, in my design research, and to present this information in a catchy new way that is also understandable to people who are in the scene, but also people who are completely outside of our discipline. 

It’s almost like you’re creating a new vocabulary to re-introduce your research that feeds back into the system you talked about earlier.

It’s also very personal. We always have a lot of passion. It maybe can sound a bit cliche but the passion is the most important thing that you can have in what you are doing, whatever you are doing. It’s something that drives us. Even it’s a small exhibition in our gallery in Prague, where few people come to, or if it’s Triennale di Milano, like one of the most prestigious events in design. Basically, all our projects are on the same level, let’s say, because we love them all. We’re presenting this interesting information and stories of design through our personalities.

I think that reflects what you mentioned earlier that you love all your projects and that passion in a way is weaved through all your processes, whether it’s for bigger or smaller projects. 

I know one of your passions is modernist architecture. I’ve been following your instagram account for a while and you have a nice collection of modernist gems on there. Where did this interest start and how does modernist architecture as a global movement but also in the Czech republic influence the work you create. I’d love to hear your scope on why it was pivotal as a movement and how it has evolved through different happenings over time.

Mhm, I think the 20th century’s the golden age of design and architecture. It’s the time when all these amazing movements came from and they were really idealistic. They were utopian and were very optimistic. I think it’s seen and felt through the objects. I kind of miss a bit this idealism in contemporary design. This idea of a bigger goal, and to create really the new society, the better world. Modernism is basically about that. It’s the movement which originated as a tool, used to show us how our society could grow better. The tool that was accessible to more people and they could afford quality products which help them in their everyday life. So, this is what I think is really extraordinary about the modernist ideas. 

I’m kind of a retro person, so I’m not really as interested in contemporary architecture as much as the 20th century because there’s something in it, some special atmosphere, some charm, which really attracts me to it. You can tell these stories. You can read the stories. So for me, it felt natural that I focused on the 20th century design because you can feel the diversity of design. What was done in Scandinavia is different, and what was done in Brazil and in Japan is different, but everything is somehow connected under this big idea of of modernism. It’s like picking some chocolate from a bonbon. You don’t know which is better, and you want them all basically haha. For me, modernism is this period that I can really find so many beautiful forms, shapes and materials, and all its architects and designers across the world. And it’s basically an endless source of of stories for me. 

For 15 years, basically even more, like 17, 18 years it’s been a constant for me. A constant study of 20th century design and architecture. In my head I have a huge archive, and it’s something that you can always find something to explore, something new. I think in last ten years, and maybe because of our work a little bit, it’s got a popularity among the public, and suddenly you see that brutalism now’s quite trendy. People are travelling and taking photos. Now it’s become a thing our generation has started to re-discover, and it’s great that even the people who aren’t really geeks like me are discovering this, and they find some beauty in it. Social media and digital publications have had a big part in this as well. I think it’s a good time now to continue in this because it suddenly has much more of an audience than before.

Although at first, your instagram account focusing on modernist architecture seems separate from your work as OKOLO and from your separate studio account, once you look deeper you realise that some of your projects find their roots in this obsession. For me Mood-boards, and of course, your publication Modern Architecture Interiors are evidently bringing these two worlds together under one umbrella. I want to ask you about your process and experience of putting these projects together with Jan and Matěj.

You mean Mood-boards for Vitra?

Yeah exactly!

Yeah, that’s the perfect example of how we can connect our skills. Because the “Mood-boards” project came up because I was asked by a curator in Vitra Design Museum that they’re doing this exhibition called “Home Stories”. It was about interiors set in different periods and different countries showing the evolution of the domestic space. They asked us, so you’re a curator and a theoretician, but you work with your colleagues. Maybe you could do a project that will be on the edge of research and some form of artwork. So these mood-boards were really a great idea because I could connect my knowledge from visiting houses to them. We chose three houses, which were “Villa Tugendhat by Mies van der Rohe”, “Villa Müller by Adolf Loos” and “Villa Beer by Josef Frank” in Vienna. And I visited these houses properly once again to research all the materials which were used in them. Then we tried to get samples of these materials, as many as possible, and create some kind of collage out of them.

This part was more the work of Matěj, because he really was able to work as a sculptor, to put all these samples together in a nice collage structure, which you can put on your wall as an artwork. But if you read the caption that comes with it you find out that it’s an exact imprint of a real iconic interior. So this project is a really nice example of how we connect our skills. For example, this project took about ten months to complete, and for the first months I traveled all around visiting these houses. I took all the pictures and documented all the details. Then I also visited some experts who would really tell me, yes, this marble’s this kind of marble. It’s not Carrara marble, but it’s a marble from Switzerland or so on. I gathered all this information and produced this research and I passed it onto Matěj and he created these mood-boards as a visual and as our art piece. It’s nice that these projects have different timelines for each of us. Mostly, I always work in the beginning on the concept and on the research and then the work of guys is starting in the second part of the process, when they’re starting to do the graphics and how this research will be displayed or how it will be conceived. 

Regarding the book for Prestel – “Modern Architecture and Interiors”, this book’s kind of a Bible for me. It’s my little Bible. It’s 15 years of travelling and visiting architecture. It started with me travelling and visiting many, many houses. I always wrote some articles or made some small exhibitions about it. But I never put it all together. So in 2018, I started thinking, okay, I have so many buildings which I’ve visited, so maybe it would be nice to put everything together and do a really huge book. Then we met Lars who is really nice guy, Lars Harmsen. He is editor in chief of Slanted magazine. It’s a graphic design magazine. Very strong magazine.

Yeah I know it. It’s a great magazine.

Harmsen told me, Oh, if you have such a big archive you should do a book for Prestel. I have some friends there, I can connect you and maybe they’re interested. I reached out and they said they were interested. So we said, ok, let’s do a book and I started gathering everything, all my archive. I realised that I have maybe 1500 houses already documented and I selected 1000 of them. I decided to approach the book as a starter pack in the sense that you don’t have too much information there, but it can motivate you to find out more. So it’s kind of a crossroad for different readers, suitable for deeper research for every single reader. We decided to do a book layout that would be understandable, which would also be efficient. We discussed it together – as OKOLO, and we said, okay, let’s do one building per page from A to Z – in alphabetical order. Jan created this layout, which I found to be quite universal. Then everything was ready to print, and Prestel told us we can’t print a 1000 pages and we needed to reduce it. They said you have to reduce it by 200 pages. That was a really sad moment for me, so now it’s just under 900 pages. I also had some issues with copyrights. Of course, all the pictures are my own, but there are some architects like Le Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright, which charge you a lot of fees, so I quite often have to edit out a lot of these pictures I took because the fees would exceed thousands of euros. 

Yeah that’s always a bit frustrating. This book to me incapsulates such an extended period of time of research and a beautiful form of obsession, even if it’s a reduced amount. Hearing you talk about these two projects, you can understand how you individually initiate projects and later in the process come together to collaborate on the delivery of the project. They also highlight your relationship with the community of creators and collaborators around you. 

I guess this would be a great point to ask you about your ten year anniversary book. I found the layout of the book quite interesting and very much in tune with the story behind the process you just explained for these projects. Half of the book showcases your work as a collective. The other half your individual work and personalities, and also your relationship with your community and collaborators. Can you please speak about the story behind choosing this format and your experience of putting this project together.

For sure! The format was actually Jan’s idea. We had our anniversary party in 2019, and it was quite big. Many friends came and it was fun. After we said, okay, that’s it. We did a party. We won’t do a book. We were thinking about a book, but we said we have a lot of work and thought we didn’t have time to do a book. But then, like few months later, Jan came because he’s totally a workaholic, and said “hey, I was thinking we should do this book, let’s do this book! I have a really great concept. Let’s do two parts for the book. One part will be about our work, and the other part will just be about our life, our friends and the people we’ve met. I said, that’s great, I think we should do it! 

So we gathered all the projects we made, even some really small ones we almost forgot about. Also, we all went through our photo archives and found these crazy pictures from the parties, from the openings and from travelling. It was really great that each of us had different pictures from different memories and projects. I think this is what exactly characterises us. That we love our work and we can even sometimes show it off, you know, and that we did this nice book. But I think maybe even more important are these moments meeting amazing people that share the same values and the same interests as us, who have many stories to tell. So all these great people, it’s so joyful, and we’ve been very lucky to visit and work with such amazing artists and designers. It’s really something that will be in our memory forever. When we sometimes go out for a beer together, we always talk about them. these rare memories are very, very valuable to us. This book is perfect for when someone’s visiting our studio, and we’re like we did this book and you can see our projects. But the most funny thing is from the other side, where they can see our photos from the from the parties and from back in the days when we were much younger. You can see it’s not a really difficult concept to do this, it’s basically very basic. Maybe in general, We really don’t like very complicated curatorial concepts. I think we’re kind of straightforward in this way. 

It’s crucial this idea of going with what’s closest to you, because so often when designers try to showcase such an expanded period of their practice and careers, it becomes a very serious conversation. To me, this can result in over complicating the conversation and making it less digestible for a broader audience. 

Also, I think there’s a lot of value in the side of your book that exposes your personalities and interactions with your community over this period. As a reader, viewer, designer, or whatever, I find this humane side of your book much more tangible and relatable. I appreciate that you’ve opened up this side of your experience in such an honest and simple way, and dedicated such a big portion of this book to it.

It’s also visible when we go somewhere to do an exhibition or something, and we arrive and they see three smiling guys, and I think we have a bit of a charm. I think they can see the passion in us, that we are dedicated to what we love, and this somehow opens doors for us. That we’re authentic and we aren’t pretending something. We can be at some crazy posh design week party, and we’ll still act like us. Super chill guys from Prague that like to drink beers and hanging out with each other. We gravitate towards the same people who are authentic and true. I have to say I’ve been super lucky that the people I’ve collaborated with were all really good people, and I think this is something that truly imprints into your mind and into your heart. Sometimes, you know, there are so many pretentious things in our discipline. This is something I’m really not interested in, and as I get older and older I kind of get angry at these people, like what the fuck, be normal, you’re not the star, haha. 

I definitely get that haha! I think the reason you’ve connected with the people you have has a lot to do with where you stand individually and as a collective. Over time your position and work asks the questions that interest you and attracts like minded people and partnerships. As someone that is only at the beginning of that journey it’s inspiring that over 15 years you’ve managed to keep your values so close to you and how that’s surrounded you with a community of likeminded people.

Yeah, thank you very much, I really appreciate it! I really do.

Touching on your collaborators and relationship with your community, I want to ask you about your work with Maria Cristina Didero and the exhibition, Designers, and the publication, People, you created together. It’ll be great to hear about the research you and her did together, and how Matěj and Jan visualised this research.

It was funny. We were in touch with Maria, but very lightly. We knew each other somehow, and we were in touch via email. For our gallery in Prague, we always like to invite designers that we’ve met before to come and exhibit there. We’d say we don’t have any money, but we’ll cover your flight and accommodation, and we’ll give you this space to do some cool project together. We’ll have a nice opening and have fun during the party. Basically, all of these designers that were invited were like yeah why not, let’s do it! And when I see them again, sometimes years later, they always remember those memories, and say they had fun in Prague with us doing these projects. It was the same with Maria. We were like let’s invite a curator, instead of a designer. It would be interesting. So I wrote her an email saying that I wanted to invite her to prague for a lecture and an exhibition, and she said “yeah, I’d love to! But what is the exhibition that you want to do?”. I had a spontaneous idea and I said because you’re not a designer but you’re a curator and writer, you can showcase your writing. What if you choose your favourite designers that you’re writing about, and we’ll – OKOLO, choose a specific part of the text and we’ll make some graphic posters out of them. And she said I love it, let’s do it! So I kind of became a curator that curated a curator haha. I curated Maria’s writing and it was so nice. I shared this with Jan and Matěj and we decided to do some posters and visualisations of the designers work that Maria was writing about, and these came as a visual representation of Maria’s work. It was a really fun opening during Designblok – Prague-based design festival. 

A year after Maria asked us if we could do a version of this exhibition in Milano, and we did “People” as a catalogue publication for this exhibition. We added some more designers for this exhibition, and we created more illustrations. And also we completely changed the media. Instead of posters shown in Prague, we decided to to a special publication with these illustrations.  We did this for Mostro, which is the graphic design festival in Milano. We invited her first to Prague, and this resulted in her inviting us a year later to Milano, and it’s really cool that this lead to this project having some kind of evolution.

That’s really interesting to hear how this partnership lead to a friendship and an on-going collaboration. 

I want to finish by asking you about what you’re working on now, and also about what you’re looking forward to in the future.

The Triennale is the project we’ve been working on for the past year. It’s the official Czech presentation at the Triennale di Milano, which is a legendary event going since the 1930’s. The main topic is “Unknown, Unknowns; Introduction To Mysteries”.

We were asked by the Czech Museum of Decorative Arts, which is the organiser of the Czech Pavilion, If we’d like to curate something under this topic. So we created an exhibition that we’re opening next week, which is called “ Casa Immaginaria: Living In A Dream”. It’s about the phenomena of “Dreamscapes”. During the pandemic there was quite a rise of this new digital phenomena, of creating fictional interiors of fantasy-like living environment, as a form of visual perfection or even fetish. You can relate that we were sitting in our homes during the lockdown and we were dreaming and fantasising about these dream-like environments that we wanted to be in and escape to.

And I think that’s part of the reason why this Dreamscapes phenomena came about. So I got in touch with some of these designers that create these Dreamscapes, which mostly call themselves digital artists. I thought this was a great topic for the theme of this show, focusing on this idea of escaping to some unknown world through these images. We did this installation that we printed these large more than 2 meter format prints mounted on light boxes, presenting this new phenomena of Dream- scapes. We added real metal constructions in-front of the images which work as an extension of the fantasy world into our reality, which symbolise the border between reality and fiction. Also, we’re presenting some historical context of fictional houses and interiors, in a similar process to our previous curations. We made a catalogue as well, and next week is the opening of the show. It’s going to be a big event with the minister of culture attending, which we’re really excited about.

That’s super exciting, and it touches on a feeling that we all collectively experienced and a period we all went though. This imagination that came out of our isolation, and presenting this section of work in this format is introducing them to us in a new light.

Yes, exactly. So this was our last project and now we’re doing a museum exposition for the Czech furniture company TON, which was born out of Thonet. It is a company that is now based in the original factories founded by Michael Thonet in the 1860’s. They produce handcrafted bent wood furniture using steam. We are curating a retrospective of their portfolio. I actually did a book for them and that’s were this project started – the book was not an OKOLO project, it was done with their own graphic designers, but this exhibition is our collective project.

Credits

Images · Courtesy of Okolo

Nicholas Préaud

“I celebrate humility and simplicity in design, that which feels obvious, which looks like it should be rather than not.”

Nicholas Préaud’s fondness for furniture and product design brings him satisfaction on different scales in different timelines. The liberty and authority these designs lend him feed his creativity to break through the boundaries between what exists in the digital and physical world. In fact, some of his projects touch upon abstraction, works that only serve the digital altar. As he investigates, researches, and develops plans and methods to bring these digital works to life – together with Kei Atsumi – Préaud finds himself invested and knee-deep in his design and work principles, an indication of a positive intensification in his design, architecture, and construction research and development.

NR: A focus on design, architecture, and construction research and development: what made you pursue a creative studio on these themes? Where did this strong affinity for these themes come from?

NP: I am a Paris-based architect and designer. I pursued architecture studies in Paris and subsequently worked in several architecture firms such as DGT Architects, Lina Ghotmeh Architecture, Nicolas Laisné Architectes, and more recently Sou Fujimoto Architects in Paris. My background is purely architectural and bridges several practices such as smaller-scale furniture or product design, and construction R&D. My practice spans today from furniture design, interior design, architecture, and R&D (all designed to be built and used in real life) to more abstract and digital works of design meant to exist only digitally. Some projects such as Casa Atibaia are ways of bridging the gap between the digital and the physical world. Initiated as a digital architectural project, we are now working on bringing it to life in the years to come. 

Furniture and product design has always been a go-to theme for me to work on as it brings satisfaction on a different scale as well as a different timeline. As architects, we often get lost in never-ending processes due to political or financial parameters that are out of our control. Furniture design gives me more liberty and control over the creative process, and ultimately the finished product. Although my practice aims at a certain form of humility in the creative process, it is also progress-driven, which naturally leads me to invest time and resources in research and development. In the past two years, together with my friend and partner in this adventure, Kei Atsumi, I have designed and put together a manufacturing process for a joining system of architectural elements. We subsequently patented the design and process to bring it to life in the years to come. The joint system aims to allow for any architectural elements such as beams, pillars, or panels to be assembled to one another without any tools or a particular skill, a seemingly interesting subject for disaster relief construction for instance.

How essential is construction research and development in creating design and architecture?  Do they go hand-in-hand?

They most often don’t go hand in hand at all in my experience working in Parisian firms. In France at least, these practices are very compartmentalized. Architects work on design and engineers work on R&D. I would say that focusing on R&D applied to architecture makes sense when you want to go beyond the existing techniques and processes which exist and have been normalized. It isn’t essential, but it contributes to broader progress and helps create new techniques and expertise ultimately making the construction process more efficient and sustainable.

I want to learn more about your design process. Do you start with a single concept then go from there, or an already-envisioned product? Is it challenging to lay out the design plans? How many revisions do you go through?

I usually neither iterate so much during the design process nor do I start with an already envisioned product or project. A concept often emerges early on because it makes sense, and is then pushed further until completion.

“I believe there are as many valid concepts as there are approaches to the same project.”

It’s just a matter of it making sense to the final users of the space or product, and of course to you the designer. Depending on the scale and complexity of the project, iterations and revisions are nevertheless bound to happen. This is where engineering and construction knowledge proves useful in the design process. Accurate engineering can be taken into consideration early on in the creative process to avoid painful iterations. My architectural work has been and is for now on a scale not exceeding that of a private home. In this sense, once the wants and needs of the client and the natural context of the construction have been well understood, the design plans follow easily.

Do you prioritize functionality over design in your products? Also, would you say you practice the less is more philosophy? 

To a certain extent, I would say I do try to practice the less is more philosophy. I truly believe excellent functionality can be achieved without compromising on design. True utility often suffices to bring beauty out of any given design. In my work, I enjoy emphasizing the simple technicalities of how a given object, space, or building is assembled by revealing the sheer power of the forces at play. Functionality in some cases can also become overly complicated and fussy. Design that doesn’t seek to fulfill a specific given functionality sometimes brings out so much more, as theorized by James J. Gibson with the concept of affordance and perceived action possibilities of an object.

Noting the titles of your design products, there is a touch of East Asian culture in them. What lifestyle or philosophy do you practice that roots from East Asia? Is there a difference between the way East-Asian culture works and that of European and Western one?

My work is impregnated with many references to East Asian culture, specifically Japanese culture. Having been very passionate about the Japanese culture and architecture in my entire life, and having worked at internationally renowned studios led by Japanese architects such as Tsuyoshi Tane or Sou Fujimoto, I have learned a lot about, and continue to seek to learn about, how architectural design can entertain an essential relationship with its foundational natural counterpart. A simple relationship between the artifact and the untouched, and layouts intentionally designed to encompass empty space where anything can happen are essential to me, as opposed to Western architecture and its spaces impose a function on the user. The concept of ‘Ma’ in Japanese culture and architecture exactly points to this.

“The invisible aesthetic of Ma is portrayed by this energy filled with possibilities emerging from the design, an emptiness that reveals unforeseen functions.”

Let us talk about your architecture repertoire. There is a sense of calm in your designs, from the light hues of the interior to the arrangement of the fixtures and furniture.
How do you decide what color and style to use? Do you compromise with your clients’ briefs?

I tend to iterate much more on textures, colors, and furniture than actual sheer architectural geometry which comes more naturally to me. The sense of calm you are referring to probably comes from the essentialness of uncluttered spaces, once again not imposing function but revealing it. In terms of color and style, I would say I try to adapt as much as I can to the context of the design rather than imposing my own. I feel an architectural design is well rolled-out specifically when you cannot recognize its author through the style, but rather through the creative pro- cess which led to its materialization. In this sense, the creative process can lead you in so many different directions.
That is what is interesting to me; each design exists in its own context and with its own referential universe tied to it, not so much its author’s aesthetics.

“That is what is interesting to me; each design exists in its own context and with its own referential universe tied to it, not so much its author’s aesthetics.”

What has been your most challenging project so far? What and how did you learn from it? Also, how would you describe your work ethic through your projects? What architectural elements do you pay attention to?

My most challenging project has been and continues to be Casa Atibaia which I designed in collaboration with Char- lotte Taylor. This project encapsulates so much of what I try to push towards in my practice. Architecture that does not wish to disappear in its surroundings, nor shows off extravagantly either; architecture that exists through the multiplication of natural forces. Started in early 2020, the project was first rolled out as a way of putting forward ideas and our interpretation of Brazilian modernism. Having lived and studied architecture in Brazil, this project resonates so much with me. Phase one of this project which we rolled out in 2020 was met with great enthusiasm and gave us extra incentive to continue pushing for it to materialize. Phase two which will be released soon brings us even closer to this imagined dream-house and consists of a short film and VR experience allowing the viewer to immerse themselves completely in the design in a way the still shots didn’t let you. Phase three which we are very optimistic about will be rolled out in the coming years and will materialize through the construction of the house. We have been in discussion over the past year with clients who are also guiding us through the process.

A question on a title: is there a difference between an architectural designer and solely an architect or a designer?

There is no difference I know of or intended other than this title is the most broad-reaching one I could find on Instagram to define what I do, which is a broad scope going from object and furniture design, to architecture, to digital works, and research and development.

It seems that we have to look forward to your research and development content. What can we expect from you in the upcoming months?

Speaking of which, I have yet to update my website as I am waiting on legal deadlines to communicate more broadly on the R&D aspect of my practice. For the past two years, my partner in this adventure, Kei Atsumi, and I have been developing a joint system that allows anyone to assemble and disassemble architectural elements without the use of tools and without any particular skill set. This joint system is sturdy over time and can be manufactured for panel or framework structures. No tools and no skills prove useful for certain types of constructions including but not limited to emergency architecture and lower-scale wooden homes. Two years of research and development have led to the successful patenting of the system in Japan, which we are now working on marketing and developing more seriously. As this is a slow process, I do not have a date for release but we are working to get it manufactured and on the market as fast as possible.

Our issue touches on the concept of Celebration. Some people seem to only revere design and architecture for their face value. For you, why and what should celebrate (in) design and architecture? For instance, in Casa Atibaia, you seem to celebrate the force of nature. Does nature drive your philosophy in design?

As mentioned above, and also just now by you in the clearest way, my work explores the relationship each design entertains with its surroundings and founding natural elements. As our culture and humanity tend to distance themselves more and more from the most basic and essential connections we still have with the natural elements, I feel the urge to explore and question how this can still happen on a very basic level. I celebrate humility and simplicity in design, that which feels obvious, which looks like it should be rather than not. A lot actually looks like it should not.

“I celebrate the designs whose creative process and formal results are more relevant than their authors.”

Continuing the theme of celebrating nature, you also collaborated with Charlotte Taylor for Coral Arena. How did this collaboration unfold? How can your collaboration fuel the discussion on climate change?

Charlotte and I were approached by the team at Aorist, which is a next-generation cultural institution supporting a climate-forward NFT marketplace for artists creating at the edge of art and technology. Together with the team at Aorist and OMA New York which is one of, if not the, leading architectural firms in the world, we produced a film that portrays the life of a physical artwork that will be installed in the future as a part of the ReefLine masterplan—it is a digital twin to a sculpture that will live and grow over time, depicting the sculpture as a piece of resilient infrastructure. Proceeds from the sale of this release will be donated to The ReefLine, an artificial reef, marine habitat, and sculpture park in Miami Beach. This project was our first meaningful jump into the NFT format and made sense to us creatively and of course, because of the cause it is supporting. We hope the film is viewed and appreciated by many, and that it helped educate the public about what is unfolding and what has yet to unfold in the years to come on the Miami coastline.

Credits

Images · Nicholas Préaud
https://nicholaspreaud.com/

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