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

The Ranch Mine

“Our identity is the fuel behind the best design and architecture”

Architectural studio The Ranch Mine draw inspiration from the rich history of the pioneers who settled in their local state of Arizona in search of a better life. “We chose our name to honour those that have come before us, the humble ranchers and miners, who have paved the way for our opportunities for prosperity today, and to serve as inspiration to design spaces that afford us the opportunity to imagine what’s beyond what we see in the present so we can strive for new experiences.”

In 2018 The Ranch Mine was approached by a family who owned a large plot of land in Phoenix, Arizona to create a home “in which their family could grow and create.” One member of the family is a ceramic artist and The Ranch Mine drew inspiration from the ancient art of pottery when designing the property. The name Foo House is derived from the Chinese character ‘Fu’, which means good fortune and luck, as a nod to the client’s Chinese heritage.

Phoenix is located in the northeastern reaches of the Sonoran desert and is known as The Valley of the Sun. With dusty-grey board marked concrete, orange weathering steel, and shades of olive and cream Foo House embodies the spirit of the desert with a sprawling and airy design. NR Magazine joins The Ranch Mine in conversation.

How do you think identity informs design and architecture?

We believe that identity is both the reason for design and architecture and the result of design and architecture. Our identity is the fuel behind the best design and architecture. Architecture is a reflection of who we are, our time, our place, and our culture. Who we are and how we live shapes the form and function of the spaces we create. What is really fascinating to us is that who we are is inextricable from where we have been and where we are. We shape the built environment, and it, in turn, shapes us. This is why it is critical to continue to infuse the identity of people into spaces, and design for opportunities to grow beyond who we are and what we see today.

Foo House is influenced by the ancient art of pottery. How did this factor into the design specifically?

We are fascinated with history and love how pottery has played a critical role in most societies in human history as well as our modern-day understanding of those societies. So we broke down what makes pottery interesting to us, and how could we take those principles to inform a new piece of architecture. The design emerged as a home that is rigid in structure while malleable in use, precise in form while imperfect in texture, and varied in volume while limited in materials.

Are there any new technologies in architecture that you are particularly excited about?

One of the most exciting things about architecture is the development of building science, and how we can use new materials to improve tried and true ancient ways of living. The newest technology that we are excited about is a company based here in Phoenix called Source that has created a hydropanel that is the first renewable drinking water system. It creates drinking water from the air through the use of solar energy. Living in a desert where water is a precious resource, this is very exciting to us.

Given the issues of rising temperatures around the globe and the location of Foo House was this something you had to consider when conceptualising the architectural design of the property?

Phoenix is definitely at the forefront of dealing with extremely high temperatures and has been for a while. Studying the sun, the most powerful element here is where all our designs begin. Foo was designed as a large courtyard house that follows the sun’s day arc, shielding the interior from times of extreme heat. Courtyard houses have been effective ways of living in the desert dating back 5000 years to Kahun in Egypt and possibly earlier. They are self-shading, providing a space to either embrace or escape the sun at all times of day throughout the year.

Other than the ancient art of pottery were there was there any other influences or inspirations that you drew on when working on this project?

We always draw inspiration from our clients, who in this case were a very “hands-on” family, starting with their professions but leading to their kids playing musical instruments, gardening and raising chickens, and making robots. We wanted to go beyond just making a pottery studio and maker space to satisfy the “what” of the scope. We wanted to build on the essence of these items and make an entire home that reflected their family values. So the design uses a combination of the hand made and materials meant to patina and change over time, in an aesthetic some might consider wabi-sabi, that embraces the journey, the imperfections of hand made, and the transitory nature of our world. The other major inspiration in every project is the site, and its location in this world. We are fortunate to have incredible weather for the majority of the year in Phoenix. While the headlines talk about the high heat which can be intense, about 7-8 months a year you can basically live outside.

We wanted to create a home that everywhere you are in the house has a direct relationship with the exterior, and we wanted to create a lot of different types of connections, not just one big opening. The main living space has double-height glazing that faces north towards the courtyard. It has sliding glass doors that open it out onto the covered patio towards the outdoor kitchen, fire pit, and pool beyond. It also has a lofted area that provides skyline views to the south and views of the Phoenix mountain preserve to the north. It provides a different perspective of the landscape. We also created glass connectors between the volumes of the house, so the landscape sort of tucks in around the house, and you are constantly aware of it as you walk from one area of the house to the next. The bedroom wing has smaller openings that frame the olive grove or high windows that look towards the sky. Using exposed aggregate concrete blurred the transition as you step outside and areas where the glass is fixed, the new desert landscape comes right up to it.

What were some of the challenges you faced when working on Foo House and how did you overcome them?

The first challenge is that the house is located in a pretty busy urban area, less than a half-mile from 10+ story towers. To create an oasis-like refuge, we shaped the building to create a large central courtyard, using the building to shield the areas that faced the busy part of the city. The second challenge was overcoming the fact that buildings are generally by their nature static. We wanted to find a way to activate the house to meet the dynamism of the family and their passions. Our approach to doing this was two-pronged. The first was to design the building to be noticeably affected by time. We did this by using materials that would patina like the rusting siding or soften the board-formed concrete joints as well as using vertical floor to ceiling windows that face due south that act like sundials throughout the day. This is most noticeable where we shifted the hallway around the stairwell and added a steel brise soleil to highlight the solar pattern in the hallway. The second way we did this was by creating a campus-like plan, where you walk through communal spaces, outside and inside to get to more specific places. This creates casual exchanges.

When creating a family home like Foo House what are some important aspects to bear in mind?

When creating a family home, the first thing people often think of designing for is durability. While this is of course important, it is not the main driving factor for us. When designing family homes we focus on flexibility over time, spaces that inspire creativity, and a variety of spaces in which you can connect with each other, with extended family and with friends, as well as opportunities to disconnect.

The site contains a chicken coop, a citrus grove, a stone fruit grove, and raised planting beds for growing herbs and vegetables. Are there any other methods of sustainability used on the property?

The house is designed to primarily use stack ventilation in the bedrooms and main living area to use the diurnal temperature swings to help passively cool the house. The house opens up primarily to the north for indirect natural light and uses the height of the volumes to shade exterior spaces for outdoor living. The U-shaped form of the house creates a large courtyard, creating a bit of a microclimate. The roofing is a combination of white-coloured foam or corrugated metal to reflect the radiant heat from the sun. The property used to be almost entirely grass and we changed it to primarily desert and native vegetation on drip irrigation, heavily reducing the water consumption on the property in combination with low flow water fixtures throughout.

What advice do you have for young creatives looking to work in architecture?

Find out who you are first. Then put that out into the world. Once you do it will attract people you want to work with. You are uniquely you. Your identity is your gift to the world, it is the one thing you do better than everyone else. Share it.

Are you working on any projects at the moment and what are your plans for the future?

We have about 30 residential projects in the works currently. We are excited that about 1/3 of those projects have taken us into new climates, new states, and outside of the country. Each new location continues to hone our research practices and understanding of place.

Our plans for the future are focused on continuing to grow our residential practice, designing homes that expand people’s creative potential and liberate them from the confines of convention. We look forward to more projects locally as well as projects that take us to new places, new people, and introduce new challenges.

Ludwig Godefroy

“the relationship with the emotions you will feel in a space is the very essence of a project”

Raw concrete, old brick and pale gravel glow under the golden light of the sun in Mérida, the capital city of Mexico’s Yucatán state, which is considered as the centre of indigenous Mayan civilisation. When designing Casa Mérida, architect Ludwig Godefroy asked the question “How is it possible to build architecture that reflects and considers the Yucatán identity, to make this house belong to its territory? In other words, how could this house be Mayan?” Inside the decor is as simple as the outside, with wood, stone, and pops of blue which mirrors the turquoise swimming pool at the back of the property.

The site itself has rather odd proportions for a house, it’s only eight meters wide and eighty meters long, resembling a road or pathway more than a traditional plot of land than a home. However, Godefroy has turned this to his advantage, inserting open patios between the buildings to create traditional airflow cooling concepts in a city which is known for its extreme climate and high temperatures. He also references a Sacbé, which is the name for the ancient Mayan road system which would connect the indigenous people’s of the land. “Those straight lines used to connect all together the different elements, temples, plazas, pyramids and cenotes of a Mayan city; sacred ways which could even go from one site to another along a few hundred kilometres.” NR Magazine joins the artist in conversation.

How do you think cultural identity influences design and architecture?

Definitely, it does according to my way of thinking. I always look around me and since I arrived in Mexico, it’s been now 14 years, my architecture changed, became heavier, made out of concrete, stone and tropical wood. Mexico changed my way of designing, I started to look at prehispanic architecture and mixed it with my personal taste, the bunkers from Normandy (where I was born), my European education and background working with OMA and Enric Miralles / Benedetta Tagliabue.

But now, I definitely consider myself a Mexican architect and not a French or European architect anymore. Mexico is the country where I live, it’s my inspiration, and it’s made out of Mexican references and Mexican moments of life. The way I’m building right now is also Mexican, more handcrafted and less industrialised, always integrating locals knowledge and details coming from Mexican vernacular architecture and ways of building it.

My architecture became a bunker from Normandy on the outside, protecting my personal Mexican pyramid on the inside, both connected by the use of vernacular simplicity; vernacular simplicity from my fisherman village in Normandy being, in a way very, close to the vernacular simplicity of the Mexican countryside where I build.

Do you think there is much to learn about sustainability from indigenous’s cultures like the Mayans and which of these methods were used when building Casa Mérida?

It’s a very complicated question, the context of our lives radically changed, and the globalisation as well. But definitely, our relation with nature is the one that suffered the most. I don’t think we have to feel ashamed of building, I mean I’m an architect and it’s my job, but probably what I’ve learned from indigenous cultures and, in my case, more specifically from pre-hispanic civilisation legacy is: what do we want to feel inside of our buildings, how can the atmosphere of my architecture can remain sacred and sensitive?

According to my thinking, the relationship with the emotions you will feel in a space is the very essence of a project, which means once you created emotions in architecture, you don’t need much more. You can naturally step back to more simple architectural elements, made out of simple but massive materials, with the ability to get old instead of getting damaged by time. I want to run away from the “everything throwaway mentality” of our modern society, getting rid of the unnecessary, creating timeless spaces which will slowly change under the action of time, ageing being part of the architecture, an architecture which will get covered by a new coat of materiality: “the patina of time”.

Are there any new technologies in architecture that you are particularly excited about?

Not at all. I really love technology, I need the internet non-stop, computers and smartphones but I still remain a peasant. I was born in Normandy, in a fisherman’s village and I still like what’s most simple in life. I still like to push and pull a switch to turn on and off the light, I don’t need my fridge to tell me what to buy, and I still like to open the curtains myself in the morning. I like the wind, I like the light, I like the heat, I don’t need much technology around me, only music. I enjoy waking up in the morning to prepare a nice black expresso coffee and go to my garden to observe the plants, the trees, the birds and the lizards; it’s my process to start working on my projects every day, contemplation.

Rising temperatures are becoming an increasingly huge issue and you designed Casa Mérida specifically to combat high temperatures without having to use AC. Do you think housing around the world will begin to implement techniques like these in the future or will the majority continue to rely on AC?

No, I don’t think so!  I also understand there are parts of the world where it’s almost impossible to survive without AC, and Mérida, Yucatán is one of those. Casa Mérida is a house designed for pleasure, it’s a vacation house, it’s easier than a main residence, or an office space. I made a project based on natural crossed ventilation to avoid the use of AC, thinking if you offer the option to live in a well-ventilated space, maybe you’ll help people change their minds.

My vision of architecture focuses on changing people habits, rather than looking for technological improvements, towards a more simple way of living with fewer necessities, to minimise our impact on the ecology of our planet. It’s basically what vernacular architecture does and always has done, I’m not inventing anything, but just trying to go back to basics.

You kept elements of the old house including the front facade and the old buildings ‘bones’. Do you think this kind of perseveration is vital when modernising homes like this one?

Yes, I love it. I always think you belong to a permanent work in progress. There were people before you on the construction site you’re working on, and there will be people after you. I see architecture as a palimpsest, when you clean up the lamb parchment, the previous story will never vanish 100%. There is always something remaining from the past story in the back of the new story you are writing on top of your palimpsest.

You have stated that Casa Mérida reflects Yucatán identity, in what specific ways does it do so?

I always design my architecture as a peasant would. I always draw short structures, using short beams, between 4 to 5 meters long; dimensions I know any mason in the world is able to build without any specialised skills. I know this way everything will be local, starting with the workers. A house in Yucatán has to be built by people from Yucatán, It´s for me the first step to start belonging. I want my architecture to respond to local techniques, the stone, the wood I use will always change according to the region where I am building. As I said before, my architecture is always playing with temples and pyramids references. In the case of Casa Mérida, the house is organised along a Sacbé ”white way”, the Mayan roads that used to connect temples and pyramids together, ending in the swimming pool which looks like a concrete cenote.

Blue textiles have been used to mirror the house’s swimming pool which is inspired by cenotes. This reminded me of David Hockey’s swimming pool series, is there any connection or inspiration there?

To be honest no, but I really like the idea! Hockney’s work is beautiful, and I like the way it’s simple, almost naive sometimes, it matches with my architecture I guess.

What challenges did you face whilst working on this project and how did you overcome them?

I would say the concrete. Mérida is not a place where people are used to rough concrete. Rough concrete is something more common in Oaxaca state or Mexico City. So we had to learn together with the constructor in charge, explaining to the workers what we wanted to reach. For a mason rough concrete is unfinished, they don’t catch the beauty of it at the beginning. We had to explain it to them.

But definitely, our concrete is not perfect, This is part of something I totally accept, having un-perfect concrete, trying to get better and better during the process of building. Accident is part of my aesthetic, I always tell my clients to stop looking at Tadao Ando, we won’t make a Japanese concrete, we will make a Mexican concrete, rougher than the Japanese one, A perfectly un-perfect concrete.

What advice would you give to young creatives who are interested in architecture?

Don’t buy books and magazines on contemporary architecture. Only buy books and magazines that were published up until the 80s. This way, with those references, you won’t be tempted to literally copy them, you will have to reinterpret them, so this way you will make them yours.

Are you working on any projects at the moment and do you have any plans for the future?

Yes, right now I’m finishing three houses, one outside Mexico City, one in Puerto Escondido Oaxaca and another one in Mérida Yucatán. I have also one hotel under construction in Puerto Escondido Oaxaca. I’m about to break ground for a new house in Mérida Yucatán, a house/Airbnb hotel close to Huatulco Oaxaca, and another house/Airbnb hotel in Roca Blanca Oaxaca. Meanwhile, we are working on three new projects in the conceptual phase in the office.

Sophie Hicks

“Architecture appears to be moving towards helping human beings live, work and experience their lives better. And if that means the building looks like shit, then so be it!”

While still a student at the Architectural Association, Sophie Hicks founded her London-based architecture firm in 1990. The practice started out designing private housing, and by leveraging her insider insight, it is safe to say that Sophie Hicks has become one of fashion’s favourite architects, with her firm designing stores for the likes of Acne Studios, Chloé, Yohji Yamamoto and more.

Hicks became a chartered architect in 1994, prior to which she worked as a fashion editor for Vogue and for the iconic designer, Azzedine Alaïa. Hicks’s relentless efficiency has allowed her to lead her practice with extensive experience in the fashion world. Particularly strong on design, her approach is both conceptual and practical, and is highly attuned to the zeitgeist.

Outside of her fashion clients, Hicks’s residential projects embody the spirit of their surroundings, and champion honesty and boldness of materials. Subtle yet meticulously considered details are typical of Hicks’s architecture, which is best characterised by her discreet, restrained and durable ways of working.

NR Magazine speaks with Hicks about the ins and outs of her career, and to learn more about what distinguishes her identity as an architect.

What inspired you to change career path from fashion to architecture? 

I think it two things, really. I was very excited about being in the fashion world. From the age of about 17, when I entered it, it was very exciting. I enjoyed being a stylist and identifying new trends and fashions, creating pictures, and putting teams together, but I got to a point where I saw the fashion cycle coming full circle with the types of images and models coming out, and I was only about 26. I felt that it was too soon for me to be getting stuck into a cycle. I didn’t want to be part of a world that was going around in circles.

What I really wanted to do was to be creative and to create something myself. With photography and styling photographs, you are in effect, being creative but you’re putting together teams like a director. You’re grabbing clothes, putting together teams of photographers, models, hair, makeup and inventing a story, but you’re not actually taking the photograph or designing the clothes. I’d always been interested in architecture ever since I was a teenager, and I just decided to completely change paths and see if I could be an architect and create things myself that would affect how people experience the world.

Was that scary? The fashion world is such a dynamic and intimidating place to work in. Was it a shock moving into the world of architecture? 

Yes. I quite like having new and different experiences, and I quite like taking risks. Towards the end of my fashion career, I was working for Azzedine Alaïa doing a set of photographs with him of his previous collections from the start until that point in the mid-80s. We were recording all his collections for a book that he eventually bought out. So I was dressed top to toe in Alaïa – the tailored pieces, not the slinky ones, but I was pretty sharply dressed. I’ve never been so smart since.  I swanned up to the Architectural Association for an interview looking like something they’d never really seen before.

They asked to see my portfolio, and I told them I didn’t have one, only my fashion sketches. In those days at fashion shows, you weren’t allowed to photograph the clothes because they were kept embargoed until they actually got into the shops, so if you were an editor, you sat there sketching in your notebooks. You had to sketch extremely quickly because the models would come by quite fast. I showed them these books, and I was sitting there in a black tailored double-breasted suit – I think they just thought I was mad. I heard afterwards that they really didn’t think I would stick it, but they didn’t realise that if I decide to do something, I do it.

But they offered me a place, and on day one, I knew I shouldn’t walk in there all dressed up, so I decided to go completely under the radar and became unnoticeable. You had to absorb yourself and become a chameleon. It was about the second term, when someone turned to me and asked, ‘You’re not that Sophie Hicks who used to be the fashion editor at Vogue, are you?’ and I said, ‘well, yes, I am actually.’ and she said, ‘why do you look like that then?’ it was all quite amusing. I just really enjoyed drawing and making things. We did a lot of work in the workshops – we would weld, cut, saw, and make models. I loved all of that. We did a lot of expressive drawings, which were pre-computer, and I’m not a good drawer by hand, so I’d make a lot with clay, plaster, carving, printing, and etching etc.

We would talk a lot about our ideas. And the Architectural Association is brilliant at teaching design, and brilliant at teaching you how to think. I’m an external examiner there now, which I’ve been doing for the last four years, and it’s amazing how they get their students to think – to a level that I don’t think you get in other schools.

It’s a bit like if you were thinking about conceptual art, I suppose. Thinking about what the concept is, what the meaning behind it is and why you’re doing it. Absolutely everything needs an explanation when you design, and it’s got nothing to do with aesthetics until you know why you’re doing it, then the aesthetics happen naturally. Of course, some people do their aesthetics better than others – some people have an elegance, and some people don’t. But if there isn’t a reason behind why you’re doing something, then I don’t think it’s very meaningful.

I’ve always thought that film directors have a very interesting job, with the way they approach a project and how they set up a team and choosing all the people who are going to gel as unit. It was Grace Coddington who taught me how to set up a team when you’re doing a fashion shoot. The psychology of a group is incredibly important. I took that kind of thinking with me to the world of architecture: thinking broadly, out of the box and about how to set up an architectural project in a way that is more likely to be successful.

What inspiration do you draw from other engineers and architects – particularly with Félix Candela and Paulo Mendes da Rocha? 

They worked brilliantly with concrete. Recently, I’ve used quite a bit of concrete in buildings I’ve made. I think Félix Candela was probably the most brilliant user of concrete who has ever lived. He mathematically worked out how to create very thin, reinforced concrete shells that were very elegant and incredibly clever. And if you can do something very clever, why wouldn’t you? He also did this because he was designing quite simple structures like bus shelters and churches for communities in Mexico. The budgets were very tight, and I believe he even designed some churches without windows. Because of this low budget, he used less concrete, so the building was less expensive. Because of that, he designed these extraordinary floating canopies and canopy rooves, where the geometry is really his invention. His brilliance as an engineer allowed him to do that. There are some wonderful photographs of this, one in particular which has workman standing on top of this mushroom-like roof. It’s about 10 or 15 metres high and incredibly thin. It’s just a brilliant demonstration of history.

Paulo Mendes da Rocha’s buildings in and around Sao Paolo have an incredible force to them. They’re raw and feel very dynamic, as they have so much embodied energy, in that they are incredibly still. The thing about him which I find very interesting, and which I feel reassured by, is when when I hear about architects of his stature that did what I do, which is having an office of one. An architect of his stature, you would expect to have an office of quite a lot of people, but he maintained a very small office. I’ve never had a big office – I’ve had an office of about 10 people perhaps, and I found that I wasn’t properly designing myself. I was spending too much time looking after other people and checking their work.

Everything froze with the crash in 2008, and I felt like I really needed to get back to basics. What I really wanted to do was design buildings, and what I really wanted to do was actually be the one doing the designing, not passing it down. I’ve got the most brilliant kind of situation now, where I work very closely with my colleague Tom Hopes, and we work very well together. He’s very strong on construction, and I’m very strong on design. He’s teaching me construction and I’m teaching him design – we do both and understand both sides. My aspiration would be to continue to work in this way, and to continue to work in the way that Mendes da Rocha worked. That involved only bringing in other team members for a project when you need to, so you don’t have everyone in the office all the time.

The most recent building I did was a house in Northamptonshire, and it was a reasonably big team. We did all the drawings here, with about 10 or so people, but it worked very well because the quality of the design and the detail was that bit higher. We work very closely as a team and get much better results, I feel. But it’s an unusual way to work, so I’m always encouraged when I read that someone like him created really interesting buildings with that same process.

What do you value most about a living space?

That it’s really comfortable, and not just literally. It’s important that you feel relaxed, calm, and able to be yourself in and around it. The word ‘comfortable’ might have the wrong connotations because it makes you think about sitting on squishy chairs, but it’s not that. It’s a kind of feeling – feeling yourself.

When I design for other people, I want to find out what makes them feel right. If I’m designing a house for somebody, I want to know everything about how they live, how they behave, what makes them feel comfortable, and what kind of impression they want that building to embody. With the house that I designed for my daughter recently, which is called House Between Two Lakes, it was really important to her that it wasn’t a show-off-y house. She didn’t want a flashy house. She didn’t want a house that was obtrusive. She wanted something that was the opposite of a designed house, which is why we made something that sat very gently in the landscape, and that is very streamlined.

As the theme of this issue is identity, I thought it would be interesting to know if you’ve ever had kind of ‘identity crisis’ with a project?   

That’s a difficult one, because architectural projects are very long and very complicated, and they involve an awful lot of solving problems. These problems might be thrown up by the environment or by the building problems that crop up during construction. If you’re working on a project where you’re solving problems, an identity crisis is less common.

There’s initial design that you tend not to go forward with until you’ve got the concept sorted out. Projects don’t go ahead if you can’t get that right. It’s a difficult question for me to answer. I know it sounds as if I’m not admitting to self-doubt, but that’s not it. As an architect, you’re a servant of the client, so you need to understand what they’re all about. If you don’t understand what they’re all about, the project tends not to go forward. If you are trying to understand what they’re all about, you carry on until you reach a point of agreement, and during that process, there are often moments where you doubt if you’re ever going to get there. There are multiple points in time where I would be searching for the solution that would embody the character or the ethos of a brand, or the character of the person or thing that they want to embody in the building. It might be some sort of feelings or atmosphere, and I might be struggling to understand what they really mean. And even when I do understand, I have to then find a way of translating that into a built form.

There is a kind of lightbulb moment when you get it right. It happened with the Chloé shop early on for Phoebe Philo. I was struggling with what to do for this luxurious brand, and for its new, young, dynamic designer. She’s got great ideas and a contemporary way of looking at things. At the end of the day, it’s a Paris luxury house, and had stores on fancy shopping streets. I thought about what we could do to bring the spirit of that young designer into the shop environment in a way that would feel how I think she feels about her designs. I really thought we weren’t going to get there. I really didn’t know what I was going to be able to suggest, and then suddenly, we had riots in Bond Street. There were some demonstrations, and the shop fronts were boarded up, and that was my lightbulb moment. We used railing and raw plywood like you would use to protect your front window. We put that inside the shop and used it as the finish for the walls. There’s a real beauty to basic plywood. Not fancy plywood and beautiful veneer, just the bog-standard shuttering with lots of faults in it. I wanted to bring that into this luxury space and offset it with the pink marble and gold-plated metal fittings that Phoebe was working on. We gave it a kind of spin that would tell the kinds of rich women who are going to come into shop, that there’s something else going on here. The spirit of the place is just a bit more rooted in reality.

Your Acne Studios flagship store has a very forceful and distinct presence, reflecting the studio’s designs and aversion to conventional Swedish design. What were the other influences behind this project?

When working with a fashion client or a brand, they have very distinct characteristics and their brand identity is important to them, so it’s about finding an architecture that will embody that character and ethos. When I have a new client, I go and study that person, or that group of designers.

I’d never been to Sweden before Acne Studios contacted me, so I spent a long time shadowing Jonny Johansson during design meetings, hearing how he spoke to other people and absorbing how he works and how he makes his choices. I also spent quite a lot of time travelling around Sweden and going to the islands to gather information in my mind about Swedish light.

One of the most important things for that Seoul flagship store was the kind of light you get in Sweden. In the summer, you get a very strong and completely engulfing flat light. Light is very important in Sweden, because for many months of the year they don’t have a lot of it, and then they have a lot of it all at once in the summer. Something I noticed from studying Jonny and the other Swedes in the office, is that they were very private and keep their cards quite close to their chest. Seoul is a very dynamic, outgoing place in comparison. I thought if I were going to make a building in this very dynamic city for a brand whose culture is much more reticent, then I would like to make the building sit as a quiet, almost brooding monster. Monster isn’t quite the right word, I know, but there’s something very still about the concrete frame within that building. It’s very grounded and permanent, but then it’s held inside this misty white box. With this misty white box, you get no hint of what’s going on inside until you enter. I also had no idea that the light was going to be as good as it was until we built it. I thought it would be nice, but it really is extraordinary. All the daylight comes through this white polycarbonate material, and it makes you feel as if you’re in a white cloud. It’s quite odd and does strange things to your perception. I think that aspect of it is the Swedish part – this sense of unreality and dreaminess that is present in Sweden, particularly in the islands, that are so silent. It embodies that quietness of the Swedish character.

So it’s kind of in opposition to Seoul, but then all the air conditioning and all the services, we had piled up on the roof. All the rooftops in Seoul are a mess of air conditioning units, so we did that as a nod to Korea, but in a very neat and tidy way. This also allowed us to keep the space inside the building free, without any dropped ceilings or internal surfaces hiding anything. I don’t like finishes and I don’t like hiding things, so I don’t like having to build internal walls to hide services. I like the internal finish to express the structure of the building.

How did you go about combining both Japanese and Parisian aesthetics and design principles with your Yohji Yamamoto store?

I knew Yohji anyway, as I’d seen his first shows in Paris when I was working at Vogue, so I knew how he was when he landed in Paris. He landed with this extraordinary new vision that was completely different from anything that had come before. I knew how he’d been incredibly shocking to the Parisians and the world of fashion entirely. I also knew how he’d become comfortable over the years in Paris and opened one of his design studios. He had a big office in Paris and worked quite a few months of the year there, so I knew he’d become much more embedded in Paris than say Rei had – she was much more Japan-based.

When I was working on his project, I basically shadowed him. But with him, he didn’t like anyone close, so I’d be observing and studying from a distance. He’s a very private person, and Japanese shopping culture is very sophisticated. They don’t like to show off. It feels very wrong to put a mannequin in a window for a Japanese client.

I decided to include glimpses, and he was open enough to be able to show glimpses into the store from the windows, so we used a kind of Shoji screen. We played with the idea of things on axes, like in formal French gardens. You get glimpses through the screen, and as you get closer, you can see into the shop. We included without heads, so basically had all the dresses floating in the space. And when you entered, you’d have a series of glimpses that would start from a kind of corridor of wooden folded screens. As you move down this corridor, the view suddenly opens up, and that’s when you can tell a story about menswear and womenswear. It was all to do with opening up really, which I think is a very French thing, and then through showing his clothes in a progression – that’s how I tried to make the link between him and Paris.

What qualities of materials do you think lend the most atmosphere to a space? And what do you enjoy working with the most?

For an interior space, I like the structure of the building to be expressed internally. I want to be able to see what the structure is, and it’s the expression of those structural materials that I think gives character and atmosphere to the space. That’s one reason why I don’t like decoration. With House Between Two Lakes, we had one or two internal walls, as we had to divide the space somewhat, and it needed a surface finish. I hate decoration so I didn’t know what to do.

Because the roof is made from precast concrete planks and the floor is cast in situ concrete, decided to do something related to those two materials. We used render with some pigments to give it a more interesting colour, and it was very important to me that the sand and cement render was done by the plasterer. I would have hated it if someone else came to do a clever finish. We wanted to keep any expressive movements. We chose the colour to relate to the earth. That piece of land was a brick quarry at one point, so we chose this brick red colour. This was the only way I could find to do a finish that would be as far away from decoration as possible.

I’m also slightly allergic to tiling in bathrooms, so we put a waterproofing agent into the mixture, and put it in all the bathrooms. I’ve done tiling in other projects, I’ve done lovely marble bathrooms and stone-clad bathrooms, but for the House Between Two Lakes, it is a house in the mud. It’s unbelievably wet there. The house is supported on pairs of steel piles, that go something like 16 or 18 metres down into the ground to anchor it into the mud. You basically want to smear the mud on the walls. Fancy things wouldn’t make sense – it just doesn’t read visually.

Is there anything you consider to be an architectural faux pas?   

I don’t know about faux pas, but over the past decade I’ve noticed a tendency for architecture to be sculptural, or a tendency for a piece of architecture to be a bold statement about form and glamour. That is something I don’t feel comfortable with, so I’ve been biding my time hoping this moment will pass, and I think it has.

This year’s architecture biennale in Venice was very much on a different track. Architecture appears to be moving towards helping human beings live, work and experience their lives better. And if that means the building looks like shit, then so be it! I much prefer that. Of course, they never do, because if you make a building that really functions beautifully for human beings, then by definition, it’s going to work and be a wonderful piece of architecture. I think it’s a great moment for architecture to get re-grounded and not be concerned with making a flash statement.

Some of the South American projects are fantastic. They’re more left wing and democratic. They have a history, that is not so far buried, of making buildings to serve the people. I’ve been sucked into this world of clients who aren’t really serving the people. I know that most of the projects I’ve been commissioned to do are projects that may be wonderful, and I may be pleased with them, but they are projects that aren’t necessarily needed. You don’t need a fancy store. I happen to enjoy designing a store, because there’s an intellectual exercise of trying to identify what the ethos of that brand is.

I think brands are moving more towards the social and cultural changes that we’ve experienced in the last two or three years. They are recognising them, reacting to them, and bringing something of them into their shopping experiences. I watch with interest to see if any of the big luxury brands react to this, but at the moment, I haven’t really seen anything that makes me think that they’re willing to break the mould and allow people to shop in a different way. I have various theories about it, and I’ve had a couple of potential clients in the last year who might have gone for it but didn’t in the end.

How important is sustainability to you? 

It’s very important. I’m very ‘waste not want not’, so it is in my nature not to throw things away – I like to reuse, and I like things that are very durable. What I’ve realised is that I’ve been creating buildings in the last 4,5,6 years, that are going to be incredibly hard to demolish. They have these big concrete frames that express a kind of solidity which I love to use in contrast to a lightness. I like the solidity and I like the delicacy as well.

The Earls Court House that I built for myself, has a basement which must be, by definition, constructed out of concrete. So, I decided to bring the concrete up to grow out of the ground and combine it with the delicacy of the glass. Mass concrete is incredibly comfortable to live in. It very slowly and gently absorbs heat or the cold, which means that you have a very constant temperature, so you can avoid using lots of electricity for heating. It’s very sustainable for electricity usage, because what you don’t do is use a lot of electricity for heating.

When you manufacture concrete, you use a lot of energy and you disturb the land because of the quarrying, so it is disruptive, but if you if you use concrete, and you don’t intend to demolish your building, it quite quickly becomes sustainable. I think there’s a balance. I think until a building has lasted a certain number of years, it’s not sustainable, but once it’s been in for a certain time, and you factor in the reduced energy usage, then I think it’s reasonably sustainable.

With the House Between Two Lakes, I reused joinery and doors from previous buildings that had been demolished and stored. The bronze front door for example – I think it’s quite rare for architects to reuse old parts in new buildings like that.

I think in the future, what I would really like to do is make a building where we use materials that are available very close to the site, whatever that might be.

What do you anticipate for the future of your work? 

I’d love to do housing development, rather than one-off housing. I would love to be approached by a developer who wants to design some sort of group of houses that is particularly suited to life now – perhaps family life.

Discover more here sophiehicks.com

Isamu Noguchi

“to be hybrid is to be the future”

The art world, unfortunately, has a certain reputation for snobbery. Everything that is deemed as ‘art’ must, of course, be well thought out, aesthetically intriguing and completely unaffordable for anyone who isn’t part of ‘the rich’. Anything that is actually affordable for people who aren’t part of that income bracket is deemed as ‘low art’. Low art is defined as “for the masses, accessible and easily consumable.”

Over the years this definition has often been criticised alongside the common phrase “art for art’s sake” which was born from definitions like these and “is so culturally pervasive that many people accept it as the “correct” way to classify art.” Thus, it is rather surprising to see such definitions being alluded to in reviews of Noguchi’s exhibition at the Barbican as the artist himself was not a proponent of “art for art’s sake” according to Barbican curator Florence Ostende.

Japanese American designer and sculptor Isamu Noguchi was of “the most experimental and pioneering artists of the 20th century”. His exhibition at the Barbican displays over a hundred and fifty works from his career which spans over six decades and explores his life, work and creative method. The best way to describe him is a ‘creative polymath’ as his work straddled a multitude of disciplines.

The exhibition itself is on two levels and upon entering the space you are directed upstairs. This first section is divided into spacious alcoves and display different periods of the artists work. There is a slight feeling of disconnect here and one finds oneself peering over the railing to the floor below, which appears from above far more engaging. However, this part of the exhibition provides an important overview for those who are not so familiar with Noguchi’s work. It maps the artist’s collaborations with the likes of Brâncuși, Martha Graham and R. Buckminster Fuller, in addition to charting Noguchi’s activist work, protesting racist lynchings, America’s internment of its Japanese American citizens during World War II, and fascism.

However, it is on the first level that the exhibition becomes a real delight, a rambling hodgepodge of stone and metal sculptures and his world-famous Akari lamps that makes one itch to play amongst this minimalist wonderland. Noguchi was committed to creating accessible public art and playgrounds, or playscapes, were a fascination for him. He designed these playgrounds as a way to “encourage creative interaction as a way of learning.” Indeed this interest in play and playfulness is echoed in the exhibition’s main space.

The star of the show is certainly the Akira lamps handing like softly glowing space ships, seemingly emerging from the floor like some strange luminous creature and arranged in clumps like brightly coloured mushrooms. Noguchi designed them after visiting struggling post-war Japan as a way to revitalise the economy. He took the Japanese bamboo and rice paper lanterns and modernised them as a way to bring industry back to the war-torn country.

These lamps became popular in Britain in the sixties and are still available, albeit in a slightly changed form, in IKEA. Because of this they are instantly recognisable and have led to some likening the Barbican exhibition to a ‘high-end lighting showroom.’ However, this brings us back to the discussion of ‘art for art’s sake.’  As I wandered around the exhibition I was drawn back to childhood memories of visiting B&Q with my parents, (they were the only shop in my hometown that had escalators and thus was an infinitely entertaining playground). Playground is the keyword here, I was allowed to roam the aisle alone in delicious freedom and explore this wonderland of light, metal, wood and a multitude of other textures, shapes and materials. To my childlike understanding, all of this was art. Interestingly Noguchi’s philosophy was rather similar. In creating the Akari lamps he aimed to “bring sculpture to everyday households”.

In our current environment of late-stage capitalism, Noguchi’s quiet and thoughtful philosophy’s on purpose, sustainability and environment are perhaps exactly what the art world needs. He saw commercial forms of design “as a way of escaping the art market and working with more freedom and fewer constraints.” While we might criticise the society we live in unfortunately we must still exist within it, however Noguchi “believed in the idea that even in mass-production, individuality is still possible.”  We must adapt and innovate within the framework we have because after all, to quote the artist, “to be hybrid is to be the future.”

Credits

Images · Isamu Noguchi
Noguchi at the Barbican is open from Thu 30 Sep 2021 —Sun 9 Jan 2022. For more information visit https://www.barbican.org.uk/whats-on/2021/event/noguchi
 

Photos

  1. Portrait of Isamu Noguchi, American sculptor, the latter’s special assistant planner, July 4, 1947 in New York City. (Photo by Arnold Newman Properties/Getty Images)
  2. Bronze plate
  3. Noguchi, Isamu (1904-1988): Humpty Dumpty. 1946. Ribbon slate. Overall: 59 ◊ 20 3\4 ◊ 17 1\2in. (149.9 ◊ 52.7 ◊ 44.5 cm). Purchase. Inv. N.: 47.7a-e New York Whitney Museum of American Art *** Permission for usage must be provided in writing from Scala.
  4. Terracotta and plaster

Daab Design

“An interesting part of our work is extracting from the client what they think normality is”

London architecture studio Daab Design is known for using ‘collaboration, inclusivity and craftsmanship’ to create the best spaces for their clients. They work on a range of projects, from small scale restorations to larger community-based infrastructure designs. NR Magazine reached out to speak to co-founders Dennis Austin and Anaïs Bléhaut about their practice. Dennis was trained in NYC and has 30 years experience designing award-winning projects in Europe and North America. Anaïs was trained in Paris and Rome and has 20 years of experience designing award-winning projects in Europe and North America. 

You have said your work reflects the cities you have lived in and the cultures you love. How does people’s approach to living spaces and housing differ from city to city and culture to culture, and how is that then translated into your work practice? 

Anaïs: I don’t think I can generalise how people in different countries live. With residential work, everybody lives differently. An interesting part of our work is extracting from the client what they think normality is. Often they will tell you to do the kitchen the normal way, but there is no normal way. You practice architecture differently in France and the UK. In France, a small office can do very large buildings, because the contractors are responsible for large amounts of the technical design, whereas in the UK the architects deliver much more details. 

Dennis: In the UK the planning policies have a stifling influence whereas in France it’s very much that there’s a strong concept which is then measured against what the policy suggests. Those differences have changed us as practising architects for the better. 

Is it often the case with older buildings, such as Unearthed Vault and Guild, that they have all suffered from ‘unsympathetic alteration’ which hide their original charm and craftsmanship? If so why do you think that is a common occurrence? 

Anaïs: It is often the case, yes, and there are different reasons for that. The first is that conservation put into law is a relatively new thing. There was an aspiration for conservation since the end of the 19th century but it was some time before it became law. The other reason that now the London housing prices are so high, interesting buildings like the Georgians, are often used as offices. Offices owners tend to not embrace ownership the same way as family homeowners do. The change of use from residential to offices is quite detrimental because the offices just want the building to be compliant and it’s not done sympathetically. 

Dennis: And the love and the charm of the existing building is at odds with its use as an office. What’s interesting now post-pandemic, is that we are beginning to consider 1970’s office buildings in the centre of the city and look to turn them into housing. It’s a whole other challenge. How do we bring daylight into those buildings? How do we retrofit? What is the approach? We have to really dissect these spaces architecturally. 

Do you think this change from offices into housing is going to affect housing prices in bigger cities? 

Dennis: It will not be the panacea where all of a sudden we’ve got this great selection of housing at all different price ranges and everyone is going to be comfortable. It will begin to change the perception and the uses. A great example is downtown Manhattan where, twenty years ago, there was a shift from office spaces into housing. It was an economic driver back then because they weren’t getting the rent from these offices. They took this buildings stock and then appropriated a new use. 

Anaïs: I think it could be a good case study to see how Downtown and the Wall Street area have been converting these offices into very successful flats. The conversion is quite interesting. The system is close to our micro house community. I think it can give some help to solve the housing crisis in London. 

I imagine there’s a lot of technical challenges when it comes to converting offices into housing?

Dennis: Yes. The biggest challenge will be natural light, how do we bring as much natural light as we need and there are ways of doing that.

Anaïs: Office building floor plans can be quite deep, with no natural light.

Dennis: But structural and service issues are less of a key problem. As soon as you start taking the building stock and getting operable windows you’re going to change everything. You will change how people perceive the space. You’re going to improve peoples health and wellbeing. Those buildings then have a natural network of infrastructure at their doorstep, whether it’s public transport, museums, culture, historic sites. If you imagine central London and all of a sudden a third of say the Leadenhall Building becomes residential, it would be quite interesting. 

With Unearthed Vault you spoke of the importance of bringing light into the space. Do you think that lack of good light is a common issue in housing in cities like London? What changes, small or big, can people make to improve that in their own living spaces?

Anaïs: Yes in the case of these Georgian houses and central London houses. It’s a bit different when you go outside that area, I’m always actually quite impressed by the small estates in the suburbs of London and how they still have a lot of natural light. 

When I worked on Vault I was impressed by the original Georgian design for the lower ground floor. It was quite amazing how they have an almost fully glazed wall in the rear kitchen area where household staff were working hard and needed natural light. They also had light wells on the ceiling to get as much natural light as possible, so they don’t spend a lot of money on candles and make the most of the day. 

The problem again is the price of the property, because people tend to look for every opportunity of gaining more internal space. These light wells which are so precious for natural light are often covered to make more internal space. The first day we went to Vault I just couldn’t orientate myself in this basement, it was horrible. As soon as we demolished coverings on the light wells, suddenly you could read the building. I mean the pictures speak for themselves, it was made with zero lighting, just natural light, and it’s beautiful. People realised how much more you gain from the quality of space on the property, rather than trying to gain one square meter of prime location.

I noticed that both in Vault and Guild the use of rich, bold and often quite dark colours on the walls. Is that a trend in interior design at the moment and if so is it here to stay? 

Anaïs: With these two projects, when we peeled back and stripped down the paint on woodwork we found 260 years of paint in different layers. A trend for a group of people or a society is actually reflecting the society itself. You could almost date the paint by its colour by what was a trend at the time and the Georgian trend was very interesting. Today people seem to enjoy almost the similar tones as the original Georgians did. It makes the space very vibrant because you embrace the architecture by using these tones. What’s good is you don’t damage anything if you use the right paint, so there’s nothing wrong with making the home your home with the paint you like. We choose colours that we felt were very Georgian but we incorporated in the original colour 200 years of fading. The red we chose for Guild at the time would have been a much more primary colour. When you incorporate the ageing of the colour, subconsciously you read the years as well. 

What were the most interesting colours you saw?

Anaïs: I’m always fascinated by the original Georgian chocolate brown colour. I’m less impressed with the layers of off-white or cream which flatten everything. It makes everything so dull I think. We found some black on some of the woodwork, which I wasn’t expecting but it looked very strong. I think that’s part of the reason in Guild we made the railing colour close to black. We used the colour reference called “Railings” from Farrow and Ball

When you renovate places do you feel like an archaeologist, peeling back the layers of time? 

Anaïs: Absolutely you feel like an archaeologist, and you discover things. With Guild again the hallways were covered in vinyl tiles. We took them off quite quickly but we couldn’t tell if we had concrete below, or stone, or what, because the glue was so horrible. It was only after when we cleaned all the glue that we found the most beautiful Portland stone. That moment is amazing.

With Sunnyside Yards you talk about the importance of fostering community by providing public spaces and programs to encourage residents and locals to interact. However, considering how people have become even more used to isolation due to the current pandemic, do you think that simply providing these spaces and programs is enough to cultivate community in these kinds of housing hubs? 

Dennis: Just providing space and suggesting usage, no. You need the backing of the community and residents. You need the will to create spaces where people will get together and foster well being. On the other hand, if the architecture doesn’t permit that, then you haven’t permitted that ability for people to take ownership of their own spaces. For years we were talking about how spaces are too small. We design everything down to the square centimetre and it’s cost-driven. But that doesn’t work, we need to provide housing that has greater access to exterior spaces. Not just a single tack on balcony but also communal exterior spaces

I think some really successful projects now are making landings at floor level where not only can you store your baby buggy but there are benches where you can sit you can chat with your neighbour. So the idea of saying ‘in this space people will feel good, this will be a wellbeing space’ doesn’t work. I think people now, post-pandemic, are thinking about how we can collectively figure out what to do with these spaces. We are no longer waiting for the governments to tell us this. And with Sunnyside, that’s what we tried to do, by creating these second-level podiums with these collective spaces again at lift landings. As you leave the lift you have access to an outside terrace, before you get into the corridor leading to your flat. 

When you work, how you keep in mind the importance of providing these spaces for fostering community and include that in your design? 

Dennis: Understanding how we live. Also, going back to your first question, by living and working in different countries.

Anaïs: But also it needs to come earlier from the community itself and community engagement during the project. Because the community have different needs and different requirements

Dennis: Look at affordable housing in the UK. Up until sixteen months ago, the driver was bicycle storage and bin storage, and that’s not enough anymore. Of course, bins and bikes are important but it has to be about how can a community of thirty-five units build in the ability to work from home. So everyone working in their flat can also have a space where people can get together and have access to independent spaces to work in. 

I’ve noticed a lot of roof space in London is often unused, do you feel like this is a waste of space? 

Dennis: Absolutely, we think it’s critical to promote exterior green space. The use of a roof should allow people to get up, get daylight and enhance views. It should allow you to meet, you should have access to a communal garden up there. There is low lying fruit in wellbeing and that is garden space, whether at ground level or roof. Talking to people, playing in the dirt, and seeing something grow is an amazing answer to feeling good. Plus roofs should also be used for renewable energy, grey-water collection, etc. 

Anaïs: Also a green roof is simply better for insulation, better air cleaning as well. I think also in London the pandemic revealed the underuse of the front garden. All these little front gardens that we used just put bins in, they are now becoming like a prime piece of land. Everybody wants a little chair and coffee place in them. It’s great to see how we can make these spaces work harder. 

With Micro/Macro you talk about rethinking communal spaces. Do you find that there is a big demand for micro-units/single person studios in cities like London where young workers are often forced to share their living spaces with strangers due to the cost of living? And how exactly will Micro/Macro tackle issues like these? 

Dennis: It’s interesting because neither of us is from the UK. There is such a rich culture of young professionals sharing flats here. In New York that isn’t the case as much and in Paris even less so. You would go to look for a chamber maid’s flat in Paris under the roofs. A tiny little nine square meters but you would be living alone. In the UK it is very much about coming together, with people you do or don’t know sharing a flat, and it becomes this greater network. I think for us Micro/Macro is about thinking architecturally, not just providing a cheap small flat. We took out in certain aspects like the full kitchen by bringing in a small kitchenette. You don’t need a dishwasher or a washing machine, those become communal uses and functions that you share on the ground floor. In Manhattan, the old laundry rooms were where you got to hear the gossip for the whole building.

Anaïs: That’s where you create bonds and friendships. 

Dennis: It’s about getting a small sleeping unit, I can have a friend over, I can read a book I can do what I need to do in my daily life. But when I’m participating in a communal event, doing my laundry, sharing thoughts, I want to do that with people, who are not necessarily my flatmates but are my community. For Micro/Macro we are very keen on making sure we can design these buildings where retirees are living on the same floor as the twenty-somethings. They can share life experiences and really create the essence of community. So it’s not about small, it’s about eliminating and reducing in your personal flat. What that does is it takes the pressure off your flat and you start organising your stuff a little differently. ‘I do have that quarter or half a cabinet in the laundry room, I will store it there.’ We have just been so used to consuming and consuming and thinking that we need this that and the other at our fingertips but we don’t. 

Are there any new technologies in the industry that you are particularly excited about, specifically in regards to providing sustainable and affordable housing? 

Dennis: I wouldn’t say it’s brand new but off-site prefabrication, often referred to as MMC. They aren’t incredibly modern I grew up in New York, next to a town which was part of a prefabricated housing scheme in 1957 and it was all flat-pack houses.  However, today we are at the cutting edge of prefabrication in housing. I think in terms of sustainability it does it in three broad efficient steps. One is it reduces waste as everything is built in a factory and it centralises deliveries. Secondly is those units built are incredibly well insulated and have amazing airtightness. Plus the quality is better because there’s less margin for error. Thirdly you are getting this incredibly shared benefit of the units together acting in unison, and all profiting from really efficient exterior insulation.

Anaïs: I think one interesting point is it has existed for some time. In Europe, they tried at the time to import these systems, because of all these benefits, but the cultural barriers against this kind of method of construction were so strong, In Europe, people wanted stone houses, and in the UK brick houses.

“It’s only now that we are on the verge of a sustainable and environmental collapse that people realise these tools and methods already exist.”

What was one of the most challenging projects you have worked on as a company and why? How did you overcome these challenges? 

Dennis: There’s a project we are working on now called Between the Lines. It’s a master plan of a neighbourhood here in Battersea and it’s an area that was formed by the rail companies of the mid 19th century. That infrastructure created huge barriers to connectivity between communities in Battersea and Lambeth. 

Anaïs: This railway company had a green light to take the land they wanted. So there is a lot of residual corners and no-mans-land amalgamated in an area that is quite close to where we work. 

Dennis: And the challenge is to communicate to people, the authorities, some of the landowners the chance of connectivity is there. We need to stop looking at these sites as giants and look at them at a pedestrian level. It’s all these series of brick arches and infrastructure that is very penetrable. So the challenge is communicating the worth and the value of this land.

Anaïs: It’s a complex site it’s quite hard to grasp. There’s a huge opportunity there. It’s an iceberg between Nine Elms and Battersea it’s fascinating.

Any other places that were interesting challenges? 

Dennis: Yes, we are working with Southwark council on affordable housing. There is a policy of looking at existing estates and trying to make them a bit more efficient at providing additional homes. So they are looking at taking out garages and filling in some missing teeth of spaces. Loads of great challenges, the scale though, unfortunately, is too small it needs to be bolstered up. 

Anaïs: For me, the great challenge that I enjoy very much at the moment is retrofitting services in listed buildings. There are so many options and people now are contemplating the fact that we have to be able to do something in these buildings. And there are different options, a mix between traditional design and really high tech elements. This is challenging, it’s case by case but it’s great.

What advice would you give to you creatives looking to get started in this field? 

Anaïs: We like working with students we have always an LSA student in the office and we enjoy mentoring very much.

Dennis: I think that the advice is to bolster your curiosity 

Anaïs: Travel, work in different cities. That brought us so much. 

Dennis: And if possible work in different languages and carry a sketchbook.

Anaïs: Draw draw draw. Meet people, talk to people, talk to architects. 

Dennis: The value of shared experiences and understanding what people have been through, is how major projects have been developed. It’s about piquing people’s curiosity. 

What projects are you working on currently and what do you have planned for the future? 

Dennis: Between the Lines is the real current project that’s quite interesting

Anaïs: Also some listed buildings and conservation areas. 

Dennis: And the Homegrown Plus initiative that we are working on with Neil Pinder. It’s a platform to provide access for architecture students and young architects who are from non-traditional and traditional backgrounds. People of all ethnicities and backgrounds working through university. How can we, as an office, begin to disseminate some of our knowledge and our experiences to this greater network? Homegrown Plus is about bolstering access to a whole population who have been historically denied access to the study of architecture 

Anything else you’d like to add?

Dennis: I think for us. we are very much a small-large practice. We opened our office after having worked for thirty years or so and it’s about bringing our experience to our own work. We are doing that because the joy of being in control of your own destiny is just amazing. We feel we can offer more and give back to society within our own practice than working with bigger names.

Anaïs: And we still feel that as a small office we are agile enough to integrate larger teams if needed on infrastructure projects. We are really happy to work on infrastructure projects with other architects.

Dennis: As a small practice we do collaborate with larger practices and it’s a cross-pollination of practice experience that is quite interesting 

Anaïs: It keeps you fresh in your thinking and your design. Nothing is taken for granted.  

Credits

Images · DAAB DESIGN
http://www.daabdesign.co.uk/
Photography · JIM STEPHENSON

Atelier Caracas

“we consider it an exercise in design and investigation to see what can happen when you decontextualize architecture’s components”

Founded in 2015 by Julio Kowalenko and Rodrigo Amas, the Venezuela-based architecture studio Atelier Caracas explores a range of formal, aesthetic and cultural attitudes across the realms of architecture, furniture and fashion. The studio claims strong influences from found objects and pop culture and utilises them to craft captivating spaces that are charged with the energy of the city of Caracas. 

Submerging their visitors in other-worldly and carefully stylised spaces, Atelier Caracas works with a unique vision, emboldened with colour and personality that speaks to the passion and creative vision of the studio. 

NR speaks with Julio Kowalenko to learn more about the studio’s innovative projects 2020: A Spa Odyssey and Fun Maze.

You mention that Atelier Caracas operates as a platform that spans across furniture and fashion – how much do these elements inform your architecture?

We like to think of architecture as a medium through which we communicate our ideas towards contemporary problems. These problems could be related to anything, not necessarily just architecture. Although we’re both architects, we’ve always shared an affinity for fashion design and furniture – it’s an important source of inspiration for Atelier’s design process.

There is a sense of freedom behind fashion design and furniture that we envy (in a good way). This freedom trespasses the boundaries and formalities of the architectural practice and focuses on expressing ideas about social, political and cultural issues – we try to channel this in each one of our projects.  

Jan Kaplický once said “We don’t want to be fashionable architects, but we are interested in the idea of fashion”. That’s exactly how we feel.  

What would you say are the main influences from pop culture on your creative practice?

We embrace pop culture in a very Venturi/Scott Brown kind of way, in that we have a fixation with ordinary things. We like to state that our architecture doesn’t always come from architecture itself, but rather emanates from ordinary or simple things. Every time we approach a new design, whether it is a piece of furniture, a building or even a garment, we always have mood boards that are a compilation of images, sometimes very incoherent, but once forced to coexist on the same canvas something starts to appear – a new language, a new construction detail, a new possibility that might have once been thought as a flaw or failure.

80s Punk flyers, NBA logos, Mid-Century Venezuelan Architecture, Shiro Kuramata (among other design heroes); these are all things that for us, in terms of hierarchy, have the same weight as references when it comes to conceiving architecture. We like to think that things carry a DNA – whether that be a texture, a chromatic palette, or a certain detail of a building – that we like to extract and construct into our own universe.

“It’s a sort of clinical dissection of popular imagery as a design strategy.”

One of my favourite projects of yours is the 2020: A Spa Odyssey. What attracted you to Stanley Kubrick’s film or science fiction in general, and were there any other conceptual inspirations?

When we were asked to design the spa, we were told explicitly to “make something out-of-this-world”, we took that very seriously.

Immediately we started searching for and filing images related to outer space exploration and science fiction. NASA, Isaac Asimov, Akira and related cinematography became constant reference sources in our studio during the design process. It wasn’t long before we knew that 2001: A Space Odyssey would be the definitive reference pool for inspiring us during the development of the project.

The dissection of the film became a fundamental part of our design process, even to the point that the Spa’s name is a play on words. Studying Kubrick transcended into something greater, and we understood the project to be a succession of scenes that use colour, light and symmetry to engage with certain sensations and things the filmmaker applied in many of his works. Ever since we did 2020: A Spa Odyssey, we utilise this in all our designs. 

What was the process like when creating the furniture for the spa?

A tight budget and “outer space” artifacts didn’t seem to be synonymous at all. This led us to the idea of conceiving furniture made from ready-mades.

With the ‘other worldly’ theme we wanted the furniture to underscore and exalt the project’s narrative potential. Thus came about the idea of a ‘meteorite’ floating in space for the reception desk. Something heavy like a rock lightly posed and acting as a fulcrum disturbs the notion of gravity in space and throws the viewer off balance and out of the immediate environment, which is a very busy area of Caracas.

Our approach is particularly scenographic when it comes to designing space and furnishings. This project, with its obvious cinematic reference, was the perfect opportunity to test all our ideas about generating a narrative through design. 

Are there any subtleties of the design of the spa that you’re particularly proud of?

Something that pleasantly surprised us was the visual and spatial effect of the translucent plexiglass panelling. It gives off an indefinite boundary and a ‘spacey’ vibe to the massage cubicles.

Also, considering that the Spa is located in a particularly busy area of the city, we’re very happy that the project acts as a pleasant hermetic bubble, an airtight space isolated from the noise of the city and where the often-polluted environment seems to simply disappear. 

How much does the Venezuelan landscape impact your work?

Very much, in every single way. For us, Venezuela and above all, Caracas is an ever-present muse. Born in the 90s and growing up in the 2000s we’ve been through a lot of political and social turmoil. We consider this to be a formative and educational phase in our lives.

Living in Venezuela has taught us that good design has no limits when it comes to budget and scarcity of means. 

Understanding landscape as something that can transcend into a cultural concept, we’re very proud of our artistic and cultural legacy, and we seek to express that in our work. The presence of small gimmicks and intentional references within our projects (what we like to call architectural quoting) serve as small respectful homages to the masters of Venezuelan architecture. More than a ‘copy-paste’ kind of architecture, we consider it an exercise in design and investigation to see what can happen when you decontextualize architecture’s components. 

“We never did our post graduate studies, so this is also our way continuing to study architecture.”

Another design of yours that stood out to me was the Fun Maze. What were your aims and inspirations for the project?

Fun Maze is a motor therapy and rehabilitation centre for children with mental disabilities, so our main goal was to humanize the doctor’s consultation office, to eradicate the cubicle and use it as a way of promoting alternative ways of socialising amongst visitors. 

The idea was to create an infrastructure that transforms therapy spaces into lineal parks where parents, therapists, pets and children can reimagine how their bodies can relate to and interact with scale, light and space. 

In terms of inspiration, this project has two main references. First, we intentionally evoked the universe and code of forms in John Hejduk’s architecture, especially his exercises and explorations in Diamond House C, where a series of biomorphic volumes have a dialogue with an orthogonal space system, creating residual spaces for phenomenological narratives. And secondly, creating a covered boundary space with the dimensions of a long corridor immediately recalled the architectural work of our deceased professor and mentor Joel Sanz, especially his exercise on “El Techo de Sol/Techo de la Lluvia” (“Roof of The Sun/Roof of The Rain”), and his seminal project “Casa de mi Madre” (“My Mother´s House”).

How important was shape and colour when designing this space?

For us, colour and form held a key role in the design process. Having a space with no windows forced us to be precise about how we utilized natural light. The roof, the coloured biomorphic volumes and the terrazzo flooring were crucial in how sunlight enters the building and can then be reflected through the different therapy modules.

Since we were on a tight budget, we started experimenting with textures with similar materials. The whole project derives from variations of cement stuccos that take on different textures at different times of day under natural light. The sunlight hitting the interior walls generate a range of chromatic and sensorial experiences.  

The pastel colour palette was also used for both psychological and functional reasons. Through our research we found that bright colours boost creativity, productivity and self-awareness, and as a functional aspect, it helped to reflect sunlight and generate a fresh environment inside.

What’s next for Atelier Caracas?

We’re currently finishing a lot of projects that we’ve had under construction, so hopefully this year we’ll be publishing some of them on several digital and printed platforms. 

We’re also planning to launch our second furniture collection with design gallery Studio Boheme by the end of this year. We can’t reveal anything yet, but as a teaser all we can say is that it is called VENUS. 

Credits

Atelier Caracas was nominated for the Royal Academy Dorfman award in 2019. Their work has been featured internationally in Domus, Architectural Digest, Dezeen, Frame, Divisare, Vogue and more. 

Images · ATELIER CARACAS
https://ateliercaracas.com/

Ewe Studio

“A horizontal approach of mutual learning, to promote and to translate a skill or knowledge into new meanings and possibilities”

Based in Mexico City, EWE is a design studio that celebrates the country’s rich history of artisanal practice. Tradition is interwoven with new ideas, combining innovation with heritage. The studio was started in 2017 by the Estonian curator, Age Salajõ, Mexican designer Héctor Esrawe, and Spanish industrial designer, Manu Bañó, whose varied backgrounds and expertise allow for their creative approach.

Their work falls somewhere between furniture and sculpture; beautifully-crafted objects that are also technically functional. By amplifying the skill of craftsmanship and the craftsman, their work is inherently collaborative – working with Mexican specialists to create ornate, yet organic, objects. The forms, shapes, colours and textures of their pieces recall the natural elements, something that is reflected in the studio’s approach to using four main processes – glass, stone, foundry work and wood.

EWE Studio’s limited-edition collections are part of a move in recent years to put Mexico on the world stage of design. Here, they explain how their process works and the inspirations that inform the studio’s approach to craft, heritage and their objects.

How do your different backgrounds and experiences influence the work of EWE Studio? 

What has made EWE a unique project is that combination; our origin, the skills, our individual knowledge and sensibilities. Our background and experiences are reflected in the way we approach everyday solutions, and through an open dialogue where those individual differences work towards a solution. 

How does collaboration tie into your work as a studio, and also with artisans in Mexico? 

Collaboration is an essential part of our philosophy, it is the axis of our project. A horizontal approach of mutual learning, to promote and to translate a skill or knowledge into new meanings and possibilities.

How do the four main processes you use (glass, stone, foundry, wood) individually and collectively represent the ethos of EWE Studio?

Those four have, so far, represented the expression of EWE, which by being a young company has created an aura focused on those materials. [That said] we are experimenting with many more materials.

What inspires the form and textures of your work at EWE Studio?

The forms and textures come from many angles; our heritage, the material itself, the sensibility to understand new possibilities out of a “found” moment or expression during visits to the workshops. We forge our inspiration from Mexican history and create new meanings and languages from that inspiration point. We love to mix raw and pristine textures and often keep parts of the stone surfaces as we found them. 

Since the studio began, have you adapted your processes for working together? How do you see the studio progressing and growing?

We have maintained the same creative process, with a deeper understanding of the soul of EWE. The studio has evolved, allowing us to integrate a small team in our everyday life besides design activities. We have assigned the efforts of production, administration, sales to each one of us. 

The three of us work very tightly together and with our team. We communicate throughout the day and are very much in the loop with different aspects of the studio. We regularly hold design meetings to create new work, but after that we all have different roles we play. EWE is a young studio but we have been fortunate to work with different galleries from around the world who are promoting and selling our work. 

Your pieces are a mix of sculpture and object – how do you see them being used?

They are pieces with an iconic and strong expression – pieces with character. Most of them are reinterpretations of an utilitarian background or a reminiscence of it. Many of our clients use them; some of them have them for contemplation. Even though we aim to create sculptural design, they are all functional. Even if the line between design and sculpture is blurry.

And how do you distinguish these pieces between art and design – does that matter?

From the start, EWE has been focused on promoting the skills of the artisans and create a dialogue with our heritage. Most of our inspirations comes from a utilitarian background, from elements that were used in ceremonies and/or worship.

Credits

Images · EWE STUDIO
https://ewe-studio.com/

Sumayya Vally

Sumayya Vally From The Johannesburg-Based Architectural Studio, Counterspace, On Amplifying The Lived Experiences Of Those Who Have Historically Been Overlooked

When Sumayya Vally founded the Johannesburg-based architectural studio Counterspace in 2015, it was against the backdrop of a deeply entrenched narrative of western hegemony. As an architectural student in South Africa, at the University of Pretoria and then the University of the Witwatersrand, Sumayya found the curriculum pivoted around a western worldview. And as the name implies, Counterspace seeks to redefine such a narrative, to amplify the lived experiences of those who have, historically, been overlooked. Earlier this year, Sumayya’s efforts to incorporate marginalised and underrepresented architectural ideas into an existing lexicon were internationally recognised when she was included as one of the TIME100’s most influential people.

Sumayya’s architectural perspective is one shaped by her experience growing up in a place less openly inclusive, though equally diverse. Now 30, Sumayya’s early life was spent in the final years of Apartheid-era Pretoria. And as child, she experienced first-hand the impact that architecture and design can have on people’s lives. As South Africa nears 30 years since Apartheid’s end, it’s a country that remains deeply segregated by race, class and wealth. Architecture and city planning is not an innocent bystander here and have been used throughout history as tools for control, subordination, and exclusion. Sumayya’s exposure to this complicated reality informs the interdisciplinary, and often imaginative, work that Counterspace does.

In 2019, the studio unveiled Folded Skies – a series of three sculptural structures made from interlocking tinted mirrors. The iridescent glow captured in the surfaces of the structures appears to represent the history of a city built on the vast gold deposits discovered in Johannesburg in the 1880s. While the legacy of this glittering past is reflected in the city’s colonial architecture, Folded Skies recalls instead the ecological aftermath of the gold rush. The city remains blighted by toxic pollution emanating from the equally vast number of waste dumps left behind from abandoned gold mines. The presence of these dumps is a reminder both of the aphorism that ‘everything that glitters is not gold’ and of the country’s history of segregation and suffering.

Johannesburg was a city divided right from the start, with mine-owners, wealthy from the gold rush, living separated, then segregated, lives from a black population who were eventually forced into townships in the city’s suburbs. The hangover of that gold discovery continues to wreak havoc. The large domineering heaps act as a physical barrier between rich and poor, black and white neighbourhoods; a reminder that segregation still exists. Toxic fumes from the dumps, which are themselves now being mined for the fragments of gold they may contain, are carried south by the wind, poisoning the black communities who live in their path – environmental racism in practise. Though human-made, the waste heaps demonstrate how materials can be used to control, to divide, to enslave people; as tools to construct a built environment, or as resources to build global trade.

By engaging with Johannesburg’s complicated history, Sumayya and Counterspace’s practice is as much social history as it is about designing for a better future. Uhmlaba, a film made in collaboration with the Guggenheim Museum, will explore South Africa’s history of segregation using soil (as land) as both its catalyst and focus. The studio often uses film and photography (archival and contemporary) to animate their ideas; visual evidence to demonstrate the fluidity of life and people in an urban environment. And if Johannesburg exemplifies how the architecture is used to control and segregate, the architect’s plan cannot always anticipate the unpredictability of the lived city experience. Counterspace celebrates, and designs, with small acts of subversion in mind. And so, as Sumayya explains in our conversation below, a new approach to architecture and the way we look and engage with urban spaces begins with interweaving unheard and overlooked histories into the fabric of our built environments.

Would you be able to share some insight into the upcoming film Umhlaba?

Umhlaba translates to land in Zulu. The land in South Africa, like many places in the majority world has been implicated in our histories of movement, dispossession and displacement, empire and extraction. The film considers the depths, scales and layers of connection (and violences) in our relations to land – through the narration of recipes, stories and ingredients that become part of our cultures and constructions of belonging – to the violence of breathing toxic dust and the zoomed out segregation and separation of bodies from land in Apartheid city planning. The film is a collage of these various scales and entities, and weaves together connections and links between what was assumed unconnected and innocent.

How did you develop the approach that Counterspace takes through research, practice and pedagogy?

Johannesburg has served as a source of immense inspiration for the practice. Because so much of the city exists below the surface, so many ritual, economic and other practices have developed incredible resistances and are able to surface and exist, despite being excluded by our city’s histories and infrastructures. There is so much that lives beyond the limits of traditional planning, design and beyond the tools of the architectural plan, section and elevation. These ways of being invite us to imagine different ways to draw – to find tools to learn, absorb, understand, listen to and interpret our conditions. Many of them are aural, oral, atmospheric – which has given rise to drawing through film, performance, choreography, the digital, sonic and atmospheric field notes, temperature, colour, etc., to develop an expanded lexicon and ways of reading and seeing Johannesburg.

What informs your approach as an architect to incorporate performance, the medium of video/film, cultural histories into the practice?

Rituals, ways of being and the lives of people in my city – and this intent to draw, make visible, amplify and sharpen aspects of our histories and cultures that cannot be included in the traditional tools and ways of archiving that the discipline and the profession of architecture has inherited.

Counterspace’s work delves into materials like sand, soil, everyday detritus, so I’d love to know what you see as the cultural importance of “material”? 

I very much see materials as shifting earth and land; constantly being negotiated, reconstituted and reconfigured. Whether implicit or explicit, all projects stake a political claim in their approach to materials. I am very interested in the use of detritus, in traces and reconfigured leftovers, in how these give us a reading of our relationships to the earth. Materials are not neutral – everything, from cane and cotton, to concrete and gold – is a reading of our ties to each other and our histories (and consequential futures). I am also interested in blurring the binaries that we have drawn between ourselves and the world we are in, and a part of. Johannesburg has also given me an implicit desire to be resourceful and to piece together a lot with very little.

How do you navigate the kinds of architectural malpractices/Western authority that shaped the studio’s raison d’être?

I see my practice as an effort to realise design languages from places of difference – different ways of being and seeing, different histories and stories – and in that sense it has always existed tangentially to the dominant canon. I think things are changing now, but for a long time this meant that the work was quite invisible to the dominant canon. I very much see myself as part of a generation and a movement working to translate and embody our own positions of difference and bring a critical mass of them into the world. Any identity that is different to the dominant discourse is a lens with which to see the world from a different perspective – which is so needed, now more than ever.

It’s interesting to think of spaces where people gather as places that weren’t always envisioned as serving those very purposes. How did growing up around Johannesburg shape your understanding of this?

Our city, of course, has a history of clandestine meeting and organising – from pirate radio setups on kitchen tables to underground jazz during Apartheid. The city has such a divisive understanding of what public is and looks like. In many regards, we never had public spaces that are truly designed for everyone and that have truly drawn on our ways of being and our understandings and cultures of what ‘public’ is and looks like. But, in many other ways, the resilience of practices and gathering that exist outside of, and despite formal limitations, has been a revelation. Being able to see and read these, and learning from the atmospheres and spaces that are created by people and their practices of gathering and constructions of belonging – whether at a carwash, at a petrol station, for a lunchtime gathering, or church on a patch of leftover veld grass in the centre of the inner-city – has been deeply fundamental to my practice.

 

John Pawson

“I have always thought that a house should be a collection of spaces in which to dream”

John Pawson CBE has spent over thirty years making rigorously simple architecture that speaks of the fundamentals but is also modest in character. His body of work spans a broad range of scales and typologies, from private houses, sacred commissions, galleries, museums, hotels, ballet sets, yacht interiors and a bridge across a lake. His method is to approach buildings and design commissions in precisely the same manner, on the basis that ‘it’s all architecture’, incorporating minimalism and rigorous simplicity mixed with function.

NR discusses with the renowned British architectural designer about his career, some of his key works, his most recent project Home Farm, a space in which family and friends can gather, as well as his future plans for 2021.

John Pawson, it is an absolute pleasure to be interviewing you. Thank you for taking the time to be a part of this issue. How are you doing in those strange times we are all living in?

My wife Catherine and I have spent most of the various lockdowns at Home Farm in Oxfordshire.  I am used to being pretty much constantly on the move and being still for so long has been a revelation.  At any one time, some or all of our three grown-up children have also been here. One of the few upsides of the current situation has been the opportunity to live alongside one another again for extended stretches as a family, when normally we are scattered.

You have always been revered for your taste for minimalism and rigorous simplicity mixed with function in your design approach. 30 years ago minimalism would not be used as much as it is now, by architects and designers. Although some like Louis Khan do talk about ‘a society of spaces’ and about how the rooms not solely accommodate specific uses and functions but they create spaces and places encouraging chance encounters and unplanned meetings. This is something we can find to some extent in your work as it shows that a building is intrinsically linked to the quality of life within it and enriches experience. Do you think about that a lot when you start working on a project? About enriching or bettering the visitor’s or the inhabitant’s interior experience and engaging all of our senses, almost like a tactile reality?

When I start working on a new project, my thoughts are focused on the place – the immediate site and its surroundings – and on the people that will use the spaces I am designing.  A huge amount of thought goes into refining the function and the choreography,  but in the end it’s about making atmosphere and about ensuring a quality of sensory engagement.

Minimalism has now become a life style which is something we can all thank you for as you have helped coined this new phenomena. In your body of work can also be found a certain inclination for idealism and purism rather than materialism. 

When and where did you find your attraction for simplicity and how did your search for it, began?

I think that my interest in simplicity was always there, even as a child. My parents’ values and the treeless landscapes of the Yorkshire Moors where I grew up helped reinforce these innate preferences.

Who or what inspired you to start creating and designing?

What are some architects’ works or designers’ works that you really like?

It had been at the back of my mind for a long time, but the person who gave me the final impetus to pursue a career in architecture when I was in my late twenties was the Japanese architect and designer, Shiro Kuramata.

Alongside Kuramata, the people whose work I have always admired include Mies van der Rohe, Donald Judd and Dan Flavin.

I studied Interior Design at the Royal College of Art in London and your name came up frequently during my research as I was very interested in spaces that have a positive influence on the spirit and mind, spaces in which one is able to daydream and contemplate without any distractions. I am sure you know of Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard. I find some similarities between your manifestos most specifically in relation to day dreaming, thinking, imagination and presenting the space we inhabit as a cosmos of its own. What are your views on Bachelard’s philosophy? 

Like Bachelard, I have always thought that a house should be a collection of spaces in which to dream. The potential for dreaming comes when the mind and body are at ease.

The Valextra store was not your first retail project. You had been commissioned before to design stores for Calvin Klein in previous years. Could you tell us a bit about your decade-long relationship? How do you feel the world of fashion collide with the one of architecture and interior design? If you could pick one contemporary fashion designer that you would want to work with, who would that be?

The first store I designed for Calvin Klein actually opened more than two and a half decades ago. I think that the relationship between fashion and architecture is a naturally resonant one, even though the creative timeframes are so very different – the cycles of fashion are measured in weeks and months, where a single building can take many years from conception to realisation.

For me, it’s ultimately very simple: I’ve always tried to make stores where the clothes look good and people feel comfortable. Since Calvin, I have designed stores for Christopher Kane and Jil Sander’s creative directors, Luke and Lucy Meier, with whom the architectural collaboration is ongoing.

Obviously I imagine that it would be quite difficult to provide a short answer to how you find ways to approach fundamental issues revolving around space, proportion, light and material. But could you give us an insight into how you achieve such balance between those elements? 

The balance between the defining elements of my work – light, space, proportion, surface and scale – is always the result of a long, slow process of paring away.

The St Moritz Church in Augsburg is a standout example of bringing out the inner beauty of a space, a sort of humble beauty. I have not visited it in person (not yet) but I can imagine from the photos that the visitor would feel sheltered and protected. Could you tell us about the process of refurbishing such place? 

With the St Moritz church we inherited a building that was already the product of many earlier interventions, over the centuries. My intention was to simplify things a little –  to achieve a clearer visual field, where the primary physical experience for people entering the building would be of light and space.

What places around the world have been particularly inspiring for you and your craft? You have cited Milan for example as one of the most influential cities in terms of craftsmanship, manufacturing and culture. What are some other places you have really enjoyed visiting and that have nurtured and influenced your work?

I am always energised by visits to quarries, to choose stone for a project. I’ve gone deep underground in marble quarries in Vermont and the north of Italy, where you find yourself entirely surrounded by a single material. For someone interested in the condition of seamlessness, it is utterly exhilarating.

You’ve mentioned in interviews before that you use photography as a tool alongside your sketches which to me highlight how architecture can be a multidisciplinary field. You have also released a photography book titled Spectrum through Phaidon a couple of years ago. Could you tell us what other mediums you have used before to complement your work process?

Photography is a critical design tool for me. I use my camera in the same way that other designers use a pencil and sketchbook. I also find physical models very helpful as a medium for exploring ideas – both in the early stages of a project and later on in the architectural narrative, when it’s more about understanding the impact of the details.

You must get a lot of different reactions to your work. Do you rely on how the exterior world perceives your work and if so how do those perceptions inform your future projects?

My work is never going to appeal to everyone. I have been fortunate that there have always been people for whom my architecture makes sense and that some of these people are in a position to commission me to make more of it.

The theme of this issue is Growth and your countryside retreat, Home Farm in Oxfordshire is a project I felt resonated with it as you have successfully created a space that enables peace and tranquillity. How did the idea come about? 

Do you spend a lot of time there?

It was really Catherine, my wife, who was originally keen to find a place in the countryside. Now, of course, I could not imagine life without Home Farm.  The idea was to make a home with space for the wider family and friends to gather through the year, but also somewhere Catherine and I could live in a slightly different way than is possible in the city. In normal circumstances we move back and forth between London and Oxfordshire, but over the past twelve months I’ve relished the chance to immerse myself in the place – in the architecture and in the surrounding landscape.

We have a number of architectural projects on the drawing board and on site, but one of my ambitions this year – fuelled by this immersive period at Home Farm – is also to develop the inventory of domestic objects.

Any book recommendations?

A book I never tire of is ‘Architecture of Truth’, Lucien Hervé’s black and white photographic essay of Le Thoronet, a twelfth century Cistercian abbey in the south of France.  Hervé captures the different spaces and surfaces of the architecture across the passage of a day, inspiring Le Corbusier to write at the beginning of his preface to the book, ‘Light and shade are the loudspeakers of this architecture of truth, tranquility and strength’.

What will you be working on this year?

We have a number of architectural projects on the drawing board and on site, but one of my ambitions this year – fuelled by this immersive period at Home Farm – is also to develop the inventory of domestic objects.

Any book recommendations?

A book I never tire of is ‘Architecture of Truth’, Lucien Hervé’s black and white photographic essay of Le Thoronet, a twelfth century Cistercian abbey in the south of France. Hervé captures the different spaces and surfaces of the architecture across the passage of a day, inspiring Le Corbusier to write at the beginning of his preface to the book, ‘Light and shade are the loudspeakers of this architecture of truth, tranquility and strength’.