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The Interviews
Marking AZURE'S 35th anniversary, we feature 10 interviews with figures who have shaped the architecture and design world since 1985.
Renzo Piano’s Masterful Light Touch
1/10
Frida Escobedo’s Homing Instinct
2/10
Thomas Woltz Restores Ecologies One Landscape at a Time
3/10
Neri&Hu Bridge Past, Present and Future
4/10
Paola Antonelli’s Elastic Mind
5/10
Karim Rashid’s Virtual and Physical World
6/10
Dan Stubbergaard Crafts More Than Just Buildings
7/10
Yves Béhar Relights the Fuse
8/10
Diébédo Francis Kéré’s Global Localism
9/10
Daan Roosegaarde’s “Protopian” Future
10/10
The Interviews

Meeting Renzo Piano in his studio in Paris almost inevitably means walking past the Centre Pompidou, the High-Tech icon he designed with Richard Rogers decades ago. Inaugurated in 1977, it still looks as audacious today as it did back then. Some of it is covered in scaffolding, so I ask Piano, when I meet him a short time later, if he has consulted on any restoration or renovation work. “Of course,” he smiles. “They come here and we talk about it. Or I call up Richard to discuss it. I walk past it every time I go home. I am like the Quasimodo of the building.”

In the years since the Pompidou, Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW) has designed everything from a stadium in the Italian port city of Bari to an airport in Japan, plus countless museums and cultural buildings along the way. Piano’s architecture is delicate yet daring, beautifully crafted yet inventive. Aged 82 but showing little sign of slowing down, the Pritzker Prize winner still divides his time between offices in Paris, New York and Genoa and is currently working with his 150-strong team on dozens of projects across the globe. These include a visitor experience centre for the CERN particle physics laboratory in Switzerland, a pediatric hospital in Uganda, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles and, located just steps from Viljo Revell’s renowned City Hall in Toronto, the practice’s first project in Canada: a courthouse co-executed with the global design firm NORR. For Piano, such projects represent the raison d’être of architecture. “When you make a public building,” he says, “you feel like you are doing something special, something important for the community.”

Your father was a builder. What did he think when you told him you wanted to be an architect?

Renzo Piano

My father was a small residential builder with around 10 to 12 people working for him. I used to spend a lot of time on construction sites as a child. He would make me sit on a little hill of sand, because then I was always visible to him. When I told him I wanted to be an architect, he looked at me and said, “But why? You can be a builder.” For him a builder was someone who does a lot of the same things [as an architect]: design, calculations, engineering. But when you are 19 years old, the only thing you can think about is running away from home. It signifies freedom and rebellion, and rebellion is still the easiest way to find yourself at that age. I also knew that they only taught architecture in Florence, Milan and Turin; there were no architecture schools in my hometown of Genoa, so I decided to become an architect!

Living by the sea was a major influence in your life. How did it form you?

If you grow up by the sea and spend years walking by the sea and watching it, you become a member of that big family that is the Mediterranean family. You grow up with this idea that the sea makes things beautiful and interesting. And the Mediterranean is like a world; it’s like a device that has recorded every sort of thing for centuries: sounds, voices, perfumes, light. It is about a sense of light and of lightness.

Your competition entry with Richard Rogers was one of 681 for the Centre Pompidou in 1971. In an interview, Rogers mentioned that you never thought you would win. That must have been quite a freeing position to be in.

When you are that age — I was 33 and Richard was 37 — it’s not about winning or not winning. You just want to do something that expresses what you want to say. For us, culture wasn’t an intellectual club; it wasn’t museums. It was going to concerts with your children on your shoulders. It was about creating a sense of curiosity. We wanted to show that cultural buildings didn’t have to be intimidating. When we actually won, we met M. Pompidou and he told us he wanted a building that would last 500 years. We stared at him, because at that point we had never built anything that lasted longer than six months!

Piano was 33 when he and Richard Rogers won the commission to design the French capital’s Centre Pompidou, the landmark cultural facility not far from RPBW’s Paris office today. PHOTO: Michel Denancé

What was the main idea behind the building’s design?

We wanted total flexibility. For us, flexibility was a kind of ethical position. It was not technical. When you feel culture is something difficult to define, something that can change, you have to make a building that is a bit like a soft machine that can adapt to different needs. That flexibility was a promise of happiness, of change. We had this idea that architecture should change the world; it was a kind of utopian idea.

Do you still think architecture can change the world?

In the best-case scenario, architecture is about putting into a building the spirit of the time. It doesn’t change the world, but it bears witness to change. Projects happen because the time is right for them. Don’t forget that this was the end of the sixties, beginning of the seventies. There had been the May ’68 student protests in Paris. In Italy, I finished my studies during the period of the university occupations. London had the Beatles. It was a special moment. It was inevitable that something like the Pompidou Centre got to happen.

The Whitney Museum of American Art’s former home in a beloved Marcel Breuer building was a tough act to follow, but a new facility designed by Piano in New York City’s Meatpacking District more than met expectations. PHOTOS: Nic Lehoux

People often say you don’t have a signature style. Why isn’t it essential for you to have one?

In the best-case scenario, architecture is about putting into a building the spirit of the time. It doesn’t change the world, but it bears witness to change.
Renzo Piano

I have always loved the fact that, in our profession, every time you do a new job, it’s a new story. It’s a bit like finding yourself on a new island with new materials and new people. There are so many things that change when you do a new project that you would have to be a bit stupid not to take the opportunity to change and renew yourself, too. There is a thread that runs through all my work, however. And it is something I like to call coherence. Coherence and, perhaps, integrity.

You have been active as an architect for 50 years. How would you say architecture has changed in that time?

When I started, nobody was putting the fragility of the Earth first. The new century has made a clear statement: The planet is fragile. And we need to be responsible; we need to be wise in the way we make buildings. This should not be seen as a negative obligation or an imposition that makes you suffer, but as a new source of inspiration.

You designed a new bridge pro bono after the Ponte Morandi in Genoa collapsed in a storm in 2018. Why was that important to you?

Because what happened is so, so sad. For me it’s a quadruple tragedy. There are the 43 people who lost their lives, the 600 people who were made homeless, the bridge that was lost and divided the city in two and, finally, another reason: one that belongs to the imaginary. A bridge connects people both physically and psychologically; it does an immensely important job. Building a bridge that collapses is terrible because bridges should never fall.

Opened in 2016, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center in Athens was designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop to exacting environmental standards. Its mammoth canopy roof, for instance, is topped with 10,000 square metres of photovoltaic cells, enough to generate 1.5 megawatts of power for the library and opera house below. PHOTO: Michel Denancé

How is construction on the new bridge going?

Yesterday, they were putting up the first big 100-metre-long piece. I designed the bridge, as you say, but a bridge, like all projects, is a collective enterprise. There are 1,000 people working on it, including many excellent engineers. We are all very proud of it. First, because it is going to be built in one year, which is amazing. And second, because when you make a public building — a bridge, a library, a museum, a school, a university or a hospital — you feel like you are doing something special, something important for the community. Making something together for others is a gesture of peace.

A collaboration between RPBW and NORR, the new Toronto courthouse currently under construction kittycorner to Viljo Revell’s iconic City Hall will consolidate several Ontario court facilities in a single 17-storey edifice. Among its defining features is a 20-metre-tall atrium (top) enclosed by a transparent glazed facade intended to convey openness. IMAGES: Courtesy of RPBW; lower rendering by Pixelflakes

In the past, you have said that failures are as important as successes. Why do you think that?

It’s very simple: If you don’t run any risks, you will go nowhere. I don’t like to make mistakes, of course, but the problem is that, as an architect, you have to express change. How can you do that if you are following a path that has already been explored? My theory is that, as an architect, you should live at least 150 years. For the first 50 or 60, you would learn and make a lot of mistakes. Then, once you have learned, you would have another 50 or 60 years to actually make buildings. And then once you reach 120, you would have another 60 years to teach everyone else how to make buildings. I’m not joking.

In Paris, RPBW realized another striking judicial complex, this one composed of connected “tower” and “pedestal”volumes accommodating nearly 9,000 people a day. PHOTO: Sergio Grazia

“The Interviews” is a series of Q&As that celebrates Azure’s 35 years as a leading forum for architecture and design. We tapped the minds of 10 leading industry players, from Renzo Piano to Frida Escobedo, for their insights on the state of design today — and where it’ll take us tomorrow. Follow all things Azure anniversary on social media by using the hashtag #Azure35

“Architecture is like a true imprint of social dynamics,” explains Mexico City-based Frida Escobedo. “You can read it. You can see the things that are manifested in space and you can feel the interactions that happen within it.” Since establishing her eponymous studio in 2006, the award-winning architect has completed a wide range of projects — from experimental installations and exhibit design to housing and high-end boutiques — that address the forces embedded in building: social space, time, locality and labour.

It was after encountering a puzzling requirement for two kitchens in a brief for the failed Ordos 100 community in China that she became fascinated by the lengths to which builders go to isolate, conceal and erase domestic labour and those who perform it. “In the project, it actually looked like there was a house within the house,” she explains. “It was like something revolving around the house — like the moon and the Earth — repelling each other but also attracting.” As she recently told Azure, this tension was not only the subject of a recent studio at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, but a way of examining how shifting ideas of gender, family structure and inclusion can inform architecture of all kinds.

PHOTO: Ana Hop

The domestic sphere is a preoccupation of your ongoing research and teaching project Domestic Orbits, also the title of the speculative essay of case studies published in 2019. How does architecture go about masking domestic workers?

Frida Escobedo

In Mexico, this idea of separating and making things invisible or visible is quite apparent: What is socially acceptable and what should be disguised? The same current appears in Casa Luis Barragán. There is a service house within the residence that is still inhabited, but hasn’t been photographed or recorded. We began analyzing all the things that Luis Barragán carefully did to choreograph the movement of domestic labour throughout the house to render it invisible.

It was quite shocking to see all the energy put into disguising something that is crucial to our lives. If you measured it in economic terms, domestic labour represents 25 per cent of the gross income of Mexico. That is huge. Domestic labour was not even recognized as a job until 2020, but this is how we raise our children, how we feed ourselves and how we maintain our lives. A major component of this is not only gender, but also ethnicity. We’re trying to disguise that, replace that, and it’s very revealing about the ways we relate to each other. As an architect, I wonder whom we are leaving behind the wall.

What is the importance of bringing these ideas to the fore?

FE

When I think about architecture, I don’t think of it in terms of building but in terms of space and what happens within it. Once you start seeing this erasure in the domestic realm, you start seeing it everywhere. You start thinking of all these problems of design that haven’t been addressed in terms of gender and inclusion. It seems like, “Oh, you’re only now focusing on women.” No, it’s just that this has been forgotten for so long.

When I think about architecture, I don’t think of it in terms of building but in terms of space and what happens within it.
For the 2018 Serpentine Pavilion, concrete roofing tiles were woven together to create a tapestry-like skin, which functioned as a dark breeze-block wall. PHOTO: Rafael Gamo

In 2018, you were only the second woman solely at the helm of her own practice to design the Serpentine Pavilion. As the principal of your own studio, is gender representation important to you?

FE

I don’t know if it’s strange that I was the youngest woman to be invited then. Is it something we should be thinking about? Or is it something that, in a project like the pavilion, is not relevant anymore? I hope it’s not. If we’re able to see that this is not important in the context of the Serpentine Pavilion, then eventually we will be able to see it is not important elsewhere.

At the same time, my practice is collaborative. My role is to be the editor and director, but I don’t think by myself; I have a team of people. Sometimes it’s all women in my studio, sometimes it’s all men and sometimes it’s a mix. Though we live in Mexico, where this separation of who does what is embedded in our DNA, ideas of gender have drastically changed, and this is something that we cannot take for granted anymore. And I’m happy we don’t. We can now address the social roles that are embedded within these concepts.

With its triangular concrete breeze block facade and large-scale art works, La Tallera (an art gallery in the former studio of Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros) marked Escobedo’s first public project when it was completed in 2010. PHOTO: Rafael Gamo

The last decade saw not only the ascension of a number of architecture practices led by women but also an increased focus on social housing, particularly in Mexico. How did you become involved with your country’s National Workers’ Housing Fund Institute, Infonavit?

FE

The latest initiative was started in 2017 by Infonavit’s former deputy director for sustainability, Carlos Zedillo Velasco, with the idea of inviting architecture studios from all over the country to create low-cost housing prototypes in Hidalgo, whether it was achieving more density in abandoned areas or understanding what the structure of the home could be for workers’ residences. It began as this vision that we as architects could do something in terms of not just designing the space, but also thinking about the financial implications for families.

We wanted to create a platform for the family to organize itself in different ways.
For Vivienda Rural, part of the “From Territory to Inhabitant” study for Mexico’s Infonavit, Frida Escobedo and her office conceived this social housing prototype. The barrel-vaulted brick structure is designed to support incremental growth and shifting familial arrangements. PHOTO: Rafael Gamo

What was the resulting project?

FE

We completed five exercises with Infonavit, and “From Territory to Inhabitant” was one. Because this was regional housing, it was really interesting as an initial experiment. It had to do with being very site-specific and trying to design a prototype that was on rural land, but eventually would connect with Mexico City as its expansion continued. How do you create that transition? And how can you integrate yourself with a growing city, but starting from a rural context? That was the first question. The second question was: How do you build a structure that costs as little as possible? We decided to construct an envelope that was big enough to be divided within. Initially, there would be one single space, but it could be segmented further into three bedrooms as needed.

Instead of expanding, it was an implosion, creating more density. The more you build, the less it would cost for families, as you’re not repeating walls but sharing them. We were interested in challenging the idea of how family structure is understood, because it’s not just a mother, father and two kids. Sometimes there is a grandmother and perhaps a younger uncle, or an extended family coexisting in the same space. Why would you need three or four kitchens if you could just have one? We wanted to create a platform for the family to organize itself in different ways.

Taking over the Rogers Memorial Library Plaza designed by I.M. Pei, this public installation in Indiana became a landscape for gathering. PHOTO: Hadley Fruits

In approaching these projects, what other questions do you ask?

FE

One is the question of family structure. We’re not just looking for the typical ideal or what was understood as ideal, the standard usually being male and from a specific ethnic background. We’re looking at the demographics, such as an aging population that is not going to be able to pay for their retirement or healthcare in the future. How do you create the possibility of income for them?

Another question concerns how to give people tools and how to avoid imposing. As architects, we believe we can tell people how to live, but it’s usually the other way around. We need to understand what their needs are and craft spaces for them to flourish. It’s about the economy of resources, but also about reacting to the family situation. We’re always studying and optimizing, but often we’re optimizing for the developer and not for the family.

Custom-fabricated concrete blocks form a series of lattice walls that control views and provide privacy for the residents of the Mar Tirreno apartment complex. PHOTO: Rafael Gamo

When you’re conceiving larger residential or social housing developments, do the concepts from your experimental installations — such as materiality or engaging public space — inform the work?

FE

There are certain things that are constant, such as the expression of a single material. In our recent residential project Mar Tirreno, the simplest thing to do was build one or two apartments per floor and then repeat the plan. Instead, we decided to shift this idea and design courtyard houses where the walls, the screen wall, the floors and everything in the residences were made of concrete block. We were interested in how we could achieve the maximum amount of expression with the minimum amount of words, and we tried to borrow this from El Eco Pavilion, a site-specific installation in the courtyard of the Museo Experimental el Eco in 2010, which was composed of cinder block.

 

We were interested in how to achieve the maximum amount of expression with the minimum amount of words.
PHOTO: Rafael Gamo

The developer immediately said, “No, I’m not going to spend a lot of money doing nine courtyard houses instead of nine apartments. You’re crazy.” And we responded: “When you’re finished with the masonry, you’re done. You don’t need any finishes; it’s going to look beautiful.” Ultimately, we convinced them, and completing the structure in a single material saved us a lot of money. Though the works are much different, they share the same economy of thought.

My vision has shifted throughout the years, but there are still certain things that I’ve always been curious about, especially the idea of self-representation and the way architecture can provide room for that. It’s not just the vision of the architect, but the people who live in the space as well. They should be present and visible.

“The Interviews” is a series of Q&As that celebrates Azure’s 35 years as a leading forum for architecture and design. We tapped the minds of 10 leading industry players, from Renzo Piano to Frida Escobedo, for their insights on the state of design today — and where it’ll take us tomorrow. Follow all things Azure anniversary on social media by using the hashtag #Azure35

When Thomas Woltz talks about how people, nature and the built environment can live in harmony, he has the examples to back it up. His firm, Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, has become one of the foremost landscape design studios in North America through its deft execution of a wide variety of projects, including major urban parks (such as Hudson Yards Plaza in New York City, Centennial Park in Nashville and Memorial Park in Houston), public gardens (the Aga Khan Garden at the University of Alberta) and even private farms (12-square kilometre Orongo Station, a sensitively restored sheep farm — and 2018 AZ Awards winner — on the eastern coast of New Zealand).

Before falling for architecture’s more down-to-earth sibling, Woltz studied and worked as an architect, too. After returning to school to earn his master’s degree in landscape architecture from the University of Virginia, he went to work for one of his professors, Warren Byrd, who ran a small firm with his wife, Susan Nelson. Woltz became a partner in 2004 and, when Byrd retired in 2013, took over the practice entirely.

Not long ago, Azure sat down with Woltz in his Manhattan office (the firm has others in Houston and in Charlottesville, Virginia) to discuss his mission, his methods and the results so far.

You’ve said your work is focused on “restoration ecology.” What does that mean and why is it important?

Thomas Woltz

To me, restoration ecology is the fruit of looking very carefully at the way a system functions. It’s not trying to envision an Edenic stasis of an ecology frozen in a moment of prehistoric time, but rather recognizes that an ecology is in constant evolution and movement. I think it’s important to acknowledge that landscape architects are holding, guiding and perhaps restoring a system. It’s not about creating an exhibit, like a nostalgic 19th-century-style showcase of a wetland. Rather, it’s about restoring the conditions that will allow the site to function at the highest, most biodiverse level.

Do you assume that a majority of the landscapes you work in have been previously damaged?

Yes, particularly the agricultural landscapes. Our firm’s work is about 70 per cent public parks around the world, 20 per cent conservation agriculture and 10 percent cultural institutions like museums and university campuses. The agricultural landscapes that we arrive at are often severely damaged. And many of the public parks are also damaged through lack of maintenance. In the United States at least, we have a crisis of ever-shrinking municipal budgets for the maintenance of landscape.

I think nature is too often considered optional or that it will sort itself out, even though we have urban ecologies that have been compromised through development, abuse, neglect, invasive plant pressure or any of the many other perils that face the contemporary landscape.

It’s about restoring the conditions that will allow the site to function at the highest, most biodiverse level.
From The Shed to The Vessel, the structures of Manhattan’s Hudson Yards have attracted the lion’s share of critical attention, but it’s the public spaces by the firm of Thomas Woltz that links them all. Covering 2.4 hectares, Hudson Yards Plaza, as Woltz’s contribution is known, evokes the layered landscape of the Hudson Valley north of New York City.

Can nature and modern society coexist in a mutually beneficial way?

The way culture and ecology are seen as opposing forces is perhaps part of the reason why we’re in such a pickle today. I see it quite differently. With every place that we know, every settlement, there was something that attracted people — natural phenomena such as geology, minerals, great soil, poor soil, clean water, powerful water or solar aspect. People then had an impact on that ecology, and that ecology had an impact on them. And they both recalibrated. There is actually a dance between culture and ecology. When we see ourselves as a dance partner between culture and environment, and take responsibility for the systems that have served us so well, there is hope.

Can you describe your design process?

The heart of our design process is to look at this continuum between ecology and culture and to sift out stories from the land. It’s in this process of uncovering the deep history of a site that we start to find the clues to how the public landscape can be authentic to that place. We ask, “What happened on this piece of land that allows you to know you are in the public landscape of Nashville, rather than Houston, New York City, Toronto or Auckland?” Then, we use our tools as designers to create a contemporary iteration of that landscape that holds both the stories and the future of the people of that city.

The heart of our design process is to look at the continuum between ecology and culture and to sift out stories from the land.
At Bok Tower Gardens in central Florida’s Polk County, Woltz reimagined the botanic attraction for 21st-century visitors, improving circulation and highlighting the interconnectedness of native plantings.

How does that apply to New York City’s Hudson Yards Plaza, 2.4 hectares of public space atop an enormous new platform covering more than 11 hectares of train tracks?

The idea to cover the open-air tracks was a powerful one that would actually create more city and actually allow the public to access this previously inaccessible place. The city planning mandate was that 50 per cent of the entire development had to be publicly accessible landscape, which yielded the largest public space in Manhattan in a century. We engaged in exactly the same process we normally do, even though the site didn’t really exist — it was 7.6 metres in the air.

We looked at the incredible 2013 book Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City, in which the authors reconstructed the island of Manhattan as it would have been in the 1600s. Looking at those maps, we saw that the site was actually the confluence of multiple creeks and a low flat marsh, which is probably why it was a rail yard: There could be huge docks that went right into the Hudson River. We also found that this was where construction began on the first tunnel that connected Manhattan to the rest of the United States in the early 1900s; the drill site was the centre of the Eastern Yard.

So our concept was to build a double helix tower [which later evolved into Thomas Heatherwick’s Vessel] to celebrate that audacious engineering. We also used large ellipses to connect the building entrances to the centre, and give a very gentle, ever-curving counterpoint to the crystalline structure of the buildings. This creates the plaza, the grove and the north gardens.

Horticulturally, we looked at the shade conditions created by the buildings and we asked, “What New York ecology has that much shade along with seasonal flowering plants?” One answer was the upland Hudson Valley forest. So, some 200 trees and 30,000 shrubs and perennials later, we created a real ecosystem that imitates the layered structure of the Hudson Valley forest. Only the shade here is created not by the high canopy of the woods, but by 1,000-foot-tall skyscrapers.

At the Aga Khan Garden in Edmonton, Woltz updated historic Islamic models, introducing contemporary versions of chadars, cisterns and canals.

What about the Aga Khan Garden at the University of Alberta?

The brief was for it to be a 21st-century interpretation of the Islamic garden, which has been in the continuum of history for nearly 2,000 years. But how does a 21st-century Islamic garden feel relevant to everyone, not only Muslim people? That was a tall order, and an incredible task. Again, we engaged in deep research. We visited Mughal gardens in India.

And we discovered that the roots of the traditional Islamic garden are in forms associated with agriculture, which are used to deliver water to plants in extreme climates: a chadar, which is a sheet of highly sculpted stone that water cascades down; cisterns; planting beds; and canals. So, the roots of the garden of paradise are not in luxury and repose, but are in productive landscapes.

We also asked ourselves, “What if the Aga Khan Garden became a productive garden for rare wetland plants that do not have seed banks available for restoration ecology in Alberta?” Given the disturbances from oil exploration in the province, there are no great supplies of native reeds, rushes and sedges. With the highly calibrated water system of the Aga Khan Garden, we can produce seeds that become almost an allegory of the positive radiating influence of love, which is a fundamental message of Islam.

To me, a highly functioning, ecologically rich agricultural system is a thing of beauty in itself.
Resilience is among the main goals of Nelson Byrd Woltz’s ongoing work at Houston’s sprawling Memorial Park. Much of it will also remediate damage caused by drought and by Hurricane Ike in 2008.

Your focus on agriculture through your firm’s Conservation Agriculture Studio is somewhat unique among landscape architecture studios. Where does that interest come from?

My interest in farmland comes from the fact that I grew up on a 202-hectare cattle and tobacco farm in western North Carolina. The idea that what you do to the land has long-lasting ramifications for generations beyond your tenure was always impressed upon me as a child. And, when I graduated, I saw reports that the largest contributor to non-point source pollution in the United States was agriculture.

To put it simply: When the way you’re feeding yourself is killing you, you have a dramatic problem. I had an awareness of geology, hydrology, horticulture, arboriculture and design, as well as grading, drainage, civil engineering and road design. I realized farmers could use these things. The productive landscape could use our toolkit to reduce this heavy footprint of pollution in the American landscape.

That has evolved into nearly 81,000 hectares of productive land we have designed in forestry, crops, grazing and orchards. But we don’t aestheticize farming. To me, a highly functioning, ecologically rich agricultural system is a thing of beauty in itself.

“The Interviews” is a series of Q&As that celebrates Azure’s 35 years as a leading forum for architecture and design. We tapped the minds of 10 leading industry players, from Renzo Piano to Frida Escobedo, for their insights on the state of design today — and where it’ll take us tomorrow. Follow all things Azure anniversary on social media by using the hashtag #Azure35

At the beginning of this century, husband and wife design team Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu had cushy jobs in the office of American architect Michael Graves. By the middle of the 2000s, the couple had decamped to China, where they founded Neri&Hu Design and Research Office, their Shanghai-based practice. Although Shanghai has a rich architectural history — it’s home to masterpieces from the Qing Dynasty to the Deco era and everything in between — the city, at the time, was hardly a global design hub.

But Neri and Hu have presided over a kind of Shanghai renaissance. Their work across architecture, interiors and furniture design is bracingly original but never iconoclastic. In their practice, creativity coexists with a strong sense of tradition. Few architects pull off this balancing act quite so well. In January, on the 16th anniversary of the founding of their firm, the two spoke to Azure about the surprising direction their careers have taken since they made their move to China.

A grid of glowing bulb lights illuminates Neri&Hu’s louvred wood and gray brick Suzhou Chapel in China’s Jiangsu Province.

On your website, you have an aphorism by French author and illustrator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “We don’t ask to be eternal beings. We only ask that things do not lose all their meaning.” What does that quotation mean to you?

Lyndon Neri

When we started our practice in Shanghai, things around us were chaotic. Money was pouring in, and everyone was building as quickly as possible. It didn’t matter whether the quality was there. The idea was, “Let’s just do it. And if it’s not right, we’ll redo it.” We realized that, in this fast-paced environment, it was important to have a strong sense of who we were and what we were about. That quotation from Saint-Exupéry really resonated.

I see it as a statement about evolution and continuity, about accepting some degree of change but also refusing a kind of radical break with the past.

Rossana Hu

Yes, but it’s also about depth as opposed to surfaces. In China at that time, people were concerned with how buildings and indeed all aspects of culture looked on the outside. Saint-Exupéry’s quotation is a reminder that there needs to be conceptual depth to each of our designs. We have to own up to the forms we create.

The Suzhou Chapel is also elevated by a rich material palette that includes terrazzo and concrete.

You’re a big name in architecture. Many people would love to be associated with that name and would surely pay you handsomely to design a quick, thoughtless, superficially glitzy building. How do you resist that temptation?

LN

We have to be selective. It requires discipline. Rossana created this amazing questionnaire that we give to our prospective clients.

RH

We ask simple questions like, “Why did you come to us? Why do you feel like we’re a good fit?” If somebody says, “Because you’re in all the magazines and that would help with our PR after we open,” they clearly don’t care about design.

You’ve managed to stay relatively small, despite your international reputation. Would you describe Neri&Hu as a boutique practice?

LN

It still feels like a mom-and-pop shop. Rossana and I can be control freaks. If we’re not happy about a set of images that’s being sent out, we reshoot them. I still obsess over bathroom tiles in our buildings, and I go crazy when people install the wrong toilets.

That sense of stubbornness has gotten you into trouble. The Waterhouse at South Bund is perhaps your first masterpiece, but it didn’t go over well in Shanghai. You were commissioned to build a boutique hotel inside an old Japanese Army barracks from the 1930s, and you made the controversial decision to leave the original shell of the building — with its cracked, water-stained plaster — largely untouched. Why did you do that?

LN

In many places around the world at that time, historical preservation was understood in a limited way. You often had to replicate the original building to a T. Rossana and I had read Svetlana Boym’s writing on “reflective nostalgia.” We decided that, instead of restoring the barracks brick by brick, we should try to understand the essence or spirit of the building.

Inspired by traditional courtyards and gardens, the couple studded the 20-room Tsingpu Yangzhou Retreat with a network of reclaimed-brick walls and paths, creating graphic brickwork tapestries and framed views of sky and earth in the process.

It seems that you were resisting the notion that a building is at its best when it’s new. You were saying that, even in its decayed state, the barracks has historical or architectural value.

RH

Exactly. There are parts of it where you see layers of history. Like, you’ll see a layer of paint, then behind it is plaster and, behind that, crumbling tiles. It was very strange for a lot of people. They were like, “Is this a hotel? You didn’t finish the walls.”

LN

We paid a price for that building. Two clients who had already hired us — one for an office and one for a hotel — looked at the Waterhouse and went, “Hmmm, this is not what we hired you for. We don’t think you can continue working on our projects.” Even the local government didn’t appreciate it. Then Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai had his birthday bash there and the fashion brand Kent & Curwen rented out the entire hotel with [brand ambassador] David Beckham and everything changed. The tourism board of Shanghai put the Waterhouse on the cover of its guide.

Am I right to detect a sort of Shanghai aesthetic that runs through your work?

RH

Our daily walks outside our home are an inspiration to us. In our buildings, we want to recreate spatial qualities — not just motifs and visual patterns, but the actual layering of spaces — to evoke what life is like in Shanghai.

A tallback Solo lounge chair by Neri&Hu for De La Espada anchors a nook at The Hub Performance and Exhibition Center, a Shanghai complex designed by the couple between 2013 and 2015.

In that respect, the typology of the laneway seems particularly important to your work.

LN

The laneway is to Shanghai what the piazza is to Rome. It doesn’t just take you from one point to another. It’s a communal space.

RH

It’s also the connecting point between the urban scale and the architectural scale. It’s interstitial. People go there to do laundry or gossip or play xiangqi [a strategic board game often referred to as “Chinese chess”].

Aranya Art Center was completed last year in the port city of Qinhuangdao; the monolithic, 1,500-squaremetre facility features galleries, a café and an open-air amphitheatre that’s filled with water when not in use, turning it into a pond.

How has your fascination with laneways manifested in your work?

LN

The Aranya Art Center is a block of a building — a solid perimeter that doesn’t have much of a window. In the centre is this circular auditorium which, when not in use, is filled with water. Surrounding it is a long ramp  that widens as it approaches the rooftop. As you walk up, it opens, sometimes to the right or the left or vertically. So it’s this in-between space that’s constantly in dialogue with the space above, below and beside it.

I get what you’re saying. The ramp is like a conceptual laneway, in the sense that it mediates between an interior architecture and an exterior urban environment.

LN

Yes. Similarly, with the Suzhou Chapel, we made a ramp that climbs from the entrance to the actual chapel, with viewing stations along the way. Interestingly, many people who visit the site choose to spend most of their time in that interstitial space.

Terrazzo flourishes and concrete blocks soften the imposing Aranya Art Center with surprising depth and dimension.

They get proximity to the architecture without having to conduct themselves with solemnity, since they’re not in the actual chapel?

LN

Exactly. There’s some truth to the fact that people are intimidated when they’re in a formal or sacred space.

I’d like to talk about another regional typology: the walled garden, which you reference in your Tsingpu Yangzhou Retreat with a series of adjacent courtyards demarcated by patterned brick walls.

RH

With that project, we were thinking about the Yangzhou garden typology. In these sites — typically a mansion owned by a rich scholar — the garden is 10 times bigger than the house. The garden is supposed to be a microcosm of the scholar’s world view. The scholarly activities of poetry-making and painting and musical composition happen there. We thought it was interesting for people to gain a contemporary interpretation of this historical building type.

Now recognized as a masterpiece, the Waterhouse at South Bund, a four-storey boutique hotel built into a former Japanese Army building, was under appreciated by many in Shanghai when it was unveiled in 2010. Perceptions changed when global celebrities began hanging out there.

Speaking of contemporary riffs on classic themes, can you talk about your flagship store for the Asian skincare brand Sulwhasoo? That building appears luminous, thanks to a shiny brass latticework that runs throughout much of the interiors. I believe it’s supposed to evoke a lantern?

LN

For the client, we had to find a powerful analogy. And the lantern came to mind — a guiding light in search of beauty. So that was the analogy, but our main interest as architects was to play with the figure and the ground.

What do you mean?

RH

At different parts of the building, you perceive the latticework differently. When you’re on the rooftops of nearby buildings in Seoul, especially at night, the latticework glows and seems to merge with the structure. But when you’re inside the interior, you walk through the latticework as if it’s in the background. It feels almost like negative space.

You’re very interested in this kind of interior detailing. A building, for you, is never just a schematic shell. You even have a furniture- and interior-design practice. Why do you insist on doing all of these things?

LN

In China, it’s important to control the quality of the projects you do. When we started, we could find virtually no graphic designers or interior designers to work with. People would ask us to do these things and we’d say, “Are you kidding? Can you hire someone else?” Then they would get someone and we’d be like, “Oh, okay. Maybe we should just do it.”

Skilled product designers as well as architects, the duo reimagined Arne Jacobsen’s classic Series 7 chair in 2015, recasting it as seating for two.

I feel like I can’t end this interview without asking about at least one furniture project. In 2015, the company Fritz Hansen invited you and other designers to reimagine Arne Jacobsen’s classic Series 7 chair. How do you even begin to improve upon something so iconic?

LN

We decided that, as in the story of Adam and Eve, this chair needed a partner — one it could converse with. Ours was one of the simplest designs of the bunch. We just added one more piece.

Having multiplied the existing design by two, you remained true to the original form of the piece and you respected historical precedent. That seems congruent with your overall approach to design.

LN

A lot of the other architects deconstructed Arne Jacobsen’s piece. We thought it was just so good as it was.

“The Interviews” is a series of Q&As that celebrates Azure’s 35 years as a leading forum for architecture and design. We tapped the minds of 10 leading industry players, from Renzo Piano to Frida Escobedo, for their insights on the state of design today — and where it’ll take us tomorrow. Follow all things Azure anniversary on social media by using the hashtag #Azure35

Optimistic, inclusive, politically incisive and epically ambitious, “Broken Nature: Design Takes On Human Survival” was as much a call to arms as an exhibition. Presented last year at the Triennale di Milano in Italy, it explored one of our most important design challenges: how to mitigate the devastating damage caused to the environment and society by industrialization. By doing so with intelligence, wit and grace, “Broken Nature” cemented the reputation of its creator, Paola Antonelli, as the most influential design curator of our time.

Born in 1963 in Sassari, Italy, Antonelli studied architecture in Milan and worked as an architecture and design writer and lecturer before joining the curatorial team of the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1994. Now MoMA’s senior curator of architecture and design and its director of research and development, Antonelli has emerged as a redoubtable design champion in the exhibitions she curates for MoMA and in her stewardship of its design collection.

In the 2008 show “Design and the Elastic Mind,” Antonelli pioneered the twin concepts of the interdependence between science and design and of design as an increasingly eclectic and expansive field, both widely accepted today. Then, in 2011’s “Talk to Me,” she charted our changing relationship to objects in the digital age. From 2013 to 2015, she co-curated MoMA’s first wholly online project, Design and Violence. Her 2017 exhibition “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” subverted the conventions of fashion curation by exploring the cultural and political significance of iconic garments such as biker jackets, saris and bum bags.

With “Broken Nature,” Antonelli took on human extinction by combining an ominous assessment of the daunting humanitarian and ecological challenges we face with examples of restorative design solutions developed by designers including Forensic Architecture, Studio Formafantasma and Neri Oxman, whose design research is the subject of her latest exhibition at MoMA.

The 2011 MoMA exhibition “Talk to Me” explored the new interactions between human beings and technology. PHOTO: Thomas Griesel

How did you become involved in design curation?

Paola Antonelli

By complete chance. I never chose to become a curator. I never chose to specialize in design and architecture. It all happened organically. I’ve never surfed but I’ve always seen myself as a surfer. My favourite emoji is the surfing girl. Surfing is about taking the waves and making the best of them, riding them to new places.

I had a good start at architecture school in Milan. We were an army of 15,000 students. There were no places to do architecture, but we had wonderful professors from a theoretical viewpoint: Achille Castiglioni, Franca Helg and Tomás Maldonado. All the students had gone to architecture school not knowing what they wanted to do. They’d graduate and maybe become fashion or furniture designers. I worked on the design magazines Domus and Abitare in Milan and also started teaching design history and theory at UCLA in Los Angeles. I had a boyfriend in San Francisco and, as there were no direct flights from Milan to California, I’d stop over in New York to do interviews and exhibition reviews, often at MoMA.

Just as I was getting a little tired of all that schlepping, I saw an ad for a curatorial position at MoMA. I was completely untested, had never worked in a museum and didn’t have a PhD. I have to thank my old boss Terry Riley for having the guts to hire me.

The 2017 exhibition “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” subverted the conventions of fashion curation. PHOTO: Martin Seck

Like other major museums, MoMA had hitherto been fairly conservative in its approach to design, with occasional exceptions, such as Bernard Rudofsky’s work on vernacular architecture and design in the 1950s and 1960s. How did you initiate such a radical curatorial approach there?

I’ve always treated design curation like journalism, which is why the exhibitions of contemporary design I organize tend to explore ideas that are emergent or urgent. To me, they’re no-brainers. A wide group of design curators could have come up with something like “Broken Nature” and some of them have done so, like the “Eco-Visionaries” exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. It makes me really happy to see other exhibitions around the world tackling the same issue from different angles.

I first proposed “Broken Nature” to MoMA in 2013 and it was turned down. Curators get a lot of rejections. Some, you forget about. Others are realized on other platforms, like Design and Violence. When our proposal was rejected, my co-curator Jamer Hunt and I decided it was too urgent, so we began the project as a website. MoMA liked it and put it on the MoMA website. It then became a MoMA book and an exhibition at Science Gallery Dublin in Ireland. Other rejected exhibition ideas mature and become more important, which was the case with “Broken Nature.” Five years later, when La Triennale asked me what I wanted to do, “Broken Nature” hadn’t gone away and restorative design was gathering momentum, like an avalanche, because so many designers were moving in that direction.

The hugging silicone bonobos of Patricia Piccinini’s Sanctuary provide the emotional coda for “Broken Nature,” Antonelli’s blockbuster exhibition at the Triennale di Milano. PHOTO: Gianluca Di Ioia

When you are planning a manifesto exhibition like “Broken Nature,” do you have set expectations of how the audience will respond?

I have hopes, more than expectations. I think of the general audience because I know that the design community will be with me if I set out to celebrate and communicate the expanded role and importance of design to the public. Also, because I tend to cover many different types of design, there’s usually something new for everyone. And, last but not least, kids are truly the toughest. If they like the show, everybody will.

How did your role as MoMA’s director of research and development come about? What does it entail?

It’s another facet of my incubation in journalism. During the 2008 financial crisis, I went to see Glenn Lowry, MoMA’s director, and said that this could be our opportunity to show that museums are the R & D labs of society. It’s the smallest department at MoMA: half of me and an intern. I like to say that it’s a lot of R and very little D. Our goal is to show that museums aren’t just places where we go to see things, but also places where we can think about and discuss important matters and prototype positive change. We’ve organized a series of R & D salons to discuss themes like hair, algorithms, white males and AI. I find it incredibly fulfilling and very creative. I love doing it because it’s always nerve-racking — two hours of four to six speakers and a demanding audience that has been given a reading list. We’re now at R & D salon number 35. All the salons are online so people can watch them.

I’ve always treated design curation like journalism, which is why the exhibitions of contemporary design I organize tend to explore ideas that are emergent or urgent.
Paola Antonelli
Vespers (2018), a 3D-printed mask by Neri Oxman and the Mediated Matter Group, is emblematic of the boundary-pushing design that Antonelli has embraced and endorsed.
As is Disclosure Case, a design by Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen that was included in “Talk to Me”. PHOTOS: Left, by Yoram Reshef; right, by Gary Hamill

Your latest MoMA exhibition is unusual for you — a solo show on the work of a single designer. Why did you decide to devote an exhibit to Neri Oxman?

Neri was part of “Design and the Elastic Mind” in 2008. She was still in school at the time, but I saw right away that the philosophical thinking I so sought about the confluence of science and architecture was apparent in her work. I immediately embraced Neri and her work, and we’ve been plotting this monographic show ever since. I’ve driven everybody crazy with it and now it has finally happened — after almost 12 years in the making.

The latest show Antonelli has curated for MoMA, “Neri Oxman: Material Ecology”, features Aguahoja I, which reflects six years of material research by Oxman and the Mediated Matter Group. PHOTOS: Top, Denis Doorly; bottom, Mediated Matter Group

Are there any unrealized projects you long to do?

So many. Oh my God. One is an exhibition, called “Timeless,” on good design since the beginning of time. Another is “Design Bites,” an exhibition and book on food from all over the world as objects of design. The last proposal I made is about interspecies design and it’s about…well, nobody really knows what true interspecies design is yet.

What do you feel about the recent surge of activity in design curation, in not only museums and galleries, but biennials, triennials and other festivals?

I’m very happy about it. There’s a new generation of curators and it’s great that they’ve found places to express themselves. It makes me super happy to see the work of colleagues I respect, like Beatrice Galilee, Zoë Ryan and Mariana Pestana. I could go on for a really long time. It’s still tough here in the U.S., and I hope that will change. It has to. Design is too important to ignore.

“The Interviews” is a series of Q&As that celebrates Azure’s 35 years as a leading forum for architecture and design. We tapped the minds of 10 leading industry players, from Renzo Piano to Frida Escobedo, for their insights on the state of design today — and where it’ll take us tomorrow. Follow all things Azure anniversary on social media by using the hashtag #Azure35

Few contemporary figures embody the continent-hopping post globalization design gadfly more fully — or flamboyantly — than Karim Rashid. Before Sebastian Herkner and Philippe Malouin, Benjamin Hubert and Oki Sato, there was the Egypt-born, Canada-raised New Yorker who roared onto the world stage with his products for Umbra in the 1990s and went on to design everything from kitchenware and consumer packaging to wristwatches, hotels and even an Italian metro station. Only original provocateur Philippe Starck might claim to have undertaken more disparate commissions (or earned more frequent-flyer mileage).

But if Rashid is synonymous with a certain punchy turn-of-the millennium aesthetic heavy on the use of plastics (Time famously called him the Prince of Plastic, long before the material’s growing disrepute as a far-from-sustainable design tool), he is still a hot commodity. The designer’s colourful interiors for the European hotel chain Prizeotel are being rolled out at a rapid clip, while recent product designs — including his Goby outdoor furniture collection for Tonik and his single-serve Wine by the Glass bottles for the U.S. brand Usual Wines — continue to rack up awards.

He’s also still keen on the value and validity of plastic, as he recently told Azure (one of Rashid’s earliest champions) from — where else? — somewhere on the road.

PHOTO: Nikola Blagojevic

You were recently in Germany and are currently on your way back there. Can you tell me what you’ve been working on?

Karim Rashid

I was just in Germany to speak to the hundreds of employees of Prizeotel and to announce our upcoming properties. We have so many all over Germany and even more are coming, including in other countries, such as Switzerland and Austria. We’re creating inexpensive yet very high-design hotels across the continent. They are purposefully designed for savvy business and budget travellers who want beautiful places to stay in. I’m looking to meet their needs by being mindful of comfort, colour, enthusiasm and luxury at a budget price. As I answer your questions, I’m on my way to Germany again for the Ambiente fair, where I’ll be presenting a new collection of glassware with Krosno Poland. I find myself travelling to both Eastern and Western Europe almost every week for projects.

Combining “comfort, colour, enthusiasm and luxury at a budget price,” Karim Rashid’s interiors for the European hotel chain Prizeotel reflect his espousal of high design for all. The suite pictured here is in Erfurt, Germany.

A lot of exciting firms, buildings and product designs have been coming out of Eastern Europe of late. Is that where it’s at in terms of design right now?

KR

Countries such as Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Italy will always be centres of design. It’s in their DNA. But now I see countries such as Romania, Serbia and Poland booming with regard to both production and design. Their economies are blooming and innovation is everywhere, as is a desire for beauty. The interesting thing about many of these countries is that they feel behind and insecure compared to Western Europe, yet in a way they are advancing and superseding Western Europe. We always try harder and even accomplish more when we feel inferior or insecure.

I honestly don’t believe that it’s relevant anymore where things are produced or even what one’s nationality may be.
Launched in 2019, Rashid’s SAKRED line for Kronso, the largest and oldest Polish glass manufacturer, consists of a wide range of vibrant vessels – from tumblers to martini glasses, dessert bowls to a carafe.

This interview is part of Azure’s celebratory 35th Anniversary Issue. Our early articles about you championed the fact that you were from Canada and were published in a less globalized world. Does geography mean much to you anymore, if it ever did? Are a designer or design’s national origins relevant?

KR

What is in your mind, blood, memory and experience will always end up in your work. But I am also a global citizen and, to me, looking at location and place and culture always means looking back. I am interested in looking forward and outward, to the world becoming one. I love the ongoing shrinking of the world because it affords all of us the opportunity to be inspired by every culture and every person, everywhere and anytime.

Also, if I — a half-English, half-Egyptian Canadian– American — am designing a lamp for an Italian brand and the engineer is Dutch and parts of the lamp are from Taiwan and other parts are from China and the assembly is in Italy, what is the origin of that design? Is it Italian design? Or is it something else? I honestly don’t believe that it’s relevant anymore where things are produced or even what one’s nationality may be.

Named one of the best products at 2019’s NeoCon, Heartbeat for Nienkämper is an undulating landscape of modular seating components designed for conviviality.

Technology has also revolutionized design in the past 35 years, contributing to the uniqueness of much of your own work. How do you keep on top of the fast evolving technological advances available to designers these days? Is technology central to your creative process — or simply a means to an end?

KR

Changes in technology, society and culture are the core evolutionary factors in my design. People like to assume that design moves with more superficial trends, but both industrial and interior design are typically driven by new technologies, whether it’s material chemistry, production methods or mechanical invention. There is a new aesthetic forming and manufacturers would be wise to be part of this exciting new digital world, where the virtual and physical blur, where luxury equals ease, simplicity and personalization. We have evolved into an age of “casualism,” wherein our lives are focused on comfort, ease, seamlessness and technology. And it’s shaping our spaces into places where the virtual and physical overlap, where new concepts of comfort prevail.

There is a new aesthetic forming and manufacturers would be wise to be part of this exciting new digital world, where the virtual and physical blur, where luxury equals ease, simplicity and personalization.
When first introduced in 2017, the hand-screened amoebic patterns adorning Rashid’s Marea washbasin for Glass Design were metallic in tone. Late last year, the designer (pictured at left) added pastels to the range, including his signature pink.

One of the media with which you’re closely associated is plastic, which has become a problematic material for many in the design world. You have always created one-of-a-kind plastic products meant to last, but even Kartell, whose entire reputation is based on plastic, is exploring alternatives. Have your views on this major pollutant changed in recent years?

KR

I was just speaking about this at a lecture. Not all plastics are born equal. I am obsessed with working with responsible plastics that are recycled, biodegradable and/or derived from sources other than oil, such as corn, sugar, bark and açaí. I love collaborating with clients that source eco-friendly materials, that incorporate recycling practices into their manufacturing, that embrace a reduction in source materials or that have switched altogether from PVC to polypropylene. So I feel that I still can work with synthetics to create a more comfortable and democratic world. The key is using smarter ecological materials.

Charm and convenience get equal attention in many of Rashid’s product designs, as demonstrated by his whimsical Tropikal mirror, whose base conceals wheels for easy movement. Tropikal was created for Tonelli of Italy.

What do you see as the biggest trends in terms of design over the next 10 years? What should a young designer starting out today be focusing on in terms of training and opportunities? And what should they not bother with?

KR

Many young designers come to me not knowing how to create for the real world, how to build and render projects for our modern lives. Jan Kuypers, who I worked with in Toronto from 1985 to 1991, always told me to get off the drafting table and build a mockup, to use myself as a test dummy, to learn about the ergonomics and anthropometrics of humans. I am sent hundreds of portfolios and images on Instagram and Messenger and Facebook every day, and I lecture at schools globally. What I have noticed is that many students and young designers can make good renders, but it’s obvious that the object or space won’t function well. If you make a crazy organic form on a computer, the next question should be: Is it ergonomic and comfortable? What will the material be? The production method? Is it even feasible to produce it? Is there a need for it? Is it adding anything to our daily experiences? Is it original or yet another repeat of history?

Young designers can be myopic about their vision and not see it through the lens of client needs, production and so on. They must use all the technology accessible to them, including hiring out prototypes and 3D printing. But overall, they must be smart, be patient, learn to learn, be practical yet imbue their work with poetics, aesthetics and the new paradigms of our changing product landscape. They must find new languages and new aesthetics, experiment with new materials and explore new behavioural approaches.

Even among professionals, though, there is a need to rethink things. Many designers have become so caught up with being clever or drawing attention, with just decorating and not designing, that we must go back to creating objects, spaces and buildings that really work, that deliver simpler and better lives. “To be is to build,” said Martin Heidegger. To be is not to render.

My real desire is to see people live in the modus of our time, to participate in the contemporary world, to release themselves from nostalgia, antiquated traditions, old rituals, meaningless paradigms and kitsch.
Based in the U.S. capital, Urbanico Realty Group commissioned Rashid for a proposed rental building in Washington because “his democratic and environmentally responsible design philosophy answered our checklist perfectly.” Aimed at young creatives, the complex will contain 37 units in total, from studios to two-bedroom suites.

You have become a major public figure and inspirational speaker as well as a designer. Should designers speak out more on the great challenges facing the world? Should they direct all of their creative efforts into addressing those challenges? Architects and designers are, by and large, better problem solvers than politicians. This is a loaded question, but are they doing enough?

Azure Interview Karim Rashid 01
Interview with Karim Rashid
The megastar designer on the inspiration behind his exhibition at the Bata Show Museum in Toronto.
KR

Honesty, no. Well-known designers and architects — unlike a few famous musicians and actors — can be doing so much more to change this world for the better. I have seen countless lectures by designers and architects, and I notice that the majority of them simply stand onstage and sell their services. Most designers don’t know how to speak about the world we live in and are not talking about it in a selfless way.

I preach that design is about progress, about moving us forward, about challenging and elevating the human spirit. My real desire is to see people live in the modus of our time, to participate in the contemporary world, to release themselves from nostalgia, antiquated traditions, old rituals, meaningless paradigms and kitsch. We should be conscious and sensorially attuned with this world in this moment; only then can we shape the future.

If you could design one thing for the sake of humanity, what would it be?

KR

I would love to design a new, self-sustainable city (even on another planet!) or very low-income housing globally.

“The Interviews” is a series of Q&As that celebrates Azure’s 35 years as a leading forum for architecture and design. We tapped the minds of 10 leading industry players, from Renzo Piano to Frida Escobedo, for their insights on the state of design today — and where it’ll take us tomorrow. Follow all things Azure anniversary on social media by using the hashtag #Azure35

More connective pieces of infrastructure than simple stand-alone buildings, the designs of Danish firm Cobe typically interweave architecture, landscape architecture, urbanism and much more. Dan Stubbergaard, who founded Cobe in 2006, describes what his firm does a little more expressively: creating “urban living rooms.” Having successfully realized that concept in its home city of Copenhagen, Cobe is now practicing what it preaches elsewhere in Europe and as far afield as Canada, where it’s currently working on two major residential projects in Toronto: Block 8 in the city’s emerging West Don Lands neighbourhood and The James at Scrivener Square in the tony midtown Summerhill area.

According to Stubbergaard, both Toronto projects reflect Cobe’s vision of urban structures as places where people of all stripes can intersect and interact without self-consciousness. Between November and January, Azure conducted a series of conversations with the architect about his distinctive oeuvre, which is subject of an exhibition, “Our Urban Living Room,” at Berlin’s Aedas Architecture Forum. Among other things, he discussed the intricacies of welfare urbanism, why even luxury residences should be connected to a city’s fabric, and why Cobe from Copenhagen, as the studio calls itself, has its intellectual roots in the Netherlands.

You credit your tenure with the Rotterdam-based studio MVRDV for your belief that design can improve people’s experience of the city. Why is that?

Dan Stubber-gaard

Were it not for going to Holland, I would not have understood that architecture is first and foremost about society — about questioning how we want to live together and about creating better social interactions and greater overall livability in response.

Looking at your own body of work, what problem of city life has Cobe been most dedicated to solving?

DS

You could say that a city is a complex organism socially, culturally, economically and also architecturally. At Cobe, we try to understand these many urban systems; one thrust of our work is to improve the quality of life through hybrid building typologies that add value to a community or neighbourhood.

One of Cobe’s earliest projects was the transformation of Copenhagen’s Nørreport Station from a disorganized transit hub into a pedestrian- and bicyclist-centric plaza through which the whole city flows more easily. Typically, young studios pursue smaller-scale, more purely architectural commissions when they’re starting out. What prompted you to compete for that project?

DS

I had a strong interest in infrastructure, a belief that you could really treat it as more than a conduit to improve the livability and accessibility of a whole city. In the case of Nørreport Station, this largest and busiest hub in Copenhagen was so badly organized that it was a fantastic opportunity to show the power of architecture to improve quality of life.

Architecture is first and foremost about society — about questioning how we want to live together and about creating better social interactions and greater overall livability in response.
Wedgeshaped Tingbjerg Library and Culture House by the Copenhagen practice Cobe looks wide or ultra-thin depending on the angle. It serves as an important gathering spot for its distressed suburban neighbourhood.

Was it during or after Nørreport Station that you began thinking of public spaces as extensions of private living rooms?

DS

I think it was during, because we were simultaneously working on Israels Plads [a previously car-oriented Copenhagen square reimagined by Cobe as “a vibrant, diverse plaza” used for sport and leisure “by all kinds of people”]. You can say that both were a hybrid of urbanism, social interaction, architecture and landscape architecture. We learned about the converging of elements by doing those two projects, and we’re still learning from those urban interventions. Since then, we have developed a business model in which the large scale implements the small scale. The ethics of urban planning, building and landscape are really embedded in each other. That’s not something that was thought out as a big mission, but it’s one we gradually adopted.

What results do you aim to achieve through your urban living concept?

DS

Copenhagen has transformed completely from the city I grew up in. People are moving here every month, there’s a need for housing and the city has become a marketplace. How, then, do you make a city that embraces not just the rich consumer and the investor class but takes in and absorbs everyone? That’s what we try to work out.

A showcase of Cobe’s greatest urbanism hits, the exhibition “Our Urban Living Room” was mounted in 2017 and recently opened in an updated version at the Aedes Architecture Forum in Berlin.

You believe that the urban living room is emblematic of the Scandinavian welfare state. How so?

DS

Creating environments where the police officer and the nurse can still afford to live in the city might be the greatest challenge in the welfare urbanism agenda. How do we maintain social inclusion in cities — and a welfare society in general — as they come under pressure from immigration or unfair wealth distribution? If architecture is good, it will have the capacity to create inclusive spaces.

Welfare urbanism informs Cobe’s buildings, not just its outdoor spaces.

DS

Yes. If we do a commission like Tingbjerg Library and Culture House [located in the marginalized north- west Copenhagen suburb of Tingbjerg], it needs to be a place where the homeless, for example, feel welcome to read a book for six hours. If we do very expensive housing like The Silo [also in Copenhagen, in the trendy waterfront Nordhavn neighbourhood], then we encourage our clients to have public facilities on site, such as that building’s ground-floor exhibition gallery and penthouse restaurant, which are open to everybody.

If architecture is good, it will have the capacity to create inclusive spaces.
One of Cobe’s most acclaimed projects, The Silo on Copenhagen’s waterfront saw a 17-storey former grain silo (left) reclad and transformed into a luxury residential building (right), with the top and ground floors accessible to the public.
It won, among other prizes, the 2018 AZ Award for Best Multi-Unit Residence.

Your vision must require more stakeholder engagement than a traditional design process.

DS

In general, people are skeptical of a new thing, and citizens actually have more knowledge than the architect does about a specific place. I am focused on creating a platform of trust and understanding before undertaking a good contextual design.

The ground plane at Nørreport Station undulates downward to accommodate bicycle parking and, from some perspectives, the Tingbjerg Library and Culture House appears to emerge wedge-like from the earth. Cobe has folded the ground plane even more emphatically in projects like Karen Blixens Plads. How does artificial topography support the urban living room concept?

DS

We are focused on how you as an urban human being experience the city. And you can say that that experience happens through your feet — where the body meets the surface of the built environment. We often try to connect the ground level with our architecture to invite new flows, movements and interactions between people. Topography creates a direct connection between the human body and architecture.

Karen Blixens Plads, on the University of Copenhagen’s South Campus, is the kind of hybrid public space championed by Cobe founder Dan Stubbergaard. Part park and part square, it features artificial hills and valleys, connective walkways and 2,000 parking spots for bikes.

Prismatic projections are also a recurring trait of Cobe buildings. Your very first project for the Taastrup Theatre featured a nubby second skin, the exterior of the Ragnarok museum was inspired by metal-studded leather and The Silo’s self-shading balconies are a continuation of that geometry. Why does this motif resonate with you?

DS

It is one of our aesthetic tools. I hate at buildings in many ways, and we have some techniques to create texture, depth and re ections of light so that facades appear more dynamic.

You have said that Cobe has ridden partly on the coattails of Copenhagen’s turnaround as a city. How are you making the most of that success?

DS

It’s fantastic to be part of the early stages of a project, when we can discuss fundamental ambitions and best uses of money with the client. Also, we are vetting potential clients for their beliefs about the environment, which I didn’t do nearly as dogmatically when the rm was starting out. We have to make sure we’re leaving the planet significantly better than how we found it.

“We have to make sure we’re leaving the planet significantly better than how we found it.”
Located in southern Germany, Adidas Halftime is a 15,500-square-metre conference and employee centre serving both public and internal functions. Its huge rhomboid roof covers the building like an enormous carpet, bringing staff and visitors together in a single structure.

Success has also spelled international commissions. What convinced you to design Adidas Halftime, a massive conference and employee centre, at the company’s headquarters in Germany?

DS

For me personally and for the whole office, working in different places with different cultures means creating a broader platform for livable cities. We often say yes to commissions if there are shared ambitions to overcome environmental challenges, impact a local community or create new solutions. For the Halftime building, we helped a global company stitch a big organization together. The building is a democratic, open one where everybody interacts in a new way. Achieving that was an ongoing discussion, and that’s what we can contribute as Scandinavian architects.

In Toronto, what was the attraction of The James at Scrivener Square commission? Or the West Don Lands project?

DS

These are good examples of complex sites in a major North American city, and of our attempts to understand a community’s worries about density and historical sensitivity.

Do you modify your approach to placemaking when working in a different context like Germany or Toronto?

DS

That’s exactly what makes it interesting intellectually. It is very different to work in Germany or Canada, and that really sharpens what you do, what you decide, how you communicate and how you create a platform for collaboration. Reacting to different contexts keeps us more alive, gives us more creative fuel for what we do. It keeps us developing in exciting ways.

What is your vision of the future, both for Cobe and for urbanistic architecture as a discipline?

DS

The main advantage of cities is that they bring people together, generating economic growth, knowledge and culture. Early in its history, city planning was about increasing capacity and efficiencies, rather than creating cities for people. Now that we are becoming good at livability, there is a chance that cities are becoming too well orchestrated. Tourism is exploding in Amsterdam, for example, to the point that you can hardly go there anymore. One of the ways that we can remedy this, I think, is by focusing our design efforts on and around nature — giving nature a way to exist and thrive in cities that is independent of economic cycles or of human lifespans.

“The Interviews” is a series of Q&As that celebrates Azure’s 35 years as a leading forum for architecture and design. We tapped the minds of 10 leading industry players, from Renzo Piano to Frida Escobedo, for their insights on the state of design today — and where it’ll take us tomorrow. Follow all things Azure anniversary on social media by using the hashtag #Azure35

Since establishing his San Francisco studio Fuseproject in 1999, Swiss-born product guru Yves Béhar has been Silicon Valley’s go-to designer. From the Jawbone fitness tracker and One Laptop per Child to The Frame for Samsung and Herman Miller’s Public Office Landscape, he has consistently woven cutting-edge technology and bold ideas into brilliant, user-friendly creations. Béhar’s success is partly a result of his studio’s “design venture” approach: Even when it isn’t a founding partner of a start-up — as was the case with August, the smart home-entry system Fuseproject has been intimately involved in the full process of designing products that have launched companies. An example is the Snoo robotic bassinet, which soothes and rocks a crying baby to sleep to help alleviate some of the stresses that contribute to postpartum depression; Fuseproject designed it with Dr. Harvey Karp, the California pediatrician and children’s health advocate. Béhar and his brand, though, have begun to think beyond single products.

Recently, they’ve introduced two new housing projects: One is a collaboration with the non-profit New Story and homebuilding-technology company ICON on a 3D-printed neighbourhood in Tabasco, Mexico; the other is a development with Plant Prefab on prefabricated accessory dwelling units (ADUs) to address California’s lack of affordable housing, especially for vulnerable demographics like students and the elderly. In January, Azure caught up with Béhar to talk about tech disruption, his successes and failures and how everyone needs to design more efficiently for the future.

Béhar brought an elevated aesthetic to this 3D-printed-housing project, a collaboration with non-profit New Story. The homes will be built in Tabasco, Mexico.

For years, Fuseproject has been bringing completely new technologies into people’s homes. How has that mission changed over the years?

Yves Béhar

The smart home is a project that I started on probably 10 or 12 years ago. And it’s still ongoing. But we’re evolving from gadgetry to infrastructure — the everyday functioning of your house — as those technologies are becoming better understood by the consumer, more available, affordable and essential. When you think about the devastating California wildfires caused by climate change, people are realizing they need their own power: You can’t rely on the grid because you can’t afford to be three, four days without power three times a year. Hence, a battery system for self-generating power has become an infrastructural priority for people. From a design standpoint, it means that each product has to be durable, the functionality has to be discrete and easy to use — not something that requires care and feeding. It needs to be an ecosystem. These different technologies need to start working together in a seamless fashion.

You’ve worked a lot with Silicon Valley to generate these products and build entire design ventures from the ground up. You’ve introduced many disruptive designs. How do you feel about disruption today?

I think a lot needs to be disrupted still: From production methods to the problem of overpackaging and single-use packaging, there is a huge need for disruption that the consumer is asking for. Disruption is a neutral word that you can take to a positive or a negative conclusion. But technology often speaks of disruption without acknowledging the issues that come with it. The most important thing start-ups need to do is to own both of those aspects and do their best to mitigate the negatives while promoting the long-term positives.

The August keyless lock is cited by Béhar as a successful example of a once-questionable product concept now embraced by consumers.

People are a lot more distrusting of technology these days, especially when it comes to the smart home. How, as a designer, do you confront such skepticism?

I like to say that “design accelerates the adoption of new ideas.” It means that if you’re designing something right, it’s much more likely to become a trusted solution. If you don’t design it well, you can set the field back by years. The electric car was seen as a failure until the right design and the right way to build a car company came about. It’s the same with the August keyless lock, a very foreign idea when we launched it. People should be nervous about having a tech solution for their door access, and yet it’s because we built trust and improved the product that it’s now an experience that people take for granted. There’s no better reward for an entrepreneur, innovator or designer than to develop a whole new construct — a whole new way to experience a part of your life — and see it being widely adopted.

Many of your projects have been supremely successful in this way. Were there any trajectories that really surprised you?

I’ve successfully worked with people who had zero previous experience in technology — for example, with Dr. Harvey Karp in creating the Snoo bassinet. In other cases, I’ve had very mature, experienced and previously successful teams that have failed. What I look for now is people who start from a humanistic point of view and are deeply entrenched and personally passionate. To build very successful companies today, you have to be very close to the need and to customers. This is why I usually advocate for longer user testing, for longer listening in and a greater understanding of your users, because the refinements are going to be immeasurable in terms of achieving success.

Snoo, a robotic bassinet that rocks a crying infant swaddled in an integrated garment, was developed by Fuseproject with pediatrician Harvey Karp to ameliorate stresses that can exacerbate postpartum depression.

You mentioned failures, so I have to ask about Juicero. What did you learn from that experience?

There have been a number of projects that didn’t succeed — not because they were badly designed, but because, in the rush to go to market, sometimes [poor] decisions are made. Often, honestly, overfunding can put pressure on a start-up. As people put more money into it, the targets get bigger. And I do think that businesses benefit from more of an organic growth in order to better understand the market and needs of the public. To me, Juicero is a good lesson in taking your time, not raising so much money, getting it right. We’re under more scrutiny at Fuseproject because of the visibility of the work we do. Which is fine. I can live with that.

When it comes to the technological aspects of your projects, what does the design process look like? Are you designing the technology itself or are you mostly envisioning the desired outcomes and experiences?

We have a couple technologists on staff — a UI and UX team that’s focused on user experience. We act as kind of creative editors of those technologies. Technologists tend to want to pack a product or experience with technology, but designers want to edit it down to what is essential, what is important. And we find that you want to start with really nailing that experience — nailing what’s called the product– market fit — before you add more complexity to it.

Designed for Herman Miller, the Sayl task chair offers sophisticated ergonomics (including a breathable webbed back) at a relatively affordable price. It’s among the furniture brand’s least expensive office chairs and a popular option in emerging markets.

Your Spring Accelerator initiative is a positively disruptive one: You’ve been giving opportunities to people who haven’t previously had them. How has that initiative evolved since it began?

To me, technology is just a material. I often say, technology is like fabric: You can shape it however you want
Yves Béhar

Design for good is something we’ve also practiced for a long time. The idea of Silicon Valley — and of this ecosystem of venture, technology and creation that exists there — is an idea that’s been exported around the world. It’s an idea that young entrepreneurs are hungry for everywhere I go, whether it’s Switzerland or Uganda or Ghana or Bangladesh — all these places we’ve been able to practice it. It’s a wonderful, important phenomenon to see business creation as well as social entrepreneurship happening, especially among people who have on-the-ground experience and knowledge. I am quite hopeful about this particular concept of social entrepreneurship and venture being a positive one and expanding beyond North America to places in the developing world.

Fuseproject’s Spring Accelerator has supported start-ups focused on social entrepreneurship, especially ones led by women.

The physical scale of your projects has grown. You’re now doing housing. When we first saw 3D-printed houses coming out of China, they were super ugly.

They were also being shipped from China. If you’re going to 3D print something and then put it on a boat, the efficiency is going to be lost. All of these technologies that are emerging — like factory-constructed prefabs, 3D printing, robotics in furniture for transformable spaces — designers and architects are finding ways to adapt them to very specific problems in relation to their efficiency: prefab for accessory dwelling units (ADUs), 3D-printed homes to solve homelessness. We need to do things more efficiently in this coming decade and there needs to be a real shift in how we think about the manufactured environment, the built environment and consumption.

Together with custom-home builder Plant Prefab, Béhar is designing accessory dwelling units (ADUs) to alleviate California’s housing crisis.

Your projects have not always been centred on new technology. Sometimes, as with your See Better to Learn Better eyewear program, they’re about new ways of thinking.

This is the power of design. Innovation takes many forms. It can be technological, it can be userexperience- based, it can be manufacturing, it can be the distribution system, it can be the service that’s attached to it. We’ve confused the word innovation with technology, but designers have the ability to identify these fundamental needs and shifts in those human needs. To me, technology is just a material. I often say, technology is like fabric: You can shape it into any type of clothing you want or need with any function you want or need. And designers can shape new materials, new technologies, new everything in this way.

“The Interviews” is a series of Q&As that celebrates Azure’s 35 years as a leading forum for architecture and design. We tapped the minds of 10 leading industry players, from Renzo Piano to Frida Escobedo, for their insights on the state of design today — and where it’ll take us tomorrow. Follow all things Azure anniversary on social media by using the hashtag #Azure35

“Plant a stick in the mud. Maybe it will bloom into a building.” This is the advice that Diébédo Francis Kéré gave to the aspiring architects in the audience at Toronto’s 2020 Interior Design Show. He was speaking from experience. In 2004, the Berlin-based architect came to worldwide prominence as a winner of the prestigious Aga Khan Award.

The prize recognized his first project, a primary school in his hometown of Gando in Burkina Faso. Built from clay-cement bricks, the passively ventilated school combined sustainably minded material innovation with a contextual sensitivity inspired by the local culture and vernacular.

In the years since, Kéré has added an extension to the Gando Primary School, a secondary school, a dedicated school library, a housing complex for teachers and a grove of mango trees. Internationally, Kéré also designed London’s 2017 Serpentine Pavilion, Mali’s Centre for Earth Architecture and the gathering pavilion for Montana’s Tippet Rise Art Center. In each case, he used locally available materials and methods.

Today, Kéré is a global presence — and a practitioner of distinctly local architecture. He spoke to Azure about how the built world emerges from the physical and cultural landscape.

You started designing the Gando Primary School while you were still an architecture student. How did that happen?

Diébédo Francis Kéré

It’s funny. When I was studying in Berlin, people from my  village called me to ask me to help raise money to build a new school. The school that had been in Gando — which was built as a temporary structure — was totally dysfunctional. So I fundraised. But then my teachers challenged me. “Why are you fighting to get it there and you don’t think to build it yourself?” they said. “You’re an architect.” I realized that the best way to help was to design the school.

I wanted to design a school and build it in the village to allow the kids to stay and get an education. I didn’t want them to have to leave — like I was forced to do — all because there was no school. I wanted them to be able to stay with their family, their friends, their siblings. Their community.

Why did you decide to use local materials?

I think to myself, “Lucky you, that you had the courage to start.” And that’s the advice I try to give to younger people: “Go. Don’t wait. Do it now.”
Diébédo Francis Kéré
DFK

We couldn’t afford not to. We had no resources to build a school out of concrete and glass. And besides, a concrete and glass building in Burkina Faso needs lots of expensive air conditioning to be comfortable, which isn’t what I wanted to do. So it came down to using what was locally available — and that was clay. I had to go and study to see how we could use the clay in a very different way.

The Gando Primary School launched Kéré’s career, cementing his ethos of building with locally available materials and in close collaboration with the community. He has since returned to the town many times to build further vital structures.

It must have been very difficult to get people to accept what you’ve described as a “poor person’s” building material. It wasn’t concrete and it didn’t look European or Western, like so much of the colonial architecture built throughout Burkina Faso in the 20th century.

DFK

People needed evidence. They needed to see it to believe in it. We didn’t start with the traditional way of building with clay, where there is no foundation. To demonstrate what would happen to a clay building without a foundation, we built a test structure that was exposed to water. We saw water seep up through it. So I said, “If we build a foundation, we will cut the flow of humidity.”

We built a series of test walls and exposed them to the elements. What happens if you don’t do it properly — with rainwater washing away the wall — is that it has to be rebuilt every year. I told people, “We will find a solution to make it better.” That is how we started to add a little bit of cement to make the clay resistant to water, for example. It was a long process, but we learned how to protect the clay. We also used local rocks to make a foundation.

We even built a clay arch to prove its strength. First, before we climbed up, we put heavy bags of cement on top. And then we jumped on it ourselves. We did many, many tests. The site became a sort of community workshop.

Also in Burkina Faso, Kéré’s Léo Surgical Clinic & Health Center is an ensemble of modules arranged around a central outdoor corridor. The setup allows for a variety of sheltered interstitial spaces that feel both dynamic and welcoming.

How did so many people from the village get involved with the project?

DFK

You know what they say in the village nowadays? They say, “Okay, we know Francis. He will come and say, ‘Let’s play, let’s play.’ And at the end, something wonderful will emerge out of what he says is a game.” So, let’s play. Let’s try. Whenever I go back to Gando, I’ll say, “I just want to play. Who wants to volunteer to help?”

Since the primary school building was completed in 2001, you’ve been returning to Gando regularly — and expanding the complex. Did anything surprise you about how people were using it?

DFK

Oh, yes. Normally there is no real maintenance for public buildings in Burkina Faso. But in Gando, the community has been taking care of the building. The surprising thing is even leftover material — like the wood that we used — is something that people are looking after. They’ll say, “Don’t touch it. Francis is coming again to use it to build something new — don’t use it to make a fire.” They protect it. And that was important to me to realize. “Wow,” I thought. “Something is growing — a sort of identity.”

What does it feel like to go back to Gando now?

DFK

It’s wonderful. I still want to push Gando forward. We want to create terraces, to create an oasis. I’m looking forward to seeing the trees grow. I think to myself, “Lucky you, that you had the courage to start.” And that’s the advice I try to give to younger people: “Go. Don’t wait. Do it now.”

“The Interviews” is a series of Q&As that celebrates Azure’s 35 years as a leading forum for architecture and design. We tapped the minds of 10 leading industry players, from Renzo Piano to Frida Escobedo, for their insights on the state of design today — and where it’ll take us tomorrow. Follow all things Azure anniversary on social media by using the hashtag #Azure35

Daan Roosegaarde doesn’t waste your time: He follows a tight schedule in his Rotterdam studio and moves and speaks briskly. Yet he also makes regular trips to Rome to gaze at the Pantheon and to even warmer climates to go diving at night and marvel at the bioluminescence of tiny sea creatures. That all may sound contradictory, but it makes sense once you learn about Roosegaarde’s embrace of the whimsical, of his sincere recognition that, like most designers, he loves to control things — sometimes driven by his own fears — and so must regularly seek out experiences that require a bit of surrender, to keep finding balance.

Roosegaarde is best known for his vast public art installations, which often include new technology applied in an original way: a dance floor that captures the energy of revellers’ movements, a solar-powered bike path that glows in the patterns of Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night, a smog-collecting tower in Beijing that generates cuboid gems for jewellery or, most recently, a tribute to the murdered Jews and Roma and Sinti communities of the Netherlands in the form of 104,000 gleaming stones. In his light-filled studio, you may find yourself sitting on a Friso Kamer chair modified to give you a small electric shock if you utter the words “Yes, but.” It’s to discourage visitors from saying anything that could undermine a good idea. Roosegaarde sat down with Azure to reflect on how he gauges the impact of his work, the underappreciated uses of beauty, and how he’d redesign the World Economic Forum.

How do you consider the impact of your work? And when do you know that you’ve really succeeded with a project?

Daan Roose-
gaarde

A lot of what we do is about demonstrating the possible. We are, as I like to say, practising “protopia,” showing that it can be done by delivering prototypes to the world. It’s an interpretation of an idea that originated some time ago from the writer and futurist Kevin Kelly, of seeking continual and incremental changes instead of hoping for a utopia or fearing dystopia.

We set out to bring change by constantly iterating; by being relentless in creating, we show that creative capital is the most valuable asset. Still, this is hard to measure. And that brings me to the flaws in our economic models. I just visited the World Economic Forum in Davos, where I spoke with the head of a huge bank. I asked him what clean air costs, and he couldn’t come up with an answer. We can price gold down to the gram but don’t know how to value clean water or air, resources that most would agree we all have rights to. The missing price is about the missing value.

That’s what drives a project like the Smog Free Ring, which is sold for the cost of cleaning 1,000 cubic metres of air with the Smog Free Tower. It’s an object that helps you think about the air around you and also looks good; it has even become popular with couples getting engaged. I realize this just begins to fix the climate crisis, but it’s a perspective-shifting opportunity, a poetic statement about values and intentions.

Smog Free Tower has travelled the world, from China and South Korea to Poland and the Netherlands; it removes smog particles from the air within a radius of up to 50 metres.

The Smog Free Ring works on a personal scale, and then there are your large public installations. How do you leap between these scales and how they relate?

Sometimes the larger installations, like the van Gogh bike path, have unexpected, smaller-scale effects — that project now appears in a children’s book about the life of van Gogh, which just surprised and delighted us.

Another way that scales mix in an interesting way is the Levenslicht project, which uses glowing stones to represent the Jews, as well as the Roma and Sinti communities, from the Netherlands who were murdered. Of course, with something as profound and awful as the Holocaust, you can never really understand it. We tried to be careful with the commission; we understood from the beginning that there was a chance we could upset a lot of people. But as we developed ideas, we talked with survivors, historians and others, and we listened. The ultimate concept worked so well, I think, because we brought it down to a human scale: stones that you could touch.

This scale-shifting is maybe one of the best things our studio does: taking a huge issue and making it tangible and personal so that anyone, whether they’re nine or 90, can appreciate some layer of it.

Levenslicht consists of 104,000 luminescent stones representing Dutch victims of the Holocaust.

This communicative value of the studio’s work is really interesting. How do you use different tools, whether technology or aesthetics, to speak to people from all walks of life?

This scale-shifting is maybe one of the best things our studio does: taking a huge issue and making it tangible and personal
Daan Roosegaarde

This is a good opportunity to talk about beauty. Beautiful experiences get people on board, encourage them to accept change, to let go of what they know. This power is underappreciated. The Catholic Church knew all about this: It funded architecture, painting, sculpture, stained glass — all magnificent — in the service of conveying ideas in beautiful vehicles.

Our Space Waste Lab is a good example of taking something profound and adding a dose of beauty to amplify its effect. The multi-billion-euro mission to reduce space junk includes crashing bits of it into the atmosphere to harmlessly disintegrate it; in the burn-up, it creates what looks like fireworks or shooting stars — dramatic light. We can use that as a replacement for fireworks, which are polluting, expensive and dangerous.

Of course, there are engineering problems to overcome in collaboration with the European Space Agency, but what we at the Lab can add is that one or two per cent at the end — the value for everyday people.

A “virtual flood,” Waterlicht is a light installation that shows how high rising water levels could reach.

Do you have any crazy ideas for redesigning the Davos gathering of the World Economic Forum?

I would propose a competing summit, the Focus conference. In my fantasy, we would gather the best minds and most important world leaders, even incapacitate them if we had to, the way The A-Team drugs Mr. T when they need to fly to a mission. We’d settle them all on a remote island and no one’s allowed to leave until they come up with a major contribution to solving a problem, like cancer or climate change.

Daan Roosegaarde’s “Presence” Beautifully Connects Thought and Action
Best known for his outdoor projects, such as Smog Free Vacuum and Waterlicht, the Dutch artist and inventor animates the much more intimate setting of the Groninger Museum.
The Van Gogh Path for cyclists, located near Eindhoven, evokes the 19th century artist’s Starry Night.

This is a take on the horror of Davos I feel sometimes, the suspicion that nothing really results from all the words, handshakes and presentations. In fact, to take a more protopian approach here, I would be happy if they just invited more architects, designers and urbanists to Davos; it’s crazy that they don’t. But in the end, it’s up to all of us to contribute to solving the world’s problems, to begin thinking of ourselves not as passengers but as crew on spaceship earth.

“The Interviews” is a series of Q&As that celebrates Azure’s 35 years as a leading forum for architecture and design. We tapped the minds of 10 leading industry players, from Renzo Piano to Frida Escobedo, for their insights on the state of design today — and where it’ll take us tomorrow. Follow all things Azure anniversary on social media by using the hashtag #Azure35