What Does It Mean?

Interview in Damn magazine issue no.73

What is the role of language in contemporary design? Orlando Lovell has recently teamed up with her mother, the design writer, editor and curator Sophie Lovell, to form the intergenerational studio_lovell. In DAMN° magazine issue no.47 they discuss language, design and system change from their respective perspectives.

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What is the role of language in contemporary design? Orlando Lovell has recently teamed up with her mother, the design writer, editor and curator Sophie Lovell, to form the intergenerational studio_lovell. In DAMN° magazine issue no.47 they discuss language, design and system change from their respective perspectives.

Virgil Abloh Remixes Vitra Classics for Tomorrow’s Homes

The prolific polymath opens new installation in Zaha Hadid's Fire Station

It’s June again, time for the annual international gathering in Basel of lovers and dealers from the worlds of art and design. And just like every June, one if the highlights of these few days is the Vitra Summer Party in neighbouring Weil am Rhein. Usually the weather plays along and for one long, balmy…

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It’s June again, time for the annual international gathering in Basel of lovers and dealers from the worlds of art and design. And just like every June, one if the highlights of these few days is the Vitra Summer Party in neighbouring Weil am Rhein. Usually the weather plays along and for one long, balmy summer evening each year, several thousand guests make merry on the green sward between the furniture company’s collection of exemplary architecture by exemplary architects, like ants enjoying a box of chocolates at a picnic.

This year’s party has a special guest DJ: the American engineer, architect, designer, fashion designer, artist and (is there anything he can’t do?) Louis Vuitton artistic director, Virgil Abloh. The DJ set is just a rather excellent bonus, however, because Abloh is actually here to celebrate the opening of his new installation “TWENTYTHIRTYFIVE” in Zaha Hadid’s Fire Station on the Vitra Campus, as well as unveil three new limited edition products he has been developing together with Vitra.

It is an understandable pairing: the creative world’s favourite new multidisciplinary, genre-bending deconstructor and reconstructor of narratives who says “modernity is something I believe in” meets a manufacturer with a strong modernist heritage that has a talent for identifying and embracing the avant-garde before helping it on its journey towards design classic. What is interesting is that the resulting collaboration is not targeted towards the majority of revellers on the Vitra Campus but towards “the emerging generation”.

TWENTYTHIRTYFIVE is a two-part immersive installation about how, in Abloh’s view, our environment influences our life paths and taste decisions. The first section, “Past/Present”, is about the interaction between a young person and their home surroundings. There are familiar objects here, some original like a vintage Prouvé children’s desk and Eero Aarnio’s 1968 Bubble chair. Others have been remixed, such as an Eames bench converted into a see-saw and a pair of Nike Jordans reworked by Abloh’s Off-White label. The second section, “Tomorrow”, is a speculative workshop/living environment for the same individual as an adult in the year 2035. In Vitra CEO Nora Fehlbaum’s words: “The teenager has become a creative ‘do-er’ who transforms his memories and cultural and social experiences into his own products…”

The exhibition is clearly autobiographical in nature. This borrowing and remixing that Abloh does right across his immense creative output reflects the highly eclectic nature of contemporary cultural context. Thanks to the heterogeneous worlds opened up by smart phone technology and ubiquity it becomes increasingly difficult to work out where we come from and who we are. If design is about problem-solving, perhaps the problem Abloh is attempting to solve with his work is the danger of the aforementioned emerging generation having no context, no individual narrative, and he is trying to help them construct one. But he sees the results of this heterogeneity in a positive and affirmative light: “For me, there’s a generation at hand that has a different aesthetic,” he says, “for me it’s an art movement”.

Three objects from the “Tomorrow” section of the exhibition have been produced by Vitra as a limited edition series, test runs if you like, for what looks like a bigger, more commercial collaboration to come: “Knowing our personalities”, says Abloh, smiling across at Nora Fehlbaum, who smiles back, “it would be a short conversation to open this up to not be a limited thing”, says Abloh, then adds: “if you think I just wanted to make three things, then times that by six”. There is clearly chemistry there. “I was interested in Virgil’s perspective on our collection”, says Fehlbaum, “Virgil has this access to a much wider, much younger audience than we have here with the design elite”. For now though, the editions comprise two remixes and a new piece: Jean Prouvé’s Petite Potence lamp gets a contemporary utilitarian coat of bright orange lacquer and an LED lamp in a cage. Prouvé’s Antony chair also gets and orange lacquer update (“orange is a hazard colour…you want it to punch”) and a transparent plexiglass shell-seat to draw all focus to the structure. In the installation, there is a wall of 999 hollow, glazed ceramic blocks – each one individually numbered. These too are an edition and can be bought and taken away from the show. Thus, the viewer (but only as paying customer mind) can also alter Abloh’s vision of “Tomorrow”.

Perhaps the most important result of this collaboration between the polymath from Chicago with Ghanaian heritage and this prestigious furniture manufacturer will be, as Abloh comments, that his working with Vitra “is going to open the door to a number of my contemporaries who don’t think that door is even open.”

Read article online at wallpaper.com here

Change the System

Why design needs to open up in the face of impending calamity

“I don’t want your hope. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I do. Every day. And want you to act. I want you to behave like our house is on fire. Because it is.” Greta Thunberg, World Economic Forum, Davos, January 2019. Design, business, politics and economics have belonged…

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“I don’t want your hope. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I do. Every day. And want you to act. I want you to behave like our house is on fire. Because it is.”

Greta Thunberg, World Economic Forum, Davos, January 2019.

Design, business, politics and economics have belonged together at the very least since the dawn of mechanised mass-production. Modernism, the Deutscher Werkbund and the Bauhaus, for example, may have been about providing a functional, modular, utilitarian living environment for ordinary people: “total architecture” filled with devices to make life easier and better for their inhabitants, but they had just as much to do with reviving economies and the rise of a new kind of political environment as they did with a radically stripped-down design aesthetic.

It is this link between design, industry and social responsibility that fed into the post-war German Economic Miracle (Wirstschaftswunder) in the 1950s where companies that pioneered that wave embraced new forms of design as well. Good design made sense socially, yes, but it also made sense commercially. This “design-driven” approach, incidentally, was picked up many years later by one Steve Jobs who used it as a template to turn around his own failing consumer electronics company Apple and make it the largest information technology company in the world.

But all this rampant growth came at a human and environmental price. By the 1960s it became clear that the Earth was sick, and our own rampant consumption and greed was the cause. On December 24th, 1968, the astronaut William Anders on the Apollo 8 mission took a colour photograph of the Earth rising behind the Moon. For the first time ever it became blatantly, visibly, clear that all human life shares this one ball with nothing but a thin film of atmosphere separating us from oblivion. In 1969, the influential American architect, designer, theorist and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller published his famous Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth in which he talks about “earthians’ critical moment” in which “All of humanity now has the option to ‘make it’ successfully and sustainably, by virtue of our having minds, discovering principles and being able to employ these principles to do more with less.” The writing was already on the wall – along with the path we needed to take for our salvation – 50 years ago, yet we were already learning to ignore it.

Not long after, at the 1970 International Design Conference in Aspen, Colorado – founded in 1951 by Chicago businessman to encourage a closer relationship between art, design and commerce – there was a clash with a new generation who, like Bucky Fuller, had a very different understanding of design and responsibility. Designers, architects and student activists disrupted the week-long event protesting against, in the words of design critic Alice Twemlow (in her 2008 essay A Look Back at Aspen): “its lack of political engagement, its flimsy grasp of pressing environmental issues and its outmoded non-participatory format.” For these protesters, Twemlow goes on: “design was not about the promulgation of good taste or the upholding of professional values; it had much larger social and specifically environmental repercussions for which designers must claim responsibility. Nor, for them, was design only about objects and structures; rather, they understood it in terms of interconnected systems and processes and specifically, within the context of the exploitation of natural resources and unchecked population growth.”

These protesters had a far more inclusive view of design, one that sees design touching on and – more importantly – having responsibility towards all humans and to the rest of the planet. In 1971, the designer Victor Papanek published his book Designing for the Real World. In it he not only called for an inclusive attitude to design, away from commercial goals, a design approach which, he believed, could help change social inequalities by designing for the disadvantaged, but he also said designers had a responsibility to think and work in this way.

But here we are it seems, half a century of further unchecked growth in all directions later, and in wanton ignorance of all warnings, we nonetheless find ourselves in the middle of the biggest crisis humankind has ever faced (or caused): one that threatens our own extinction and all life as we know it on our beautiful blue spaceship, not tomorrow or in some distant future, but now. Design has changed massively in those fifty years, as has technology and science, but our planet’s problems have remained pretty much the same. So what can designers do and what are designers doing to shoulder this responsibility they already knew they had?

The first step is to acknowledge and work with the change in parameters. Design should now be understood as a systems-based discipline, rather than an object-based one. Back in the nineteenth century, the naturalist John Muir stated: “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world”. This means the ramifications of our actions are never isolated and often more far-reaching than we consider. It also means that the level of complexity involved in designing and finding solutions can be daunting and mind-boggling. But it also gives hope because thanks to these interconnections we do have opportunities to exert change ­no matter how vast and complex the system might be.

Human-generated complexity however is still nothing compared to what nature is capable of. So, taking ecology as a model has become an increasingly (excuse the pun) fruitful path for designers. Regenerative design, for example, uses whole systems thinking to design processes that are not only environmentally-friendly and “sustainable”, but which are dynamic, restoring and, renewing their own sources of energy and materials. It is a very different approach to “growth” in the capitalist sense in that it is at once conservative and regenerative. Regenerative design was another idea that came out of the 1970s with the idea of a sustainable, permanent agricultural system called “permaculture” developed by David Holmgren and Bill Mollison in Tasmania. The term was later expanded to mean “permanent culture” since it had social aspects and implications. Today there are entire frameworks based on the idea – particularly in the highly complex realm of building. The Sustainable Project Appraisal Routine (SPeAR), designed by the engineering firm ARUP, for example, is a complexity-managing tool to appraise architecture projects in terms of “key themes such as transport, biodiversity, culture, employment and skills” and allow for the adjustment of “project performance”.

As a result of this better understanding of complexity, there are now many branches and sub-categories of designers from biosynthetic designers, reverse-engineering nature, to virtual reality designers creating entire new worlds. Many thousands of solutions will be needed to change the world for the better, and many millions of people to design and make those changes. The “swarm intelligence” of the planet is required, not just to design solutions but social, political, behavioural and technical as well.

In real terms this means that we are not going to change the refugee crisis by designing, producing and selling flat-pack temporary housing, for example, if we do not change the system that generated and perpetuates the refugee crisis. And we are not going to solve the world’s dependency on fossil fuels by designing and selling cars that run on alternative fuel sources without changing the system and lobbies that perpetuate and profit from fossil fuels – or changing the behaviour of car users. So this means that designers need to engage with the bigger “ecosystems” related to design, connect politically, professionally and socially to design alternative systems in an interdisciplinary fashion. Common examples of such systems on a local scale are new forms of exchange such as time banks, neighbourhood tool-sharing platforms or car-pooling and car-sharing. Also, fair and direct trade networks between producers and consumers of certain goods which can allow greater consumer choice on the ethical and environmental aspects of the products they do buy because they have increasingly less trust in “brands” to do it for them.

The majority of these systems are concerned with rethinking the idea of ownership and how “value” is recognised and socialised.   One recent example is a group called Phi from the Strelka Institute in Russia who are using a combination of peer-to-peer blockchain technologies and speculative design to imagine a new, decentralised model for generating and sharing energy rather than having to rely on governments and monopolies to provide reliable and affordable energy sources.

Perhaps instead of asking: how can design improve our lives, we should ask how can design change our behaviour? Tim Brown, CEO of the global design company IDEO believes strongly in the value of using design to change behaviour. Whether it be reducing child respiratory disease by getting children to wash their hands more often or putting the tools for change in the hands of the users in the form of data and analysis apps for example. But changing behaviour to promote more ethical behaviour patterns within social and environmental contexts begs the question: whose values are we promoting and who will benefit from those changes?

Also, fixing behaviour alone will not be effective if we do not change the overriding system governing human activity on this planet – and that system is, like it or not, late capitalism. In his 2013 book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the French economist Thomas Piketty argues that the problems of inequality and unequal distribution of wealth that have come with the global capitalist system are not temporary but are the result of structural flaws in and the effect of the system itself. If he is right, we can change behaviour all we like, but if we do not change the system as well, then the overall global situation will not improve.

In April 2018, when the world watched US Congress grilling the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, on the subject of data misuse, it was interesting to witness a) the spectacular degree of ignorance amongst national government politicians as to how social media actually works and b) that that same government, seemed to expect a for-profit corporation to legislate and lead the way in setting its own ethical standards and policing itself. It felt like witnessing the final abdication of the world’s most powerful nation state from the responsibility for the moral and ethical welfare of itself and its citizens.

The speculative architect Liam Young recently advocated the dissolution of the term “architect”, saying that an architect’s skills are wasted on building buildings – on creating objects ­– and that that is a good thing: “It means that the profession can find traction in other fields: the architect as a strategist, as politician … as activist or storyteller. Finding ways to operate in other disciplines just gives us more agency.” We all, not just architects, need to push beyond the outdated apparatus of our professions. Although appearances may be to the contrary, we do not need more houses, we do not need more objects, we do not need more stuff. We need new systems. Urgently. And it is agency that designers need to cultivate in these times when trust in our established systems is failing and the environment is in crisis. Designers are, first and foremost, problem-solvers. They need to show politicians, industry and consumers how their skills can be used to solve problems.

It is both bizarre and terrifying to think that the survival of the Earth could lie in the hands of the executive directors of the world’s leading companies, rather than governments. Interesting because at this point in time they seem to have the better potential for more concerted rapid change in terms of products, production, logistics, waste and energy than many governments and because consumers may still just about have the potential to influence them by voting with their wallets. Terrifying because this kind of power is anything but democratic.

At the 2019 World Economic Summit in Davos there was again strong protest about climate change and wealth inequality, but unlike the 1970 protest at Aspen, it was much broader in scope, extending to the outmoded, non-participatory format of the way our governing, economic and commercial systems are structured. There may not have been much change in the damage we are doing to our planet, but there has been a global perspective shift since then. Design also still has just as much to do with reviving economies and the rise of a new kind of political environment now as it did at the beginning of the twentieth century. But now the situation has turned inside-out. Change is not being directed top down, it is being demanded and directed from the bottom up.

Designers need to exercise their agency to change perspectives and come up with solutions and convince decision-makers of the value and potential of new system designs within a holistic, regenerative and social and ethical framework. Designers have a responsibility, as we all do, to convince politicians, employers, clients and consumers that making less, but better, stuff and changing their systems to ones that are more robust and self-sustaining can bring value and growth of a more durable kind. It’s a big ask. But what is the alternative? If we continue on as blindly as we are doing, trying to stick band-aids on a sinking ship, then it doesn’t matter how many billions your net worth is or what your Forbes list rating is. We are all going down together.


The Making of August

Vincent Van Duysen's first ever hotel project

A former Augustinian cloister becomes a modern-day sanctuary under the guidance of legendary Belgian architect Vincent van Duysen in his first ever hotel project. “…Van Duysen made his name as an architect and designer in the 1990s. Right across his, very broad, range of architectural and design output from private houses, offices and showrooms to…

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A former Augustinian cloister becomes a modern-day sanctuary under the guidance of legendary Belgian architect Vincent van Duysen in his first ever hotel project.

“…Van Duysen made his name as an architect and designer in the 1990s. Right across his, very broad, range of architectural and design output from private houses, offices and showrooms to furniture, light fittings, cutlery and even his own range of gorgeous pottery storage vessels, a sense of “less is more” and a meticulous attention to detailing have become his trademark. Yet he hates to be called a minimalist. His particular aesthetic vision, restrained choices of materials, forms and desaturated colour palettes are very much pared to the essentials, but there is a richness there that is anything but spartan. Perhaps luxurious functionalism best describes his much aped and admired style, that is in high demand from clients around the world. Van Hool and De Scheemaeckerwere delighted when he accepted the commission.

‘I’ve been approached many times by other people, even big names, to design hotels,’ said Van Duysen, when we met at a site meeting with the client and his team. ‘In a way I was never ready for it. But with the August, the building, the location, the fact that it’s my home town and with a family that I know, means that the chemistry is just right.’…”

Aeronauts Unite!

Tomás Saraceno and Aerocene

Science, technology, architecture and philosophy all find their way into the art of Tomás Saraceno. Whether in arachnid experiments or aerial cities, he has called for a radical transformation of our relationship with each other and the planet. Ahead of his largest exhibition to date, we visit Saraceno in Berlin … to witness the launch…

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Science, technology, architecture and philosophy all find their way into the art of Tomás Saraceno. Whether in arachnid experiments or aerial cities, he has called for a radical transformation of our relationship with each other and the planet. Ahead of his largest exhibition to date, we visit Saraceno in Berlin … to witness the launch of an airborne sculpture for the Aerocene project. Sophie Lovell, Wallpaper Germany Editor, tells the story.

“It’s August; Berlin, like most of Europe, is in the grip of a major heatwave. If global warming predictions are correct, this summer is but a teaser for weather extremes to come. It’s 6 a.m. and already too hot. And the Wallpaper* team are en route to join the Aerocene crew at a large lake in Brandenburg near the Polish border for the scheduled launch of their first solar hybrid balloon for the ‘Around the World’ project.

Tomás Saraceno first ‘launched’ his Aerocene project in Paris in December 2015, parallel to the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference COP21. The plan was to create a series of diaphanous sculptural volumes ‘inflated by the air, lifted by the sun and carried by the wind’, designed to circumnavigate the globe by hitching a ride on jet streams ‘without the burning of fossil fuels, without using solar panels, batteries, helium, hydrogen or other rare gases’.

Since then, Aerocene has grown into an independent foundation dedicated to ‘increasing public awareness of global resource circulation’ and fostering ‘a common imaginary towards new ways of co-inhabiting the earth’. It explores the potential for air travel and perhaps even a new way of life in the clouds, completely independent from fossil fuels and national borders, thus standing in collaboration, not competition with other species with which we share the planet.

If your goal is to build castles in the air, then you have to start with your feet on the ground. The Aerocene Foundation and its on-site staff of around ten people share facilities with Studio Tomás Saraceno but are independent from it. The foundation is supported by grants, donations and sponsorships (Audemars Piguet, for example, is supporting an Aerocene symposium series and workshops at the Palais de Tokyo this October, and later in December at Art Basel Miami Beach). This core team is connected to a steadily growing global community of enthusiasts and participants, whose contributions range from technical support and design to flight tracking and conducting their own flights and experiments. The results are then all shared open-source as a form of creative communing. ‘It’s becoming more and more like an NGO’, says Erik Vogler, technical advisor and head of production design.

As a way of broadening their research, Aerocene has created around 40 ‘Aerocene Explorer’ backpacks. Anyone can request to borrow one of the backpacks, which contains all the tools you need to conduct your own solar-powered tethered flight. Individuals and groups are encouraged to do whatever they want with the kits: from hacking them to adding software and hardware, or creating dance performances, music or poetry around them. Alternatively, people can also build their own Explorer kits from instructions available on the website. When they are done, they share their results with Aerocene and the community, then hand the backpacks on to whoever wants one next. ‘What’s interesting’, says Aerocene communications manager Camilla Berggren, ‘is that if people damage the balloons, they are encouraged to repair them themselves. As the balloons get more used they gain all these marks from stitches and tape, which build history into the sculptures and make them belong to the community even more’. The aim of all this sharing is to grow the knowledge base of what can be done with solar-powered, free-floating technology.

Back in Brandenburg, the temperature has climbed well into the 30s as we finally locate the Aerocene aeronauts camped lakeside, down a long forest track in a place where Google maps remains obstinately offline. Their tensile tree tents are strung between the pine trees looking, appropriately enough, like spider webs in the morning sun. People are swimming and breakfasting, and some are fiddling with various pieces of equipment and cameras. There also seems to be some kind of discussion going on, since the forest warden just came by and made it clear that they are not supposed to be camping here. Nevertheless, the balloons are set up and a couple of canoes are pulled up on the little beach, ready to tow the new ‘Around the World’ hybrid prototype out into the lake for the launch. Nobody seems in much of a hurry, although it is now after 10am and solar-powered flight is greatly improved if you can catch the maximum hours of daylight before dark. Then, just as it looks like things are going to take off, the police turn up. More discussion ensues, accompanied by taking down of particulars. The 25 or so Aerocene crew and community on site break camp and trek back through the forest to pick up the rest of the vehicles and move to the giant public beach on the other side of the lake. About three hours later we are all sitting on this beach next to a leisure boat hire shop, drinking cold beer and eating lunch. Somebody is playing a guitar. The sand is so hot it burns our feet. It looks for all the world like a scene from Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. All that’s missing are the beanie hats.

The test launch we are all here to witness and participate in is for ‘a solar hybrid balloon designed to fly night and day around the world’, explains Erik Vogler, ‘carried by a helium carrier to get data about temperature developments and behaviour.’ The sculpture (as he calls it) itself is a cuboid gossamer fabric bag made of Kopa foil that is usually used for transistors, along with three helium-filled SPS-13 balloons. A shiny metallic radar reflector was hung below, along with a Pecan Pico 10.b tracker and solar cell. This enabled the sculpture to send live photos and positioning via APRS radio waves back to the earth to be captured by the team monitoring it from the ground.

The person that seems to be working hardest all day is a community volunteer called Sven Steudte, whose day job is something to do with satellite technology. Together with another volunteer, Thomas Krahn, he designed the tracker attached to the balloons and all the software connected to it. Saraceno is plying him with cold Coca Cola as he sweats over his laptop monitoring the path of the Around the World device, hooking up with a community of Polish radio hams called Radio Sondypolska, who are helping with the tracking. Later at nightfall, they lose contact with the sculpture just east of Warsaw travelling at 12,000 metres through the lower stratosphere. ‘It may have dropped to the ground’, says an apparently unconcerned Vogler two days later, ‘or it may keep going, circumnavigating the earth.’ They will know when someone picks up contact with it via the radar reflector again, or finds it on the ground and returns it to the address written on a label attached.

Once the launch has been celebrated and we lose sight of the prototype in the glare of the afternoon sun, the team decides to unpack one of the huge black Explorer balloons. They fill it with air after much comical running up and down the beach between families with their picnics and inflatable toys. Saraceno then tows the giant black quivering pyramid out onto the lake in a canoe, ties a couple of GoPros to it and releases it into the afternoon sky. But heat clouds have now formed above us, and after a brief glorious surge, the balloon sinks gently beyond the far side of the lake.

So Aerocene is a utopian art investigation, a social experiment, an educational project, an exercise in collaboration and community-building. But how much scientific innovation is really involved? Ballooning has been a thing for over 300 years. So surely Google’s Loon project, ESA, NASA or other research institutions, with investment in the millions, are way beyond floating fabric bags into the sky with trackers attached?  ‘There are a few projects doing high-altitude ballooning in the stratosphere, but not many just use the heat of the sun’, says Vogler, ‘The French space agency CNES had their MIR (Montgolfière infrarouge) balloons that were also heated by the sun, able to fly overnight and catch the earth’s radiation, but they stopped the project.’ By not using helium or fossil fuels, he says Aerocene are developing a whole new category of ballooning. They are also trying to connect those advantages to other endeavours, encouraging meteorological stations, for example to switch from helium-filled balloons to fossil-free alternatives (helium is a by-product of fossil fuel extraction). The fact that helium was used in the Around the World solar sculpture ‘was a special case’ says Vogler, ‘because following the legacy of CNES, we need to find out how to keep flying overnight and collect data. The helium carrier allowed the extension of this experiment.’

Also, Vogler says, by developing their own soft and hardware at a tiny scale instead of docking onto the research of big companies like Google, they are showing that ‘You can also do it. We try to motivate people to create workshops and build their own devices. If you are going too fast with technologies that are high profile, the you are cutting out a lot of people from the opportunity to participate in this project.’ Inclusivity, it seems, is the primary driver for the Aerecene project: enabling ordinary people to feel like they can make a difference.

It is late afternoon. We leave the team earnestly discussing a rescue mission across the lake using pedaloes from the boat hire shop, and head back to Berlin. When our grandchildren ask where we were at the dawn of the Age of the Aerocene, we can say that we were there – and it was fun.



A Life Less Ordinary

A conversation with filmmaker Gary Hustwit

For his latest documentary “Rams”, “Helvetica” director Gary Hustwit has turned his lens on reluctant design hero Dieter Rams. Sophie Lovell, who interviewed Rams when he was one of our inaugural guest editors in 2007 and participated in the film, picks up the thread.

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For his latest documentary “Rams”, “Helvetica” director Gary Hustwit has turned his lens on reluctant design hero Dieter Rams. Sophie Lovell, who interviewed Rams when he was one of our inaugural guest editors in 2007 and participated in the film, picks up the thread.

Between Star

Interview with artist Andro Wekua

Sophie Lovell spoke to Georgian artist Andro Wekua for Wallpaper magazine about war, work and wandering. ‘Andro Wekua’s Berlin studio is located on a curve of the river Spree near the Tiergarten park behind the KPM porcelain manufactory headquarters. This used to be quite a backwater, a bit of an ignored unspace until recently, but…

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Sophie Lovell spoke to Georgian artist Andro Wekua for Wallpaper magazine about war, work and wandering.

‘Andro Wekua’s Berlin studio is located on a curve of the river Spree near the Tiergarten park behind the KPM porcelain manufactory headquarters. This used to be quite a backwater, a bit of an ignored unspace until recently, but escalating property prices and proximity to the river have turned it into prime real estate turf. The studio is in the remains of an old red brick building, a surviving wing of a larger industrial complex, its original intended context obliterated during the war. It is surrounded by seven construction sites with billboards advertising future coworking spaces and relocation invitations. As he shows me up to his atelier on the second floor above a small printing works and opposite Angela Bulloch’s studio, Wekua explains he doesn’t expect to be here much longer: “the owner is here almost every day with potential buyers”, but he doesn’t seem unduly concerned.

The inside of the studio is quite a surprise. I’ve been invited to interview an artist with three upcoming solo shows in The Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow, Sprüth Magers Berlin and the Kunsthalle Zurich respectively. Wekua is just 40 years old but has been well known in the art world since his early twenties. The New York MoMA and the Saatchi Gallery have several of his pieces and he is represented internationally by both Sprüth Magers and The Gladstone Gallery. He may not be a top gun quite yet, but he is not far off.  Other big-name artists based in Berlin, such as Tomas Saraceno, Ai Weiwei or Olafur Eliasson have giant studio factories with dozens of staff, but the main work room here is almost empty save for a number of modestly-sized paintings in progress propped against the white walls and a couple of tables covered in half squeezed tubes of oil paint and colour smears. The air is thick with the comforting aroma of turpentine. There are two chairs, which look like they came out of a skip, and a crate of bottled water. There are no assistants scurrying around, no sign of hectic preparation for the shows, just the artist on his own, offering a glass of water and apologising for not having anything else to drink. The word “spartan” comes to mind.

Wekua explains, almost apologetically, that this isn’t his only studio, just the one that he paints in at the moment and that he has sent his two assistants home for the day. His sculptural works are all made at the Kunstbetrieb workshops in Basel and his films in anther specialist place Zürich. He seems to be constantly on the move, dividing his time between Berlin, Basel, Zürich and, more recently, his country of birth: Georgia. I ask him which place feels most like home for him and he answers: “So far I have had no problem living in different places with but I am starting to realise it would be good to decide – not geographically, but so I am not scattered all over the world the whole time. As you get older you start to get a bit tired and it is difficult for the people working for you. Also when the kids start to go to school you have to make decisions.”

Perhaps this state of permanent transit is why the studio space feels rather impersonal, more like a hotel room than a home. He has personalised it only with the coloured oily tracks his fingers have smeared on the walls around each unfinished artwork. The dozen or so paintings, on the other hand, seem deeply personal, portraits mostly, bursting with vibrant yellows, reds, pinks and blues. He explains to me his work process for them: “I collect personal photos or ask friends for them – this is of someone I knew; this is me when I was young – but it doesn’t matter who they are, they may as well be strangers.” Wekua then sketches in collage using the photos along with coloured paper, cut and torn. “An aspect of collage that I find fascinating”, he explains, “is that I believe that time is not necessarily a linear thing. The elements within them stem from different times and different places, but one can still depict them in an integrated way.” When he is happy with the result, he sends the images off to a screen printer who scales them up and prints them on canvas or, in the case of the pictures here, sheet aluminium and the artist then works over the prints in oils, adding and subtracting and overpainting until he is content. Wekua again emphasises his distance from the subject matter, most of which look extremely intimate somehow, like family portraits: “it does not play a big role for me who they are”, he says, “these are not portraits, they are figures. There is a hardness about them, but it also interests me that there is a deeper narrative quality too”.

Painting is only a part of Wekua’s oeuvre. His powerful sculptural work often features life-like, life-sized androgynous adolescent figures made of wax and other materials. One piece for his upcoming shows (he has as yet to decide what pieces will go where) is of teenaged-looking figure with a huge black wolf nudging at her shoulder. Another is of a figure standing in a 3 x 5 metre pool with water circulating through her and coming out of various body parts, such as shoulder and hands, like a fountain.Wekua also makes films, the most well-known of which, Never Sleep with a Strawberry in Your Mouth (2010), features yet more uncanny, android-like figures, this time played by humans, in a strangely magical realist domestic setting. Then there are the architectural models, seemingly accurate but constructed partly from memory, of buildings from his former hometown. What appears to connect them all is a strong sense of intensely personal storytelling.

I ask him about the girl and the wolf, a theme that repeats itself in his sculptures. I explain that, for me and perhaps many others it is a motif dripping with storytelling symbolism: Little Red Riding Hood, Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke or one of the Stark children from Game of Thrones. The figure is both innocent and warrior. But Wekua is adamant that storytelling is not his intent: “They stand for something, but not someone. It is a feeling about a universal condition that moves me and is what I want to represent, so I express it in one or another form. But that is not a story. If viewers want to make stories out of my work or see stories in it I think that is of course cool, but it would be great if they could get a sense of that condition as well.” He does not go on to elucidate what that condition might be.

More tellingly perhaps, Wekua’s own back-story is always related in articles about his work and by his galleries. It is as if his refusal to admit to a narrative in his work, automatically drives others to forcibly attach his own one to him.  He was born in 1977 in Sukhumi, by the Black Sea in Georgia, a region riven by war, civil war and occupation. In 1989 his father, a political activist was killed by Abkhaz nationalists during the Sukhumi riots. His family fled the city and at the age of 17 he was sent on an exchange to an anthroposophic school in Basel, Switzerland. “It was during the 1990s. Those were bad times in Georgia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union there was huge chaos. Nothing functioned anymore. Nevertheless, it was still a good time for me, I had a lot of fun and was outside a lot. But for my mother and others if there was a chance to get out and go somewhere else, it had to be taken. I did not want to leave.” Switzerland was a culture shock, “especially after all that chaos. It was quite depressing for me at the beginning and I was really alone.”

Wekua says he did not actively choose art as a profession either: “I never knew what I wanted to be. I drew a great deal as a child, so when I was 11 or 12 my father took me to a painter friend of his in Georgia who had a great studio, just like you imagine an old-fashioned atelier to be. I ended up going there twice a week. When he painted, I painted as well. It all sort of just came together. I did not set out to become an artist”.

We move on to talk about in-between spaces, like the location of his Berlin studio. He once stated that he is are interested in the “blurry material that holds things together”. In a city such as Berlin, it is precisely such in-between spaces that have allowed the creative scene to grow and evolve. They fall between the rules as well, so there is freedom to invent, to create something new.  I ask if that is what drew him to the city and again he replies in a self-contained manner: “For me it is the spaces in between that are important, but I can make my space anywhere because I carry everything I need with me.” But what, I ask, of the non-physical gaps? The spaces where emotions and memories and dreams exist? The human mind has a fantastic ability to imaginatively fill in the spaces left by its often-flawed sensory system. “Where I grew up in Georgia,” he answers, “it’s very different now from what it was. War and civil war and occupation have changed it massively and much of what I knew in my childhood is not there anymore. Also, you imagine things differently to what they were. You fill in the gaps with your imagination. My work is about closing these gaps.”

When he is working, the names for Wekua’s pieces come last of all. At the time of writing two weeks before the first of the three upcoming shows, most of the works for them are still nameless. By naming them he will be ascribing potential for meaning and he seems reluctant to do so: “Then there is no going back”, he says, “I think names are important. But then again some of my works don’t have a name even when they are done, even though I have tried to give them one.”

Despite his self-professed aim to close gaps, there is one yawning chasm he opens up between himself and his works when they are completed: he says he detaches himself from them completely. “As soon as my work is exhibited somewhere then that is where the relationship stops”, he explains. “The work is not an ambassador for my ideas, it becomes autonomous. When I see my work in an exhibition, I am just as much an observer as you are. If the work is not able to take on a life of its own and if I don’t feel like an observer, then it doesn’t leave the studio.”

Most interviewers tend to ascribe an air of mystery to Andro Wekua but in our meeting he comes across as an intelligent, contemplative person struggling a little to express himself, quite understandably, in what is his third or fourth language. Which artist likes to answer the question: what is your work about? Or: what was your intention? Wekua is an explorer examining the gaps between the perceived and the all too real. Memory, time, and the non-linearity of how it is stored are all of interest to him. Yet he has experienced family loss at a young age, war, loss of homeland, culture shock and loneliness and his work also reflects a great deal of processing. His professed disinterest in the protagonists in his works, his dismissal of the autobiographical and his ultimate detachment from his creations may be self-protective but it seems more likely that he does not want his work to be defined by his own circumstances by western critics constantly flagging up his migrant, warzone background. So he is guarded and careful and rightly so.

But Wekua is an artist, and an increasingly famous one at that. As such he has willingly entered a realm where feelings and thoughts become, by definition, public property because he is putting them on display. Gallerists, journalists and fans alike pick him and his work apart for every scrap they can get. Perhaps, being so wrapped up in the creation of his art, he genuinely cannot see what he is revealing with it: alienation, melancholy, loneliness, isolation. Like when you have a strong dream and it fills your head so much with the feeling of having experienced a cinematic fairy tale of epic proportions. But the moment you wake up and try and tell someone your dream, the magic disappears: it becomes an analysable set of images and symbols spouted by your subconscious – and it allows the person you tell it to read you, to interpret you. When the interview is over, we start to chat about lucid dreaming and his eyes light up.’

Becoming Berlin

The Architectural Review

Since the fall of the Wall, the city has transformed itself from a divided, stagnant anomaly into one of the most exciting capitals in the world, writes Sophie Lovell. “When I moved here from London twenty-three years ago, Berlin was still very much two cities: the former West, for all the infrastructural investment in the…

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Since the fall of the Wall, the city has transformed itself from a divided, stagnant anomaly into one of the most exciting capitals in the world, writes Sophie Lovell.

“When I moved here from London twenty-three years ago, Berlin was still very much two cities: the former West, for all the infrastructural investment in the ‘50s and ‘70s, was little more than a provincial lacuna notable for its sleepy suburbs and rather dated commercial infrastructure. Much of the Mitte district, the capital’s former heart and then in the former East, along the former border, was a backwater; the Palast der Republik and other representative buildings of the former GDR stood empty or were quietly being demolished. The neoclassical masterpiece by Schinkel, Stüler, Messel et al. that is the Museum Island was shabby and dirty, its walls pockmarked with the scars of snipers’ bullets and shrapnel from the war and the bombed-out ruin of the Neues Museum sported full grown trees where its grand entrance hall once stood.

During the Second World War, 50 percent of the city’s fabric was destroyed and in the form East this was still painfully, yet rather beautifully, obvious. The neighbouring area around Hackescher Markt was a combination of crumbling, gap-toothed, eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth-century street fronts and despondent-looking GDR prefabs. Jungles of weeds and yet more unchecked trees filled the empty plots between the buildings. Makeshift metal doors concealed basement entrances to semi-illegal clubs, bars and galleries. On autumn mornings in the Scheunenviertel (the former Jewish quarter), the foggy air was thick with the smell of coal smoke from the stoves heating the old buildings and the pavements were so bad that negotiating them in high heels was a high-risk venture. Finding a decent sandwich at lunchtime was an impossibility and buying anything more adventurous than an avocado involved a trip to Kreuzberg or Schöneberg in the former West…”


Fold, Unfold

Interview with artist Olaf Holzapfel for Frame magazine

A plane, a barrier, a space? Olaf Holzapfel wants is audience to decide. Sophie Lovell interviewed the German artist who uses a broad range of materials, media and scales to explore his themes relating to self and decision-making. His work, along with that of a number of architects, designers and artists is included in a…

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A plane, a barrier, a space? Olaf Holzapfel wants is audience to decide. Sophie Lovell interviewed the German artist who uses a broad range of materials, media and scales to explore his themes relating to self and decision-making. His work, along with that of a number of architects, designers and artists is included in a new group show in at the Museum Angewandte Kunst (MAK) in Frankfurt called SUR/FACE: Mirrors, which addresses mirrored surfaces, but Holzapfel’s work is about far more than shallow reflections.

SL: As an artist who grew up in the GDR before the German reunification, do you feel like people still tend to try and tag you with that particular label?

OH: Yes, it is a strange thing, no one would ever say that Georg Baselitz or Joseph Beuys – who grew up during the Nazi era – are former Nazi artists. But in my biographies, especially in Germany, they always say: “he grew up in the GDR”. For a while I thought it was typical chauvinism: they keep you out with it, you’re not part of their system, and then you’re not a competitor either. But it’s not just about this. I think there is still an inner conflict in German society.

SL: But your background is perhaps interesting in the context of you working with themes that involve borders and thresholds. Do you personally think there is a relationship there?

OH: I was a refugee in 1989. I jumped over the border in Hungary. So it is a biographical moment. I grew up in a state that was very safe and, in a way, very stable and there was one clear enemy: the government. But ordinary people were very disconnected in their opposition – it was like a silent opposition. And then in ‘89 there came this big break but immediately afterwards – in around 1991 – the new media revolution began. This was more important for me and my work and I think it was more important in general. The starting point for perestroika was when Gorbachev realised, there were less computers in the whole of Russia than there were PCs in California.

SL: One of the first things that struck me about your work is the range of materials and media that you use, from your painting and digital work to your perspex sculptural objects and wooden framework structures which are very spatial. You initially studied architecture didn’t you?

OH: I initially studied thermodynamics for a year. I wanted to be a physicist, but then I felt I wanted to change space and have more of a relationship with materials, so I studied architecture. And then I realised that what I do is more theoretical and more independent from use. That’s why I changed again. It was a long process, this was obviously also for biographical reasons: in a limited society like the GDR, the function of an artist was very limited…I needed time to develop what I could do.

SL: How great a role do architecture and design play in your work?

OH: What I learned in architecture is very important for my work. Architecture has a presence, it tells you something whether you like or not. If you build something and it’s in a public space, it has meaning because we think about it and we see it. This is very important. You don’t need this as an artist, you can say: “I am doing it for myself in the studio, like an experiment”. As an architect or as a designer, you are making things directly for people.

SL: Are you one of those people who draw a strong line between art and architecture, do you see a clear separation between them?

OH: I think there are universal themes in my work. I don’t tend to switch between media for the sake of the media themselves, but rather because the theme has developed further. But I do think that the themes relate to one another and architecture is an important point for me. Adolf Loos’ famous quote: “Only a very small part of architecture belongs to art: the tomb and the monument. Everything else that fulfils a function is to be excluded from the domain of art.” is not something I necessarily agree with.

SL: So is this separation not so important for you?

OH: I think it makes sense that there is a separation. But it is more in terms of the fact that there are different directions of thinking in the Western tradition. There is the renaissance idea that one is entitled to think about several themes simultaneously, that you can be architect, painter and physicist at the same time. And modernity says – as I was taught – that you have to decide. You have to choose one thing, do it consistently and be the best at it. But this also brings with it the limitation that you don’t really know about the other stuff, that you don’t really know anything and are completely dependent.

SL: Back to the idea of Universal Man? But we have moved away a lot from compartmentalised thinking…

OH: I have never seen things in a circumscribed way. I have always thought that as an artist one is and should be free. For some this means the freedom to always paint the same pictures, to make the same sculptures or to follow set paths. I don’t feel that these limitations apply to me, or the themes that interest me. For example, what I have called “Zaun” [fence] and you call “threshold”. Even when I was a child I knew we did not live in static times. That is why the whole Eastern Bloc fell apart, because it wasn’t flexible anymore, it was unable to move. And the error that the West made was to think they were the winners and they had done everything right. But we realise now that is not true, that there are many things we should have developed further since the ‘70s, like experimental architecture, but didn’t, because we thought we were winners. [In the ‘70s] there was a societal interest to build structures like Frei Otto’s Multihalle or the Munich Olympic Stadium. There was a willingness to see it as public development. To go back to your question, architecture has this omnipresence, which is it’s problem and at the same time the source of its power. It can have an incredible cultural relevance, yet architects don’t seem to be so aware of it.

SL: Architects too often see themselves trapped in fixed structural forms by the market.

OH: In the 1990s there was a lot of building going on in eastern Germany. There was a particular tax break allowing whoever built something to write 40 per cent of it off. It was a great opportunity and all sorts of stuff was built, but I can only really remember one real statement: a concrete building by Gerhard Merz [with EDM Architekten] in Hartha, near Dresden. Working as a student in different architecture offices at the time, you noticed that no one really wanted to. It would have been so easy to develop an avant-garde back then, to develop further, implement the new times and the new media, but far too little happened.

SL: Are there any of your contemporaries in terms of architecture and design, and art that you feel a particular affinity with in terms of method or thinking? Olaf and Carsten Nicolai, Konstantin Grcic, Arno Brandlhuber or Dan Graham come to mind…

OH: In this list I feel Dan Graham is the most important link. Basically what I like about him is his conceptual approach: he analyses society or types of buildings and makes an abstract design, or he has this idea of inside and outside, reflecting your own body in a semi-transparent, multi-layered way. I deliberately placed one of my wooden beam sculptures in the Cologne Sculpture Park next to a glass pavilion by Dan Graham.

SL: In order to start a conversation?

OH: Artist are always having conversations – so do architects – with their works. There are a very few artist and architects that I have conversations with. I am more interested in bigger sets of issues. I also try to relate more to the landscape, to particular techniques, or a fundamental problem that has already been solved and I re-interpret or re-animate it.

SL: For example?

OH: There is a room in the Zaun [Fence] exhibition that I curated in Palais  Bellevue in Kassel for the Dokumenta 14, filled with historical, structural models like 18thand 19th century dome and roof sections from churches in Middelburg and Freiberg. What is interesting about them is that the craftsmen were always constrained to make what the material directed them to make. First comes the tree, it’s the same all over the world, and it dictates that you can only build a space or room out of lines. You could just pile the lines on top of each other and make a log cabin, but you still need the line as your starting point. What I find interesting in this respect is that there is a basic technique whereby you can develop a whole space out of a diagram and logic, without ever finishing it. The space [defined by the wooden beam model] is inherently transparent. It can be anything: a church, a roof, a machine. It can go in many different directions. It has the potential to develop within itself.

It’s not about saying that this is how it has to be, rather that a particular technique has potential. Wood frames (in central Europe one tends to think about old buildings, but skyscrapers are truss frameworks too) are alienated from everyday use because no one participates in the development of their own spaces anymore. This is why they are important to me.

SL: Lets go back to this impression that your work is involved with borders with thresholds, on all sorts of different scales. It seems to me, that if you consider the 2D as a plane or barrier and the 3D as a space, there seems to be a kind of interaction there, would you agree?

OH: I see it in a much more fluid sense. I want to set it more in motion. 2D and 3D are just conventions. We have forgotten that they are conventions. There is the legendary argument in art, and I am sure in architecture as well, about whether a painting is an object, a relief or a surface. It is all about decisions. An important aspect is to decide for yourself what it is, also for these barriers.

SL: So it comes back to individual perception: whether you see a plane or a space?

OH: It’s more about understanding that these things are unfinished, that I am a part of them and that it is me who can and must decide. This is something that occurs throughout my work, from the wooden frameworks to the folded and inflated perspex pieces.

SL: You spent four years in Patagonia with Sebastian Preece working with local craftsmen techniques and materials, for your project “Housing in Amplitude”. What was the impulse?

OH: One part is the architectural side, but for me it is also about what we do symbolically; about the self and the ego. I go over there. I have that broad landscape in front of me. How do I create spaces? How do I set my own mark? What is my first story?

SL: How you make your mark?

OH: Also my borders. For a film I made there – called Having a Gate – we went into the forest and built a huge gate from scratch. The gate is a part of the fence. These gates are massive compared to the thin wire fences, but they are also markers, they say: “this is my border, but also my entrance, an entrance for you”. It is not just about architectural functionality but also a universal metaphorical meaning. With this gate I am also creating a link with nature.

SL: You work a lot with highly skilled craftspeople don’t you?

OH: I am always interested in the knowledge that others bring with them. For me, handcraft is a vital knowledge that enables us to shape the world. There are these fundamental technologies like weaving or carpentry that will always be there. Our relationship to the material world is a big theme at the moment because today the whole weight of the production of meaning lies in the generation of information and its interpretation. Painters in the past used to say that nature was their great teacher and they saw nature as a role model. Craftspeople are very close to this material world because they understand what they make. This is not old-fashioned, it is a privilege; these people are privileged. This is why I like to work with carpenters, because they are craftspeople, architects, designers and engineers in one. When they are good, they have a highly complex knowledge system.

SL: Going back to the personal, your perspex pieces being shown as part of the SUR/FACE Spiegel [Mirror] exhibition, seem to draw the viewer into the very individual threshold of self and surroundings.

OH: I began the acrylic pieces after a long stay in India, where I studied at the National Institute of Design (NID) with Singanapali Balaram. Much building in India is unplanned growth on top of villages. When areas get denser, the farmers don’t leave, they just park their livestock on the streets and people deal with it. They have a different attitude to “inside” and outside”. Also to be in-between can mean that if you are not part of something, then you don’t exist.

SL: I would understand in-between to mean that you are neither here nor there, but you are saying that you are both here and there?

OH: They have different, multi-layered interpretations. The temples have figures that represent the guises of being but underneath that the temples are constructed in a very abstract way – there are abstract models of thinking there. The western model is always about  bringing the inside and the outside into a dialectical system, to create a balance. But in India one can say: when the inside is in harmony, the outside is in chaos anyway.

SL: Do you mean in terms of the individual, not in terms of spaces?

OH: They are okay with the chaos, that is also a part of life … This is also about polytheism, polytheism has a lot to do with the virtual world or the internet. At the end of the ‘90s there was still the idea of everything being decentralised, the global village and so on. Now everything is extremely centralised, it is exactly the opposite. Absolute control. The idea back then was that everyone can participate, can do something themselves and create many different centres. I thought there were similarities there with these “multilayers”, that still exist to a certain extent but always causes stressful pressure in western-thinking people and that [dealing with the chaos] has more to do with your internal attitude, what you radiate outwards from the inside.

SL: So how does that relate to your perspex sculptures?

A very central part of sculpture is to say that something has “tension”, that objects have a tension that comes from within. Not just an abstract tension of the outer line but a tension of the whole form that goes from the inside to the outside. So my thinking was: when we are pushed out of shape then we are something like a bubble, or a fold. We can, so to say, let our spaces enfold in different ways. That was my approach to these forms. Then there is this element that someone has made them with their hands. You can always see that someone made them and at the same time that they are volumes that are affected by gravity.

SL: They are obviously reflective surfaces too…

OH: Now we are back to Dan Graham: you see yourself, and from another angle you don’t but can see through instead. You see the interior space but cannot be on the other side at the same time. The viewer is looking out of himself, but also into himself and there is always this dichotomy that you cannot yet be where you are already in your thoughts.

SL: The theme of the group show that these works are being shown in in Frankfurt is “mirrors”. Are your works then more to do with self/reflection or reflection of the surrounding space?

OH: I think both. It is this in-between-ness – this is quite a central thing, this interspace. We could philosophise now about bubbles, I can talk about how we are always both inside and outside. But what interests me most is that within this regarding, this reflection, is a sort of corridor. Between different possible decisions I observe something and that is my corridor. To be in this interspace and to define it is a quality, not an error. If we go back to architecture for a metaphor: We are going to build a house now, but if you don’t participate, it will decay. You being inside creates another space between you and your house. You are then part of the house and the house is part of you because you have to look after it. This connection is about the fact that you don’t yet know what you might have to do and what the results of it will be. This is the dynamic part of being. So much architecture today behaves as if it is final, but is still gets torn down after 30 years. We know that it is not built for eternity. But we no longer participate in the dynamic element – the authorities, or someone else outside does it for us.

This kind of participation with a building – or with a sculpture – is central to my work, perhaps the most important part of it: that you can determine. This way of saying that it is not necessary to make things that are final or complete.

SL: Reflections are not just about exploring the self, but about self-validation as well.

OH: I think the whole thing about tattooing and selfies and the like has something to do with the fact that the physical world is going further and further away. People are compelled to do something with or to their body in order to ascertain that they actually have a body. Because the actual body itself is no longer in demand. The whole fitness thing is a kind of self-affirmation.

SL: So it’s all about “making your mark”, not in the landscape but within the hive?

OH: Most people work less and less physically, yet consciously do more and more for their bodies. It is not really about health, but about showing and sensing the self. I am more interested a different kind of physical reflection.’

The (Not So) Fine Line

uncube magazine no.42 Walk the Line

A conversation thread about this and that between architecture cartoonist Klaus and uncube editor-in-chief Sophie Lovell. The architecture cartoonist Klaus has had a regular slot with uncube since issue no: 7. His work and approach parallels much of what the magazine stands for in terms of going “beyond” the traditional parameters of the discipline. uncube’s editor-in-chief Sophie…

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A conversation thread about this and that between architecture cartoonist Klaus and uncube editor-in-chief Sophie Lovell. The architecture cartoonist Klaus has had a regular slot with uncube since issue no: 7. His work and approach parallels much of what the magazine stands for in terms of going “beyond” the traditional parameters of the discipline. uncube’s editor-in-chief Sophie Lovell chews the fat with him about elastic boundaries and the hyperbolic distortion machine.

Read the full interview at uncubemagazine.com

Lest We Forget

uncube magazine no.35 Storage

Sophie Lovell and Sebastian Schumacher on the rise and rise of the data centre for uncube magazine. “The internet forgets nothing. Everything is saved – nothing is thrown away and it all needs storing somewhere. IBM estimates that we generate some 2.5 quintillion bytes per day, that 90 percent of the world’s stock of data is…

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Sophie Lovell and Sebastian Schumacher on the rise and rise of the data centre for uncube magazine. “The internet forgets nothing. Everything is saved – nothing is thrown away and it all needs storing somewhere. IBM estimates that we generate some 2.5 quintillion bytes per day, that 90 percent of the world’s stock of data is less than two years old and that this volume is currently doubling every 18 months. This exponential growth is creating an exponential storage problem as well as an exponential energy problem: where are we going to put it all and where will all the energy come from to keep our memories “alive”?

So where does all our data get kept? It may be digital but it still takes up space, and it takes up a great deal of energy too. As long ago as 2007, according to The Economist, we began experiencing a data housing crisis. The same source states that the amount of data generated surpassed the available storage space. In 2008 American households alone generated 1,200 Exabytes (1018 bytes) of data. Add industry and science output to that figure (for example: when the new Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope in South Africa and Australia goes online, in the next decade, astronomers expect to process ten petabytes of data from it every hour, or 1015 bytes) and you start to get an idea of the size of the issue involved.

Global tech giants such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon are all building data centres at an incredible rate to cope with the demand for digital space. Facebook alone expects to have five new centres in operation by 2017. Apple has recently announced plans for new facilities in Denmark and Ireland. And don’t forget all the other providers: Deutsche Telekom, for example, completed Germany’s biggest cloud back-up centre in Saxony-Anhalt in 2014, containing 30,000 servers and which is already expanding.

So there is a quiet building boom going on of windowless, high security homes for our collective memory – housing everything from kitten gifs to government secrets. A new architectural typology is growing with it, where the well-being of bits and bytes takes priority over living occupants. This also means a new vernacular of citizen-less urban sprawl developing as these server farm hosting facilities are placed near power supplies or where there is space to generate their own power.

This is because another major consideration when it comes to data centre location is cheap and clean energy. Our brains consume more energy and generate more heat than most of the rest of our bodies.

So it goes with servers. Data centres are responsible for an estimated two percent of US energy consumption. According to The Guardian, each of Facebook’s data centres uses enough energy to power 30,000 US homes. Greening data storage is therefore a big issue. Thankfully there are signs of change in this respect. Apple’s new server farm in North Carolina, for example, uses on-site biogas fuel cells and acres of solar panels to power it and they claim that all of their server farms worldwide are now powered by renewable energy. Facebook too is building a 17,000 acre windpark to power its Fort Worth plant in Texas.

In terms of location, countries like Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Canada are also finding themselves highly desirable as low environmental temperatures can help save a fortune on cooling and local water sources mean cheap hydroelectric power. Facebook already has their first server farm in Europe in the small town of Luleå, Sweden to take advantage of this, claiming it to be “the most energy-efficient computing facility ever built” and they are currently building a second. Iceland too has two huge data centres: Verne Global and Advania Data and is investing in attracting more big companies to join them.

Finding detailed‚ reliable information about data centres is difficult since just about all the big companies are rather less than fully transparent in this area and many facilities are shrouded in secrecy. Which leads to another interesting potential driver for data centre location: data sovereignty. Amazon Web Services, Microsoft and IBM have all recently announced new centres in India to serve the big local consumers there – but the question still remains: under whose jurisdiction is the data held?

This is an issue that has gained considerable traction in Europe where the European Union has raised the issue of the privacy and security of their citizen’s data on foreign servers, something that is particularly relevant in the wake of Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations.

So unless the internet can learn to forget, or we can find more efficient storage solutions, this is an exponentially messy memory storage problem that’s not going away. And it will most likely come closer to home when we decide that, despite all the promise of the world wide web creating a global community, we may actually prefer to have these giant “clouds” – anything but fluffy ones – on the ground nearby so we at least have the feeling they are under local jurisdiction.

Get used to server farms, this is an architectural typology that is going to become as common as the agricultural kind in the not too distant future.”


Read the article online at uncubemagazine.com


An interview by Sophie Lovell

Sophie Lovell interviewed Dame Zaha Hadid for uncube magazine in September 2015. It turned out to be one of the last published interviews with the architect before her untimely death in March 2016. uncube dedicated an entire issue to the controversial architect whose work undisputedly pushed the technical and formal boundaries of building: “To mark the occasion…

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Sophie Lovell interviewed Dame Zaha Hadid for uncube magazine in September 2015. It turned out to be one of the last published interviews with the architect before her untimely death in March 2016. uncube dedicated an entire issue to the controversial architect whose work undisputedly pushed the technical and formal boundaries of building: “To mark the occasion of her 65th birthday we have consciously put aside for a moment the headline news fodder about working conditions in Qatar, Tokyo Stadium mudslinging and interview fiascos that you can read about everywhere else, to focus on the actual architecture. Issue no.37 is a portrait of a singular architect whose star has burned a glorious path from her birthplace in Baghdad, through the unbuilt/unbuildable wilderness years, to running a 400-strong office translating her unmistakable forms into the built environment all over the planet. Love her or hate her, one thing’s for sure: there ain’t nothing like this Dame!”

Read the full interview and the entire issue at uncubemagazine.com


The Stuttgart Boys

uncube magazine no.33 Frei Otto

Frei association: bionics, parametrics, morphogenics and more with Jan Knippers, Achim Menges, Werner Sobek and Arnold Walz by Sophie Lovell. In 1964, the pioneering structural engineer and Head of the Institute for Concrete Structure, Fritz Leonhardt, lured Frei Otto to the University of Stuttgart to be professor of a new research department. Otto followed an…

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Frei association: bionics, parametrics, morphogenics and more with Jan Knippers, Achim Menges, Werner Sobek and Arnold Walz by Sophie Lovell. In 1964, the pioneering structural engineer and Head of the Institute for Concrete Structure, Fritz Leonhardt, lured Frei Otto to the University of Stuttgart to be professor of a new research department. Otto followed an illustrious roll call of pioneering structural engineers there – but as an architect, his arrival marked an extraordinary flowering of new interdisciplinary research-driven innovation. Sophie Lovell spoke to four of Stuttgart University’s leading engineering and architecture professors about Frei Otto’s impact there, on how his symbiosis of architecture and engineering has continued to develop since – and where it’s headed next…


Stuttgart is famous for being in Germany’s engineering heartland: the cradle of the automobile industry and other precision engineered manufacturing, like Daimler, Porsche and Bosch. The University is renowned as a centre for automotive and aerospace engineering – areas where “lightweight” was already of primary concern. As an investigative architect Otto brought his interdisciplinary thinking into an environment ripe for pushing boundaries.

During Frei Otto’s time at Stuttgart, heading up the Institute for Lightweight Structures between 1964 and 1991, there were a number of influential professors there, besides himself, who contributed to a climate of future-oriented research thinking in the early years and a strong cross-over between architecture and engineering. Werner Sobek, Jan Knippers and Arnold Walz all studied there during this period. As architect Arnold Walz recalls: “Two people at Stuttgart had a great influence on me: Frei Otto, and Horst Rittel – who was in charge of the Planning Institute, taught at Berkeley and had been the last Rector at the HfG Ulm. What Otto and Rittel had in common was their fundamental attitude. They weren’t interested in details but in basic understanding. For Otto it was the relationship between form, materials and construction. While Rittel was a very radical thinker: he taught me to think and not to be afraid of doubt. With these basics you can go a long way and are more likely to create something new.”

Jan Knippers, like Otto, first studied engineering at the Technical University in Berlin, and found it frustratingly conventional. He moved to Stuttgart to work with Jörg Schlaich – one of Germany’s most important engineers – and immediately encountered a totally different spirit: “At Stuttgart, engineering was very much embedded in a cultural, societal and scientific context – much more advanced and more open, with the relationship to architecture much stronger”, he recalls. The proximity for these architects and engineers to the automotive and other local engineering industries meant they were in an environment where inventiveness and economy of materials were common practice.

Werner Sobek, who studied both engineering and architecture at Stuttgart, is head of ILEK: a merging of Frei Otto’s IL Institute and Jörg Schlaich’s Institute for Construction and Design, both professorships of which he inherited from his predecessors and mentors.

“We were very lucky”, he says, “that in Stuttgart in the early 1960s there were a few professors in the Departments of Architecture and Engineering who were looking for closer cooperation. From then on there was what we now call ‘the Second Stuttgart School’, which blossomed between 1960 and about 1980. The influences emanating from this school were very important: it bridged the gap between architecture and engineering and widened the focus out into aircraft design, car body design, textiles and more.”

It may have been a bonding moment between architecture and engineering, but this was not without its frictions. Not least between “architect” Otto and “engineer” Jörg Schlaich. “They appreciated each other, but nonetheless each had their distinctive field of research, which sometimes seemed like fire and water”, says Sobek. It seems the main trigger for the differences between these two research institute heads was when they both worked on the 1972 Olympic stadium project – Otto as consultant to the architect Günter Behnisch, and Schleich as chief engineer working for the company of another legendary Stuttgart professor, Fritz Leonhardt. According to Arnold Walz, Otto was more interested in exploring the boundaries of lightweight and elasticity with the roof: “But Schlaich couldn’t deal with this. I’m not sure if it was just his way of thinking or the building regulations you had to follow at the time. He wanted to make the structure as stiff as possible, like a concrete structure. Therefore all the parts grew in size and diameter. Maybe this is the reason the roof is still there. If Otto had been allowed to do the optimisations he wanted to, perhaps corrosion or other little things might have already destroyed the structure.”


Jan Knippers says he had never heard of Frei Otto whilst he was studying engineering in Berlin. “But in Stuttgart I realised how important he was, because of his impact on the interface between architecture and engineering. He was someone who had a lot of charisma, and a lot of ideas that were then taken up and worked on by others. I soon realised that many of the things that were later being worked on at the ITKE institute, came originally from Otto’s ideas: membranes, lightweight building, rope nets, grid shells and so on.”

“He was not an architect, but a thinker”, says Sobek, “and the only lifelong professor in the entire university who did not have to teach: he was totally free of that… He’d often surprised everyone by arriving with some biologists from Berlin, for example, to compare mussel shells with concrete shells, or human bones with steel columns. This permanent jumping over fences, or even not accepting that there was a fence between disciplines, was very important at the time. He did not just jump the fence, he tore it down.”
Achim Menges, who did not move to Stuttgart until 2008, says the effects of Otto’s presence there are still felt: “I think the main impact of his work on our approach is that he really questioned established models of design. His radical revision of the design process through what he called ‘form-finding methods’ is really something we’re trying to extend into the computational realm.”


“Although he built little, Frei Otto had an incredible influence on architecture”, says Jan Knippers, “because he developed a whole new approach to the idea of design. Form and structure are not defined by architects, but arise through physical structural principles. And this is what we’re continuing now – but on another level. Structures and forms are now performance-driven. As in biology, there is no longer the hierarchical differentiation between structure and material.”

Achim Menges marvels at how Otto managed to extend his methodology, “of trying to find a kind of equilibrium between external boundary conditions and internal force distribution”, towards a kind of construction technology, like the Multihalle in Mannheim, “where the form-finding actually took place on site in a construction process that employed the elasticity of the material to find a particular form: a radical rethinking of what construction and fabrication could be.”

Since succeeding Otto, Werner Sobek has developed ILEK further, particularly in terms of its multidisciplinarity: its 35-strong team now comprises architects, engineers, aircraft engineers, structural engineers, ceramic engineers and biologists. ILEK is still focused on making buildings lighter, but on energy-related issues and areas such as urban planning too. “We’ve dramatically widened the scope” Sobek says.
Another visionary thinker, also fixated on the lightweight, was Buckminster Fuller who regularly asked architects: “How much does your building weigh?” But now in a new century this question no longer addresses the complexity of the issues involved. Concrete for example, has evolved in quantum leaps: some ultra high strength concretes now have an extraordinary strength-to-weight capacity closer to that of high quality steel or titanium. Werner Sobek now divides lightweight in construction into three main fields: material lightness, structural lightness and a third: “the energetic part”. It is this latter area that has dramatically superseded the levels of the second half of the twentieth century.

“Nobody talked about energy then”, says Sobek, “or if they did, it was energy consumption over the lifetime of the building, not embodied energy or grey energy, which means the energy you need for the production and transport of the materials involved. For example in a newly finished residential building, this embodied energy has already added up to between twenty-five and thirty-five times the future annual energy consumption of the building for heating, cooling and cooking etc.” In talking about “lightweight” today, architects and engineers, need to consider not just structure and materials but the whole holistic minimising of embodied energy emissions.

This thinking permeates all the research at ILEK and other institutes at Stuttgart. Research is going on into such things as adding “artificial muscles” with sensors to structures, enabling them to adapt to varying loads and other environmental conditions. Other investigations are into lightweight, multi-layered textile façades capable of “harvesting” and storing energy, and into new forms of superlight concrete structural elements “foamed” inside in places – just like bones.


So where is engineering and architecture going next at Stuttgart? What can we expect for the future?

Sobek points out that purely practically, with an expanding world population in a time of growing material shortages, the focus has to be on recyclability: “This is a topic I’ve been teaching since 1992, when there was nobody out there talking about recyclability. This puts us in the pole position with worldwide research, because we’ve been doing it for twenty years. That’s why Harvard, MIT, Chicago, Moscow and Singapore universities are knocking at our door asking for co-operations.”

Walz believes strongly there is no point just playing around experimenting if you don’t know where you’re heading: “The problem generally is that the steamboat of conventional architecture chugs stubbornly on, immune to change. Productivity in the building industry hasn’t changed for the last twenty-five years. We build now more or less as we did 100 years ago with just a sprinkling of the digital here and there. Frei Otto indicated new ways, but apart from a few things like rope nets, grid shells and tents, none have had an impact on everyday architecture. What’s missing is a goal. Society has to start defining common goals again. Where do we want to go?”

Menges agrees, seeing the pivotal role of production in the future, facilitating a high level of differentiation – formally less limited and achieving high levels of adaptation – as in nature. This means no beginning or end to a building, but a constant state of growth and adaptation.

“The distinction between the digital and the physical has been eroded with their gradual integration allowing new ways to address how things are made. This will have a profound impact on architecture. Design and process will ultimately converge, meaning buildings will never reach a final stage of conclusion.”

Read the original essay at uncubemagazine.com

The Logical Path

Interview with Temple Grandin

For uncube magazine issue no. 30: “Animal House”, Sophie Lovell interviewed the legendary animal behaviourist and spokesperson for autism, Temple Grandin. “Whatever your feelings about eating meat, with hundreds of thousands of beef cattle slaughtered every day for human consumption, we have the responsibility to ensure the animals we consume go to their deaths in as…

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For uncube magazine issue no. 30: “Animal House”, Sophie Lovell interviewed the legendary animal behaviourist and spokesperson for autism, Temple Grandin. “Whatever your feelings about eating meat, with hundreds of thousands of beef cattle slaughtered every day for human consumption, we have the responsibility to ensure the animals we consume go to their deaths in as humane, gentle and painless way as possible. The animal behaviourist Temple Grandin, well-known also as an eloquent spokesperson for autism from her personal experience as an autistic person, has perhaps done more than any other individual to ensure this is the case. Her way of thinking is one that not only cattle handlers could learn from…”

Read the full article and issue at uncubemagazine.com

Night Purge

The CH2 council building in Melbourne for uncube magazine issue no. 29: "After Dark"

Mick Pearce is a Zimbabwean architect who specialises in designing buildings that utilise renewable energy systems for environmental control, based on biomimetic models drawn from nature. And, as with nature, many of the interesting things that go on in his buildings happen after dark. In 2006 Pearce was the principal design architect for an office…

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Mick Pearce is a Zimbabwean architect who specialises in designing buildings that utilise renewable energy systems for environmental control, based on biomimetic models drawn from nature. And, as with nature, many of the interesting things that go on in his buildings happen after dark.

In 2006 Pearce was the principal design architect for an office building for Melbourne City Council in Australia called Council House 2 (or CH2). It utilises an innovative combination of passive measures to maintain a natural ventilation and comfortable indoor climate of 21-23 degrees Celsius in a city where summer temperatures can soar to 45 degrees. A key aspect of this climate system is what takes place in the building at night. “If you want to design a building which works passively by responding completely to its immediate environment then the night is as important as the day”, explains Pearce, adding: “CH2 uses the night to disperse day heat like the planet does through back radiation into space”.

(Read article online)

The office’s exposed concrete ceiling panels are chilled during the day providing radiant cooling for the building’s occupants and storing excess heat in the ceiling spaces above. Then, some 60 percent of this heat is removed at night during the “night purge”, when the windows automatically open to a maximum of 65 degrees and the cooler night air is drawn in, across the undulating ceiling panels to be then sucked out through shafts at the side of the building, drawn up by the assistance of wind turbines on the roof. This natural ventilation system, usually occurring between 2am and 6am, is based on the way termite mounds regulate their core temperature, due to this same chimney or “stack” effect. It is simple in principle but its efficiency is dependent on the CH2’s computerised building automated system BAS, which uses temperature, wind and rain sensors on a floor-by-floor basis to optimise its functions: if the building is cool enough, the windows stay closed.

Supplementary cooling measures in the building, particularly useful for the retail spaces on the lower floors, include a set of “shower towers” at the side of the building through which air and water fall and cool together. The water is then pumped through a phase changing material (PCM) plant in the basement which also acts as an additional passive cooling unit – like a rechargeable battery – to help keep the ceilings refrigerated, maintaining a steady supply of “coolth” (as against warmth) during the day.

CH2 is Melbourne’s flagship building for sustainability. Yet a report by Exergy Australia in 2012 found its performance not quite matching its promise, which Pearce believes is down to a number of reasons: “The contractors handed over the building after their one year guarantee ran out and the occupiers did not educate anyone to run such a complex building. You need an engineer to run a fully computerised control system being fed with data from 2,500 probes in the building’s structure and equipment. There was soon a data overload and no one to deal with it. Hopefully Melbourne Council will do something about this”. He adds that while users were assumed to tolerate a temperature range from 20-25 degrees Celsius, in practice they refused to budge from 22-23 degrees, whilst admitting too that the co gen plant seems less efficient than predicted.

But while Pearce and his team had hoped to generate energy savings of around 88 percent, the actual value is closer to 50 percent: which is still a massive reduction. As Pearce concludes: “My designs can easily save 50 percent energy consumption without any social engineering, but to get there you have to aim at 80 percent saving at the design stage and you have to give people what Lance Hosey calls ‘the shape of green’: the aesthetics – here the wavy ceiling, shower towers and the yellow roof turbines. The occupants of CH2 love the building so it probably will last a long time past its energy life cycle.”

Night cooling is without doubt a vital component of passive climate controls for building and CH2 is an impressive model in this respect. But all systems – especially natural ones – need ongoing care and nurture in order to succeed. It is this aspect of our biomimetic building future – dynamic monitoring and capacity for adaptation, (admittedly not particularly sexy fodder for the marketing aspect of architecture) – which will likely prove to be one of the most significant areas of architectural development in the future: day or night.

From uncube magazine issue no. 29: “Water”, edited by Sophie Lovell

Holding Back the Waves

An interview with Matthias Schuler for uncube magazine issue no. 22: "Water"

Matthias Schuler is founder of one of the world’s leading climate engineering firms, Transsolar, and teaches at Harvard Graduate School of Design. He has worked with Frank Gehry, OMA, Herzog de Meuron, Stephen Holl, Jean Nouvel, Norman Foster and many others developing sustainable design strategies for everything from cabins to entire cities. He talked to…

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Matthias Schuler is founder of one of the world’s leading climate engineering firms, Transsolar, and teaches at Harvard Graduate School of Design. He has worked with Frank Gehry, OMA, Herzog de Meuron, Stephen Holl, Jean Nouvel, Norman Foster and many others developing sustainable design strategies for everything from cabins to entire cities. He talked to uncube about thermodynamic entities, compost toilets and the measures we need to take if we are going survive the next flood.

(Read original article online)

You call yourself a “climate engineer”. What does that mean exactly?

As engineers and physicists, we understand buildings and cities as thermodynamic systems. We want to understand how they perform – not mechanically, but in their reaction to outside loads, such as wind and sun exposure. Energy, air quality and resources such as water, are our focus and we seek to optimise performance by adapting forms and openings through “passive measures” – the building itself should do as much as possible. It’s important to be part of the design team from the start, so architects can integrate these measures, tailored to each individual building and its site: what we call local thermodynamic identity.

Talking of specific projects, you completed a tiny and self-sufficient building prototype recently with Renzo Piano for Vitra, called “Diogene”.  

The main intention of that building was to show people you can live on a small footprint, not just spatially but energy and material-wise as well. This project was Renzo’s life dream; he first sketched it as a student and has worked on it throughout his career. Now finally he found Vitra to support it and even develop a product out of it. It’s not intended to be a permanent home, more a weekend place or maybe an extension to an existing building. The idea is you could place it wherever you want, unconnected to any form of civilisation, to any grid. No electricity, no water, no sewage, nothing. It will have limited capacity for energy-generation, water collection and storage, so at some point you may have to decide between a hot shower or warm food. Therefore it was obvious it should do without a water toilet. This provoked one of the longest discussions with Renzo! He’s a sailor, and said: “you really have to love someone on a boat to share a chemical toilet”. That was his experience of the non-water flush toilet. But I told him we could use a compost toilet. We even installed one in the office which the whole company used for two months – with no smell problem! The important thing with compost toilets is to separate the urine and faeces. When mixed, a digestion process starts, which creates the smell. If you separate them, it just dries off. Urine is a great fertiliser so you can use it for your tomatoes around your Diogene. The solid matter is collected in a self-composting bag which, when full, can be taken out, buried, and takes about a year to turn into soil.

It’s very Walden, this idea of the Diogenes hut, isn’t it? Surely there are too many people in the world for us all to be able to go out and live like Thoreau in the woods.

Vitra is now going to make a hotel using about 25 Diogenes on their campus, but clearly they’ll have water-flushing toilets. And if you buy one for your garden you can connect it to the water supply if you want. For us it was about if the house really can be autonomous for electricity and water. The toilet accounts for 80 per cent of our domestic water consumption: all over the world we’re flushing valuable drinking water down the drain. We need to distinguish between drinking water – of which we need perhaps five litres per day for drinking and cooking – from grey water used more as a hygienic element. That was the main lesson we learned from this project.

Tell me about the “Secular Retreat” house you’re working on with Peter Zumthor in South Devon in the UK.

The project is part of the  “Living Architecture” there, an enterprise where they both refurbish old protected buildings and build new, high-value, architecture, for rent as holiday homes. I think it’s a great idea. Very few of us will ever live in a Peter Zumthor house, but you will be able to rent this for around 2,500 GBP per week and stay there with ten friends. The site is beautiful: on a hill overlooking the ocean. It has electricity but the water’s from a well, and there is no sewage.

So compost toilets again?

No, I couldn’t convince Peter. There will be water flush toilets. We talked about a biological reed-bed filter system but this is hard because it’s on a hill. So we have a three- or four-stage enclosed treatment system. The water that comes out is quite clean, so we can run it on site. This is the most state-of-the-art water treatment that’s possible on an independent site.

That’s interesting because one doesn’t usually associate Zumthor buildings – or retreats – with high tech or “state-of-the-art”.

You’re right: I can imagine such a building by Zumthor with just water and no electricity, nothing else. But if you rent something for that amount, even if it’s a Peter Zumthor house, people still expect WiFi.

Turning to the other end of the scale, you did the climate concept for Norman Foster’s Masdar City masterplan in Abu Dhabi due to be six square kilometres in size.

The energy and climate concept for Masdar is one thing, but the water concept is also interesting. When we were approached to develop this carbon-neutral city with Foster, we had to include water treatment because there’s no fresh water in Abu Dhabi. The only water available is from the shallow Arab Gulf, which is 30 per cent more saline than normal ocean. For the past 20 years local states like Quatar and the UAE have all been surviving on desalinated water. With this process you take the sweet water out and pump the highly concentrated saline residue back into the Gulf: a disaster environmentally. The typical corals and mangroves of the Gulf have been lost as the salinity of the Arab Gulf has increased by two percent. So one of the first lessons we learned was: thinking we can solve the water problems in the Middle East with solar-driven desalination is wrong. Energy-wise it might be okay, but overall this highly concentrated brine residue is a real load. Our Masdar energy concept showed that we would produce 120,000 tonnes of salt a year:, but what to do with it? We’ve had brainstorm sessions with the German chemical company BASF and they came up with ideas like encapsulating salt crystals in plastics to add to road material. But we’re still working on it. Another issue is that daily water consumption in Abu Dhabi today is 500 litres per person. By contrast, the French are down to around 130 litres and the Germans close to 150. So in a region where water is a rare resource, they’re consuming triple the amount used in European countries, which includes water for all the golf courses and the 400 million trees planted along Abu Dhabi’s highways. Emiratis wash their cars three times a week because of the dust – yet don’t pay a single dollar for water or electricity. Only expats are required to pay.

What stage is Masdar’s construction at now?

Around 25 per cent of the university is built and in operation – some 50,000 square metres – and the huge Siemens HQ for the Middle East is under construction, as well as the Abu Dhabi Energy Foundation. Foster is working on detailing the first 25 per cent of the city, transforming the masterplan into actual buildings. In my opinion, though we may never see all Masdar built as planned, the lessons learned will impact majorly on future developments. This is what I see as the big potential of Masdar City: that it creates an example for everybody who is starting in the same direction.

Masdar, as well as your new Al Fayah Park project with Heatherwick Studios, are environments created from scratch in extreme conditions. What about interventions within existing buildings and cities? Should we knock down old inefficient structures and start again?

No, around 75 per cent of the embedded energy of a building is in its structure. So whilst you can replace its façade or technical systems, holistically, energy-wise it would be a crime to tear it down and build anew. A rough rule of thumb is that even for very low-energy buildings, it’ll take around 15-20 years to make up for the energy wasted in destroying the old one.

This leads us to the recent news of the Thwaite ice sheet’s collapse in Antarctica with sea levels now predicted to rise by up to ten feet over the next two centuries. If these predictions are true, massive changes are coming.

We’ve known this since at least 1972. At the time of the Club of Rome, they were already showing the limits of growth. The only thing we can do is change our social systems. Take the ETH Zurich 2000-Watt Society proposal for getting annual carbon emissions per person down to one tonne. This is exactly the kind of proposal to show the world – that it’s possible to do this yet keep a high-quality lifestyle. We must rethink our idea of luxury, asking ourselves: do we really need three TVs, walk-in refrigerators or whatever. Realistically, we can’t now save the world from some changes. There are already areas with annual temperature rises close to 2.5 degrees Celsius. Instead, we need our systems to be adaptive. This doesn’t mean everybody going and living in secular retreats without electricity or running water, but we do each need to live on a smaller footprint.

(From uncube magazine issue no. 22: “Water”, edited by Sophie Lovell)


His Master’s Voice

Interview with Edgar Wiesnewski for uncube magazine issue no.21: "Acoustics"

The Berlin Philharmonie is an architectural masterpiece famously conceived from the inside-out around the requirements of its acoustics. Designed by Hans Scharoun, the main 2,440 seater auditorium, the Großer Saal, opened in 1963, but Scharoun died before the second, smaller chamber music hall, the Kammermusiksaal, was built. This was designed in detail by his partner…

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The Berlin Philharmonie is an architectural masterpiece famously conceived from the inside-out around the requirements of its acoustics. Designed by Hans Scharoun, the main 2,440 seater auditorium, the Großer Saal, opened in 1963, but Scharoun died before the second, smaller chamber music hall, the Kammermusiksaal, was built. This was designed in detail by his partner Edgar Wisniewski, who also completed the surrounding suite of public cultural buildings, the Kulturforum.

As is so often the case in these “man behind the throne” scenarios, Wisniewski’s input is rarely acknowledged in textbooks, yet much of the Philharmonie’s success as a building is owed to him. He died in 2007, but ten years ago Sophie Lovell, uncube’s editor-in-chief, got the chance to meet Wisniewski, a tall, striking man in his mid 70s, at the Philharmonie, and talk to him about a working life devoted to translating Scharoun’s simple yet revolutionary ideas – sometimes technically nightmarish to realise – into buildings of world renown.

(see the original article)

Dr. Wisniewski, you started your working life as Scharoun’s assistant, helping design the Berlin Philharmonie, but ended up completing and continuing his work yourself.

We worked together for 15 years until he died. During the latter part we were in partnership, which contractually means if one partner dies, the other carries on the work. And that’s what happened. When he died in 1972 I had all these projects, including the rest of the Kulturforum, to continue.

The site was still a bombed-out wasteland then – though 30 years earlier it had been the busiest city centre in Europe.

The final location on the former Kemperplatz is not far from where the old Philharmonie building had been before the war. During construction, the Berlin Wall came down. We stood here on the roof and watched the tanks rolling up and the barbed wire being laid. Some of the main workmen on the site had to come through the sewers to work every day from the eastern part of the city. The building was very close to the border, almost within firing range. Nobody knew what was going to happen next.

How did your partnership with Scharoun come about?

When I finished my studies at the Technical University in Berlin, Rügenberg, one of Scharoun’s assistants, recommended me to him as there was a post available. Of course I knew who he was and had attended his lectures. I liked how he worked in an organic way; the form of his buildings developing from the inside out. Then the very first project that came up when I began working for him was the competition for the Philharmonie. It was very helpful that I was heavily involved with music. I was in a famous choir at the time, St. Hedwig’s Cathedral Choir, which the Philharmonic Orchestra under [Herbert von] Karajan played with. My knowledge and understanding of the repertoire helped form a good, trusting relationship with Karajan, who was the one that pushed the Philharmonie through. Karajan also told me once he’d originally wanted to be an architect.

So Karajan was a decisive factor in choosing and building Scharoun’s design?

Although the scheme had won first prize in the competition, there were intrigues: people wanting to hinder its construction from the start. The decision to build was won narrowly by a single vote, only after Karajan threatened to leave the orchestra – and Berlin – if it wasn’t built. His support was decisive.

Was this support because of Scharoun’s idea of putting the “music in the middle”?

The trust and understanding between us, Karajan and the musicians was very important because this idea of putting music, the orchestra, at the centre of the hall with everything else circled around it, was new – the Berlin Philharmonie was the first.  Scharoun always said that it’s no coincidence that wherever improvised music is played, people immediately form a circle around it, and that this must be translatable to a concert hall. The whole design developed from that premise.

Was the design driven primarily by the acoustics?

Putting the music – the acoustics – in the centre had other important benefits too: Scharoun didn’t want any hierarchies. In the seating there are only slanting planes and stalls with no dress circle, apart from two galleries for special music performances, and there’s a single foyer for all. The idea of being up close to the action was also important. There are over 2,200 seats in the main hall, yet none is more than 28 metres away from the stage. That’s what’s so special about this space: you are so close to the people making music. This works the other way too: when you stand on the podium you feel how close the audience is, how they demand the best from you. I particularly like to sit in the choir seats behind the orchestra because you are so much inside it all. The whole floor, everything, vibrates there.

Do you think visiting musicians and orchestras look forward to playing here?

Since 1963, practically every great orchestra in the world has played here. But they do have to adjust acoustically. Many of them are used to playing in halls with a shoebox construction, with walls all around. Suddenly, here there is nothing – the flanking walls are relatively low, and some are angled, meaning part of the sound is reflected back to the orchestra so that the musicians can hear each other.

The reflectors in the ceiling are also specifically designed to stop the echoes from the high ceiling. A relatively long, two-second reverberation time in the full hall was originally requested, because that is what’s needed for the late Romantic pieces such as Brahms, Brückner, Mahler and Richard Strauss, the tradition of the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra. The only way to get this reverberation is with a large volume, which is why the ceiling is 22 metres above the podium. But then it comes down in a convex sweep towards the audience, who comes up to meet it, like coming up the sides of a valley. Mrs. Scharoun said it looked like a vineyard.

I understand it was Lothar Cremer who worked out the acoustics. It must have been an intense collaboration.

Yes, the first thing he said was that it wouldn’t work! There was nothing to go on. Nobody had built a hall like this before. There were no lasers and computers for measuring like today. We built a big scale model at 1:9 that you could stand in, and they fired a type of acoustic pistol in there, recording the results with microphones.

And the Kammermusiksaal? You built that yourself based on a rough sketch from Scharoun.

I was not only deeply involved with music, I also studied musicology at the Technical University, with lectures from people like Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt, one of Schönberg’s students. I’d learnt about the whole development of new music and was able to bring this to the design of the Kammermusiksaal, and it was Scharoun’s wish that I do – he was very open. He made just one sketch of it: not so much a design as an agreement that we make a centrally orientated space. Cremer said it was acoustically more complicated to build than the main hall, but when it was finished we didn’t have to make any acoustic adjustments at all.

How much of the Philharmonie is you and how much is Scharoun?

That’s something I wouldn’t even discuss in private! Many changes had to be made to the original design, to the staircases, the foyer, and so on. I designed a lot in the building. Even the gold aluminium façade is mine.

Was it a burden carrying on Scharoun’s legacy?

Scharoun’s and my own achievements are inextricably bound. From the initial planning of the Philharmonie, I simply moved on to the other big building projects of the Kulturforum. They represent more than 30 years of continual work. I never perceived the work as a burden, more a challenge.

Do you see yourself as having lived in his shadow professionally? His name often only gets mentioned in relation to the Kulturforum ensemble.

Planning the four main buildings of the Kulturforum: the Philharmonie, the Staatsbibliothek, the Staatliche Institut für Musikforschung with the Musikinstrumenten- Museum and the Kammermusiksaal, has been so fulfilling. I perceive Scharoun’s shadow as inspiring, not obliterating. He only lived to see the Philharmonie, but I, on the other hand, can look at the four buildings, remember the battles fought to build them and experience them now, today, filled with music. Any feelings about shadows evaporate.

From uncube magazine issue no. 21: “Acoustics”, edited by Sophie Lovell

New Worlds, Old Metaphors

Interview with Ricardo Scofidio for uncube magazine issue no. 19: "Space"

Architect Ricardo Scofidio co-founded Diller Scofidio + Renfro, an interdisciplinary design studio based in New York in 1979. His practice is as well known for its installation and performance projects as its architecture. He talked to uncube‘s editor Sophie Lovell about skeuomorphism and the dangers of investigating the new, when burdened by luggage from the…

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Architect Ricardo Scofidio co-founded Diller Scofidio + Renfro, an interdisciplinary design studio based in New York in 1979. His practice is as well known for its installation and performance projects as its architecture. He talked to uncube‘s editor Sophie Lovell about skeuomorphism and the dangers of investigating the new, when burdened by luggage from the old.

(see the original article online)

I understand that you have an interest in science fiction and space. Is there a particular author whose visions have left a strong impression on you?

Yes, I’ve read many books over the years. Science fiction has changed so much from the times of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells through cyberpunk to an incredible amount of dystopian fiction today. I’m less interested in somebody’s idea of what the future of technology might be and more in stories dealing with bodies and people and ideas and problems – I guess “soft” versus “hard” science fiction.

With the recent Mars missions, Chinese probes on the moon, and the move towards commercial space flight for private citizens, we seem to be entering a new space race era. I find it interesting how little architecture has been involved in these plans. Have you ever been involved in thinking up scenarios for space habitation?

I haven’t been approached to make a proposal, but I do think it’s an incredibly interesting problem, for many reasons. On earth, if you make an architectural or construction mistake, you may get water leaking from the roof; if you make a mistake in space it may mean the end of your life. There’s such an enormous amount of technological issues that have to be met that it would require an architect to spend years acquiring that knowledge or else working with a compatible engineer. The other problem is that when a design needs only to solve pragmatic problems a creative approach often becomes less important.

But probably the thing that scares me the most is that wonderful word “skeuomorph”. If I look at my browser and click on a skeumorphic “home” symbol it takes me to my personal folders. We’re burdened by so many analogies that attempt to help you deal with new, unfamiliar technologies by using old metaphors rather than creating a new language. For example, if you were designing a gravity-free architecture, I’m sure somebody would still insist that you put a standard doorway in the wall just so people know it’s the place to enter.

Like the designer Raymond Loewy, who was the first to suggest putting a window in the American manned spacecraft so the astronauts could actually look out.

What is a window on a spacecraft compared to a window on earth? Windows are often an opening to day-dreaming, allowing the mind to think, fantasise, and wander. At the turn of the millennium we did an installation project called Master/Slave for the Cartier Foundation in Paris about the shift from the twentieth to twenty-first centuries. Our project involved a collection of tin toy robots that were owned by Rolf Fehlbaum from Vitra. The Cartier exhibition included a spectacular film by Andrei Ujica, called Out of the Present, about the astronaut Sergei Krikalyov [he spent 10 months aboard MIR during the collapse of the Soviet Union, ed.]. Ujica gave Krikalyov a camera, which he smuggled on board the Russian space station. Sergei was at the opening of the Cartier exhibition and Elizabeth Diller and I were lucky enough to sit opposite him at dinner where we talked about living in space. He found that being in space for an extended period of time produced a continuous enjoyable euphoria. One orbit took an hour and a half, during which time he saw night and day, and all four seasons. The most incredible thing for him was spending hours looking out of the window at earth. So to design for space I think you would have to spend some time in orbit just to understand the issues involved.

We have had ideas of outer space influencing architecture for many decades: from Buckminster Fuller’s Spaceship Earth to silver flying-saucer shapes and streamlined rocket forms. Norman Foster’s new Spaceport America for Virgin Galactic is particularly interesting since it seems to blend the terrestrial with an alien aesthetic. Humans seem to have a propensity for turning science fictions into science facts. Is this also the case for architecture? Are we building our futures according to how we envisage them to be?

In the 1920s, Norman Bel Geddes and other engineers started looking at automobiles in terms of aerodynamics and streamlining. Suddenly there was a whole field of aerodynamic design being applied to things like irons and toasters and coffee pots – even if they didn’t move one inch. So what is the vision for an object in space? The closing sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the protagonist Dave Bowman [Keir Dullea] ends up in a Louis XVI bedroom, was alien, inexplicable and disturbing for me to watch. Much more so than if it had been something that we perceive as a “space environment” as represented by Hollywood today. You mentioned that the future becomes what we project upon it – as far as I’m concerned there are very few examples in which someone predicted the future and that’s exactly how it happened. Foster’s Spaceport seems to me more symbolic of the way we think space or the future will be, rather that really what the future might be.

The first photograph of the earth taken from behind the moon in 1968, Earthrise, inspired the idea of “spaceship earth” and suddenly changed our whole perspective of ourselves. Do you think it continues to have an effect on design?

Scientist have invented and sold us so many things that the industry can’t now turn around and say: “Oh we made a mistake, this thing is terrible for the environment and now you can’t have it.” Rather than developing new paradigms energy is being spent to allow us to keep what we have been convinced that we want and desire, with modifications to make it less aggressive towards the environment. We really have to dump some things and find new answers to old problems, rather than propping up old solutions.

How would you envisage the beginnings of a Martian or a lunar colony?

Thinking about skeuomorphism I become concerned that a lunar colony might look like a suburban town under a big protective dome. I wonder what Frank Lloyd Wright or Mies would do with a space colony? Would we even be designing for our same bodies? How much luggage are we dragging from one discipline into an area that really wants to be perceived in a totally different way? I reread Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange a while ago. What’s so beautiful is that when you first start reading there are new words in the opening chapter that you don’t comprehend. But as you continue reading you pick up the language and start to understand this future time/place. So, how can we take a new problem and give it meaning that transforms the way we think about the object we are trying to make?

Do you think all the film material documenting the lives and work of astronauts on the ISS has any kind of effect on architects and how they think about environments?

I’m still struggling with the idea of what space is. At the moment I can’t think of space in terms of feet and inches. At one time the earth was flat with heaven above and hell below, and if you went too far you fell off the edge. Then with the industrial revolution, space became about the transportation of goods from one place to another. Someone in a prison cell had no space, and someone in a mansion had lots of space. My personal understanding of space is no longer feet, inches, or metres, but time. I don’t say a place is 500 metres away, it’s five minutes away by foot – or if it’s in Los Angeles, its five hours away by plane. If we talk about going to Mars we don’t talk about distances, we talk about how many days we will spend travelling to it.

I was talking to a mapmaker once and got him a bit upset by saying: maybe the Moon is just half a mile from earth, but it’s very small. So, when we leave earth and travel towards it we shrink, getting smaller and smaller, which is why it takes so long to get there. How do we know that is not the case? I wonder how much we really know about what’s out there in terms of distances and dimensions. We have an Einsteinian understanding of space and know that dimensions change and space warps, but there are so many new discoveries and questions, I think in the future scientists will look back at how little we knew.


From: uncube magazine issue no. 19: Space, edited by Sophie Lovell



Design, Decline and Dogma

Interview with Matevž Čelik for uncube magazine issue no. 18: "Slovenia"

The director of Ljubljana’s Museum of Architecture and Design (MAO) and organiser of the BIO Design Biennial, Matevž Čelik is an architect of a generation straddling the cultural divide between the state-socialism of former Yugoslavia and the burgeoning free-market economy of the young Slovenian nation. He spoke to Sophie Lovell about how the knock-on effects…

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The director of Ljubljana’s Museum of Architecture and Design (MAO) and organiser of the BIO Design Biennial, Matevž Čelik is an architect of a generation straddling the cultural divide between the state-socialism of former Yugoslavia and the burgeoning free-market economy of the young Slovenian nation. He spoke to Sophie Lovell about how the knock-on effects of political change have affected the country’s design industry and the difficulty of finding new models of engagement while hamstrung by the old. 

(See original article online)

You are a trained architect and had your own practice until 2010 when you took over the directorship of the MAO. What led you to take that step? What did you hope the museum would give you that designing buildings did not?

At the turn of the millennium, Slovenia was a country in which it was easier to carve out an independent career than elsewhere, but at the same time architecture was produced and communicated in a way that was still deeply rooted in the past. As young architects building our first projects we strongly felt this gap. So in 2002, together with Dekleva Gregorič and Bevk Perović architects and others, we founded Trajekt Institute for Spatial Culture. Trajekt organized exhibitions and workshops and communicated mainly via the internet. It soon became a locus of architectural debate in Slovenia. I edited the Trajekt website and moderated discussions for eight years, so moving to the museum was a logical step in extending communication and reaching the general public.

From the nineteenth century onwards, during the period in which design as a discipline was taking shape worldwide, Slovenia went through several identity changes as a nation. How do you think this has affected Slovenian design – both stylistically and in terms of practice?

Design in Slovenia carries the genes of the Austro-Hungarian craft schools, the Bauhaus tradition as well as post-war socialist modernisation in Yugoslavia. It began with Jože Plečnik, who visited the Craft School in Graz and studied and collaborated with Otto Wagner in Vienna. Another key moment for the development of modern design in Slovenia was 1961, when Edvard Ravnikar [Plečnik’s former student and Slovenia’s second most famous architect. Ed.] set up an experimental design course at the Ljubljana Faculty of Architecture. The course leaned conceptually towards the Bauhaus and the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm, where Ravnikar collaborated with Max Bill. The course itself didn’t survive, but later the same methods were revived at the Department of Design at the Academy of Fine Arts, established in 1984. To this day, design in Slovenia has remained committed to modernist reductionism, subordination to function, ergonomics, and rationalisation for the purpose of mass production. The belief that the role of design in society should be connected to industrial production is still deeply rooted within the Academy’s product design department.

This year the Slovenian Biennale of Design, (BIO) founded in 1964, will be 50 years old. This must make it one of the oldest events of its kind in the world. Why was it founded and why do you think it has endured?

BIO is the oldest design biennial in the world. In former Yugoslavia the 1960s were years of industrial growth, optimism and opening up to the world. After the war, modernisation through industrialisation was high on the agenda of the socialist government. The Biennial of Industrial Design has always been associated with the development of industry, and the efforts to enrich and humanise mass-produced objects for every home were seen as clear proof of socialist welfare. These ideas were still strongly present at BIO in the 1990s, although the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia and restoration of capitalism in Eastern Europe called them into question. In 2012 we started to think about possible alternatives. Now with the 50th anniversary edition, the role of the design biennial in the future is becoming much clearer.

I have heard that in its time the BIO was as important for the European design scene as the Salone del Mobile in Milan is now. Was it the Eastern Bloc counterpoint? Or did it have an international presence?

There was always strong international presence at BIO from the beginning. The biennial in itself can be seen through different lenses. By comparing the latest everyday products from the East and West, BIO was probably a platform that intended to supply tangible proof that socialist prosperity could compete with and exceed that of capitalism. And until the fall of the Berlin Wall BIO was a window for the West, through which it was possible at least to peek at Eastern bloc production. But in fact it was mostly a local professional initiative. The local designers and architects who established and ran BIO always saw the biennial as a natural integration of their work with the international world of design.

Many European countries are having to rethink their industries as manufacturing businesses struggle – and Slovenia is no exception. What used to be the key areas of industrial design and manufacturing in Slovenia and how are they faring today?

As the most developed and industrialised part of former Yugoslavia, with state owned companies that had successfully exported to the West, Slovenia was well-placed in the 1990s. However, it responded wrongly to the challenges of economic transformation. The process of de-industrialisation in Slovenia coincided with the restoration of capitalism and the privatisation of state-socialist enterprises. Slovenia opted for a protectionist approach in which the government favoured the transfer of shares to local owners. It worked well for a time, but during this redistribution of power, rather than providing companies with visionary and responsible managers, a new economic elite emerged, who played primarily on their links with political parties and access to public money.

During these years the traditionally strong wood, furniture and textile industries virtually disappeared. Many factories no longer exist. Instead of investing in restructuring and modernising production, transactions over the last 20 years revolved within a closed circle of semi-state-owned banks and enterprises. When Europe entered the crisis, the Slovenian economy imploded and the cream of our companies were lost. On the other hand, now many new small companies are emerging, run by intelligent people who are looking for niche products, thinking long term, and enthusiastically developing their business models in accordance with social responsibility.

What problems need to be overcome?

In my opinion one of the big problems in Slovenia is the expectation that big players or systems, either economic or governmental, will solve the everyday problems of every individual. Everyone wants to have a job but there are very few who think about how to create new jobs. If design is to develop, designers shouldn’t wait for clients to ask for something to be designed.

What areas and strategies of design are on the rise?

The design scene in Ljubljana is very lively. The young generation realises that the role and influence of traditional industrial manufacturers in the market have decreased. For instance, people gathered around a group called Rompom to organise “Pop-up Dom”, a flexible peer-to-peer network. This is replacing the rigid top-down production models designed to optimise the mass production industry in the last century. Crowd funding platforms are just one of the tools that speak of new production models for our time. Designers act as facilitators and they organise co-working spaces or other services for designers. Another new initiative is Gigodesign’s recently launched Design Forward Accelerator, a service that includes seed money in cash, services, workspace and mentorship. Crisis also acts as a powerful engine for change in design.

How big a role do natural resources and materials and local skills play in contemporary design in Slovenia?

Wood, glass, textiles, metalworking, and also expertise in the chemical industry, where new materials are developed, have always been important for Slovenian design. In the past, it was the manufacturers who dictated the use of these materials. Over the last two years MAO has presented the exhibition Silent Revolutions at various design events around Europe, which showcases contemporary design from Slovenia. The products in the exhibition show that designers are the ones increasingly suggesting use of natural resources and local skills to producers.

What direction would you like to see the BIO take over the next 50 years and what role do you wish the MAO to play – in short where would you like to take it?

Right now we are facing the challenge of finding new solutions with almost no available resources for research and development of new models within existing economic structures. Production has been divorced from expertise and the two need to be reconnected. It is necessary to break with the fetishisation of products that has alienated design from production. I believe that BIO should play a role in this field and strive to support creativity in its most delicate and vulnerable stage. This means that in the future, BIO has to increasingly play a research-based, experimental role.

From uncube magazine issue no.18: “Slovenia”, edited by Sophie Lovell

The Lightest Touch

Interview with Greg Lynn for uncube magazine issue no. 16: "Carbon"

Best known for fusing the words ‘blob’ and ‘architecture’ into a – now infamous – portmanteau, the architect and designer Greg Lynn has been exploring the integration of structure and form since the 1990s. The highly technical areas of expertise that he explores with his FORM studio team in Venice, California are balanced by a…

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Best known for fusing the words ‘blob’ and ‘architecture’ into a – now infamous – portmanteau, the architect and designer Greg Lynn has been exploring the integration of structure and form since the 1990s. The highly technical areas of expertise that he explores with his FORM studio team in Venice, California are balanced by a surprisingly high level of handcraft – especially when it comes to working with carbon composites. He talked to uncube about the potential and pitfalls of working with carbon and how design thinking needs to shift to incorporate the properties of the material.

(see the original article online)

When did you first start working with carbon? What were your reasons for getting involved with it as a construction material?

I started using composites because I was looking for a material that was translucent rather than transparent. This is why I used glass fibre instead of carbon years ago, but the principles are the same for what I would call ‘rigidized cloth’ – fabric and woven goods that are stiffened with resins. The difference between carbon and glass fibre is really more about stiffness than weight and strength. Otherwise they are almost identical – especially for architectural applications. If you want to eliminate deflection and make something really stiff then you go for carbon – otherwise you use glass. But the black fibre aesthetic of carbon is really different and presently has cultural associations with high performance sports and luxury. I remember a series of magazine advertisements by Prada, who used 3DL™ load path carbon and aramid North Sails as a backdrop to their clothing ads. The network of curved lines of carbon twill looks like a drawing, similar to Piranesi’s hatching. And I know of architects who have noticed the material and worked it into buildings. Renzo Piano used it for his Americas Cup building in Valencia, where he draped the Team Prada headquarters in used sails. For Swarovski Crystal Palace’s exhibit at Design Miami in 2009 I designed hanging surfaces of carbon and dyneema made by North Sails with millions of crystals sandwiched into the gossamer translucent membrane. That was probably the first time I worked with carbon.

At the end of the ‘90s some of the Droog designers did some work with carbon fibre, notably Hella Jongerius with her Kasese Chair, Marcel Wanders with his Knotted Chair, and later Bertjan Pot. But they seemed to drop it again quite quickly. Pot told me that as a material “it has issues” and is very expensive…

Actually, it keeps getting cheaper. The real problem for the use of carbon in industrial products, or any composite for that matter, is cycle time. I designed what has to be the lightest hanging chair ever made as a prototype for the Art Institute of Chicago in soft flexible carbon pre-preg tapes manufactured by North Sails. They were placed and laminated manually from four-inch wide tapes and they take two people at least an hour, because you are really placing material at the fibre level in multiple orientations based on load paths. It is similar to tailoring in terms of time and labour. Because of the time it takes to laminate, cook and cure carbon objects it becomes prohibitive for the world of high volume production in furniture and automobiles. For Formula One cars, for example, there is not a piece of metal left on the structure and body of the car any more – only in the engine – and even most of that metal being replaced by handmade, labour-intensive carbon. A lot of people think these things are made by machines, but really it’s one of the last truly artisanal craft-based methods of construction. It will get more industrialised, but it hasn’t yet.

Isn’t the very nature of carbon composites environmentally problematic, in terms of recycling or breaking down the materials afterwards?

Not really. Michael Lepech at Stanford published his comparison of composites with other construction materials and, more often than not, because of their light weight and high strength, they often use less material and out-perform materials like wood, masonry and steel that take more energy to manufacture, transport, assemble and support. In Lepech’s comparisons, if you include the stuff they put in wood to keep it from rotting and to discourage insects from eating it and so on, a wood-framed building ends up being more toxic with a larger carbon footprint than an actual carbon fibre building. Yes, it is environmentally nasty to burn piles of sand into fibre using huge amounts of energy and then glue the sand together using petroleum resins around foam cores. But when you look at how little material is used, how much steel is saved in holding up these lighter materials, how much energy is saved in transport, longevity and performance, it is easy to see why composites are high-performance.

It sounds like we are still at the very beginning of using carbon composites in manufacturing, structures and objects. Because of these manufacturing difficulties do you think carbon will turn out retrospectively to be just some kind of interim material?

In the United States, the transportation infrastructure is dangerously antiquated and badly maintained. Much of the current reinforcing and retrofitting of bridges and overpasses is glued carbon strapping. For certain niche building industries, like bridge-building, retrofitting infrastructure and mining, carbon is already a mature material. It’s been around for 60 years or so. The capacity in China now far exceeds the demand – that’s because manufacturers such as airlines are eliminating aluminium and changing to composites. No one would consider designing a new commercial airplane in metal anymore – we have to go to carbon because it is so much more energy efficient. I think the issue with a delayed adoption of the material in buildings and commercial products is that designers frankly don’t understand the principles of it. Until designers understand at a conceptual level how to use carbon composites, they won’t use it appropriately and therefore it won’t be a sensible alternative.

Some have understood though, like Marcel Wanders with his Knot Chair.

That was a very smart way of understanding how to make a flexible thing rigid. What I’ve found is that there are a couple of really huge ideas in composites: like locating structure in load paths rather than consolidating structure into a frame and disengaging the structure from the lineaments defining a form. If you use the character of the material in all those ways, it not only becomes really practical but there is also a whole language of design that comes out of it. Another problem with the use of carbon in particular and composites in general is that, until 2009, building codes viewed composites as finishes, so the only way to use them without running your own tests was to use them decoratively. Most architects attempt to use carbon either like a steel frame or like a material swatch that’s purely decorative.

I read somewhere that you are good at predicting the future. How do you see our future as carbon-based life-forms in terms of our relationship with carbon as a material. Do you think we are going to move towards a more biological, organic relationship with our environment?

I’ve never tried to predict anything because I find it very tough to do, but I have had some success in influencing the field, in particular with digital technology. I see potential for my own exploration in the design of large-scale composite structures and I will publicize and explain the principles and possibilities to my colleagues and students as clearly and concisely as I can in the hopes of speeding their adoption. Over the last several years I have invested a lot of time, energy and money into mastering composite design and construction. We are even making composite parts and prototypes right in my office. I co-designed an ocean-going trimaran with Frederic Courouble and we built much of the tooling for it, as well as the carbon interiors and details that I built and supplied directly to Westerly Marine, one of a handful of builders in the world experienced in high-performance carbon yacht construction. I initiated the project mostly because I am interested in the challenge of using state-of-the-art software and construction to design a building-sized object that is under thousands of pounds of load moving at high speed, converting the wind into motion.

So you are saying that working with composites has fundamentally changed how you think about architecture?

Yeah sure, like Marcel did with that chair: it’s a macramé chair rethought with new chemistry. I look at everything totally differently now, through a cloth lens. So rather than trying to make wood behave like steel, which is what Richard Neutra and other modernists did, now I see wood behaving like, say, wicker or woven rattan.  My personal design paradigm has changed.

From uncube magazine issue no. 16 “Carbon”, edited by Sophie Lovell