Questions of Our Time
inter·punct sat down with Annabelle Selldorf to discuss several important issues facing the field in our current moment. We think about how architecture hangs in balance with the rest of things.
For additional information and to view Annabelle Selldorf’s full lecture, visit the CMU School of Architecture website.
i•p: We would like to talk about the issue of style. Many people describe your approach as minimalist or restrained. Is this how you would characterize your work as well?
Annabelle Selldorf: I think that is an interesting question because people think that architecture is all about what it looks like and is therefore a matter of style. I think about architecture in terms of what it does, and style is irrelevant to that. Of course it is also about what the form and material look like, but it is first and foremost about identifying what it does for the people who are going to use the space. It is about understanding how people come together, the variety of activities it encompasses, the scale of the program, and how it influences our psyche. Referring to the issue of style; it is possible that the more you work, the more certain aesthetic choices become apparent in the design process. Generally speaking I think that it’s imperative to do all of the upfront work. Find out everything that you can find out about a site: the history, the climate, the people who are going to be affected. There is so much to learn and by the time you disseminate all that, a path to resolution reveals itself. Once you understand that path then you have to find ways to think about what it looks like, and how it meets the ground. Architecture is quintessentially about bringing together complex ideas in the service of constructing buildings and understanding how they physically manifest.
i•p: Art gallery commissions seem to be a hallmark to your office’s building typology. Can you talk about your fascination with arts and cultural institutions?
AS: Overtime I realized that art is at the center of gravity for society’s outlook on life. I personally feel inspired by the visual arts, and love to look at art. So it was very natural for me to become not only involved with the arts, but also apply that to my thinking about space, and very gradually you develop expertise. It is truly what I love to work on.
i·p: Designing a museum is also about creating a space for other arts to shine and take center-stage. How do you determine how much architecture is enough?
AS: That is a good question. I approach museum projects like I approach everything else. I try to design the architecture to great specificity and precision to allow the artwork to fully evolve. So the designer needs to have a degree of confidence in order to not steal the show. Great architecture stands on its own two feet. It doesn’t need comparison. Ours is a different art. It resonates on a different level because it is all about what it does, especially in the context of museums. We are at a very interesting time where museums, libraries, music halls, and any number of buildings that function in the public realm have to do more than just one thing. It really is about welcoming and bringing a diverse group of people together, and also engendering tranquil understandings of what the relevant values of life are.
i•p: So the architect becomes the organizer of things?
AS: In a way. It is different from project to project. That is what I mean by specificity. In many ways I feel that in contemporary culture there is a desire to make everything the same. How do you escape that? How do you actually have greater closeness to reality? For me architecture is a very concrete activity. Everybody talks about how we have to work interdisciplinarily. Everybody, every architect, talks about how their work functions on multiple scales. Fundamentally, I try to resolve with built work the questions of my time. I want them to be real. I want you, and everybody else who comes to or encounters our buildings, to have a real experience. I am very passionate about that because I think you can, and you need to, talk about what constitutes our society. I think that you have to push the envelope. Everyone has to in their own way - architecture is mine.
i•p: Looking at one specific museum project, we find the use of cast-in-place concrete on 20th Street for David Zwirner particularly elegant. When you design a project, when does the consideration for material come into play?
AS: For that project it came later in the design process. A building is composed of so many different things. If you are building a building in a place where the materiality is much in the foreground, it would only be natural that material selection is critical early on in the project. That is not always the case. Personally I need to understand the volume, circulation, light, structure, all of these issues before I can think about material. Your question reminds me of something I consider immensely important: however much of the genius architect idea exists in our discipline, nobody does anything in isolation. If they do, the architecture doesn’t necessarily advance the cause. In this particular case, it was David who wanted the cast-in-place concrete. It was a challenge because unlike in Europe the technology is less developed here. So it was very much a process of discovery. We collaborated with experts and learned a lot of new things about dealing with the material in a new context. This also included understanding and rethinking how the composition can react to the concrete; determining the length and width of the forms, working out the three-dimensionality of the staircase, and understanding what is structure versus what is cladding. It became this meticulous process that tried to do not one ounce too much or too little. I am interested in making architecture that exists in a narrow realm. If I had done one other thing it would just be too much. But if I hadn’t done enough it wouldn’t amount to anything.
i·p: What does it mean to be just right?
AS: That isn’t something you can articulate easily. It is artistic and intuitive. It cannot be achieved by checking all the boxes. It is about something else. In music, for example, John Adams had this concert for twelve pianos, and when you listen you don’t just hear the sound of twelve pianos, but another sound that animates from all of them coming together.
Architecture has to come together in that one tiny spot because it is permanent. If you don’t like a painting you can take it off the wall. If you don’t like a building it is much more difficult to do that. So if it is going to be there it better be good. I take that seriously.
i·p: Do you consider the lifespan of the building? I suppose this relates to your renovation and recycling project in New York City which talks about the image of recycling. Could talk a little about that, and how you approached that project?
AS: Again, it was a process of learning as much as it was about finding resolution. I did not know very much about municipal recycling. It is not an architectural category if you will, it is generally in the industrial realm. One can’t simply say this is what a recycling facility looks like. Learning about it and understanding how there are multiple circulation patterns in the facility, and how they serve school children to truck drivers. It was a formidable first task and afterwards it became about how you use the land, introduce nature, and how you live up to a particular budget. The process is sorting out the different layers. Then it became very clear that there was an opportunity to make juxtaposed volumes that make negative volumes that make courtyards. These courtyards constitute proportions that make the entire thing a much more human experience. Despite the enormous processing plant and materials hall that the project inherently has to contain, it is still about the people who work there and their experience with the entire thing. It is still about making it understandable on some level.
i·p: What do you think about the Parametricist movement? Can those buildings reach the same level of understandability?
AS: Truth is, I don’t really think about it. It is not what I do. I love the fact that people use parametric tools, but there is a proliferation of useless stuff. It is something that quite simply doesn’t interest me. I am interested in technology. I am interested in pushing ahead on what makes our life more intelligent. If there are possibilities to improve an experience through technology, great. Very specifically in the production of architecture we make drawings, in the past by hand now with CAD. I think that virtual technology is super interesting. It is just that we have to learn how to apply it. Overtime I think it will make us think about space a little differently. All of these things are always touted as being so different. People still, for the most part, sleep horizontally.There are many things that haven’t changed, but if all of our work was focused on opening our minds to more peaceful cohabitation it would become not about bubbles in three-dimensions, but about how you can create a calm and quiet space.
i·p: Outside of your architectural practice you also have the furniture brand, “Vica”. What motivated you to design furniture in the first place?
AS: It happened because Vica has been something that mattered to me since childhood. It’s not so much about furniture design, but about the company that my grandmother started. So in a way, I just reinvented the company.
The initial idea came about when we were struggling to find furniture that produced a particular quality - something that would work well with our clients’ art collections - in the market. So we decided to design our own furniture, which turned out to be very difficult, but we continued undeterred. Until at some point we developed a collection of twenty-five furniture pieces, which made a very nice foundation for a company.
Despite the fact that it has been ten years of dabbling, I still think Vica is in its infancy. We have yet to really organize ourselves and go into real production. What I enjoy is also the fact that when you design a piece of furniture it is smaller in scale, with more parameters and constraints. For me the experiments are more or less the same things that I seem to be encountering in architecture. How can you do something that is so simple, and yet has evolved in a complex and refined way? How can it be completely confident without having to call attention to itself? How can you find two things that totally serve their purpose and create a portmanteau which makes the world better? ·