Conversation between architect Julien de Smedt and Joseph Grima, director of New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture.
Joseph Grima I think the perfect introduction for today’s talk was that map you showed of the flags superimposed on the world map, showing the number of different nationalities in your studio. I think the first question is how many airmiles do you have? How frequent a flyer are you?
Julien de Smedt Very frequent.
JG The interesting thing about that subject is the kind of toll it takes on the daily running of the office, how much travel has become an important part of the architect’s weekly rhythm. It’s something that is never really discussed as an influence or how this is metabolised into your production. I remember in the first few pages of [OMA, Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau’s 1995 book] S,M,L,XL there was this visualisation of Rem Koolhaas’ travel in the years in which the book was produced, and the number of nights spent in hotels. I think towards the end of the book he’s reached possibly 200 or 300 nights out of the year. That’s arguably when the airmiles generation kicked off. It was these years of hyper-productivity behind S,M,L,XL where being spread thin all over the planet became a prerequisite for a certain type of production. And the interesting thing about that is also is that those same years were the years when your generation was spawned. Maybe you can tell us a little about the culture that was generated in that atmosphere. What sort of environment was it, and what made it so inspiring for a whole generation?
JdS [It was] the idea of a network, the fact that there was such a dense network of extremely diverse influences. I mean, it’s almost like six months to a year you will have met a person from every continent possible. And there was definitely an idea that people were there to contribute, to learn and then to piss off [and set up on your own].
Julien de Smedt (image: Julian Anderson)
JG And that was accepted within the culture.
JdS Yeah. I mean it’s the same in our offices now. Of course you can make tricks to keep your associates going but at the end of the day there is kind of rise of the idea of the individual … There is an entire generation of architects in Denmark that didn’t exist at all. You know, when we created Plot there was no new office opened in Denmark for ten years. I think it’s a positive thing, it’s about expansion. Of course, there is a lot of trouble in it but there is a lot of good things and progress in it too.
JG It’s very interesting to contrast your model with Zaha Hadid Architects – there haven’t been that many offshoots from her office. It could be also that Zaha’s office actually grew a lot later, quite recently. One suspects that it’s never going to be quite as fertile as OMA.
JdS But there is another aspect to it I think. Fertility is one thing but there’s also what happens next. It’s also interesting to see how much relationship those new offices have to the mothership. Because ex-OMA practices have a close relationship to the office and they actually get fed a lot projects from the office. There are many examples where they are being fed work, which I think is really exciting as a model. Their power and capacity are not stopping at the end of the office but are being channelled into new breeds of architects, which is a really sustainable way of looking at your production.
Joseph Grima (image: Julian Anderson)
JG One of the values that I think talks about architects of your generation is for people at the age of 30 to run offices of 60 to 100 people. And I guess my question is which is more important to you, which can you consider to be of ultimate importance, your career as architect or the quality of your architecture?
JdS Definitely the quality of the architecture.
JG I think the answer is a given like that but in many cases the speed of production is almost necessary today. A kind of prerequisite for the career to stay afloat is an environment of hyper-production in which the end result is the least important thing.
JdS I don’t totally agree. You do stuff to get it down. We are running late, lacking capacities. We make a move in order to get a project but in the end it’s because we totally understand that architecture is a slow profession. We do a lot of things that seem to be speedy and you see it in the magazines, and it feels very boiling, but at the same time this is totally different from the reality of actually doing a project. When you actually get a project you transform it until you reach what it is that you want to reach. You actually change it massively in order to reach that. You play a game, because it is a game of going to that fair and meeting and showing those images, but in the end what we are trying to do is really architectural.
I think the beauty of the profession is that you have sufficient steps and time to tweak everything that you produce to make it right. Sometimes, like in China for instance, the control that we have of what we do is within certain limits that are totally different. And we have to accept it or drop it. But I’m not so focused on the Swiss-style detailed details. I’m much more interested in the kind of capacity of what a project can become, which I think is still architectural.
JG OMA’s work itself is built around the whole idea of disregarding details and focusing on the overall product. But even though every member of this generation insists that the quality is the ultimate value towards which they are striving, it is important to acknowledge that there was, or there is, a very strong sense of competition within this post-OMA generation. And also [there is] this idea that Rem Koolhaas has imbued in the successful young practices of designing your career – certain milestones that have to be touched and reached at certain points. For example, there is this totally unsubstantiated rumour that Fernando Romero parted in a hurry from OMA to go back to Mexico City to publish a book while he was still younger than Rem Koolhaas was when he published Delirious New York. I can’t remember who told me – it doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not. It’s kind of an interesting insight into a sort of culture one can imagine existing …
JdS Or the sort of culture that Romero is interested in.
JG I think to single out Fernando would be to misrepresent him.
JdS Yeah, sure.
JG OK. So let’s talk about your book. Can you remind me of the title?
JG And the subtitle?r
JdS Oh …
JG This is the world preview!
JdS Can we sustain our ability to crisis?
JG Can we sustain our ability to crisis? There was this very interesting aphorism from [White House chief of Staff] Rahm Emanuel recently: “It’s a crime to waste a good crisis.” So in what way have you been using the crisis, taking advantage of it, other than to transform the word into a book?
JdS The subtitle rises from the idea that the crisis has been used to justify all sorts of eccentricities as a society. The way we use it, the idea of an agenda – you know in French agenda is calendar, diary – and the idea that you play with a period of time that starts from 18 September 2008, the Lehman Brothers collapse, and then a year from then on. So we look at all the things that happened to us during that period, and what sort of attitudes we’ve had, and what sort of changes we made within the office to deal with it. Even though for some people the crisis has been something that has passed now, we still think that there are a lot of difficult times to come. In a way we look at the first six months as being the period of realising, and reacting to what was happening, and then the last six months is a survey of whether that has brought anything new to the office or not. And you can see that there are projects that are coming out that have never occurred before, typologies and places that are totally new, which are directly linked to the strategy that we put into place. So that’s more kind of practical side the way we work with crisis at the office.
JG But did any projects arise specifically from the crisis or respond specifically to the crisis?
JdS What basically happened mostly was that there were fewer and fewer projects. At one moment the phone wasn’t ringing any more, and there was less external input. Of course we would work on what was in the office, we would do competitions and so on, but you could feel there was a slow down of external contacts, which is also what triggered this attitude of being more proactive and trying to find things that were more interesting.
JG I was speaking a couple of days ago with Matteo Proli, a friend of mine from Milan who also used to work with OMA, and he’s publishing a book on the work of his office called Failures. It’s kind of the stereotype of the post-OMA generation of celebrating one’s difficulties, or crises or failures, anything that would normally be construed as negative in one’s career. Is this something you are consciously aware of?
JdS But that’s more like opportunism, isn’t it? Trying to find new meaning to something …
JG Yeah, exactly. But how does that really constitute part of your practice? Because I think it does become a great thing.
JdS For instance, we do a lot of projects that we reuse. Every project is some sort of micro manifesto, and what’s great about that potential is that it can be reused. Things that are thought or a take on a topic can mutate a lot easier in the future as opposed to strict answers and given programmes. So it’s the idea of actually recycling work, which I think is opportunism but also really healthy. At the end, there are not so many issues to answer and to deal with in architecture. There is a bunch of big ones – political issues, social issues, financial issues – then in the end if every project is addressing an aspect, you can make it grow through the different projects.
JG A name that came up several times today was Ruskin, [to whom] the idea of the project being transplanted from one corner of the planet to another was a disgrace. Do you think that this is a legitimate practice in architecture since the birth of the generic city?
JdS It’s dangerous to put things into drawers but there is definitely common ground of issues and conditions throughout the world that allows you to reinitiate ideas in other places.
JG Like one of your early projects that you showed was conceived for Europe and ended being built in the sea of Singapore.
JdS I think as long you are truthful to a certain attitude, maybe contextual attitude, if you bombard an idea that was conceived somewhere else into a new place you will of course manipulate it. And the idea, by placing it there, you generate a lot of reactions. But that doesn’t mean that the idea it embodies is not applicable, it just has to be manipulated and changed to fit.
JG Obviously if you are running a practice of some 30, 40, 60 people, a prerequisite for keeping it running is a certain type of charisma and being able to motivate people. And I wonder what your thoughts are on that, whether that’s something you actively seek to improve and whether you think you have enough charisma, or whether a bit more would help.
JdS On a scale of one to ten? First of all, I’m not interested in bigness. We’ve actually been trying to keep the office within 30 people max. So we split the office – right now we are 40: around 20 people in Copenhagen, 15 in Brussels and five in Oslo. When we ended Plot we were 60, we had no structure and we were battling … it didn’t really work. Now I mean what I think is much more important is the interface with your staff on a daily basis. The scales I’m meeting with are much more intimate than that so you don’t have to literally speak in front of hundreds of people.
JG One of the singular things about Plot and the thing that really will stand out in architectural history is the fact that with one project in particular, with Mountain Dwellings, you succeeded in building a low-cost housing development which had magazines scrambling to publish it. Plot was really saying that there are developers out there with huge construction projects going on with huge budgets – why can’t architects be in on this? Why are we not part of this game? Why have we isolated ourselves from this? And this woke up and inspired a whole generation of students, that things of that kind could be engines of growth for practices, when previously nobody really thought they could either make money or become famous from low-cost housing. I was wondering what your thoughts are on the kind of relation with developers and money in particular – the economics of running an office – where do you think this is going to go in the future?
JdS What was interesting, especially about the VM [Housing in Copenhagen] was that it was €1,000 per square metre, which in Europe is definitely considered social housing, but when you go there you don’t feel like it’s a social housing project. So we do rationing in a way that is not conventional. I think the most interesting and exciting part of architecture is to turn something that seems to be impossible but you know that is really the right way to go into something visible within a budget. You have to compromise all the time, you have to say, “OK, you lose something,” but as long as you set all the priorities right, and you know the point of your project, and you know where is the line when you can lose something and where is the line where you cannot. “OK, I lose that as long as I have that.” And the way this developer in particular was part of that. Like the triangular balconies, for instance, were very cheap to make – they are just two beams and a support. So something that looks crazy and alien has a very rational story behind it.
JG One of the points that came up earlier was engaging the client not in terms of aesthetics but in terms of pragmatics and necessity and so on. Is that something that you apply to developers as well?
JdS What’s really important with developers is to consider them almost like private clients, so you address their inner thoughts, the ones that they normally talk about and guide all their decisions, and you just try to make them your partners in the project. The more you get to know what they mean, the more you end up taking that into your equations. So it’s a way to deal with them as a core value of a project, and you also avoid a lot of ruptures where you slam the door and run away.
JG In the latter half of the 20th century, there were great critical figures such as Reyner Banham and Tafuri and so on. With no disrespect to Charles Jencks, there is no real equivalent any more. Maybe this is because of the internet, in the sense that information tends to disseminate itself much more loosely and is not so much constrained to magazines as much as it used to be of course. So I wonder what sort of influence this has on you – how do you react when your design is posted on a website and the critical voice is replaced by the multitude of responses below. What do you feel when you look through what people say – one line could be, “That’s cool,” and another, “But that reminds me of this…”, or, “Fantastic,” or, “Think of a better product.” How is this experienced within the office, in your existence?
JdSI think we really don’t care. If you look at the responses, it’s actually only one or two percent that develop some sort of real critique. The majority is like an eruption of … you know it’s immediate and what can you think about that? You feel good if it’s good and you feel sorry for them if it’s bad.
image: Julian Anderson