Foreign Office Architects

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photo: David Levene photo: David Levene
words Marcus Fairs

"Suddenly we think our lives are going to be different," exclaims Farshid Moussavi with genuine excitement. "There is a Sainsbury's opening nearby, just around the corner. And a Starbucks." Alejandro Zaera Polo, her husband and partner in foreign office architects, smiles in amused agreement.

FOA have based their architectural philosophy on being outsiders, and it is therefore refreshing to learn that this striking couple are interested in banal activities such as queuing at the check-out or nipping out for a latté.

From the outside, their office, in an immaculate white stucco terrace on Belgrave Road, West London, looks as if it could be an embassy for a tiny republic, or a pied-à-terre for moderately wealthy foreigners with pretensions. The porticoed entrance is unmarked, save for three small glazed Spanish tiles that spell out FOA.

The building is in the heart of Pimlico, a rich but dull area sandwiched between Victoria Station and Chelsea, and not the kind of area you'd expect to find a couple of radical young architects. "I have to say, I do like the idea of not being in Hoxton, or an area where you are supposed to be, as an up-and-coming architect," laughs Moussavi, explaining how they bought the office - and their apartment, which is in a similar stucco townhouse a few doors away - for a knock-down price during the recession of the early Nineties.

"Although we are now thinking of moving to Hoxton," admits Zaera Polo; the office of ten has now outgrown its cramped accommodation. Moussavi adds: "But we are considering Hoxton for a very different reason; we are trying to buy and it is very expensive to buy in this area now."

The first major UK exhibition of FOA's work opens at the ICA in London this month, marking ten years since the office's formation, and this provides a good opportunity to take stock of a practice that is emerging as one of the most important of its generation. FOA's founders belong to that rare category of architects who make a global impact before the age of 40: Moussavi is 38 and Zaera Polo is 39. And they have risen to prominence not via the lecture circuit or through fted paper projects, but by building things. The seminal Yokohama Ferry Terminal was completed last year and numerous overseas projects - mostly in Spain - are underway: their police station at La Vila Joiosa is almost complete. As part of United Architects, they were shortlisted for the Ground Zero competition earlier this year. They still have not built anything significant in the UK, but they are working alongside Allies & Morrison on the Olympic masterplan for the Lea Valley in East London; they are in the frame for the new BBC Music Centre in White City, and have been working on a new Selfridges for Bristol.

FOA also represent the emergence of a new type of architecture; one that moves away from the signature - and often gratuitous - form-making of the Libeskind/Gehry generation in favour of something more complex and subtle. The name of the practice is a good starting point to understanding their approach. Zaera Polo concedes that it is, along with the Spanish tiles, a jokey reference to their globe-trotting tendencies: Iranian-born Moussavi met Spaniard Zaera Polo while they were both studying at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard; they then worked for Rem Koolhaas' OMA in the Netherlands for a while, before coming to London to teach at the AA.

But the name also hints at an important part of their philosophy, which is that an architect in a strange land can often propose solutions that people intimately associated with a culture would never consider. "We were always interested in the idea of foreignness as a condition that could be exploited in a creative way," explains Zaera Polo, who, like Moussavi, speaks with a pronounced accent yet is able to express complex ideas with more elegance than most native English speakers. "Usually, to be a foreigner means you don't understand very much, but there's also a naivety and a kind of freshness. So when we moved to London we thought [the name] was in a way a joke, but at the same time a kind of hint at a certain line of research we were interested in."

During their formative years studying in America and working for OMA, they found themselves surrounded by people from all corners of the globe. "It is interesting to be working on something and a Japanese guy comes by, and maybe where you were stuck, he doesn't see any obstacles and he tells you this is very easy," says Zaera Polo. "It's a condition in which you are liberated from any luggage that may have come from your education; the sensibilities you picked up wherever you grew up."

This was over a decade ago, when globalisation was a relatively new concept. In the intervening years, the multinational workforce has become the norm, particularly in headline architects' offices - although FOA claim that the hierarchical structures of these outfits prevent the cross-cultural pollination they encourage in their own office.

From the outset, the phenomenon of globalisation provided rich pickings for star architects, as clients around the world rushed to commission trophy buildings to put their own city or corporation on the map. But as globalisation began to be seen as a destructive force threatening to overwhelm indigenous traditions, so global businesses became interested in strategies that were more sensitive to locality.

"The difference between our generation and the previous generation is that they were probably the first that had to deal head-on with the internationalisation of architectural culture," says Zaera Polo. "What did they do? The same thing that Mercedes or Coca-Cola did, which is to create a recognisable brand - some kind of signature that is recognisable, no matter where it is deployed. Now we think this is no longer interesting." "And nor does Nike or Coca-Cola find it interesting,"

adds Moussavi. "You can create diversity of styles within the same branding strategy; it can have many facets. The idea of an architect being a global brand, of selling a utopian vision, is perhaps no longer relevant. Today, when you work across cultures, there is no one idea that will necessarily be interesting or legitimate in every context. We are more interested in deriving or extracting individual identities that emerge out of all these cultures, rather than imposing one."

"Nobody is interested in having a Richard Meier [building] or a Gehry again and again, no matter where," says Zaera Polo. "You've seen it before, it doesn't really make sense."

FOA do not have a signature style and do not start a project by generating forms; indeed, they have been quoted as saying that aesthetics and beauty are not important.

"Well, it's not that aesthetics and beauty are not important," says Zaera Polo. "Obviously things have to look good. But what we try to question is that usually we have been taught as architects to be mainly concerned with aesthetics. There are architects who sketch, and for them the sketch is where they start out from; we are not interested in that. We are interested in breeding the project from the ingredients." By ingredients, he means things like the ground condition, the brief or technical data pertaining to the site. "We hope that by looking at those ingredients, almost trying to forget that you are trying to achieve a building, by trying to free your mind and look in a state as empty of preconceptions as possible, you will be able to generate something different."

Moussavi adds: "When you sketch, you always rely on your visual memories, and only if you forget about those are you likely to surprise yourself. How we start depends on the nature of the project. We work with diagrams: the issues could be the circulation, pure construction, the relation between the perimeter and the build volumeÉ and it's so extreme that it sometimes produces forms that you are not sure if you like. And it happens very often, and it takes us time to get used to it. You don't know if it's beautiful or ugly."

"The ugly and the beautiful are relative terms," adds Zaera Polo. "It is determined by fitting into a culture, by fitting into a tradition, and what we are trying to do, through this process of alienation, of foreignness, is to blur those categories. And this is a rather conventional artistic process. Artists have long been digging into the ugly, into the monstrous, into the things that are outside the realm of established beauty, in order to produce a new beauty. We always say that beauty is the capacity to surprise you, to move you. Sometimes things that are ugly, that are outside the realm of aesthetics, are more capable of moving you, of producing some reaction, than the things that fit into the canon."

FOA concede that there are many architects around the world exploring similar ideas to theirs: Greg Lynn, Hani Rashid and Ben van Berkel. This generation is radically different from the older generation of stars, says Zaera Polo. "First of all, we've all worked for somebody else. We've done our duties. We've learned what it is to work for somebody. We haven't just been idealistic and bright and intelligent and ambitious and suddenly decided to be a great architect, which is what most of the people of the previous generation did. They believed that if you are great, things will fall into your hands. And I think there is a very big difference there. I think our generation is much more deliberate, in some ways much more wise and even conservative - pragmatic - while they were much more idealistic."

However, FOA are the first among their contemporaries to convert the theory into reality on a significant scale. The breakthrough for them was the Yokohama Ferry Terminal in Japan, which they won through an anonymous competition in 1994 and completed last year. It was extraordinary that so young a practice with so few built projects should be entrusted with such a key project; even more extraordinary that their proposal, which defied numerous architectural conventions, should be selected. FOA were up against an international field of 600 firms for the Yokohama job. Why do they think they won? "Because we are very pragmatic," says Moussavi.

"Yeah, in one way pragmatic, but you also cannot deny that we are very, very lucky," adds Zaera Polo, laughing.

The completed terminal, a landmark project to mark Japan's co-hosting of the World Cup last year, blurs the boundaries between architecture, landscape and infrastructure. Jutting into the bay, it consists of numerous overlapping, rippling surfaces designed to channel vehicles and pedestrians around the multi-levelled superstructure. Thus the form is generated by the circulation.

There are rumours that the client got cold feet about the project and tried to scupper it, and FOA admit their proposal was not an easy one to explain. "The only way we were able to explain it was in the way we generated it; the process," says Moussavi. "But we also learnt that that was not effective in all situations. Some people wanted to see it in terms of an image, so you learn to give them associations to relate to, or talk about the performance of the building."

And so they began to play up the fact that the terminal's roof resembles a wave, and that the folded steelwork of the interior voids resemble the rib-cage of a sea monster. "If, after going through the process of generating something, it doesn't resonate on many other levels, you haven't succeeded," says Zaera Polo. "For example, I think if Yokohama hadn't looked a little bit like a wave, we would not have won the competition." Another thing they learnt in Japan was that their philosophy of exploiting their foreignness was extremely effective. "We really did try to be as local as possible," says Moussavi. "We moved there, we grew the office slowly to be entirely Japanese except ourselves, because we wanted to communicate with the locals, to understand them. But of course it was impossible, so we used the fact that we were foreigners. In Japan, they have a very hermetic culture with extremely well-defined rules and protocols and things like that. You have to have a lot of grey hair, you have to be over 50, you have to be a man to be taken seriously. But if you land there as a foreigner, the client can't expect you to understand all the protocols. So they are forced suddenly to explain things to you as if you were a child. And that is very interesting because it makes the client think, ÔWhy do we do things like that?' That puts you in a position where the client is weak; it doesn't have the full confidence to be supported by cultural protocols or attitudes."

The story of the handrails illustrates the point: FOA had designed curving metal rails that flowed fluidly around the terminal, but the construction team said this was impossible and instead proposed fabricating the rails from sections of straight tube. FOA flew back to London disappointed, but returned to find the rails had been installed to the original specification. The reason the contractor gave was that it was more important to do the job honourably than to safeguard its profit margin.

With FOA now building extensively in more familiar territories, they are trying to maintain the condition of foreignness that worked so well in Japan. They have an extensive range of projects in Spain - a park and open-air auditorium in Barcelona and a major development in Santa Cruz de Tenerife - and Zaera Polo is finding it relatively easy to play the outsider. "When I go back there, I try to be truthful to the philosophy of FOA and behave as a foreigner. And it is very funny because your relationship with a place changes completely. They know I am Spanish, that I come from London. I come from a different world; I am out of the game."

Their progress in the UK has been somewhat slower, but they are tantalisingly close to success. Besides the BBC competition, the Olympic masterplan and Selfridges, they are shortlisted for a masterplan in Hastings and an extension to the Whitechapel Gallery in London. If all these high-profile public projects come off, isn't there a danger that FOA will become part of the establishment? "No!" snaps Moussavi indignantly. "The proposition of FOA is you should be a foreigner in your own land. So if the UK is our base and our home, the challenge is to remain somehow a foreigner when we work here."

"I don't mind becoming the establishment," laughs Zaera Polo. "I don't want to be 50 and still be an emerging architect. This idea of foreignness, of alienation, almost requires a form of psychological training. But the fact that we want to alienate ourselves doesn't mean we reject seeing what is there. On the contrary, it's like when you're a tourist - your eye is more sensitive. You're more eager to understand."

FOA exhibition, ICA, London, November 29 - February 29, www.ica.org.uk

Icon readers are invited to a free viewing, 7.30pm-9pm, Tuesday, December 2. To confirm attendance, email [email protected]

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