“In our profession it’s important to combine out of the box ideas and rational aspects”
Where does modern architect begin, what are capabilities of the modern architect, where does the architectural design starts, where to look for insights – in this exclusive interview for the Organizing Committee Eurasian Prize, told by Jeroen Schipper, Orange Architects partner.
— There are many discussions now that digital technologies are changing the world, taking over literally all industries and push away human participation in some professions. In your view, how technology has affected architecture, and how to change it in the next 10, 20, 30 years?
— It is an ongoing discussion, every time when technique changes we will have this discussion again. Maybe around 100 years ago when we moved from hand drawings to the drawing board there was the same discussion.
I would say, that the most important digital revolution we have is digital communication. By communicating digitally, everything went faster and smoother. With digital communication, we have much more insides worldwide. Apart from digital communications, what really has changed our profession is, of course, digital drawings. By 3D modeling, we can visualize spatial concepts quite easily. For instance, the project Jonas we do now in Amsterdam (Jonas) would be hardly possible if we were not able to model its concept visualizing in the early stages our ideas. So, in comparison with old techniques, the new techniques bring us further in the development of spatial ideas. We see it also in our office: with VR glasses on, we can virtually walk in the buildings before they are there. It’s not a utopia anymore, just reality.
Moreover, we live in an era where we need to focus much more on sustainability. Due to new techniques, we are able to design more integrative connecting architectural vision, structural vision, materials use – all sustainable components of the building and all sustainable expertise. These technologies will bring us more smart integrated building solutions. Design becomes more integrated and complex, but in the end, they are just instruments to visualize your ideas.
— What hard and soft skills, in your opinion, a successful architect in his profession should be in possession of today?
— It is an interesting question. We define our work on our website by two slogans: one is – Concept and Craft, and the other is Together. The first one is how we can bring explicit concept ideas to reality, to the buildings we make. For an architect it is important to have a vision: what do you want? You should be conceptually strong; you should be able to translate this vision into the spatial ideas. Of course, you should have excellent design skills. All our team strongly believes in the sense of the place, that we make unique buildings that fit the location, so, they are context orientated. Yet, as an architect, you should know about technical engineering. I always say we are not merely artists, we are also engineers. I think that the engineering part, how you can make a building work is a very important part for an architect. These are all called hard skills.
If we talk about soft skills (together principle), think it is important to be able to motivate people. When we work on a project, we work not only with clients but also with the municipality, residents, and other stakeholder. An architect should be able to cooperate with all different parties because different interests make building diverse. And you need to have endurance because the processes are very long and to go from a concept to implementation will take a lot of time. Creating a built environment is a very complex process and you need to be sturdy and flexible at the same time.
The context is important for the next question. There is an educational initiative from the competent ministry in Russia, which envisages combining four professions in the framework in universities by 2024: urban planner, urban environment designer, architect-restorer and architect – into a single specialty (educational standard) architect. The initiative generated great interest and controversy within the professional community. In particular, the Union of Russian Architects opposed optimization, noting that this decision would destroy several completely different and demanded professions. Opponents argue that within the next 5-10 years, a career will change so technologically that a short online course will suffice to achieve specialization.
— Our question about the future of architectural education, in the short term, will an architect be more of a generalist who has completed basic training or a person who initially chose one of the specializations?
— It is definitely an interesting topic. If I bring it down to the main theme, it is a question if an architect should be a generalist or a specialist? I think we should be both, to be honest. Personally, I am an architect and urban planner; I am not an environment designer or a landscape architect. It is a different profession in The Netherlands. It is not so simple. On one hand, an architect needs a basic education in different scales of spatial design from landscape architecture to interior design. On the other hand, he should know how to bring specific information to the table. And the information which an architect brings to the table is different than the information brought by a landscape designer. I believe, an architect should have a base education in the whole width and then he should be specialized in a certain discipline, depending on his interests and qualities.
— And yet, can we combine this professions or we should divide them?
— If we talk about the educational system when you have 5-6 years of education to get the specialty of an architect. Could be, that in a base education, in a bachelor education it would be broad education where you learn skills from all range of our practice but in a master’s degree you need a specialization. We see that in our projects architecture and landscape excel because we work together with landscape architects and they bring new concepts, new ideas, and new knowledge to the table that we would do as architects. I do not think that this idea to have one universal designer will work. If everybody will have the same general education, you will definitely miss important things.
— How you are working on your new projects? Is this an individual process or a team result? If relevant, can you please tell me how the work goes from an idea to a ready-made project?
— We work very much in team cooperation. People with different specializations such as architects, urban planners, interior designers work together on our projects. We believe in unique projects, which is why we try to make every project different. When we start with a new assignment, we discuss with the team, what the identity of the project will be, what we are going to focus on. For us, it always starts with an analyses of the program of demands, of the location, of the specific client’s wishes, and the history of the place. From this information, we formulate an appealing concept. We try to bring things together: the program, the wishes of the client, historical identities, and geographic identities of the project, from that the concept emerges.
Our office is not style orientated, so we don’t make projects within a certain architectural style but we make projects as an idea. We develop strong ideas for a project and we try to work out these ideas in the best way possible. If the idea is formulated, it is also clear for the team how to continue with it. This idea is like a red line in the project, that we can steer on so we know what we want to make.
— How many people work on one project?
— The team size for a project, of course, depends on the complexity of the project. If we have a small project, we compile a team of 1 or 2 people. If the project is big, the team grows to 6-8 people.
— In an interview, I read that before you start working, you come to the site of a future project to feel the atmosphere of the space. Why it is important for you to analyze historical context and determine “genius loci” of the place?
— As I already mentioned we like to design unique projects related to the context and the context for us is a broad word. It is not only physical context; it is also a program of the client and the history of the place. It means that by analyzing what is specific about this project we can make an outspoken concept. It is on the one hand a very rational process but on the other hand, it is always partly intuitive. It is important in our profession to combine the rational engineering part with the intuitive aspect – visionary ideas. Of course, you can analyze endlessly but you do not necessarily make an interesting building, you need to formulate thoughts and visions before you start designing a building out of it
— Is it ever happened that studying the context changed your initial ideas?
— Yes, of course, that happens. The project also evolves because of new insides. We always try to visit the location before we start working on a project and see what is specific about a certain location. In addition, the client changes his wishes during the process. And if the client’s wishes to change the concept should be strong enough to incorporate all these insides. That is are what you have to deal with because it is never in one line from start to finish, it is always a bumpy road.
— Again, the question of values and priorities. What do you think is more important for an architect, to make a series of unique creations that will remain for future generations or offer universal but simple effective solutions for mass construction?
— We as an office work on many housing projects. In The Netherlands, we need for our 17 million population around 1 million new houses in the coming decade. You could consider it as mass production. At the same time, the quality of our cities and our built environment is in the differentiation of things, so we do not believe in mass housing as an architectural style but we believe in it as an assignment that we should do. Yet, we should make buildings unique and fit into their location. Our existing cities proved that by making variety in neighborhoods and different areas they become richer. Monofunctional cities and layouts are not interesting; they are lacking complexity, which we humans like.
— I should ask about your St. Petersburg projects Golden City (in June, the project won the Urban Awards 2021, as well as the Golden Capitel Prize – ed.). Are there any peculiarities in working on projects in Russia? If so, what are they, If not — what do these projects have in common with work in other locations?
— Referring to the Golden City project (we do this project together with KCAP and A.Len, the local office) in 2015 we entered the competition for the development of the harbor area together with KCAP and we won this competition. The competition also started for us with the identity of the place, of Saint Petersburg. This is a benefit of being a foreign architect: you can always look at the places with fresh eyes. We noticed two things: we thought that Saint Petersburg is unique. It has a unique pattern, a unique city structure, and the historical city is praised a lot due to its coherence, beautiful spaces, and architecture. As soon as you leave the city, center when you drive out to the outskirt and enter the Soviet industrial housing areas the city tense to fall apart. For us, the problem is not even in the architectural style, but mostly in the scale of the structures. We see that the development in the most recent decades of mass housing became bigger. Unfortunately, the negative effect of making bigger buildings is that you need to place them further apart. In this case, the public space gets lost; when buildings get too big, the public space also gets too big. What we tried to do in this project, we tried to create two things: if you come to Saint Petersburg by boat and you see the project, you should immediately see that you are in Saint Petersburg. You do not want to misunderstand where you are. The second thing, we wanted to make authentic urban space as natural as in the historical city. This does not mean making old fashion or traditional architecture, because we make contemporary architecture, but it is about creating comprehensive urban space with closed building blocks, inner gardens, streets, squares. The urban spaces that people understand and value in a historical city.
— Do you have other projects in Russia?
— We work in different cities: of course, Moscow is a very interesting location for development. We are doing a project in Novosibirsk at the moment, we worked in Cheboksary. Recently, we were invited to participate in the competition for the renovation of Khrushchev buildings in Moscow. In the Netherlands, we have post-war housing blocks, which were built after World War II and now a half-century later we have different ideas on cities, on housing, and on quality of housing. Restructuring these areas is a major task for many cities in Europe. If looking into the Russian context it is the major task there too. We are interested in working in cities and making cities better, that is why we think that this kind of task is definitely an important task to bring our knowledge, our ideas as architects from abroad.
— A couple of days ago, a colleague of yours told us that for an architect, the greatest happiness is to find a customer who can embody a creative concept or an architect’s idea, not the other way around. Do you agree with that statement? Do you have any ideas, concepts that are waiting for their time and their client? If so, what are these projects?
— We work exactly the other way around. We do not have any preset ideas, we aim to get inspired by clients, by people we work with, by location, by assignment. We do not look for clients to build our ideas. We look for ambitious clients who are open-minded and want to make something special. We want to give form to their ideas. It is a unique position as an architect, we can envision things that people were not thinking of by answering their questions in a slightly different way. That is our main goal; to always look critically at the question and to see if we can make more out of it. We are not at the game to make our ideas preset. Our ideas change from assignment to assignment from location to location.
— What’s the mission of modern architecture these days? How the architecture changes the world?
— Yes, that maybe the main and most important final question. We are in an era where we should do things differently, we need to steer to more sustainable solutions. We strongly believe in climate change, in need of reduction of carbon emissions. If I ought to say it in one sentence, I would say ‘We need to make a better world.’ It is a big task, we have already done a lot but not enough. Architects are only a small part of the solution because we must work with different people on it: governments, clients, advisers, and techniqual innovators who have the same goal. Yet, we are in the front position at the beginning of many processes and we can steer on them. We see it as a major task at the moment – to make highly durable and sustainable buildings and landscapes.
— You’re on the jury for the Eurasian Prize. In your opinion, what do such independent competitions give to the architectural professional community and at fist to young architects who sent the projects to the Eurasian Prize?
— I think it’s really important to show the best projects. Such competitions bring people together and unite them. This is a serious incentive for young people, an opportunity to show the best and strive in their work that the projects are worthy of the competition. From my point of view as a jury member, it is interesting to see different developments and different designs from another part of the world.
— In conclusion, you have the opportunity to address the participants of the Eurasian Prize. What you would like to advise or wish them.
— It is important to strive for interesting projects. I think it is much better to make one unique project than to make 10 generic ones at the same time. So, It is not about the amount of work you make but it is about the quality of work you make. If you are proud of what you have made as a designer, architect, you should definitely send it to the contest. Of course, it comes with tension; an architect can make good things only if he has tension for it. If you are dedicated, you work seriously, and with quality, if you have good ideas, you want to share them with other people; the contest is an excellent platform for that.
Photos and illustrations courtesy of the Orange Architects office