Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

Farshid Moussavi – Foreign Office Architects

February 17, 2004

Interview for Kultureflash #77, 17 Feb 2004

Things couldn’t be busier at the moment for Foreign Office architects, the London-based practice founded by Farshid Moussavi and Alejandro Zaera-Polo. Having recently won the BBC’s competition to design its Music Box Centre at White City (set to be their first major building in the UK)¬†they’re part of the design consortium that has just submitted London’s Olympic bid. And in the middle of this, they’re moving offices.

As their ICA show, Breeding Architecture, comes to an end this month (29/02), KultureFlash caught up with Farshid Moussavi, amid the packing cases:

Jim Hudson: FOA has a higher profile than ever, and is fast becoming one of the world’s most talked about practices. Has this changed the way you work?

Farshid Moussavi: We now have the chance to pitch for projects where traditionally you would have to wait to be an older, bigger practice. It’s very exciting to work on competitions up against much larger practices, so we think we have been very fortunate, although you have to work incredibly hard when those sort of practices can put in more resources than you. People often dismiss you because of your fame, claiming that there’s no depth to your work, and that you’re just very lucky or fashionable, and often this criticism comes from fellow architects. They often forget that with all this exposure comes an enormous amount of work.

JH: So does this mean you have to be very selective about choosing competitions?

FM: We have to be very serious about what we do. We have to be wary about being included on European or international shortlists where we could be seen as a “wild card” entry — being the younger component, or the foreign component. So we try to be careful. We look at the client, the timing, and even at the list of judges to see if we will be considered seriously; based on that we sometimes decide not to compete. So we are selective, but we’ve never turned down a commission — we don’t have any ideal size of project, or ideal client, or ideal building type. In fact we’d prefer not to become specialised, which helps us stay fresh in our approach to each commission. We think that when you’re too familiar with a problem, you stop experimenting. The Yokohama Terminal is a good example of this; we went through great pain to see it through to the end, but we don’t want to be seen as a practice who only do vastly expensive infrastructure projects.

JH: Breeding Architecture takes a very different approach than other architects’ shows of their own work. How deliberate was this?

FM: When we were asked to do a show about our first ten years we thought it should say something more to visitors than what they’ve been seeing in magazines and the media. Shows like this should be an experience in their own right, and should be something ephemeral that catch the particular moment. Also we wanted to learn something from doing it, so we approached it as a research project in itself. We took the opportunity to reflect on what we have learnt, and on the character of our buildings. The exhibition tries to show how we work; how each project is designed from the bottom up, each one is specific, and each one is designed in a sense from scratch. Of course, you develop expertise and experience over time so it’s also been an attempt to see what we’ve been carrying through with us across the projects. In particular it identifies our interest in surface and topography, the need to blend into the context, and the attempt to remove the distinction between load-bearing structure and the building envelope. It’s been very useful to us — we never impose a solution, and we haven’t created a “Foreign Office” recipe that we can follow for types of buildings, but creating the exhibition has helped us find areas that we haven’t yet explored.

JH: We’re really excited that you’ve won the competition to build the BBC’s Music Box at White City, but shouldn’t the redevelopment of the Jubilee Gardens site on the South Bank have been your first major London (and UK) project?

FM: It’s strange, because they [the South Bank Centre] have never publicly cancelled the competition. We were asked to either work with Rafael Vinoly [named as the joint winner] or to go back in front of the judges, but in the middle of this the client decided to abandon the whole thing. We were told that there were legal ownership problems with the site, and problems with local resident objections, but it’s an absolute embarrassment that an important European city like ours cannot deal with a piece of land. The site is geographically so central, and because of the London Eye it’s now charged with energy, but really it’s still a bit of a dump. I think the real problem is that it doesn’t have a public champion — it needs someone at the highest level to take control.

JH: So has it put you off competitions in the UK?

FM: No, we’re doing more. Competitions are very costly to the practice, but it’s very odd to be a London-based practice and to have so little work here. The BBC competition was very well set up — it had proper advisors and key people from the client involved. But many competitions in the UK don’t have an architectural jury that matches the aspirations of the client and of the public. I think that there’s not enough focus on that.

JH: Do you think public attitudes towards architecture here are changing?

FM: I would say it’s a very good time in the UK for architecture and there seems to be a real public appreciation of new design. The BBC has really helped by screening programmes on architecture, design and art, and events like 100% Design have given people an awareness of design culture, which has started to broaden into the larger scale of architecture. Culture in London now is a result of a kind of combining of multiple cultures — architecture is going to be coming from a multiplicity of different hands, voices and approaches, so I think the future looks very exciting.

JH: And what’s next for FOA?

FM: We’re working incredibly hard right now. We’re in a competition for a new train station in Durango, Bilbao, and a number of projects that you won’t have seen in the show, including an office building and a new harbour, both in Holland, and a major business development in La Rioja. The Torreviaja Theatre has just broken ground, and we feel it’s essential to be absolutely in control of projects through their realisation on site. We do the design here in London, but when projects start on site we dispatch a core team to that site. We currently have a team in Barcelona that’s overseeing our park for instance. There are many outcomes from a design that only come into play on site, and seeing the project right through allows us to constantly feed the experience back into new scheme design.

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