Architecture’s enfant terrible
When did you first discover your talent for creativity and innovation?
I’ve always enjoyed working with materials and technology. My father was always tinkering with things and filing patents, and my mother, my Czech great-grandmother and great-aunt spent a lot of time with music, painting, crafts and cooking. They were very positive about anything imagined, created or performed.
You’ve had many accolades, among them being named by Time as one of the hundred most innovative people in the 21st century, and by Forbes as one of the ten most influential living architects. In practical terms, what does respect mean to you?
I was lucky to be passionate about something that became mainstream during my lifetime. I was a very early user of digital technology at a time that I was also writing and teaching. I was the enfant terrible who was dismissed and criticized for suggesting that computers would one day be more than just tools for architects. To then be celebrated for promoting its adoption is like retribution and confirmation of one’s instincts. But I’ve had other instincts—such as the importance of high-strength, lightweight construction illustrated by Carbon Crystal Sails at the Superyacht Design Symposium, or the use of robotics in the built environment for moving and rolling rooms—that haven’t been adopted. I suppose success enables me to take risks in my work and gives me some credibility when I propose otherwise ridiculous ideas.
What innovative materials lie ahead? Will the world ever untangle the myths surrounding sustainability/eco-efficiency?
When we designed the INDEX Pavilions a few years ago we began with wood, as wood is perceived as ecologically good. What we found is that the weight and the waste that results from engineering it and the process of making it resistant to insects and moisture made it literally toxic. By comparison, a small amount of carbon and plastic has a much smaller ecological footprint. So that, together with understanding that natural resources are finite, led to advocating using less material. The sustainability industry promotes the consumption of eco materials rather than minimal use of indestructible materials.
To what extent does culture affect design?
I always strive for cultural address rather than site sensitivity. Working for Korean American Presbyterians, the Costa Rican National Park Service, the Victims’ Families Groups at the World Trade Center Competition—these are clients that inspired me to stretch and address new sensibilities. I think connecting with the culture of every client is where design starts.
You’ve collaborated with Swarovski before on high-tech jewelry for Atelier Swarovski and the Crystal Carbon Sail installation for Design Miami 2009 that was reprised at the Superyacht Design Symposium. What is it about crystal that draws you to work with it?
Swarovski and crystal are interchangeable terms. Decades ago, while in Milan during Salone del Mobile for the first time, I saw an installation of Swarovski projects in an old stable near Corso Como. I was knocked out by how the designers were rethinking lighting, yet using a classic material. I find crystal both very malleable and classic. It’s almost like engineered color and light. Whether spread across sails like dust using robots or clustered in ceramic settings, it’s one of the few materials that are open to invention without losing their character. Swarovski is a brand that everyone in the design world hopes to work with, because it gives not just tradition and innovation, but a tradition of innovation to designers as a challenge.
How technically challenging was it to set 1.5 million crystals in between carbon/aramid fibers that were only 1mm thin?
You’d have to ask the machines. What was once a laborious act of small hands sewing on crystals and metalsmiths setting crystals is now increasingly mechanized. The fun thing about Carbon Crystal Sails is that its intricacy is so ridiculous that it isn’t thinkable in terms of human labor.