ACE talked with Jeannette KUO about the difference between practicing in Switzerland and the United States, design competitions, sustainable flexibility and the the way architecture is taught at school.
ACE: From the US to Switzerland, can you tell us a bit more about the genesis of Karamuk Kuo, why you moved to Switzerland, and what are the main differences between practice in the US and Europe.
Jeannette KUO: "We started our practice in Switzerland because of the opportunities available in Europe that were not available to young architects in the US - the fair and open competition culture that allows young practices to get a foot in the door. Particularly in Switzerland, young offices can compete, win, and build a practice through the merit of their work and without the networking or prohibitive application processes of other countries that favour already established firms. And all of this for really important and impactful public, cultural, and even infrastructural projects that define our built environment. Projects such as schools, housing, and government buildings, that we would not have had access to at the start of our practice in the US.
ACE: For the architect Dominique Perrault "Competitions are always synonymous with discoveries”. In your view, are architectural competitions synonymous with opportunities; a platform of creativity and quality?
Jeannette KUO: "Absolutely. Competitions, especially those that are anonymously run and well-organised, ensure that the best idea often wins and not just the project with an established name behind it. Often great ideas are also recognised through the runner-up prizes—a financial incentive and a morale boost to the participating offices, but more importantly these also provide a transparency to the selection process that is essential in the interests of fairness. At the same time, Competitions also promote a certain culture (Baukultur) where quality rises above other criteria. In fact, the architectural discourse in Switzerland happens through competitions, as we witness typologies being challenged, rethought, and improved through the years as practices egg each other on."
ACE: What differentiates your work from other contemporary practices, in general and more specifically in Switzerland?
Jeannette KUO: "Our work tends to emerge from the inside out. We design through a deep understanding of the given situation, be that typological, programmatic, cultural, or contextual and then try to rethink the pieces of the puzzle that allow us to push forward new relationships. Often our starting points might seem quite banal, perhaps a building code that many have taken for granted and stopped questioning, or a set of spatial relationships that seem mandated by conventions of the building type. But we always try to find opportunities to rethink and even radicalise these conventions. Very often we also pare down to the essential elements of architecture, an economy of means using structure and services as opportunities to explore spatial agendas. In that sense, our work does not immediately strike one as being flamboyant or extravagant but rather it introduces spatial richness and even grandness into everyday experiences by questioning the familiar.
Within Switzerland, we are perhaps outliers in that we operate across scales and typologies and with equal interest in the theoretical, cultural, and intellectual role of architecture as in its physical and constructive experiments. For us architecture is not just about building, but about the construction of a body of knowledge, one that has history, context, but also a social and political role."
ACE: How do you think your projects will age?
Jeannette KUO: "Elegantly, I hope! In our projects, the materials are often chosen for their rawness and robustness as well as their haptic quality. We generally avoid overly cladding the works but prefer to leave the materials and construction exposed and to use their inherent properties as part of the ornamental surface – for example the lively and uneven mineral surface of exposed concrete or the intense patterns of marine plywood. These are materials whose construction, reaction over time, and naturally imperfect appearances become part of the experience of the building – not something to be hidden or plastered over. Aging is naturally also a part of it."
ACE: In your view, what is the relevance of architectural policies?
Jeannette KUO: "If by policies you mean the codes and regulations of a locality, then these have the potential to ensure safe practices and accessibility, as well as a certain quality to the built environment for the collective good. For example, by deterring rampant, unchecked growth in historically significant areas or by promoting ecologically-conscious measures. However, policies should be periodically reviewed for their relevance as they are inevitably the product of the cultural and physical context at the time of their enactment, all of which may be subject to change and improvement as society moves forward. And, as with any rule and regulation, it is important that they are intelligently applied in ways that consider the various factors of each individual situation.
In our own practice, codes and conventions often become the productive starting point for an architectural concept. We don’t necessarily break them but we do creatively apply or reinterpret them."
ACE: “If change is the only constant, the role as architects is to anticipate change.” It means opportunities for flexibility, adaptability, and diversity. Is Anticipation the only answer ?
Jeannette KUO: "There’s very rarely a single answer to anything in architecture. The idea of anticipating change is just my take on it but it is also nothing new. And it is totally open to interpretation. It’s just that today we are facing a more urgent demand to review our building practices to address sustainability. So far most of the discussion around sustainability has been through the lens of materials or energy use. Very little attention has been given to the longevity of buildings or what makes them desirable or usable over time. We often see buildings, that are less than 50 years old and structurally-sound, being torn down because they were built so pragmatically in a given era that they no longer accommodate current needs. If we consider the amount of resources that go into the construction of a new building, as well as the ensuing lifecycle, it is highly problematic if we don’t adequately address the best use of these resources.
But of course, if buildings are to last longer then there is a greater need to consider their qualities beyond objects but as interior spaces to be occupied. If we can design quality and generosity into buildings, that allow future generations to identify with them, perhaps we can extend the lifespan of a building."
ACE: As a teacher, does it impact on the way architecture is taught at school?
Jeannette KUO: "Absolutely. Very often we see studio assignments in school focusing on fashionable trends or producing trendy ‘eye-candy’, rather than on the more fundamental elements of architecture that withstand time or function. In a way, I was hoping to refocus the discussion on the essentials of architecture, the fundamental elements that define the quality of the spaces we occupy, irrespective of their function. During my time as a student in the US, studio projects were often focusing on museums or similarly exceptional building types that perhaps 1% of architects ever get to design. We were also taught a very intellectualised process that favours the consideration of the building as an object or a system, viewed from the outside, rather than as a lived experience. This would often result in unpleasant surprises as we made our way inside. With my own students, I’ve been trying to turn the process around. To go from the inside out. To understand that space is our primary medium while knowing that the building of course still has a critical role in the urban environment."
ACE: Karamuk Kuo Architekten have planned sustainable flexibility into the design of an excavation centre at the Roman archaeological site of Augusta Raurica in Switzerland; can you tell us more about this project integrating sustainability and cultural heritage.
Jeannette KUO: "The archaeological centre addresses, directly, some of the ideas that we have been discussing. In a nutshell, it is a project whose identity is defined by permanence and change – the permanence of a cultural heritage and its institution, and the change that such institutions face as they adapt to their evolving context. This is a project that houses an institution comprised of many departments with vastly different activities, from the archaeologists that do the excavations to the researchers, conservationists and draftspersons that reconstruct the finds, to the marketing and PR people that do their public and educational programming, to the maintenance crew that work on the open-air museum. The diverse set of users means that the building had to accommodate all the different activities while promoting their collective identity as a singular institution.
At the same time the building will house the ever-expanding collection of archaeological artefacts as the site is projected to remain active for the next few centuries. This growing collection as well as the changing types of work performed in the building meant that the building had to accommodate potential reorganisations and expansions while maintaining its architectural image and identity. Starting with these constraints, we designed a strong spatial system that could adapt and expand while still appearing complete at any given moment.
This spatial system was at the same time the structural system and the organisation of the technical services which not only meant that functionality would be maintained through all future changes, but that it would be done with an economy of means that prioritises the spatial character."
ACE: In your opinion, what will architecture be like in the coming years and decades? What are the emerging new trends and tendencies?
Jeannette KUO: "I think one of the strong trends over the next years will be that of sustainability, but not necessarily in the way that we’ve known it until now. So far sustainability has been treated mostly as a niche service or as an add-on but for the most part it has not changed the way most architects design. I think that has to change. These issues have to become mainstream. They have to be front and centre in the way that we design. This means that design concepts and strategies will confront not only issues of energy and resources but also of quality, longevity, and most importantly social sustainability. In architecture, as well as in our cities and broader built environment, the way in which we as architects build communities through the spaces we design will be an important testament to our profession."
ACE: Alejandro Aravena directs those just starting out to be as ‘nerdy’, free, and rebellious as possible. What is your advice for young architects?
Jeannette KUO: "Don’t be afraid to fail. The most innovative and daring works come from architects who are challenging the norms and taking risks that may not mean immediate success. And in fact, the proliferation of architecture as images in the media belie the many, many hours of hard work and the many false starts that often precede truly successful or ground-breaking projects."
Jeannette KUO is the founding Partner of Karamuk Kuo Architects based in Zurich. She is also Assistant Professor in Practice at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD).