Interwoven disciplines – the rise of non-architects

13 July 2016

From urban bridges to city master plans, more non-architects are picking up large-scale building projects as the boundaries between different creative disciplines continue to blur. Elly Earls investigates what this means for architecture, and whether its practitioners should be concerned.

Last year, the debate about whether non-architects should be ‘allowed’ to design buildings reached fever pitch, as an unprecedented number of industrial designers and artists snapped up bigger architectural commissions. Their clients, they say, wanted new kinds of partners who “think outside the box”. But should trained architects be worried that designers are encroaching on their territory, or is the blurring of the boundaries between different creative disciplines a positive step forward for all sectors?

London-based designer Thomas Heatherwick has taken on several architectural projects of late, including a new Maggie’s Centre in Yorkshire, which will be designed to look like a group of giant plant pots, and Google’s new California headquarters, which he will work on in collaboration with Danish architecture firm BIG. Israeli designer Dror Benshetrit, founder of New York’s multidisciplinary Studio Dror, has also put his architectural nous to the test in recent years, with projects ranging from residential villas and skyscrapers to an artificial island off the Turkish coast.

Other designers that are trying their hands at architecture include Dutchmen Marcel Wanders, Maarten Baas and Piet Hein Eek, Canadian-American industrial designer Karim Rashid, and Nendo’s Oki Sato.

Community effort

Benshetrit is keen to stress that in any of these projects, there are always qualified architects involved in the process. “Design in general, in my mind, is a very collaborative effort,” he says. “We have a lot of architects on our teams and always collaborate with the local architect of record on every project. We also bring in engineering firms very early on, which form part of the process. So the fact that I personally have not been formally trained in architecture doesn’t mean I’m working in a vacuum.”

Heatherwick’s London-based studio, similarly, employs more than 100 architecturally trained individuals. Dutch furniture designer Piet Hein Eek’s studio, Piet Hein Eek Architecture, was set up in January 2015 in partnership with architect Iggie Dekkers. Dutch designer Maarten Baas, who branched out into architecture in late 2015 when he was asked to design a residential development in Eindhoven’s De Bakermat plaza, likewise did so in collaboration with trained architects.

In the case of Baas’ project, in fact, the designer pitted two teams of young architects against each other to come up with the final design, which will be located on a site that was previously awarded fourth place in the Netherlands’ ‘top ten ugliest locations’ and is scheduled for completion in 2017.

The winning proposal was made up of two separate brick buildings with gradually slanted roofs, and house-shaped windows in white frames, which extend outside the building’s exterior to form enclosed balconies.

“The developers wanted some fresher ideas and I felt [the project] was a nice challenge,” Baas recalls. “The collaboration went very well, as the young architects were fresh and willing to have different points of view.”

Creators of worlds

Benshetrit suggests that the move towards designers being asked to head up large-scale architectural projects instead of trained architects is due to the different approach non-architects have towards building projects.

“Clients that are attracted to how we think are looking for innovative ways to see particular challenges,” he says. “I think that in every creative pursuit, there’s a dialogue between knowledge and a free, almost childish way of thinking. Often, your knowledge is what accelerates certain things, but sometimes it can be a constraint, as it leads you to immediately list the concerns and pragmatic considerations.

“It’s always interesting for me to look at breaking the barriers rather than pushing them or playing with them. It’s often about letting go of something and wandering out into a different world.”

To illustrate his approach, he recalls his second architectural commission: the design of a high-end residential master plan for Nurai, a private island 12 miles off the coast of Abu Dhabi. The design – which was commissioned by the same developer who gave Benshetrit his first architectural opportunity, because “they liked [his] way of thinking” – was born of a few creative seeds.

“For me, there was this paradox about an island setting,” he says. “It asks: do I really want to see my neighbour? Do I want to be lonely or do I want to be part of a community? The idea for the design came from a childish thought: the easiest way to clean your room as a child is to shove all your toys under the carpet and make them disappear. I wondered if we could conceptually do the same thing with a large architectural commission.”

The developer liked the concept: a green architectural carpet that tucked away every residence and meant that from each roof, all of the other structures were hidden. “It was a seed of an idea that evolved in collaboration with the client and experts,” Benshetrit says.

A view from the outside

Baas comments that his ‘naive’ approach to building design is what sets him apart from his architect compatriots: “A typical architect’s way of looking at things is almost scientific; there are certain buildings that are considered to be, technically, good buildings. But as a naive outsider, I often just don’t like these buildings. I can follow the rationality of what makes them ‘good’ but, looking at it naively, I don’t want to live in a world where they are the norm.

“I think the main difference between architects and me is that architects can explain why something is beautiful. I don’t want to explain why: I just want to experience it.”

The Dutch designer has a huge amount of respect for his architect partners, however, and is happy to admit that the transition from furniture design to buildings has been hard – for many reasons.

“It’s difficult to be working in a profession that I never studied,” he says. “I’ve been dealing with people who know much more than me, and, of course, you’re involved with many more people and parties that have roles in the process. There’s a team of architects, the project builder, the local authorities and all kinds of other functional requirements.

“It takes a lot more time than designing a chair, for example, and it’s almost a political way of working, in which you have to involve everybody, seeing where your vision crossed someone else’s vision and how you come out with it. There are so many factors you have to deal with; there’s a huge gap between just an idea and the execution of it; and there’s a wide scope of know-how to embrace. I have learned a lot from all of that.”

Lanes merging

The consensus among designers that have recently branched out into architecture is not that architects should feel pushed out of their own field, but rather that the increasing number of multidisciplinary teams tackling building projects is a positive development.

Designer Marcel Wanders sums up: “The term architecture claims a vast and endless area, but the architectural discourse, on the other hand, concentrates on a limited number of subjects. In order to overcome this narrow-minded approach, the contemporary architectural practice is invigorating itself with a growing breadth of creative genius from outside the architectural field. This means that, increasingly, the best architectural studios are working with multidisciplinary teams. At the same time, the same movement is happening in the best design studios around the world.

“Whether we like it or not is irrelevant,” he continues. “It is our duty and task to deliver the best possible designs and, on average, multidisciplinary creative teams just outperform creative specialists.”

Wanders’ first foray into building design was a glass-walled prefab house, launched as part of Filipino developer Robert Antonio’s Revolution Precrafted project at the 2015 Design Miami fair.

Baas also believes that it’s not only the fields of architecture and design that are coming closer: it’s the same with all creative disciplines. “I’m often asked the question ‘are you an artist or a designer?’, but I don’t know exactly where to put one or the other. For me, it’s open,” he explains. “Increasingly, people don’t think in those boxes anymore, so you can open it up and play around.”

A move from design towards architecture certainly isn’t the endgame for designers like Baas or Benshetrit: while both are interested in working on more architectural commissions in the future, they have no desire to abandon their smaller-scale design projects.

As Baas concludes: “I like what I’m doing, and I like that it goes back and forth between theatre, art, video and architecture. That’s exactly the position I like to be in: the middle.”

De Bakermat plaza: Team B’s House UP.
Dror Benshetrit’s design for the resendential master plan of island Nurai incorporates openness and privacy in a high-end resort.
De Bakermat plaza: Team A’s The Sketch.
Studio Dror’s proposed design for a new dome structure at Montreal’s Expo 67 site.

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