Does this closer collaboration between architect and designer point to the importance of image?
The realm of the image is more important than ever, but it’s a very complex realm. People still make a distinction between a building and an image, and I think that distinction is less and less supportable.
You’ve collaborated with architects like Rem and Frank Gehry on certain projects. Are you extremely selective in who you work with?
Yes. Because we have such an intimate collaboration, we’re pretty selective. We make sure that they have a kind of sympathy for the ambitions of our work, and that, frankly, we have sympathy for the ambitions of theirs.
When you collaborate with Rem, for example, what exactly is your role? I assume that it may be different on each project, but why does he need another designer with him early on?
Well, Rem typically has a lot of designers with him on projects, but the methods that we’ve evolved have to do with rigorous analysis and structure of content—a method that could be applied to almost anything. It’s this method that is really critical. The first sort of significant work has to do with conceptualizing the project in the world. Then [with this method] we can produce a park, a book, an institution, a business, or whatever.
You’ve suggested that industrial designers are, in some ways, the model of the future and that architects are going to be following the way industrial designers do things. How so?
Well, I would suggest that it’s going to be a kind of hybridization [of designers], and the sooner we can get to the advantages that that offers, the more fun we’re going to have. The way it works now is that an engineer often does structure, an architect does skin, a space planner does interiors, and an industrial designer does product. It’s a nasty mess. The quality of life that it produces is also a nasty mess, and we all suffer. The problems are where those things rub up against one another.
There’s lots of talk these days about architects and designers collaborating, but they’re not always good at it.
The reason that I got interested in architecture is that I saw it as a field of synthesis—basically a place where you bring into play all these different things. And I think that’s Rem’s real genius—his ability to pull talent into play on projects and let things evolve.
AR: You’re working with Koolhaas on the design of the Seattle Public Library. It’s a rather public project with a lot of input from a very interested constituency.
Yes, the library has an incredible process. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The public interest is phenomenal—literally 2,600 people in a huge auditorium for a design presentation.
AR: What residual impact does the public process have?
The process can have a profound effect on the discourse of the city. People can be introduced to a whole other language and level of thinking that can shape many other things in the city that have nothing to do with the library.
AR: On a broader urban scale, you are working with a team that includes Koolhaas on the design of Downsview Park, a 322-acre urban park on a former military base in Toronto [News, July 2000, page 28]. What’s the significance of this project for you?
It’s a civic project, and the civic is under siege at the moment. Anything public ought to be aggressively promoted. So to take our place in a kind of civic discourse and to begin to engage in these things is really important.
AR: Can you explain the design process for Downsview?
Basically, what we did was map out a series of concepts that we thought would be significant for the work. Those eventually became the kind of formula for the project.
One of the distinctions between this park and any other that I know about is that it’s not really a design for a park; it’s a formula or an algorithm for producing an environment like this. One of the things that we still have to figure out is how to control it. So we’re going to design a process or a method or a recipe—it’s quite a different kind of strategy. We designed a vector, basically, and it’s a question of how to define the vector.
AR: You’ve said that typography and urban planning are one in the same. Can you explain that? How is that informing what you’re doing at Downsview?
Well, they’re one in the same in that if you approach it with a method, the problems are more or less the same. Of course, there are different techniques that you have to deploy to be successful. One of the arguments about the global image economy is that, as an environment, design is scaleable. So we pour the same kind of design focus into typography as we do into urbanism. In some ways, it’s a transposable method. You have a set of different questions or issues or objectives [for typography versus urban design], and you want to achieve certain effects. When you abstract the method, the method is in fact very similar.
Of course, it’s different scales of complexity, but in a certain way it’s not. You can understand the complexity of the world in letter forms and you can understand the complexity of the world in a park design, too.
AR: You were going to work with Frank Gehry on the New York Times headquarters, had he won the competition [News, october 2000, page 44]. Can you comment on why Gehry dropped out before Renzo Piano won the commission?
The New York Times wanted the product without the process, which is really a tragedy. They just wanted to buy the product like you could just get it off the shelf, and it’s not a shelf-made product. It’s a process. I think it was incredibly brave of [Gehry] to say to the New York Times, "I can’t deliver. I can’t guarantee for myself that I’ll deliver the quality that I need if you squeeze the process." And I think he did absolutely the right thing. We had a beautiful scheme, which is such a shame.
You’ve designed publications and exhibitions, have collaborated with architects on buildings and a park, and have even designed the uniforms for the Canadian Olympic team. Are you open to any design project?
I’m pretty open, but I need a certain level of complexity to feel challenged. I need problems.