When hiring architects, what are the traits you look for? The sensibilities you want? The personalities you’re looking for?

One kind of trait we look for a lot is someone who is totally interested in architecture, but at the same time, is just as interested in music, in movies, in theater, in physics, in biology. Multi-disciplinarity is really important.

You did the Kenny Schachter ConTEMPorary art gallery in New York. As an artistic luminary yourself, and with the gallery scene growing by leaps and bounds, is becoming a well-known gallery architect something that would interest you?

I wouldn’t mind us doing another gallery, but I wouldn’t want to be known as a gallery architect necessarily. I would love to do a museum. For Kenny, we did a gallery, and we’ve done two art fair booths. One of the reasons we did it is because I have so many second thoughts and reconsiderations about art; I wanted us to see what kind of a gallery would we do. What is an art gallery like when it’s done by somebody who really feels like he has rejected art?

In the gallery work, not only with Schacter, but with Storefront for Architecture in Soho, which you did in collaboration with Steven Holl, and which some critics feel is your best work, it’s very much about bringing the outside into the gallery, which ties into a lot of your overall thematic concerns.

It does, but Storefront was an interesting project in that people who know Steven’s work more see it very much as a piece of Steven’s. People who know my work more think of it as a work of ours. It’s something that really was a collaboration. In some ways neither one of us would have thought of certain things if we didn’t have in the back of our mind that we were working with the other person. In fact for a while that was a problem. It started to be almost like I was trying to do a project that looked a little like Steven’s, Steven was trying to do a project that looked a little like us. But eventually we got somewhere.

Let’s jump to portability which is certainly a key concern of the practice: allowing people to carry architecture with them or creating portable parks, housing that can be moved from site to site.

When we start to work on a project, we certainly consider site. That doesn’t necessarily mean we want something to totally fit into a site. We want a project to have a conversation with the site and sometimes that can be an argument. We want a project to exist almost as if wow, it could have been there from all time. But other times we want a project to exist almost as if it’s a spaceship has landed on the site.

Portability allows you to not have to think of site. You can go through many sites, you hook on to one for the time being. … There probably is going to be a world of nomads, people are going to carry their own space with them. There’s no place that’s necessarily home because you can make any place home. So portability is the idea of space on the run, life on the loose. Portability is important to us because it means you can always change the space around you. You can always change your environment. Again environment is great, but it’s also a trap.

I’m dying to ask you about Building Full of Holes, your proposal for the Ground Zero site in Manhattan.

Building Full of Holes started from thinking that if a building nowadays is going to be exploded anyway, maybe a building has to come pre-exploded. That was the basic starting point. But what interested us was now that there are holes through the building, there are tunnels through the building. Now that there are tunnels through the building, the rest of the city can come inside. Parks can come inside, street vendors can come inside. So rather than observing the convention of this private building built with a public plaza outside, our attempt, as it is with all our work, is to mix public and private.

Let’s imagine that a student at Pratt or Cooper Union with a lot of talent in both art and architecture comes to you and says, “Vito I’m torn. Which career path is ultimately going to give me more creative satisfaction?”

Remember, I have a loaded view because I pretty much did make this decision for better or worse, and I do think it was for better. I would ask, what do you think you’re more concerned with: other people and a possible future? Or yourself? And if the answer is yourself, then maybe art is the better choice. If you want an anticipation of a future and if you want the necessity of having to think about the public, then it’s architecture. Public is this composite of many privates, and you’re never going to know who they all are, you can’t anticipate them, but wow, it’s incredibly thrilling to try to guess at frames of mind. 

What are some of the goals you have set for the studio over the next few years? What excites you about the future?

We want an architecture that’s a biological system; we want a regeneration principle. I don’t want it to be just metaphor. I don’t know if architecture can ever be as living a thing as all that. Yes, there’s a lot of work now that looks fluid, looks as if it moves. We would love to be able to make something that really does grow, and I’m sure a lot of other architects would say that.

But right now I have mixed feelings. I sometimes wonder if architecture is getting caught up in aesthetics. I’ve seen the word “elegance” used a lot lately, and it was always a word I had such a horror of.


For two reasons. It seems to me it’s totally about form. But elegance is also a word of the upper class. Now we might want to get at a version of elegance, but I hope it doesn’t have the upper-class and all-form connotation.

I wonder also if the whole star architecture [phenomenon] is a sign that architecture as we know it is not really going to exist any longer. I don’t think this will happen soon, but I think there will be an architecture developed that starts to develop itself and grow itself. Maybe an architect is there almost like a planter: You plant a seed and then this thing is going to go off in its own direction. I hope architecture becomes just as alive as a tree, just as alive as a biological thing.

If not elegance, then what are four of five adjectives you’d like people to associate with your work?

I want our [work] to be changeable, portable, multi-functional. I want our [work] to have a complexity, but not a visual complexity.

Obsession might be a strong word for it, but almost all of your projects, even in their thumbnail descriptions, will emphasize the seating they offer. Is seating so important because it can create that sense of community that was such a big part of your Conceptual work?

We try to provide different kinds of seating. We want seating where people might group together, we want seating where it might be two or three people, and we would also like the seat where maybe one person can be alone. Because it seems like if you’re dealing with the public, you have to account for the occasional potential suicide, the potential serial murderer. This person should have a place for himself/herself, too.

When hiring architects, what are the traits you look for? The sensibilities you want? The personalities you’re looking for?

One kind of trait we look for a lot is someone who is totally interested in architecture, but at the same time, is just as interested in music, in movies, in theater, in physics, in biology. Multi-disciplinarity is really important.

When we’re designing something, yes we’re channeling ourselves into doing architecture, but it’s got to be an architecture that’s affected by the other things in the world. Blade Runner is probably just as big an influence on architects as a lot of architecture. But you know Blade Runner came at such an interesting, Post-Modern time, and came out of that, but it was a very different version of Post-Modernism than a lot of architects were doing at the time. It was Post-Modernism because it was desperate, because you were building on the ruins of the old—which Rome has done for a long time.

Do you think you were influenced by Blade Runner?

Yup, yup, yup, very much. For me, it was, wow, for me it was, this is the alternative to 2001. In 2001, the future is all white, it’s built as if there was nothing there. Blade Runner kinds of shrugs its shoulders and says, well, you can’t get rid of everything, so let’s build on it. Blade Runner, I don’t know if it introduced me to [the concept], but I started to think of architecture as a parasite. There were all these empty facades in New York, and we built stuff on them.