INTERVIEW WITH BRIAN GIRARD
KOHN PEDERSEN FOX ASSOCIATES
© Kate Hopewell-Smith
Brian Girard is a Principal at Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates with over twenty years of experience designing residential, commercial, institutional, and cultural facilities in the United Kingdom, Europe, the United States, and Asia. His work draws on the direct observation of places and the behaviour of people, and focuses on the importance of diversity in the design of urban environments. Brian joined KPF in 1997, after studying architecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design where he was recipient of the John E. Thayer Scholarship, awarded to the ten most meritorious scholars of the University. He is currently leading the masterplan for Covent Garden in London, incorporating a series of interventions and preservations initiatives near to the piazza, and KPF’s design for new communities in Earl’s Court.
Often, traditional city centers have a human scale, a kind of texture, a variety and a sense of discovery that people really enjoy. These are the most valued parts of major cities. If you are lucky enough to work in that context, you can learn from it and dream and speculate when someone asks you to work in a totally new place, or to think about new cities and new contexts based on that experience. To have this dialogue between the past and the present is something very inspiring for me.
The majority of the world's population live in cities that are affected by the worst challenges. Cities must constantly innovate to respond to these challenges. What is architecture's contribution?
One role of the architect is to speculate and to dream. In the context of major demographic shifts, economic growth and policy, the architect can be the person who thinks a little bit beyond the process and more about the world at large. Architects are very observant: they study everything, they compare one city to another and they can share that knowledge with other people involved in the process. The most an architect can contribute is really what he sees, and then speculate about how something could be different. That is the fundamental role of the architect.
When we look at the style, architects have often become known for big, loud, sexy objects that are more about themselves than about making a city.
I am hoping we are nearing the end of that era. I live in a tower in the middle of central London, which is unusual in London because most people live in houses. I look out at all this construction on the horizon and everything from the last thirty years is a bit of a disappointment: there is so much metal and glass, it feels fractured and the individual buildings feel like consumer products. It is the older buildings, like the cathedrals and stone buildings, that your eye rests on and which offer a feeling of calm. Working in London, you have an obligation to think about the street, to think about the spaces between buildings first, as opposed to the building as an object. At this moment in time, we have to think of buildings as the inverse of an icon, as a kind of anti-icon. Think of buildings, cities and streets as networks that are more visible, with an architecture that is more invisible. A good example is here in Munich, right next-door: the Fünf Höfe is a system of courtyards and passages from maybe 15 years ago, by Herzog de Meuron. The design is remarkable and quite powerful. It is a beautiful design because the interventions work together with the existing fabric, finding new synergies between existing things. Also it has no form. It is just a space between things, and that type of development is very exciting. It is similar to some things we are doing in Covent Garden, in London, working with the historic grain, discovering and analyzing the spaces in which people like to spend time. Often, traditional city centers have a human scale, a kind of texture, a variety and a sense of discovery that people really enjoy. These are the most valued parts of major cities. If you are lucky enough to work in that context, you can learn from it and dream and speculate when someone asks you to work in a totally new place, or to think about new cities and new contexts based on that experience. To have this dialogue between the past and the present is something very inspiring for me.
What feeds your hopes?
At times, it can seem that architecture, like fashion, is accelerating almost into the realm of entertainment, of reality television. I find it staggering that an architect could be treated like a fashion celebrity, because buildings have to last forever, they have to transcend time. I am very concerned about that, because what evidence is there that this will stop? It may be a naive hope, but I saw it at last year’s Biennale where there was a decided change. People were talking about things like the vernacular. Even the form and configuration of many of the projects that were shown were quite different. It was much more about context and inhabi- tation: the scale, the dwelling, the scale of the person. It was very exciting. I think that is beyond publicity, and beyond celebrity, in a way.
Do architects really contribute to energy-efficient, sustainable cities? Or do high-profile projects often compromise the experience at street-level for the benefit of a grand design statement?
Some buildings conceived as autonomous forms can be perceived as impositions on their context. There is a whole other way of thinking about cities as networks and how architecture can emerge from the network. This is consistent with technology today in terms of the most powerful, dynamic corporations and organizations of the world: they work as networks, or platforms, and more horizontal systems. It is not so much about individual, imposed ideas – the ideas emerge from within the system.
Earls Court Masterplan, London © Hayes Davidson
Are you talking about future trends and urban movements?
I am imagining a city of the future that has less hierarchy, and individual buildings will have less autonomy. This is consistent with how technology has become part of our lives: things are much more interwoven. Technology challenges traditional hierarchy, and that is a good thing.
What future trends and urban movements do you see?
There is a rising interest in the vernacular and the local. This is a good thing, provided it is an open system and not a representational idea. We are not talking about historical representation. We are talking about the intrinsic qualities of place: the materials of that place and what literally comes out of the ground, the local materials and culture. All this native intelligence is quite interesting and stimulating.
What will the meaning of "citizenship" be in future cities?
I like being able to navigate between different cultures, migrating ideas between Asia, North America and Europe. I find it very dynamic. I don’t particularly feel like a citizen of any one place, necessarily. The citizen of the future will have an awareness and appreciation of the local but be global in orientation.
Since you have just talked about the city of the future, how will cities meet the expectations of people?
For population growth? In London density has become a political issue and something that is discussed in elections. There has to be awareness, and it takes some time for people to understand the complexity of density, because density is, ultimately, not just about housing people. It is also about convenience, sustainability and saving energy. Compactness and conservation of land is inherently sustainable, and it does improve the quality of people’s lives because you have to travel less. Sometimes people associate the word “density” with “imposing scale”, and that is a huge impediment. In London the population is increasing so fast that there is a recognition that density has to evolve to keep up. Finding the appropriate configuration could take years. We have some ideas on the right way to do that, but it is going to take a lot of discussion and speculation.
What are the solutions?
Compactness. Because the world has suffered from the negative impact of suburbanisation for 100 years, and not just in North America, but all over the world. That mode of development has also been exported to Europe and Asia, and is very destructive environmentally and socially. Living closer together solves more problems.
In Tokyo, the whole family, including children and grandparents, live in 30 square meters. Could that happen here?
Although space is a scarce resource in Japan, the Japanese have a cultural pre-disposition to live in houses, like the British. Collective living is a relatively new idea in Japan. That explains the great distances people travel there, and the scarcity of land, because it is spread out horizontally. If Japanese cities were more concentrated I would like to think people could have a little bit more internal space, ironically, by living in denser configurations. Every city has its own native density. When you talk about density globally, it doesn’t really mean anything – you have to actually talk about what it means in each specifi place. But, as a general global trend, compactness is very positive and it is consistent with advances in techno- logy. Technology changes what people want today and how they want to spend time. People are less interested in travelling long distances and they are impatient with spending time in cars; they’re willing to give up some space, potentially, to be able to walk places. And all of this will improve the quality of life. It will take a long time to reverse the affects of suburbanisation. We are just getting started, but the inverse has been happening for the last 20 to 25 years.
The changes are happening so quickly: every day I see my children playing with their iPhones.
It will be interesting to see what happens as this gener- ation matures, when it comes to where they like to spend time, what kind of environments they like to be in. Maybe it is not that different. Maybe there are certain core values in traditional cities that are universal and will appeal to people indefinitely. Teenagers still like to congregate in a social space. They like to be in a public place to see other people, see what is going on, have a chance encounter. That is where cities come in.
Can you tell me more about your design process at KPF?
Everyone at KPF has their own process, within a system of shared values. We don’t have an office methodology and we don’t have a consensus on how to work, or how things should look, but we do share certain core values that hold the office together. The city would be the one sustained concept that has guides the office since its inception in the 1970s. To be more precise, the regeneration of cities starting with North American cities before expanding to our work in London and Asia. Our buildings engage directly with cities and try to stimulate life and make connections. In terms of my personal process, I like to work in a collaborative environment, because it is only when you state your ideas and have to restate them that you find answers. You hand the idea to one person and they hand it back to you, and you exchange ideas like this: this is how you develop a really strong concept. You won’t develop a strong concept in isolation, I find. I like to do many successive drafts until I get the right answer. This can be time-consuming but is also inclusive – the opposite of a declarative concept from a single source.
What is environmental design, from your point of view?
Do you specifically mean sustainability or environmen- tally aware designs? I don’t like to make that a separate category, because it has to be integrated into all decisions we make. We were talking about density, for instance. The configuration of a building can have as much of a contribution to the environment as the materials or mecha- nical system. If there is a general level of environmental awareness that affects all the decisions you make as you design, I don’t consider sustainability to be a special category.
As a condition of large building stock, millions of people live together in high density today. How can you talk about nature when buildings are becoming so big?
Because you can incorporate the natural world into any configuration of architecture or city. In Japan, there are so many inspiring examples of representations of nature in dense urban conditions. Whether it is a tiny garden in the middle of a city house with just a slot of sky above, or a window with a framed view of something natural in the background. Or it could be an object in basement of the building that is crafted with such an awareness for nature that you can sense, as a human, the connection to nature, even though you are in the middle of a very dense configuration with no natural light. Something like the craftsmanship in a wooden table or a counter in a basement restaurant that actually brings that awareness. So, nature doesn’t necessarily mean putting trees on the roof of the building. It is accentuating a dialogue with nature in daily life. Bringing nature to the city is essential to mediate between the condition and the individual and the collective. It can be something as simple as a view or opening the window.
King's Court and Carriage Hall. Proposed public realm improvements to the Covent Garden piazza and Floral Street © Uniform
King’s Court, London, UK © Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates
The world appears to have undergone an incredible technical revolution. Yet, in architectural terms, nothing has really changed. What is your opinion?
I completely agree. Where do people like to spend time? And where do they feel the most comfortable? A lot of that is related to the scale of the body and that is not going to change. There are certain dimensions of spaces and confi in which people feel more comfortable. At the same time, cities evolve and absolutely do change over time in relatively small increments. It doesn’t have to be a revolutionary change. In some parts of the world it is possible to build entirely new confi of towns or cities. But in a traditional European city there are many layers successfully added over time, it is more of a gradual evolution. Cities won’t be drastically different in 20 years’ time. Where we are right now, in the center of a European city, has a universal appeal. People will always want to be in a place like this, so why don’t we study what this has? And when we are thinking about new settlement patterns we need to be aware of where people actually want to spend time. Those values maybe don’t change over time, because it all comes back to the body and instinct.
Our future home will have a floor, walls and a roof - but everything else is about to change. Do you agree that new architectural design is about intelligent concepts that interact with the occupants and the environment?
The universal values of comfort and, say, nature in the home will never change. A lot of the technology is an enhancement and it changes some things, but the basic confi of the home could become more compact. People speculated in the 1950s and 1960s about the future of dwelling. It often had a superficial difference, but nothing ever really happened to the form of the house at a basic level. Maybe the future of the dwelling is something like a repurposed, existing structure that requires a new use, like the evolution of an existing building. Maybe the dwelling of the future is more of a parasite-like configu- ration growing from some existing thing, with a more ad-hoc appearance. It will be something familiar but different.
Buckminster Fuller once said "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." Do you agree with him?
That is quite good. Otherwise you are fighting a battle you can never win, because there is a natural resistance to change. Instead, provide an alternative. Allow yourself to dream. This could be better, and that is the core obligation of an architect: dream about what could be different and propose an alternative. I would agree.
Do you think architecture is also a means for communication? For example, buildings that aim to remind people about certain events.
Absolutely. It can be very personal: things that remind people of their own past and their own aspirations.
The most prominent architects concentrate on commercial buildings and infrastructure, while housing, especially in poor city areas, is widely neglected. Should architecture re-focus on its duty to serve the people instead of business?
That is very complicated, because we have to engage with commercial forces. This is why cities exist, people come together to trade: it is the market place and there is growth, and all that can be positive. However it can happen at the expense of other things. The type of architecture that we do has not been as focused on developing countries, or people in need in our own countries. That is changing and, again, at the Biennale last year, you saw so much more subject matter that addressed those needs. Let us hope that it is the beginning of a trend.
Do you think pop-up mega-cities, like the ones appearing in China, can establish themselves as a model for building cities in the future?
If it is possible for those cities to evolve over time, it depends on the configuration. If they were conceived in such a way that subsequent layers could be added, I think there is hope. But if they were conceived as complete entities, I would be skeptical. In designing a city you need to anticipate change and variation – things you couldn’t possibly know at the time A good design should allow for the unexpected.
What is a good example of a city, in your opinion?
I would like to get to back to you on that. I would like to revisit some cities that were proposed maybe 10 to 20 years ago, and maybe that would be the test to see what has happened. I don’t have an answer right now.
From your point of view, is architecture the visual representation of society?
Architecture, to a degree, is its own language. It has an autonomous status,in the same way that other applied arts have an autonomous language of their own. It is not a direct mirror on society; it is a kind of alternative society. I don’t know how architecture could exactly represent society, but of course, typologies are unique to different civilizations, without a doubt.
Let us tackle our age of digital transformation. With fast-changing technologies, how do KPF architects provide the right business model?
One straightforward answer is the use of BIM models, where we build a 3D model that is extremely useful in terms of unifying the work of all the consultants and fabricators. This is also something the client can use after construction for ongoing maintenance and revisions. In a way it is even more involved in the construction because the author of the model is in a position of control of the process. For many large projects like Hudson Yards or Earl’s Court in London, it is particularly useful because of the integration of civil engineering. There is such incredible complexity in the integration of systems. It allows people from diverse disciplines to work together most productively.
And does it work with this approach?
Yes. It is the only way to realize projects like this – city projects. Also there is the visualization at the front end of the design. Our ability from an early phase to depict ideas that look quite realistic is powerful in accelerating decisions and bringing the client along. It allows you to describe the look and feel of a place much earlier than in the past. It doesn’t necessarily lead to better architecture, but it can. Technology can facilitate the dreaming that I mentioned earlier.
In general, in terms of practices working with information modeling, I think you are much further along here in the UK.
Yes. It is becoming a universal expectation with clients doing large projects. It doesn’t necessarily need to be an urban project, it can be just one large building in particular.
When did you start to work in a digital way? How has it changed your work?
I almost can’t remember. It has been most of my career, and I started in 1994. Yes, definitely it has changed in terms of the documentation and execution. In terms of design and ideas, it has also changed and transformed how we work, in particular the immersive technology that allows you to be inside spaces. It remains to be seen whether the buildings and spaces are better.
What kind of impact has the rapid pace of technological change had on the built environment and our relationship with it?
One thing I first saw was the proliferation of images: we are in an accelerated mode of image production. Images are everywhere, and people who can manipulate images with a narrative are in powerful positions. That doesn’t necessarily lead to better architecture. It can actually lead to more superficial architecture because of the pressure to produce images so fast. Sometimes the images can appear to be prematurely complete. You see this a lot in blogs where there is a daily feed of images and people want constant updates. You are under a lot of pressure to generate stuff and use images of buildings to move a business forward or change the profile of your work. All of this is actually a little dangerous because it starts to bring architecture into the world of fashion and other creative production, which is not about timeless values. However it is empowering and a lot of fun to work with imagery. I am a very visual person and appreciate all different modes of representation – but sometimes it is very much on the surface. There is this in-between space, between execution and all of this imagery, that the architect has to reconcile.
How does architecture change through recycling or conversion? Tell us more about renovation and rehabilitation.
Transformation of existing buildings is the ultimate sustainable strategy: not to throw things away – to rehabilitate. There is already so much work going on with this. It is a sustainable thing to do, and it is also conceptually very interesting to me: the building as a found object. Inherently, an existing building has its own history and character and sometimes we think it is unattractive. In London we often consider a building from the 1970s or 1980s as obsolete. But sometimes there is a lot to work with there. You can transform it. For example a solid concrete structure that can support even more height on a building or a transformation of use. I think actually it produces a better result. If you are starting over, the newness of a building can deflect human interaction to a degree until the building evolves over time. An existing building already has that history and that can be an inspiring working material. There is something fundamentally irresponsible about just constantly starting over. Let us work with the cities and the buildings that we have.
Everything is about to change, but will architecture in general also have to be transformed?
Hopefully not. Because I really appreciate the continuity of the language we share with all generations of the past. I think it is fascinating how it evolves over time. The idea of a transformation that requires a complete break from all of that, with totally new forms generated from a different kind of language, personally I fi it hard to relate to that because I was trained to work within this language. The language is at risk because it is a somewhat autonomous language. Some contemporary architecture intentionally tries to break away from the language and no longer has the constituent parts of architecture familiar to us, like the doors and the floors. The risk is that such a transformative, alternative language will be irrelevant to context and to history.
Songdo First World Towers, Incheon, Korea
How does the analogue and digital space connect? How can it be successful?
I first have to envision what is analogue versus digital space. I think of it as a continuum and actually as the same thing. My interpretation of a digital space is something like a technology platform. It could be a machine or an organizational structure, or it could be a city. The great thing about these platforms is that they allow for change and growth. They can reinvent themselves and are continuously evolving. Maybe we haven’t quite seen that yet, but in my mind there is a way to begin thinking of buildings and cities as networks, similar to digital networks. The freedom that digital technology bestows upon people could also be translated into real environ- ments: a feeling of empowerment and choice. A flat network is non-hierarchical, allowing for diversity.
What technical achievements are taking place that are defining property in city spaces more and more?
Thinness and lightness, for instance, are shared aspira- tions of many modern architects. But many new codes challenge this impulse. There will be codes that require you to have triple glazing. There will be super-insulated buildings that actually don’t breathe – which is a complete opposite of lightness or ventilated buildings. You want a window to have the thinnest frame possible and the largest piece of glass. To change the fundamental proportions of a window is very exciting. The technology is there and you can do that, but sometimes there are functional requirements or cost issues that prevent you from realizing the great potential. You are right, there is a huge amount of innovation and technology involved and it is not always easy to implement or to bring this innovation into one’s work.
Has the computer completely taken over the design process and has the architect's pencil been worn down?
No. The architect will never be made obsolete, because we control the ideas. The ideas originate from inside our awareness and without the ideas there is no design process. In terms of the actual drawing, it doesn’t make any difference whether you use a pencil or a machine: you have to make a tenuous start. In the beginning, you just have to try and work and have accidents and conversations with people. Personally I love to make drawings, but usually they aren’t very nice. They are just to record an idea. However lots of younger people I work with don’t feel comfortable doing that, so they start on the screen. It doesn’t make any difference.
Say a new generation of architects arrives in your office - a new generation working differently?
The design still starts with ideas. It is a bit of an issue sometimes when it comes to documentation or commu- nication, and the younger architects may not be as familiar with standards of graphic representation. They don’t learn this at school any more, but these are still things we need to use in our work to just document or visually explain something. Also young people don’t build physical models – they don’t feel the need. This is not entirely wrong, because they are still using models in 3D digital space. They are inhabiting the model. But sometimes you do need something physical: you need an artefact, but again for communication, not necessarily process.
In 20 years will we still need an architect to design and build a house?
A house can be built by an individual, by a builder or an interior designer, but a house designed by an architect can have more intention. I am not concerned about the longevity of architecture. As architects, we have amazing ideas. We train very well and we have stories and narrative, and the world is hungry for content. This will ensure our relevance.
JR Central Towers & JR Gate Tower, Nagoya, Japan
© Kohn Pedersen Fox