Born and trained in postmodern Switzerland, architect Valerio Olgiati started his career in LA, designed a monolithic masterpiece in Bahrein, built his dream house in Portugal, and is now planning a creative campus for Kanye West in Wyoming. Negotiating the abstraction of the digital world with the reality of the building process, his work is not about formal purity but pure intention.
PHOTOGRAPHY: VALERIO OLGIATI INTERVIEW: MARTTI KALLIALA
MARTTI KALLIALALet’s start from the beginning. How did you initially become architecturally conscious?
VALERIO OLGIATIWhen I was around twenty years old and had to choose a profession, I had no specific interests. So, I just did what my father did—architecture. I started to study at ETH in Zurich and my interest in architecture grew.
MKAfter your studies, you worked in LA. What prompted you to move there? Can you talk about the work that you did there?
VOI fell in love with a woman from LA. We lived together in Switzerland first, then when I was in my thirties we got married and moved to LA. In the early ’90s, as you can imagine, California was a hot spot in architecture—Frank Gehry, Morphosis, Eric Owen Moss were all very important at the time. I was exposed to a completely new condition, very different from what was going on during postmodern times in Switzerland.
MKI became aware of your work in 2008 through the competition for the Perm Museum in Russia, which you went on to win with a proposal that has since become famous. There weren’t that many published projects of yours at that point. Most of the work I could find was in the form of renderings. There was this flat objectivity to their visual language that felt very digitally native, almost like a stripped down video game.
VOI would say that my renderings are not just fantasies, as I use them to establish an atmosphere of reality. However, when working in my office, I do not make renderings. The way my office works is digital and very abstract. I think and feel in black and white lines. And I generally develop my architecture by talking with the people in my office, not sketching… But back to the renders that you were mentioning: in the first half of the ’90s, architects did not work with computers. Once the first rendering programs appeared, all the renderings looked just like Mickey Mouse comics; no texture, no light or shadows. This was when I was living in LA and I had no work but a lot of time. When we joined a competition for a project in Beirut, I was probably one of the first to introduce an atmospheric texture in my renderings. I remember that some years later, in 1997, the Japanese magazine A+U wanted to publish our project even though I was completely unknown: they told me they have never seen renderings like mine.
MKObviously, what is now typically associated with the digital turn of the ’90s in architecture resulted in a very different kind of formal language. For example, the work of the LA architects you mentioned before.
VOIn 1992, I took part in some final reviews at different universities in LA, where the students were already drawing and experimenting with computer programs. They had implemented viruses in the programming language that would make accidental decisions in deforming their models—this is how Morphosis still works. It was very fascinating, but when I came back to Switzerland I was already through with it. The first project I did once I got back was a scheme for a school in Paspels that had been deformed with Photoshop. It provoked the architecture scene. At that time, in Switzerland, architects weren’t even using computers yet, and only planned with straight lines and right angles.
MKDigital technologies have subsumed many aspects of our lives that before might have required specific physical scaffolding. Do you think they have liberated architecture to become more pure, more self-referential?
VONot in the real world—though maybe on paper. I assume you are not talking about simple drawing programs, but about computer technology that generates images of the world that don’t exist yet. This digital technology allows architects to not have to think in terms of pragmatic reality. Everybody can create something on a computer that looks like a seducing reality. The same thing happens with our demand for sustainability. Without precise knowledge of quantitative reality, nobody can design houses or cities for a sustainable world on a computer. Often the author simply lacks the technical knowledge. That is also the reason why architecture schools can not, and do not, develop future-oriented sustainable models for buildings and cities. There’s always a moral declaration of intent. Digital possibilities have not made architecture purer, but rather, they have moved architecture from the reality of the built environment towards a digital-rhetorical world. For example, when I design a building, I think of the form in parallel with the requirements of its technical execution. I always know how to build my ideas; I could build them with my own hands. I know how craftsmen work and I also know the developments in the supplier industry. Many of my colleagues do not know how to construct. They are stuck with their rendered ideas on the screen. And what makes everything even more complicated is that, in addition to the technical knowledge, the author needs a strong will to materialize their ideas. It’s easy to dream purely in the digital world and to decouple oneself from the reality of the building process, and ultimately from reality.
MKIn my mind, your architecture derives from pure intention.
VOYes, intention. My architecture is not about formal purity. For example, I am not a so-called minimalist—I just build what I think. Purity arrives after thinking. For example, I am working very intensively with Kanye West right now.
“The way my office works is digital and very abstract. I think and feel in black and white lines. I generally develop my architecture by talking with the people in my office.”
MKI wanted to ask about that but I thought it might be a secret.
VOIt is not a secret. I am in daily contact with him. He is probably the most interesting client that an architect can have in these times.
MKCan you talk more about that? Is the project a house?
VOIt is about a lot of things. But above all it’s an amazing experience. I’ve never had a client who is so involved. It’s like in the music or film business. I am the creator and he is the producer. Kanye is also like a coach, almost. His radicality cannot be beaten. He is a great artist and an absolutely gifted entrepreneur at the same time. Everything around him is about creating and creativity. We’re mainly working on buildings below ground at the moment. From above ground one will only see traces of these buildings.
MKIs this at his ranch in Wyoming?
VOYes. As I said, we build below ground. The fact that we do not have to react to a context with our buildings allows us to create a decoupled and fantastic world. One can invent pure and perfect spaces.
MKWho will live there?
VOPeople associated with him; family, friends, people who work with him. It will be a campus where people invent fashion, music, film, and architecture; a place where creative people can find solutions.
VOIn Wyoming, where our site is located, there is this desert, a man-made desert. It’s an amazing world. There’re no trees, and only a little bit of greenery. In a certain way it’s both very tough and ideal. Around the ranch they drill for oil. It looks quite gray, in the way we might imagine Mars or another planet looks—very horizontal with small flat hills. People will live there one day. When they work, talk, and produce, they will be in buildings on the ground-level that are strongly exposed to this amazing landscape. When they sleep, eat, and live, they will be in a remote and fantastic world. Everything will appear timeless.
MKWow. This brings to mind the idea of exit, wanting to leave the world behind and the dream of creating another world. I am also thinking of Villa Alem in Portugal, where you are now. Do you think these projects share this theme?
VOYes. I have to go a bit further with my answer here. The question is how can architects work today; what worlds do they create. Up until the turn of the millennium, we lived in a monovalent world, according to common values. Today, we live in a polyvalent world in which society holds highly differentiated values. How is an architect supposed to build valid buildings or cities today if every existing society nowadays thinks differently about buildings and cities? I don’t think that architects can build “the world” anymore, they now have to build “a world.” My house in Portugal was the first “world” that I built. I tried to create basic living and working forms that make sense, and arrange them in an overall complex. By making sense I refer to a created understanding that also applies to others. In this house, either you, or an Inuit, or a Berber, or Donald Trump, or whoever else, would understand what’s going on. It could be that someone has certain prejudices against reinforced concrete, but that would not weaken anything, since it is just a prejudice. Everyone understands my house as a world that arises from an idea. This is, so to speak, the opposite of a personal narrative that might be self-referential and may not apply to others.
“We live in a polyvalent world in which society holds highly differentiated value. I don’t think that architects can build ‘the world’ anymore, they now have to build ‘a world.’”
MKYour spectrum of clients is very wide. How do you establish a common language with them?
VOVO I just talk how I talk. If they do not understand, they do not become my clients. It is very simple. I do not have the aim of being a big office. This allows me to do what I want to do in life. I do not have to run after clients—they either arrive at the door or don’t. I do not say “no” to a project. I do not select my projects. I have a small office together with my wife. It’s no more than ten people in total. That way we do not need a management structure, as our office is not a firm. The office is our creative environment where we experiment with architecture. Everybody in the office knows what is going on and everybody is part of every project. The client, in a certain way, almost becomes part of this operation. I do not have a sales pitch to sell my projects or to make my projects understandable. Sometimes clients cannot handle this. But I cannot be an architect who says, “you get a little bit of this and a little bit of that.”
MKDo you think an architect’s world can extend to the size of a city?
VOYes. How do we make a city that is not purely based on infrastructural questions? We can say that there is no principal difference between a house and a city. The city is perhaps bigger and more complex on many issues but in principle it is the same—it is a place where people live and should have a good life. Like a house, planning a city needs an author’s vision. An idea.
Valerio Olgiati (Switzerland, b. 1958) is an architect based between Switzerland and Portugal. He has taught at ETH Zurich, the Architectural Association, and Harvard University. He is currently a professor at the Architecture Academy in Mendrisio.
Martti Kalliala (Finnish, b. 1980) is an architect, writer, and co-founder of the electronic music duoAmnesia Scanner.