How did you get the project? I heard that somebody in China
was talking to Steven Holl, FAIA, he was not able to do it, and
Cohen: Well, it wasn’t Holl directly. It was Li Hu, who was running his Beijing office. I met him when I went there for the first time in 2007. He toured me through the office project by project, and he began to have a lengthy conversation with someone about this project. At some point in the conversation he sort of had a kind of epiphany that they just weren’t going to be able to do it. They had too much work. So he said: “Would you do this? At least it will be your first competition in China, you can make some headway.” And I thought, “I’ll be damned. If I’m going to do this, I’m going to win.” So, I set out to win. Li Hu simply passed me on—told the client that I’d be a great replacement and he accepted. They just needed somebody for the competition. I don’t think anybody thought I would win, necessarily. I do think it was an unexpected outcome. Truly, it was.
But then you went on to win it. How many other competitors were there?
At that point, I think there were four finalists, four final projects done.
When you won the competition, you had a fairly bland, flat site without any existing built context that you knew of yet.
That’s right. There was a plan to have five significant buildings—ours, a science center, a library, an opera, and another museum—none of which existed when we arrived and which were so far apart that they weren’t really shaping each other. They are big objects, all the other four. This is not. It lays lower than any of them, conspicuously lower. This is a big deal for me: When you see the site, you see these big buildings and this one hugs the ground and engages it. It’s not making an object in that sense that others are and that’s what makes it stand out.
So would you consider it an environmental building?
You could call that environmental, if an environment is more about site. I don’t know about that word, “environmental,” though, because it implies energy systems today, which is a different territory of discussion. You can call it a building that builds on landscape.
I understand that you did the conceptual drawings. To what point did you carry it? At what point did you pass it off?
We went deep into design development (DD), and we went much further when it came to the façade. What we initially were asked to do was just to go at a very low level into DD. The façade became an issue, and they realized that we had to do it. They let us work directly with the manufacturer and model it continuously throughout the process.
And the whole idea that the building would be steel was a breakthrough. Normally in China, for a building of this scale, they prefer to build a concrete structure. And that we were able to persuade them to build large cantilevers and have a Vierendeel truss, to have a steel frame was, I think, a rare opportunity, actually. We were pleased they were willing.
With such a light-colored building, did you have to accommodate for air pollution in the design in some way?
In China you should, and we do. We have a good solution with the drainage and the materials. In this case, they wanted a white building from the very beginning. We couldn’t shake that. We had a great solution for recessed gutters, which didn’t ultimately get built out. But the other approach would have been to have had a textured and dark-colored building.
Can a system of façade washing occur?
Oh yes, they’ve already cleaned it several times.
Tell me about your design intentions for the building itself.
We were still in the throes of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art project when we got this commission, and one of the things I was particularly trying to work out there was how to create an itinerary through the entire museum that would unfold as a spatial experience, but could also support a curatorial idea, if the curators were to wish to curate the building to correspond to this sequentiality of the space. I would like that to have been possible, that you would walk through it and the way you move through it, would also support different kinds of curatorial arrangements.
So this building is a museum as a promenade.
It’s a promenade, but also with curatorial flexibility. I wanted both. It’s not easy to do because the promenade idea is linear and a curatorial project may or may not be linear. The promenade of the exterior, however, is related to the landscape. It creates a context as well as connecting to one. So the two promenades have very different goals, necessarily.
But with each, you are creating an immersive environment.
Although the environments are different, you’re engaging the viewer in a
promenade that is delivering some form of experience.
The inside one was complex because, on one hand, I wanted the visitor to move through the entire building and not be confused and have a fragmentary experience. I wanted the whole building to be a cohesive experience. But on the other hand, it was necessary to allow for different pieces of the exhibition to be independently trained and developed. It had to be a cluster of curatorial projects.
Given the scope of the building, I knew it wouldn’t always be unified. It had to be more like the Met, with multiple wings and multiple exhibit areas. The ramp sequence weaves in and out of the galleries and keeps moving up as it does so. At the very end, there’s a remarkable spiral stair that you descend, which is a synopsis of the whole sequence until that point—kind of an analogy of the whole building in this one episode.
You’ve talked about the importance of a continuity and discontinuity and neither one nor the other being dominant.
In the sequence of spaces here, you could skip from one floor to the next or bypass certain important spaces on the way to others. You can have a discontinuous experience of the building or, on the other hand, follow the promenade all the way through—but the discontinuous way of experiencing it also has to work. It is important to understand that people will, from time to time, be in the building and only see parts of it and go from one part to another, as opposed to moving through it in a way which is comprehensive, giving one a feeling of having seen it all.
In the Guggenheim in New York, for example, it’s not very often that you take the elevator to one level and then another. With the continuous ramp, the levels are invisible. I’ve never done that, by the way. I’ve never skipped floors or ramps, if you want to call them that, at the Guggenheim. I’m fascinated by the idea, though, that a building like that can sort of happen and coexist with the possibility of skipping.
A lot of architects have been questioning structure, but
you’re the only one I know who has actually looked at the core as kind
of the stabilizing, permanent thing and questioned its primacy.
Well, by the core, I mean everything that defines the innermost part of the building—a combination of the structure and the mechanicals, the innermost guts of the building. What I have come to understand is that when those things are arranged in ways that are not typical, the interior space develops in a different way.
If these things are really thought about spatially and sequentially—it is a far more fundamental question of architecture, in my view, than the interior finishes and the façade surface—the innermost structure will persist far longer and have a greater impact on the social order of the building. In Taiyuan, for example, we had a lot of half-levels and unusual sectional conditions in the building, and a lot of the elevators have doors on opposite sides. It’s a very simple thing, but it really enables the plan to not stack up in a typical fashion.
How does this affect the building spatially?
We think so much about the outside of buildings. The fact is, the interiors are more important, and are really what sustains the architectural idea.
You obviously capitalize on the computer, but it seems that
you’re not captive to it. It strikes me that your designs are
computer-enhanced or -enabled, but not aimless. Can you elucidate that?
Clearly, the computer allows us to think nonlinearly, to test and transform, to edit, to look at variations. The flexibility that it offers is just remarkable. It would be extremely laborious to try to panelize and make all these complex forms make sense. By panelize, I mean to make discreet units out of all these curved surfaces, to turn a more curved surface into many parts. Imagine doing that by hand—it could be done, but it would be extremely laborious and the economy of that would limit you.
The computer allows for a critical dialogue with the work, at a much higher level than manual work. I don’t see it as a generator. It’s precise and it’s a tool of great power, but I don’t think drawing makes form, and I don’t think the computer makes form. Neither one is the source of architecture. Architecture comes from ideas about space. It comes from ideas about the type of building, not the computer. —Joseph Giovannini