Douglas & McIntyre

Interviews with author(s) of “Sketches”

A.J.  Diamond

A.J. Diamond

February 2008

Interview of the Fourteen Principals of of Diamond & Schmitt Architects

Conducted by Witold Rybczynski

WR: When was the firm founded?

DSAI: The practice was founded in 1975. It has gone from a sole practitioner to a group of associates to a partnership. Now itís a corporation with 14 principals. You donít get taught the business side in architecture school. Itís a point of pride not to know about money in architecture school. The size of the projects has changed geometrically, but we really wanted to keep this a boutique, a company that works like a studio.

WR: How has the architecture of the firm changed over the years?

DSAI: The buildings and the scale of the buildings have changed, but our approach hasnít. One of the issues that has always engaged us and interested us has been innovation.

The energy that innovation brings to a project is something that is invigorating for ourselves, for the clients, and for the success of the project.

The green room at Humber Guelph was an important innovation. The University of Guelph was retained by NASA to find out if they could green Mars, if they could in fact grow things there. Guelph built a chamber that would replicate the conditions on Mars and then experimented to see what would grow in that circumstance.

Out of that came this bio-filter wall of living plants to cleanse the air that weíve applied now to four or five buildings. The air system is drawn through as it goes back to recirculate and it goes through the green wall. Itís purified by the natural process and the toxicity goes out through the roof. I think we may be the first ones to have done that.

WR: Lawrence Peter pointed out that when an institution built a really great building it meant it was putting energy in the wrong direction. And his argument was things like St. Peterís, which was built at the nadir of the Catholic Church and the Church was not an admirable institution at that point. And there are manyóthe AT&T building, which was an important building when it was built, and soon after, AT&T sold it.

DSAI: Itís interesting that when thereís an excessive building, it can be an indication of the decay of the institution psychologically.

WR: The iconic building, is it a vehicle to meet the clientís needs, not so much about an idea or an institutionÖ

DSAI: Itís like the couturiers who do something outrageous in order to get recognition. And itís also a real estate drive: the instant address so that you can lease it. Itís easy to do an iconic building. Itís only solving one issue. Itís not resolving a complex set of issues.

I think quite often the reason we get beautiful looking and bad buildings is that theyíre really not based upon the experiential aspect, the life of the building, or the resolution of the problems within it, theyíre based upon a graphic. You can make buildings graphically gorgeous on paper but the graphic representation of the building isnít a representation of a building that has been worked out for its life and its experience. So I think the graphic design that has great beauty can translate into a building that is pretty sterile. But graphically it was gorgeous.

WR: But does that mean theyíre mutually exclusive?

DSAI: No. But graphics should be a means to an end in architecture, not an end in itself.

WR: I came across this quote by Renzo Piano where he said that the problem with the computer was that it speeded up the process, so instead of eight weeks for the baby to come out, it came out in two weeks and you lost something. And I wondered what role the computer plays in your practice.

DSAI: During design, the computer is used to represent an idea or help to visualize an idea that has already been determined, or already exists, and you want to see what it looks like, to try and get a sense of it spatially.

A design takes a while to evolve. It just requires time to cook. And sometimes you can tell somebodyís drawn something on a computer and it looks like theyíre getting to an end point very quickly and it doesnít look like itís fully resolved, but itís looking very finished. The computer will give a kind of an authority to a set of ideas which is out of sync with the level of resolution. It gives legitimacy to it at a much earlier stage.

The issue here is about conceptualization and what is the best tool to conceptualize design. And drawing, itís a bit like seeing faces in clouds. As you draw you see new things. The computer doesnít allow that imprecision.

WR: It seems to me today I look at the work or at architects and I see two schools. I mean there are buildings which could not be produced without computers and if you took the computer away the architect couldnít do it. And the other school doesnít rely on them. If I took all your computers away, this office could still function I assume.

In 50 years, you guys may be obsolete or the other side may be obsolete. My guess is the other side, but who knows? And I think itís a big question mark at the moment but clearly there are two schools and you are firmly situated in that second school Ö

DSAI: Weíre the first school. The otherís the second school.

WR: The strength of your school is that this is how weíve been doing architecture for 2,000 years so the other side might be right but theyíre kind of starting from scratch, which is a really dangerous thing to do when weíve got such a solid long tradition of how we actually conceive of buildings.

DSAI: I think the strength of this practice is, that we are in both camps, yet what you observe is the strength of the tradition.

Architects have aspired to build very complex buildings for a long time. The stadium in Beijing and all those very complex geometries that come with plastically molded buildings really are computer driven. It would take eons to draw out if you had to do it.

WR: For the young Turks, they want the computer to create the building. So you write an algorithm and then a shape comes out.

DSAI: Thereís the ability to produce these crazy designs, whatever your brain or even an algorithm can think of. Thereís the ability to produce realistic renderings that look like youíre standing in front of the real building, and in fact fly-throughs - these promotional walks through buildings where you can see every bit of the building long before any of it exists. You can determine exactly what you like and donít like. The computer is a powerful tool. But itís got so many applications and each of them has their purpose and the right time to use them.

It comes back to what you think architecture should be about. And let me take an analogy in the contemporary art field. I went to an exhibition recently and it was bread that was gaining mold. It was slices of bread and the whole artwork was to watch this bread change and its forms of mold and the colour of its mold. That kind of sensibility in art is where the effect is not determined by the artist. Itís an artifact thatís determined by the phenomenon of its existence and its change. And I think that the architectural equivalent of this is the algorithm. Itís got nothing to do with function, itís got nothing to do with the rational aspects of the life of the building, itís to do with the artistic aspect. And the sensibility about architecture now is that itís architecture for artís sake.

Architecture by definition isnít art in that sense. Theyíre using architecture to make a large assemblage of artifact as an art object. Whereas we see art as a way of enhancing the building with the judgments that weíve been talking about, where itís in service of something. It has to provide a function such as a laboratory or a museum or a hospital or a house. There are ways in which you have to live in that. These people are doing it with the algorithm or the artist whoís putting a cow in formaldehyde, itís got nothing to do with the man-made controls of that, itís as an artifact in a very peculiar manner. And that is where the divide lies.

WR: Can we move on to the form of all those buildings?

DSAI: Sure.

WR: Because ultimately theyíre designing a Ö

DSAI: Accident.

WR: No, itís not an accident because youíre getting a very consistent set of forms. Theyíre organic forms. Itís just another means of producing a design approach.

DSAI: Itís form for formís sake. It has nothing to do with architecture. I think itís just part of the landscape weíre in.

WR: Itís going to affect the cultural production one way or the other. TK Somerson wrote a wonderful essay about gothic architecture and how he couldnít explain it in any kind of rational way. Itís partly about fashion; looking at those round arches and saying theyíre no good anymore. It really comes out of this sort of visual taste and I think in architecture taste is enormously important, actually more than style. I think style is the kind of expression of taste but taste is what drives architecture at one level. Not at all levels but I think it has a big impact on what we like.

DSAI: Sensibilities change. Fashion changes in a profound way. Everybody is famous now. Once upon a time there were masters of architecture and they were few and now everybodyís a master. And itís a kind of celebrity idea: everybody can be great. And the problem is that what does that do in aggregate for a city if in fact there are not those who will make everyday buildings. Everybody has to be a celebrity. Everybody has to be a master. There are no masters anymore because everybodyís one.

DSAI: When you use that extraordinary technology as a means and not an end, then itís in service to something that youíve thought through conceptually and used your judgment on. Whereas if itís simply the demonstration of how exceptional and extraordinary you can be, if thatís the point of it, itís not a worthwhile point. I think that the computer is like giving a child an AK-47. Itís too powerful and they can do anything with it. And because you can do it, doesnít mean you should do it.

WR: As I said, Iím skeptical of the computer and itís impact on architecture, but there is an argument, for instance, with the discovery of perspective and the renaissance that consumed architecture. It had nothing to do with clients or functions or anybody. So there is precedent.

DSAI: Itís taken hold of the public consciousness. Is it the pointed arch of today? Is it the gothic arch?

WR: What makes a good client? Because architects always talk about the importance of the client.

DSAI: The beginnings of a good client is one whose values are similar. They may not understand architecture or what you do but they have a set of values that are simpatico. I think that thatís one aspect of it.

The other aspect is that while they will be tough about what they want, theyíll also be respectful about the way in which you accomplish it.

There are clients who think they should be holding the pencil and that youíre just a cipher, or a service that will draft and implement the technical aspects of a project. Whatís lost in that circumstance is an opportunity for discovery and collaboration.

WR: I think we often acknowledge that good clients make good buildings. That a very engaged, even demanding client is important.

DSAI: I think it also requires courage on the part of the client. Some have an extremely limited view about whatís possible and you can expose them to a much broader and more ambitious scheme in order to satisfy their requirements, but they may not have the courage to go there. The architect can bring a vision to it if in fact thereís a well-stated problem. And you can help them state the problem.

Our clients are not always individuals with a singular view. They are stewards for public money and they have a different criteria for their performance. Largely itís in the next two years: is this going to come in on time and on budget? And I think our challenge often is to say, ďThatís important and thatís obviously where were going to get to but youíve got to look 10 years out. Youíve got to look 20 years out. What is the legacy of this project?

Weíve got to decide what constitutes success and the definition of what that success might be. There are some clients whose idea of success would be that they get major press coverage, twenty minutes of fame, but maybe thatís their objective. There are others who want longevity and want success in terms of the operation and there are others who want it to have low operating and maintenance costs. I think that thatís an interesting thing for us to discuss with clients: what do you think success is for this project. And there are lots of levels of success, the operational end, the design recognition end, the design prize end, the fundraising.

Weíve had experiences where part of your client is not working toward the good of the building and the life of the building. We love librarians because they live in the building. They know the intimate life in its truest sense and the necessity of a building is the life of the building. Itís not simply a summary of a washroom and a stack and a corridor. If you can get those things aligned, the vision, and the people who control the purse strings, I think that is the key.

WR: I think the way the building is built is a big part of your work. The architecture is made out of how itís put together. So it becomes part of the character of the building.

DSAI: We are interested in the way buildings are made and we are interested in making them durable. But the lightness in our buildings is in both senses; the lightness of the building as an object, but also our concern for natural light. I think that that very much permeates the work. Really, itís seeing that as an essential quality of space, of really trying to deal with light in the best manner in terms of the content and the context. How we handle light - if you bring it in from the side or the top, whether you bring it through big or small apertures - all of that I think really does feature very much in our work.

And it has to do with a kind of an attitude actually to design in the first instance relative to program. Often architects make the mistake of bringing a preconception to a project, whether itís a set of their preoccupations or a set of stylistic preoccupations or an Ö

WR: Ideological approach.

DSAI: Amateurs and ideologues are the same. An amateur has a vision of a house they want to build in the Caribbean but that vision is a chateau. Before they had money they thought, ďWouldnít it be lovely to live in a chateau?Ē Then they have money and they build it regardless. The amateur has a picture in his mind, a picture from a magazine. The idealogue is the same thing. Regardless of the circumstances they bring their ideology to it. The instincts about shape and form that they bringó they tend to impose on the project.

One of the things that we spend a lot of time doing is designing from the inside out, which is spending a lot of time listening and trying to understand both the functional demands of a particular project, but also the attitudes and goals and culture of the institution weíre designing, trying to find an architecture that is not imported from without but actually found through the necessities of program, the logic of the operation and the userís needs. And then out of that derive a form and a set of design approaches.

WR: What is it that makes your buildings look the way they do and do they just look one way or do they look different ways for different situations?

DSAI: One thing that does run through our buildings, and not all of them, but our attempt is the opposite of what Venturi called ďThe Easy Unity.Ē His Easy Unity was a regular grid or a regular window pattern that tried to narrate the program. We use our buildings to try and describe or narrate or exhibit the content. Thatís one aspect, and itís fairly consistent.

Another key characteristic is the preoccupation with the architectural promenade - the stairs and routes through buildings. Within complex programs, finding clarity for the design of the public realm in a building - stairs, corridors, halls, courts - is very much a preoccupation.

In terms of the envelope, its expression, there is an increasing preoccupation with solidity in substantial contrast to transparency. A kind of ethereal minimalism. Trying to dematerialize the screens between indoor and out in contrast to the heavy substantial masonry which is captured in shape and shadow and punched windows.

Stockhausen talked about the contrast between the individual and the ďdividualĒ, a word he invented. His theory is that the apex of art has to do with the artist resolving two conflicting and opposing ideas. And what are the two polar opposites in architecture? Itís the defined volume, because weíre dealing in space, thatís our medium, and itís the deliberately destructive volume. The Barcelona pavilion versus a Rome or the cellar of the temple. [I suspect this transcription is inaccurate Ė it is Jackís quote, if you can look at it] Those are the polar opposites.

Itís not done for itís own sake but done as a way to appropriately enclose the functions. Itís the play of the solid and void, not just as a material thing but as a volumetric thing. So that you get transparent voids and transparent volumes and you get opaque volumes, and we play with them depending upon the levels of privacy required. If we were to be perfect in our resolution between those two polar opposites, weíd be really resolving architecture at its highest and best.

WR: Is the sense of coherence of buildings pretty consistent across projects? Or is there any sense that a project demands a different approach in that sense than from one to another?

DSAI: There are certain themes that we all share common beliefs in. Things such as the integrity of the materials that we use. You wonít find a building of ours where weíve painted wood. Wood is left in its natural state. So there is an authenticity. A calming vocabulary if you like.

Our buildings vary hugely in their expression but the principles are consistent. Thereís an excitement to that, but itís not looking to express that excitement in a very busy way. There is still that simplification happening at the same time.

WR: I think the contextualism is important because as superficially looking at them, thereís a lot of parallels with someone like Renzo Piano in terms of a kind of modernism which isnít absolutely minimal and itís a little bit flexible but I think the context plays less of an important role in his work than it does in yours.

DSAI: Itís obvious to us that the context is important - in opposition to the iconic building which clearly doesnít pay attention to its context. Contextualism, whether itís the immediate one of shaping outdoor spaces in relationship to the city, or the larger political and social context, really does characterize our work.

WR: And how would that express itself chiefly would you say? In terms of the appearance of the building.

DSAI: It comes from responding to different points of view of how to solve the problem. And not the opinion that there is only a single orthodoxy or approach. And whether itís in terms of selection of materials, configuration of spaces, the way in which entrances are dealt with, thereís not a single way to do it.

DSAI: The contextual issues for us has always been about how things fit, politically, socially, physically, climatically. I do believe in a kind of regionalism. The thing that I take exception to in Mies is the apocryphal story about him, about how he was explaining how to design a building in the Arctic and how he would design a building in the Sahara. For both, he said, ďWith glass and steel.Ē

I think that there really are contextual questions. And those contextual question are very Canadian and very Toronto. And I think weíre part of that school.

WR: The issue of weather. You would think that is a Canadian trait somehow. Iíve always thought that.

DSAI: Thereís a practical question to that on how buildings weather, given the extremes here of that climate, you have to address them. So the envelope and how one handles that envelope and how one deals with the harshness of the weather is also characteristic of our work.

The social dimension is also something that weíve begun to understand we have to deal with as architects. Because the world is more and more isolated, I mean itís encapsulated. Children are becoming socially inept because they spend their time in front of the computer and donít deal with people. Understanding those issues, the social dimension, that also characterizes the work that we do.

I think one of the things we intuitively understand about architecture is its power to transform the institution. A great building will absolutely transform the institution and facilitate its institutional life. It will change it and it will change it in dramatic ways, powerful ways, itíll strengthen it. But itís very hard to define that dimension. And how can you measure that transformative capability of the buildings that we do?

We understand it and I think where we succeed is when clients understand that, whether itís intuitively or in a more rational way and engage in allowing that to happen.

But how you measure that, Iím not quite sure.

Insight and On Site, Feb 28, 2008