Associate Director at the famous architectural bureau — Zaha Hadid Architects — has shared the secrets of the profession
Creme de la creme of both Russian and foreign architectural community gathered at the “100+ Forum Russia” dedicated to high-rise and unique construction that took place in October in Yekaterinburg. There wasn't enough room to swing a cat. At the open lectures by Christos PASSAS, Associate Director at Zaha Hadid Architects. Many projects of this famous architectural bureau are well known all over the world. But those who were lucky to be present at the lectures delivered by Mr Passas could see at first hand, how brilliant architectural ideas and new forms provide for optimal usage of land plots for construction, different look at the environment and public space improvement.
Mr Christos Passas gave “Construction.RU” an exclusive interview interview after his lecture.
— Mr Passas, which of the principles from the founder of your Bureau, Zaha Hadid, will you adhere to in all situations? What new idioms might appear at Zaha Hadid Architects?
— Zaha Hadid Architects is a very mature company now. We have about 400 employees, we have a structure with the Board of Directors and the Associate Directors, and very talented designers. So we feel that the structure of the company can take us through the transformations that will be needed in the future. It is very critical for us to maintain our level of performance, our engagement, our credibility — all those things we are constantly working for. We are very hopeful for the future, and we believe that there is a lot of good stuff that is worth continuing. And of course, the way Zaha and Patrik [Patrik Schumacher, Director, Senior Designer-ed.] have organized the company as a whole gives us the possibility to think that it is a good system to continue in the future. We would definitely retain moving forward in the sense of experimentation that Zaha instilled us with. I think it is important to experiment, it is important to test new possibilities and new grounds — because, I think, creativity, creative thinking, design thinking in architectural design needs to challenge, needs to look at things from a slightly different prospective, so that we can continue learning and progressing and understanding the world around us more and more.
— Speaking about experimenting, you do not mean merely the form — you mean everything: materials, technical decisions.
— Your bureau has designed several super-high buildings. It is difficult to design a skyscraper, even for such a famous bureau as yours. Or have you made a cottage industry out of some operations, perhaps applying some standard solution?
— No, we do not have any ready-made solutions. We do not believe in mass produced architecture. We believe in mass customization, making everything unique, not making everything the same. Of course, the idea of repetition has something to do with the mode of production we had at the beginning of the 20th century, with machines that would repetitively do the same job, so that you got standard, high-quality products — but it was the same from one to the other. It was just what the 20th century was about: mass production — and if you wanted to have something individualized, you could change the colour, or, say, the buttons.
Nowadays, I think, the mode of production is changing. It is very important, because the machines we are using today for fabrication, for construction, are so agile that they can produce unique objects in every case.
Private villa in the Moscow region
— But uniqueness means expense…
— Not always… For example, 3D printing today offers the possibility of designing something and then fabricating it immediately. The cost of production does not depend on the way of printing. Do we need unique projects? Do we need to design for every particular opportunity, condition, location, body, person, company? Yes, but with a high level of intellect. Customization is important especially in cases where it enhances the product from what used to be to what can be as a better object in the end. I do not believe in producing unique objects for the sake of producing junk that nobody will use. The role of architecture and the role of design to a large extent is to develop objects that have a long life span. There is a constant evolution, and the way we work in the creative industry is: you see something and try to do it better — then somebody sees your thing and tries to do it better. So the whole process of the investigation and design of anything, from small objects to very large ones, becomes almost a life process.
— You implement your projects in many countries. What are your plans in Russia?
— We want to work in Russia a lot, if we can. We appreciate Russian culture and its history because of a lot of things Russian culture has produced over the centuries. It is an important part of the world — I do not only mean Moscow — Saint Petersburg, the peripheries… Last year we finished the Dominion project, now we are doing a private villa in Barvikha, and are working on other projects including an office building in Skolkovo for a large client. We understand how the system works here.
— Can you say that you are just at the beginning of your operations in Russia?
— We certainly hope so.
— Your bureau has won a tender for the designing Sberbank’s Technopark in Skolkovo.
— Can you tell us something of how the project was created? What is its main concept? What technical requirements were in the technical design specification? What new materials, forms and ideas are used in the project?
— Actually, I cannot tell you much about the project at the moment. The project is at its initial stage and we are discussing it with the client. I can only say that it is a very interesting project, opening up new possibilities for both us and the client. But it is a little bit early for me to give more details.
— How do you, as a specialist, evaluate modern Russian architecture — I mean in the 21st century?
— When I first came to Moscow in 2005 the city looked a little bit gloomy. There was a huge wealth of Soviet buildings that nobody cared about and I did not understand why, because in our historic books of what modern architecture is, a lot of buildings that you would see in Moscow were actually part of the things they had to know about to become an architect. In the last ten years a lot has happened. Since then I have visited other Russian cities, and I think, Russian cities have a lot of potential to develop. The questions are how and what to do – and that is why this conference is very important as it answers a lot of questions.
But to my mind, the issue should not be overcomplicated: there are good companies in Russia, good designers, there are good possibilities – and there is the imagination to do a lot of these things. And we would like to be involved in projects like this – whether as strategic thinkers, or as master planners and buildings designers, which we are good at, or helping local governments or private clients to achieve their aims.
— In your opinion, is it difficult to work in Russia and what are the peculiarities of working here? Maybe the regulatory-technical base, different from the European one; the long design approval procedure; the severe climate; problems with modern construction materials?
— The approvals process is complicated here. When you try to get a building approved, it is like trying to unlock thirteen locks with thirteen keys all at the same time. And if one remains unlocked, none of them will work. That speaks for itself.
There are two issues: from a regulatory point of view, you should make sure that all buildings are over a certain standard, so standards need to be maintained: environmental standards, energy consumption standards, the quality of materials standards etc. In the EU, these things are very well established. And this is good, as you know what product you are buying. When I say we like to continue to experiment, I mean producing to a particular standard. What is important is to allow industries to develop products.
There is a good possibility in Russia to develop such things. But not enough money is put in innovation projects: technology and technical innovation need investment not only today but over a period of years to develop systems that can be used in architectural production.
There is always the idea that the projects we do push the limits both in terms of architecture and contractors, constructors and developers’ solutions, taking their products a step further.
— What is more important for you as an architect: the functionality of the building or its unique architectural image?
— Both, I would not distinguish the one from the other. There are people who believe in formalism, who believe in functionalism. I am a strong believer in the middle way between the two. Many different forms can be applied to the same function, and a certain form can pertain to and support many different functions. I do not think we should be strict about that balance.
— Is the atrium in a number of your buildings, giving more light to the inside, a specific feature of your bureau? In Russian we call it “fishka”.
— Yes, we’ve been doing atria inside buildings as moments of surprise, moments of lightness, as spaces for navigation and visual clarification of the orientation inside the building, for many years. Patrik has also been a very strong proponent of atria inside buildings, and in that way they are important features in all of our buildings. In fact, not all our buildings have atria inside but a lot of them do.
— Is this an idea by your bureau?
— I am sure other people do it as well, for example John Portman, the American architect, has done building with incredible atria inside. It’s not our USP, but we do believe that an atrium space in this kind of building (i.e. high-rises) is a very important element.
— When you think of a project, dream of a design and then develop it, do you think of available materials that already exist, or do you ask technicians to develop any other materials with the performances you need for the specific design?
— Well, we have not come yet to the point when technologically we can order particular materials, meaning synthetic materials. But it is a very interesting proposition and a proposition we are very interested in, whether these are plastics, or 3D printed materials, or others.
Practically, we do research on what materials are locally available, or at least locally sourceable, meaning what could be brought in to the particular locality. And in some cases, the object may need to be specialized.
However, we also feel that it our professional obligation to push the limits of the profession, of the industry, forward so that we can achieve good levels of innovation, as without innovation there is nothing! So, in principle, to be able to challenge what is available, or what is thought of as normal, or what can be achieved in a particular project, is one of the most crucial roles of an architect in the design of buildings nowadays.
— And the last question, a personal one. What inspires you in your creative work: travelling, working in your bureau, communing with nature, listening to music?
— Inspiration comes from somewhere else. I do not think inspiration sits in our heads waiting to happen. To allow oneself to be inspired, one has to maintain a certain level of humility — to keep your eyes open, to keep your mind open, to understand people and circumstances. Act in accordance with what things mean and try to create an understanding of the world we are in. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this world, it is just our perception of it that occasionally suffers, and therefore we have to try to learn to look at things from a fresh point of view, even at something very familiar. That’s what it is – inspiration moves you from one condition to another, and you can find ways to design.
— Mr Passas, thank you for your answers! We wish you great success and great inspiration!