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03.05.2012
Q+A> Neil Denari
Sam Lubell talks with the AIA/LA Gold Medalist about the future of architecture and urbanism.
No Mass House proposal, Palisades, CA (2011).
Courtesy NMDA

AN West Coast editor Sam Lubell sat down with Neil Denari, who recently took home not only the AIA/LA Gold Medal but also “Best in Show” for both built and unbuilt work. Denari, a professor at UCLA, is now teaching Suprastudio, a graduate class investigating the common ground between architecture and urbanism that has also been led by Thom Mayne and Greg Lynn. (AN will be commencing a blog series on Suprastudio in the coming weeks.) Discussing his recent successes and his approach, Denari also speculated on where the architecture profession and architectural education are heading—for better and for worse.

Let’s discuss your recent AIA awards and what it means for you and your practice.

Neil Denari: First of all, they were deeply unexpected. It lends credence to the idea that experimental work is once again being accepted in architecture. I’ve done projects for a long, long time, but I didn’t get to build anything until I was 40. It would be easy for anyone to say, “Where’s your production and where’s your practice?” I could answer that I was working on my practice for the time when the perfect storm of money and somebody’s desire for what I could do would come into play. A lot of people don’t get solid commissions for a while, but when you do, it becomes about how you use the commissions to continue to experiment.

Have you been frustrated that you haven’t been able to do more ground-up buildings?

You could have lots of conversations with architects, and they would say, “Of course it’s never enough. It’s never the right thing.” You’ve got more ideas than you’ve got possibilities. Despite HL23 (the firm’s well-received condo tower adjacent to the High Line in New York), the time for our office still hasn’t come yet, as far as making a bigger mark and growing with projects that are hopefully public projects. Even expanding the diversity of the things that we’ve been able to build. It would be easy to say, “Yeah, I’m frustrated.” But all these things are hard won and hard fought.

 
HL23 along Manhattan's High Line.
Rinze van Brug
 

Are other built works coming out of HL23?

We have a few new things, starting with a couple of projects in LA and maybe a third one. One is an office building on Wilshire Boulevard. Spec office buildings like this one were a staple in the 1970s, but today they’re typically seen as a staple for large offices like Gensler or Gruen, not firms like us. They’re very unforgiving projects because they have their rules, and the site shapes the building and the envelope, so they turn into projects about the envelopes themselves. It’s three stories, 34,000 square feet. We’re also renovating a contemporary furniture showroom on Beverly Boulevard.

You say that the pendulum sometimes swings away from the mainstream at times. Is there any way the pendulum can be pushed?

Sometimes we might feel utterly powerless in the face of markets, where the architect is the last person you call in the process. To be taken seriously—instead of being seen as dilettantes or dabbling in something—that’s a global initiative. It’s much more effective in Europe because of the long-standing general respect for the architect.

If architects have to chase jobs, then you have to go where the jobs are, and that leads to places like China. It’s almost like you’ve got a world map in front of you. Now it’s Singapore, now it’s Brazil. But that feels like you’re following rather than inventing or maintaining ideas or markets.

With HL23 and with your Suprastudio class, you’re dealing with architecture, which is full of detail, and also the scale of the city. Is balancing those aspects of a project something that sets you apart?

I have an interest in material and construction, but I’m also so curious about things that are on the other side of the spectrum— the mystery of urbanism. I’m trying to think about what our urban environment is. So much of it is about the phenomenology of space and everyday life. Yet I don’t subscribe to the nonchalant or the informal form of urbanism. I’m still very much interested in a designed world.

I’m always talking about the human scale as much as possible. That’s the ultimate reference point. It’s not an old-fashioned concept; it’s just a realist concept for which I am deeply committed. Even in these kinds of fictitious enterprises. The human scale, but really mostly the human point of view. The body in space as deeply felt and deeply experiential—it’s simply the governing modality of experience.

ALT TEXT
Neil M. Denari.
Courtesy NMDA
 
 

What is the ultimate lesson you’d like to impart to your students in terms of scale? You don’t expect them to become city planners in the end, do you?

At one end the skills are learning to manage projects at any scale. I think the offices that I like are undaunted by any type of scale. At one level this is about having the skills and tools and confidence. The other thing is the idea of design as politics, design as a persuasive medium. We’re trying to grasp something on a much greater level of complexity and scale.

What are your thoughts on the divide between architectural education and professional practice?

This idea is outdated, but still European education is technically dominated and American education is conceptually dominated. Over the past ten years my personal project has been trying to bring the technical nature of things together with research. The technical side often gets displaced in America. It’s been a curious split.

I don’t think it’s the responsibility of a school is make kids “professional” so they’re ready to go to work. I like to think school is about playing with all the tools in the toolbox, gaining skills to be able to approach what one might be asked to do in an office.

What’s new seems to be a major part of your work. Does your research derive from this?

At school I was very interested in the relationship of art to architecture. Even more so than I am now. I would say that also came from one big pretense: what’s new? “There must be something else out there.” It also came out of asking, “How do you find your own voice?”

If you’re not fairly restless, then you’re probably not going to contribute. But the “what’s new” thing for me is not at all costs. If you’re only focused on hyper-novelty, whatever form it might take, then whatever anyone would do would be either untenable or unpalatable—or no one would ever care. Like you woke up and had a dream and everyone says, “I wasn’t in your dream so I don’t care about it.” I think moving the conversation forward is about having the context of relevancy. It’s not about going into a cave.

Slavyanka Kindergarten, Pushkin, Russia (2010).
Courtesy NMDA
 

There’s a very graphic, abstract element to all your work.

In school, I wanted to know where ideas came from. If architecture is a medium, then I thought I should look at other things to spark the imagination. Maybe that’s why people say sometimes my work looks like a building and sometimes it looks like industrial design or graphic design.

The art that I studied most was color field painting. Robert Ryman and Barnett Newman and Rothko—the classic stuff. And I had a voracious appetite for it. Even I couldn’t tell myself why I was so interested in work that was so formally reductive. I felt an incredible connection to somebody like Ryman. The work was detail oriented and pure matter. It was never about form.

I think every architect deals with abstraction at one level. Even though my work looks more complicated, it’s deeply simple. It’s a pretty sophisticated form of simple geometry in a way. I learned to edit and to have the simplicity of color field painting find its way into my work.

There’s something deep down that’s disciplining about architecture. I like to think abstraction and scale allow you to be rigorous and open-ended at the same time. You can do it with hunches and guesses but at least you’re governed by something. I know I have that kind of spirit with how I approach work. I try to be free but I also work within a set of hard and fast rules that are very loose.

Sam Lubell