Interview with Kevin Carmody and Andy Groarke
Nina Rappaport While you were working for David Chipperfield and entering competitions on the side, how did you know you were ready to start out on your own?
Andy Groarke We had an incredible apprenticeship of sorts at David Chipperfield’s studio, and we were lucky enough to work with artist Antony Gormley on his studio. In a sense, it was a double apprenticeship with David as our architectural master and Antony as a client. We were taught the craft of designing buildings in a very privileged way. Kevin and I were the two project architects on the studio building, and we struck up a friendship and decided that it was worth trying some competitions together. We did two competitions in quick succession in the United States—the Chicago Burnham Prize, in 2004, and the Coney Island Parachute Pavilion, in 2005. When we were selected as winners of the Parachute Pavilion, we sped over to New York to accept our prize—and started negotiations with the Economic Development Corporation. Unfortunately after Bloomberg was elected they made different plans, but the win gave us the confidence to make a go of starting a practice. We think competitions are important because they allow you to quickly align your principles with your process and clients.
NR While working in David’s studio, did you develop a preservation philosophy that focused on maintaining the palimpsest of a building and keeping as much as possible while inserting new elements? What do you change in a renovation for a historic building, even when it is not listed? How do you approach the mix of new with old to restore the patina of the original building?
AG Part of it goes back to the city in which we work—London. It’s a mercantile, creative city. It’s an urbanistic amalgamation of one settlement and another. There is not a sort of grand plan, so there is an incredible fondness and tolerance for the urban tissue of a place and how one organization meets another, sort of grafting its character onto another and metamorphosing. We are not approaching the city or its architecture from one didactic linear value system or another; rather, we see its condition as a sedimentary accumulation of culture. In a sense we’re like forensic detectives at the beginning of a design process trying to find the common denominators of the problem—which gives rise to organizational ideas, spatial concepts, and materials.
NR How is that similar to peeling away layers of history? What are you revealing with a contemporary outlook or practice, for example, in the 7 July Memorial in Hyde Park?
Kevin Carmody When we were designing the memorial for the July 7 bombings, we were interested how people related to the public space of Hyde Park and how the place had evolved. Historically Hyde Park was a hunting ground, not a designed landscape. The paths that crisscross the park are formalizations of people’s daily lives. These paths cross civil-war defenses and eventually terminate in gates in the perimeter fence. When coming to terms with the dense and multilayered history of a site like this we try to act, as Andy has said, like detectives to balance equally the modern history of the city with all of the layers back to antiquity, and even geological histories. The project tries to knit into this history by extending a path to the new memorial. At the same time, the project looks toward generations to come, speculating how the memorial can maintain meaning through form and material. The project is a field of abstract figures in sand-cast stainless steel—one element representing the lives of the 52 victims. It is a space defined, but not enclosed, without many of the primary tenets of architecture, such as shelter and comfort. After all, the memorial’s only responsibility is to stop people from forgetting the event, or in a sense to “resist amnesia.”
NR One of the themes in your work is the idea of rooms with views. It is not just a window looking out but a threshold for a view, as in the Windermere Jetty Museum, the Filling Station becoming the Maggie Center, and Studio East. Often you cantilever the building into the landscape and focus on how the boundary frames the view: Is the edge to hold the building, frame the view, or enter into the view?
KC We talk about architecture oscillating between foreground and background in terms of one’s experience of a place. Our museum in Windermere attempts to connect people to boats and boats to water and the landscape beyond in a direct and unmediated way. Experienced from water or land, the cluster of architectural forms frames the views, provides direction, and connects people to boats and water in the park landscape. From within the buildings and around the perimeter of roof overhangs, the building drops away, becoming a frame, shelter, or boundary for experiences that connect back to the landscape so that you can’t imagine the landscape without the building or the building without the landscape.
AG What we’ve learned is that a successful piece of architecture can amplify, or intensify, being in the here and now. Our responsibility is to consider the occupant, the person who will experience the building, in a consideration of both place and purpose. Making those conditions of place more apparent—whether in the way a building faces a view, light comes into the building, or the haptic experience of a building—is a reconciliation. At the same time it’s an experience of architecture itself.
NR Like competitions, pavilions are wonderful testing grounds for young firms to test materials. How have you built on your experience with pavilions to make these larger projects using the same qualities to create the visceral experiences that you seek?
AG Pavilions really are like 1:1 scale models for us. We build them speedily; bureaucracy does not weigh us down in the same way it does with a normal building. A pavilion is not subject to so much weathering, use, and misuse. The word pavilion etymologically comes from papillon, French for butterfly—a beautiful metaphor for a lightweight, ethereal thing that doesn’t carry much burden. The butterfly has a very short life span. The 8,000-square-foot Studio East Pavilion was built in a very raw, unselfconcious way in only ten weeks. We accepted the compromise of not building with paint-perfect precision. We worked with builders’ scaffolding boards that formed the lining to the dining room. That taught us a hierarchy that you need to set for yourself as an architect, where you can take on the value-judgment system and decide what is important to a project and what can fall away into the big vacuum of making a building. Can you still remain close to an architectural idea? Those early projects gave us speedy lessons about advocacy to persuade people to build a building. It’s hard enough getting a commission, let alone convincing the client to follow through.
KC What pavilions allow us to do is compress architectural processes together to a point where you have a direct relationship between designing, thinking, and making.
AG Our early work with contemporary artists, who have an immediate engagement with the substance of their art, linked us to craft. In contrast, architecture school places a distance between ideas and realization; the translation of drawings to buildings becomes an increasingly abstract process. As our buildings get larger we have to find techniques and materials that compel you to experience them more directly.
NR You combine materials with interesting spatial configurations that contribute to the visceral experience, as in the underground swimming pool with the two pavilion houses linked by a tunnel. How have you developed diverse spatial experiences in your work?
AG After a long design process, Antony Gormley realized that the unit of space in which he wanted to think, make work, and exhibit is all related to the reciprocity between the body and space. The experience of space was fundamental to the studio building. Since then we have seen rooms as building blocks to concepts because they are the beginning of the primal functions of architecture: shelter and a place to meet. If we place the occupant at the center of those building blocks, then it goes down to how we design the door handle or whether we put a mirror beside a sink so the light falls on it the right way. It comes down to a fundamental point: how the occupants relate to their environment and to one another, whether the project is an artist’s studio or an underground swimming pool.
NR Recently you have been lucky to team up with architects in different European cities as a way to do larger-scale projects on historic sites. I’m curious how you negotiate the design of a project such as the Ghent Design Museum with other architects.
AG For Ghent we teamed up with TRANS Architectuur / Stedenbouw and have developed a symbiotic relationship with the firm. Therein lies an important method of working as well. Because we work with very large architectural models, we take cardboard models over on the Eurostar to review and synthesize different points of view and coauthor, or even “de-author,” the design process. So the model is the work of many, not just the voice of a few.
NR What is the design strategy in that project as related to the museum’s brief?
AG The original brief was to take a plot that the museum had never been able to afford to complete on the edge of a quadrangle garden square and build a stand-alone structure with a door into the edge of the existing museum. We thought the question could be rephrased, not only in the physical aspect but also the mission statement: How can the design museum be more like-minded with its broader constituency? We thought that opening up this building was the most critical thing: softening the front-door thresholds and allowing visitors chance encounters with as many spaces as possible. It is an attempt to dissolve the traditional museum environment of one room after the other to create a much more fluid integration of spaces, collections, and the city itself.
NR With the renovation of the Hill House, by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, you also created a new kind of experience for a historical site with a “house in a box.” How does this relate to the layering of history yet create something new for visitors?
AG This temporary installation focuses attention on the fragility of an architectural masterpiece. We have created an enclosure from this very unusual material—the biggest piece of stainless-steel chain mail ever made, so that wind comes through but rain does not. The deep interest in technology is foregrounded as an artistic expression of a material and environmental solution, not technology for technology’s sake.
KC The Hill House becomes the artifact in this temporary museum, focusing a visitor’s experience on the qualities of architecture. In a way we want to heighten that experience and people’s interest in important architectural and cultural heritage through the process of conservation.
AG We have abstracted the experience of Mackintosh’s Modernist masterpiece as if a large doll’s house, turning the architectural subject into an architectural object. It’s like the objective way a surgeon triages a patient.
NR What are you teaching for the Yale studio this fall, and how will you manage it remotely? I know when you taught at the University of Stuttgart you did a lot of model making with the students. Will you still be able to do that this semester?
KC We are continuing our interest in the inextricable relationship of architecture to time: how buildings may make sense of one’s time and place as well as how they may be understood by future generations. The project will be a technological distribution center for a fictitious brief based on the British Library’s national archive. While the project will be ingrained in the distribution functions that cities rely on to survive, it will also speculate on the long-term future of such architecture.
AG We always make the teaching as physical and as analogue as we possibly can. Today that presents challenges, but not insurmountable ones. We are teaching students to make models and to have a meditative pace of thinking and creating. In looking at a distribution center they will put a twist on the belief that architecture and building are merely led by subsistence and slavish to the market economy. What if we think of buildings that have projected life spans over very long periods of time? So we want students to place themselves in the here and now but also fast-forward hundreds of years into the future while simultaneously looking back millions of years into the past to think of these physical manifestations of lived time.