Interview by Patrick Steffen, for KLAT Magazine, 22 November 2011. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images Europe
You are also known for your peculiar way of collaborating with many other great artists and intellectuals of our time. Let’s take for example your collaboration with Rem Koolhaas. When you collaborate for a project, do you work together as a team?
There is something particular in your partnership with him. In the past, you have sometimes mentioned a telepathy relationship. Would you elaborate on that?
It’s a strange thing. We worked very closely together in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, when we really had a strong collaboration for many projects. Our standard pattern of working together would be faxing each other – or emailing today -, mainly. We start by exchanging ideas remotely and then we meet. He has a team and I have a team, so it’s never a solo project. When we are together around a table, something happens. I suggest something and he has the same idea at the same moment, and we jump to a new level of creativity. We have a sort of telepathy of inspirational jumps that pushes us very far and very fast into unknown areas. I have noticed it many times. And he has a very quick brain, I like that.
What have you learned from him?
We’ve both learned a lot, I think. He’s a very original person, restless. He has probably opened my eyes to a more urban condition of architecture in a wider global context, because that’s where his interest lies. And my interest lies in the universality of the deepest truth of form. He’s just a great guy, he’s inspirational, and when you work it’s always nice to be around great guys.
Do you think that you speak the same language in term of architecture?
And can you tell the same thing when you collaborate with Daniel Libeskind, who is American of Polish-Jewish descent, with Toyo Ito, Japanese, or with the Portuguese Alvaro Siza?
The language of solving problems is the same, but the culture is different. The architectural process is similar, but the vehicle could be very different. I come from a multicultural background, so in a way I find it easier to identify with different cultures. With Libeskind, I had numerous discussions about numeracy, history, and music. With Alvaro Siza, we spoke about classical definitions, the history of things. With Rem we discuss a modern future, the immediacy of the future. With Ito, it’s more a formal discussion about form, in a very Japanese sensibility of purity. They are very different people. But when we collaborate, we are a team working towards the same thing. If you ask them, I think they will say the same. This process of collaboration broadens your own personality.
Your most recent project in collaboration with Kapoor is The Orbit. Can you give us some updates about this project?
It’s now at about 200 feet, and it’s going rapidly and it will be finished by November. Every 2 months I go on site to check up on it and it’s moving very fast, it will be 380-400 feet. It’s a very slender structure, a very strange and curious project. If you observe it in a two dimensional picture, you don’t get this kind of form, you have to be there to feel it, in 3D. It’s very strong, and I felt that from the very beginning of the conceptual days.
And with Anish Kapoor?
With Anish Kapoor I have a wonderful collaboration. He’s very famous, he has the celebrity status. But when we are together, it’s deep thinking that happens, it’s very profound and important. He’s Indian, and we are closer somehow. Even if we don’t feel Indian when we work we feel global, not local.
Do you still draw by hand your first sketches?
Always. Then I work the project with the computer, I print it and then I draw over the prints. But today the young designers can’t draw by hand anymore and it’s a real pity.
The Orbit is another big scale project that you are working on, but are you still interested in working on a small scale?
Yes, I have a project right now for 470 million dollars. It’s a big project, a mixed use development comprising five star hotel, offices, residencies and retail in Sri Lanka. I have a team, 150 people working on it in different parts of the world. But the details are still crucial, the windows, for example. And that would make the project. On the other hand, as I have already mentioned, I have a project of 80,000 dollars for a light sculpture in Anchorage, and both are a nightmare to think about, in fact it’s even harder to get something good for the small project and to make it interesting.
Let’s go back to a particular fount of your inspiration, the music. Can you tell us how Chopin and Bach, two musicians that you always have considered influential in your activity, could be so important to you?
First on a subliminal level. I grew up listening to Chopin and today I still often listen to Bach. Chopin was the first improviser of form. If you hear Chopin, there is nobody like him. The pianistic nature of his work is perfect, it sounds improvised, but he was a very careful and formal composer. And he studied Bach. The beauty is that Chopin, Beethoven, Mozart, they all studied Bach!
Bach represents a purely formal structure, and yet surprisingly, he manages to get emotions out of the strict formation of a pattern. At every level, bar by bar, it’s constantly changing. Bach is the only composer where the melodies are harmonic. He wrote only for one instrument, not for an orchestra, and yet you listen to the cello suites and you are completely satisfied. How is this possible? Because, like harmonic centers to our work, we need what I call “attractors” that anchor our journies. We can’t keep journeying, because it would be meaningless; we need a meaning and that’s harmony. Bach, through the melody, brings out the harmonies in our life.
How is Bach precisely related to your fundamental belief system?
I have studied prime numbers for 4 years, and it is the most fascinating thing that I have ever studied. It’s like watching a river flow all the time, you never know the river, but you can feel it, you can put your hand in it. I went deeper into that and I’ve discovered some absolutely stunning things, which I can’t explain, but they are beautiful, and there are moments that are just bachians! You have to play Bach to really feel him, because your fingers constantly move… Melody, harmony and rhythm are part of architecture. So, music, with his harmonic and melody structure has everything you need to invent. Music is not an inspiration, it’s not an application, there is something in the background.
We spoke about music, space and architecture, the next step is contemporary dance. One day you will collaborate with a contemporary dance choreographer?
I’d very much like to. I have collaborated with the Berlin Opera for the Saint Francis of Assisi’s piece, in partnership with Libeskind. He designed the costumes, I designed the set and the lightning. But I would like to work more directly with a choreographer, of course. Another day an artist came to me with a play in Portuguese and asked me to design the backdrop. I gave her the design of a series of fractals in 3D. So this is also something I will be interested in developing in the future.
I’d like to finish our discussion with a look into the future. From your privileged point of view as a researcher and teacher, how do you consider the new generation?
I think there is more spontaneity in the young generation today. I don’t know exactly where it’s going, but I have a belief that there is a new evolution going on. There is an entire new kind of speed of understanding going on, because of new technologies, and our sense of time is altering. I have always been fascinated by time and there will be a new essay in my new book about it, about how we read time. I have the belief that something interesting is coming from what is happening right now and young people are the touchstone of this change. Is there a profoundness in what is going on or is it a new kind of instantaneity that will evaporate quickly? I don’t know yet. For example, I’m astounded by my son who seems to read nothing but know everything. There is an exchange, and something is going on. I don’t doubt that the human species is evolving into another form and even our way of learning will be going in 20 years. There is a whole process that is changing the entire idea of school and learning, the structured thinking that comes from an old thinking. It will take 40-50 years, but it is happening.
Is this something that you observe or that you can feel?
I can feel it, I can only feel it, because I’m not a sociologist. But I’m very pragmatic person, I take what can give me something.
And how will the World of Architecture change?
Architecture is a very old-fashioned world. There is the belief in architecture that things are classical and timeless. I think that the functionality of architecture will change deeply, in the end all functional buildings – as hospitals, factories, and schools – will change. The whole idea of locality rather than universality is coming. There is a better way of thinking about organization.
What do we need to rediscover to continue to invent?
What has been missing for about 30 years is a sense of mystery for the human; everything was known in a sense, consumerism was rampant. But the financial meltdown and the growing awareness of global warming brought a change. The young generation really believes in a green world and they are ready to die for the planet. This understanding of micro-management of a situation is bringing a change and will bring back a sense of mystery. If you don’t have that, you will not invent and make something different. You need that in your mind. Having studied closely the lives of Bach, Newton, and Einstein, I realized that they wanted to understand the world. For me, understanding and not understanding are two crucial aspects of the same thing.