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The approach flexible. The end absolute.

Interview with Jean-Francois Koenig

JEAN-FRANCOIS KOENIG was elec­ted one of the “100 Archi­tects 2012,” a com­pe­ti­ti­on orga­ni­zed by the Inter­na­tio­nal Uni­on of Archi­tects (UIA) and the Kore­an Insti­tu­te of Archi­tects (KIA). In the 1980s, he worked with the RIBA Gold Medal Award archi­tect, Sir Phil­ip Dow­son. At the 2011 UIA World Con­gress in Tokyo, under the hea­ding “Sus­tainab­le by Design 2050,” his Mau­ri­ti­us Com­mer­cial Bank was amongst the best of the archi­tec­tu­re of Afri­ca. Koenig has worked in Eng­land, South Afri­ca, India, United Arab Emi­ra­tes, Aus­tra­lia, Mada­gas­car, the Sey­chel­les, La Réuni­on, and Mau­ri­ti­us for the last 30-plus years. His wealth of expe­ri­ence from the Bau­haus to the pre­sent day, his pro­noun­ced talent for drawing and his search for inspi­ra­ti­on from a broad source trig­ge­red us to invi­te him to an exten­si­ve conversation.

When did you know that you wan­ted to beco­me an architect?

I always loved drawing and pain­ting sin­ce child­hood. I deci­ded to go into archi­tec­tu­re when I was nea­ring the end of my secon­da­ry edu­ca­ti­on in Mau­ri­ti­us and wan­ted to go stu­dy abroad in 1972. I got a job with a local archi­tect, Mau­rice Giraud, whilst app­ly­ing for admis­si­on to the School of Archi­tec­tu­re of Tha­mes Poly­tech­nic in Lon­don. I left for Lon­don on my own. It was the first time that I tra­vel­led to the UK and Euro­pe. It was, then, a gre­at place to stu­dy. The Head of the School of Archi­tec­tu­re was Dr Jac­ques Paul, a reco­gnis­ed expert on the Bau­haus and Wal­ter Gro­pi­us. Some ex Bau­haus lec­tu­rers came to the school and the school had exchan­ge links with Syra­cu­se Uni­ver­si­ty in the United Sta­tes. Lon­don in the seven­ties was brim­ming with young archi­tects making their mark on the world sta­ge with the likes of Nor­man Fos­ter, Richard Rogers and Nick Grims­haw, and they star­ted the „high tech“ style. The Archi­tec­tu­ral Asso­cia­ti­on School, the „AA“, under Peter Cook and Archi­gram was also influ­en­ti­al. Some­ti­mes I used to go the­re to lis­ten to guest lec­tures. They were packed. I par­ti­cu­lar­ly remem­ber see­ing Frei Otto and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foun­da­ti­on. Zaha Hadid, who is the same age as I, stu­di­ed the­re. Lon­don in tho­se days was gre­at for an archi­tec­tu­ral student.

What skill has ser­ved you best in your archi­tec­tu­ral carrer?

Drawing by hand. Like ever­ything else you have to prac­ti­ce all the time to beco­me good at it. „prac­ti­ce makes perfect“.

Have you ever had a role model that influ­en­ced your work or your work habits?

Many archi­tects and buil­dings have con­scious­ly or sub­con­scious­ly influ­en­ced me. I also find beau­ty in cars and chairs and other objects for examp­le. Whe­ther they have had an influ­en­ced on me or not is dif­fi­cult to say at a par­ti­cu­lar point in time for a par­ti­cu­lar pro­ject. What inspi­res me is how design trans­la­tes its inherent func­tion and per­for­mance into beau­ty. It is not pos­si­ble to sum­ma­ri­se in one ans­wer or in one per­son what is in fact an accu­mu­la­ti­on of influ­en­ces, per­so­nal expe­ri­en­ces and rese­arch. I belie­ve one has to know the past befo­re inven­ting the future. Old buil­dings are just as important as new ones, and so are civic spaces. I will men­ti­on just a few pla­ces, buil­dings and archi­tects in no par­ti­cu­lar order which I like and visi­ted : the Alham­bra, the Acro­po­lis, Veni­ce, Gothic cathe­drals in Fran­ce, the Sain­s­bu­ry Cent­re, the Bar­ce­lo­na Pavi­li­on, Fal­ling­wa­ter, the Robie House, Vil­la Savoie, tra­di­tio­nal Japa­ne­se archi­tec­tu­re and their gar­dens, Paris, Flo­rence, Charles Eames, Pier Lui­gi Ner­vi, I.M. Pei, Goe­f­frey Bawa, Andrea Pal­la­dio, the work of Lud­wig Mies Van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Cor­bu­si­er as sta­ted by the buil­dings men­tio­ned abo­ve, Arup Asso­cia­tes whe­re I worked etc etc. I sup­po­se I do not have one role model. I sup­po­se the archi­tect I have always admi­red and always fol­lo­wed, and still do today, is Nor­man Fos­ter. I am proud that I won a pri­ze from him in 1979 when I was a stu­dent. I loved the Sain­s­bu­ry Cent­re, Wil­lis Faber Dumas office buil­ding in Ips­wich, when I visi­ted them not long after they had been com­ple­ted in the seven­ties. All of the­se abo­ve are buil­dings, gar­dens and spaces when you just say ‚wow‘ when you see them. You have to expe­ri­ence them. Too many to mention.

Can you descri­be an evo­lu­ti­on in your work from when you began until today?

Alt­hough the aes­the­tic may vary, I belie­ve the approach has remai­ned con­sis­tent from the begin­ning, in its most important aspect, which is the design pro­cess. That is, I approach a new pro­ject from the same ang­le, with the same ingre­dients to com­po­se with: which are, in resu­me the Client’s brief, the site and the con­text. The result will vary from pro­ject to pro­ject depen­ding on what is pos­si­ble, form a tech­no­lo­gi­cal and bud­get point of view. For examp­le, expec­ta­ti­ons in Mau­ri­ti­us are much lower, oppor­tu­nities fewer, tech­no­lo­gy less rea­di­ly avail­ab­le, than for instance in Ger­ma­ny. One has to be rea­listic in what is achiev­a­ble and what is not. I have remai­ned con­sis­tent with this approach wher­eby func­tion is important and I have avoided the „isms“ of trends. I also like the beau­ty found in all peri­ods. So I am qui­te fle­xi­ble and qui­te at ease with all the­se peri­ods and styles. I guess the rea­son for that is that I am loo­king for the timeless. So from one pro­ject to the next, it has not been a „line­ar“ pro­cess of evo­lu­ti­on, like archi­tec­tu­ral cri­tics and his­to­ri­ans often like to read into someone’s work. I think, in my case, ins­tead of the port­fo­lio, it would be more an evo­lu­ti­on of the per­son and with it, comes matu­ri­ty, which inva­ria­b­ly will influ­ence the work.

How could you defi­ne your archi­tec­tu­ral approach?

The approach fle­xi­ble. The end absolute.

How do you balan­ce func­tion from aes­the­tic appeal?

 

Func­tion and aes­the­tics are not con­tra­dic­to­ry in my phi­lo­so­phy of Archi­tec­tu­re. The ones who do make it con­tra­dic­to­ry are near­ly always star­ting with aes­the­tics and then down the line they have a pro­blem making it work. Often they are weak on func­tion becau­se they have not done the back­ground work. They rely too much on struc­tu­ral and envi­ron­men­tal engi­neers. I have been for­tu­n­a­te to have worked for 6 years with top engi­neers and archi­tects in mul­ti­di­sci­pli­na­ry offices in Johan­nes­burg and Lon­don in the ear­ly eigh­ties befo­re mul­ti­di­sci­pli­na­ry prac­ti­ce beca­me ful­ly inte­gra­ted in other offices around the world. That, plus my own inte­rest, gave me a solid foun­da­ti­on of func­tion and engi­nee­ring and I am able to design, or balan­ce, if you want to call it that, func­tion and aes­the­tics all in one go during the design pro­cess. I do not sepa­ra­te them. They go hand in hand.

What inspi­res you?

 

Every living beau­ti­ful thing. Every beau­ti­ful work of art. Peop­le. Tho­se who have made it in spi­te of all their trou­bles. The­re is good and bad in ever­ything. You may then ask, what is beau­ti­ful for me? Why would I pre­fer the 1952 Mer­ce­des Benz 350 SL gull wing model over a more recent SL? It’s the first of its kind. It’s the pro­por­ti­ons, the lines, the per­for­mance of the engi­ne, the dar­ing of the gull wing doors, the tech­no­lo­gi­cal pro­wess of making them water­pro­of at high speed with flush clo­sure with beau­ty etc etc. I can look at the leaf of this tree that I am loo­king at right now and mar­vel at it and be inspi­red by it. In archi­tec­tu­re, I guess if you don’t know what beau­ti­ful means, look to tho­se and who­se work have been acc­lai­med. It would be, in the „recent“ era, the list on the walls of the RIBA, or the AIA, or the list of the Pritz­ker Pri­ce win­ners and so on. And then, go back in time, to the begin­ning, to the colum­ns of Luxor or the Par­the­non. I am con­stant­ly loo­king for inspi­ra­ti­on from a wide source rather than a sin­gle or a few sources. Edu­ca­ti­on is para­mount. Tea­chers can gui­de you, but you have to learn how to think by yourself. The­re is some­thing to learn every day to be inspi­red from. You have to go and find it. I try to keep a child’s mind towards archi­tec­tu­re so that I can con­ti­nue to learn and be inspired.

What do you think are the con­nec­ting ele­ments bet­ween art and architecture?

Undoub­ted­ly the art of drawing. One must not for­get that Art star­ted on buil­dings. The hie­ro­glyphs insi­de the pyra­mids, or marb­le sculp­tures on the Par­the­non, or mosaics depic­ting pat­terns and sce­nes of ever­y­day life on floo­rs and walls insi­de and out­side Roman buil­dings is Art inextri­ca­b­ly intert­wi­ned and inter­re­la­ted with Archi­tec­tu­re. This car­ri­ed through to the Renais­sance whe­re Fra Ange­li­co, Giot­to and Leo­nar­do da Vin­ci were still pain­ting murals. It was only then that pain­tings star­ted to be detached from the wall when artists began to paint on wood and canvass. It is the­re­fo­re fair­ly „recent­ly“, in rela­ti­ve terms, that Art divor­ced its­elf from walls and from Archi­tec­tu­re. The advent of mini­ma­lism rein­for­ced that trend in Wes­tern Cul­tu­re. The­re is no doubt that Archi­tec­tu­re is part of the Visu­al Arts along with Pain­ting and Sculp­tu­re. Drawing is their com­mon denominator.

What are your thoughts on the impor­t­ance of ren­ders in archi­tec­tu­re today? Do you still draw often or is every step digital?

It is very important. Always has been. Today, cli­ents expect a pho­to­gra­phic image of their pro­ject ins­tead of a hand drawn per­spec­ti­ve. Inde­pen­dent stu­di­os con­stant­ly upgrading on new soft­ware and hard­ware have flou­ris­hed. Archi­tects are beco­m­ing more like com­pu­ter experts today. If it is the only tool they usual­ly think it is har­ming their craft. With com­pu­ters you have to keep zoo­m­ing in and out and it is more dif­fi­cult to be awa­re of the big­ger pic­tu­re during that pro­cess. The screen stops the eye-hand coor­di­na­ti­on. The­re is no phy­si­cal sen­ti­vi­ty through a screen. It’s slower to draw a cur­ve for instance. Com­pu­ters have limi­ta­ti­ons and can pos­si­b­ly ham­per crea­ti­vi­ty. I always design by drawing first and ask my team to deve­lop it fur­ther on com­pu­ter after­wards. I am not the only one who works like that and I don’t think the art of drawing will ever disap­pe­ar from the design process.

How can we ima­gi­ne the rela­ti­ons­hip bet­ween cli­ent and archi­tect? To what extent do you let the cli­ent par­ti­ci­pa­te in the decisi­on making pro­cess and whe­re are the­re clear boundaries?

The Client’s invol­ve­ment at the begin­ning of the brief is cru­cial. It is at that point, befo­re ever­ything starts, that cli­ent and archi­tect must ful­ly under­stand each other. Once the design pro­cess starts it is more the Client’s sup­port which is important and not so much is inter­ven­ti­on. Cli­ents should have con­fi­dence in his archi­tect. Belie­ve in him and give him the means to achie­ve the com­mon goal estab­lis­hed at the start. Design by com­mit­tee out­side the stu­dio has never been the best way. The­re can only be one „con­duc­tor of the orches­tra“. Design is not a demo­cra­tic pro­cess with one’s cli­ent out­side the office. If the cli­ent thinks that and starts to inter­vene with the design, very often and inva­ria­b­ly it is the pro­ject that suffers.

What books do you have on your bedsi­de table?

In the past I always had books on archi­tects and archi­tec­tu­re on my bedsi­de table. I have a good collec­tion in my libra­ry. Nowa­days, I read or look at lec­tures and vide­os on archi­tec­tu­re from my smart pho­ne. But I don’t do it from bed. Blue light is not con­du­ci­ve to a good night’s sleep. But the­re is not­hing like a book. I am a visu­al per­son. So I like books on archi­tec­tu­re and pain­ting with first class pho­to­gra­phy and qua­li­ty repro­duc­tion and prin­ting. I went through that pro­cess with teNeu­es in 2017 when we pro­du­ced a mono­graph of my work.

Do you think the­re is an incre­a­singly glo­ba­li­sed approach to archi­tec­tu­re and do you think the actu­al situa­ti­on will chan­ge the dyna­mics in the field of architecture?

The­re is defi­ni­te­ly a more glo­ba­li­sed approach to archi­tec­tu­re sim­ply becau­se com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on is glo­bal. It’s easier with the inter­net on a por­ta­ble pho­ne to see more archi­tec­tu­re today than ever befo­re. That is a good thing. But at the same time I noti­ce that indi­vi­dua­lism seems to have dimi­nis­hed. I think the­re are less ori­gi­nal thin­kers and desi­gners today, as con­scious­ly, or uncon­scious­ly, they influ­ence one ano­t­her. Most fol­low. Few lead. Even fewer invent. The ones that try, often too hard, to stand out, to be „ori­gi­nal“, are, in my view, stray­ing away from the tan­nest of the mea­ning of archi­tec­tu­re. Viewing archi­tec­tu­re from the inter­net will con­ti­nue even more with the cur­rent situa­ti­on. I would like to think that talent will pre­vail and the ones in demand will still be in demand around the world and glo­bal inter­chan­ge of ide­as, archi­tects and archi­tec­tu­re will continue.

Which pro­ject has given you most satis­fac­tion so far?

This is a dif­fi­cult ques­ti­on to ans­wer becau­se some of what I con­si­der my best buil­dings have been eit­her spoilt by the owners, or bad­ly main­tai­ned, or alte­red, or demo­lis­hed. It’s heart-brea­king. I pre­fer to belie­ve that the one which will give me the most satis­fac­tion is the next one that my best work lies ahead of me.

What advice would you give to young architects?

Draw free­hand, and also to sca­le by hand. Look. Obser­ve. Deve­lop your visu­al sen­ses. Tra­vel as much as pos­si­ble and visit the gre­at buil­dings of all peri­ods, of all cul­tures. Walk into them and around them. Stu­dy them on plan, sec­tion and ele­va­ti­on in 2‑D to sca­le by drawing them by hand, becau­se pro­por­ti­on and sca­le is very important. Know the Histo­ry of Archi­tec­tu­re. Model your designs as much as pos­si­ble. Work hard.

Is the­re a buil­ding which you have not been allo­wed to plan during your care­er, but would like to do one day?

No designs have not pas­sed plan­ning appro­val or been refu­sed but I have had many disap­point­ments for the many that have not gone ahead. Yes I do have a dream to build a spe­cial buil­ding: a Visu­al Arts Muse­um whe­re all the coun­tries of the world are repre­sen­ted. A tru­ly Inter­na­tio­nal muse­um loca­ted in Mau­ri­ti­us. If you think about it, liter­al­ly ever­ything we touch and which is visu­al and man-made is desi­gned. From the eye glas­ses and clothes we wear to the cars and air­planes we dri­ve and fly. It all starts from design, and design starts from drawing. They were all drawn at one sta­ge at con­cep­ti­on. This buil­ding, which I have alrea­dy desi­gned, would be for the edu­ca­ti­on of child­ren. To inspi­re them to draw and could lead them into the mul­ti­ple fiel­ds of design that I men­ti­on abo­ve. It will also be a kind of „United Nati­ons of the Arts“ to fos­ter inter­na­tio­nal diplo­ma­cy and peace.

Final­ly, do you have a life mot­to or a gui­ding princip­le that accom­pa­nies you?

Inte­gri­ty.

A look behind the scenes with one of the world’s leading architects

An archi­tec­tu­re book for all tho­se exci­ted by con­tem­pora­ry, inno­va­ti­ve buil­ding design and development.

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