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?
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