1968 and all that…
Wolf Prix is co-founder, Design Principal and CEO of international practice, COOP HIMMELB(L)AU – based in Vienna but now also with offices in Los Angeles and Beijing. One of his latest high-profile creations is the incredible Musée des Confluences in Lyon, France, an angular faceted steel and glass building with a natural history museum within.
Counted among the originators of the deconstructivist architecture movement, Wolf co-founded his studio at the exact same time as the student revolution of 1968 Paris, adopting their slogan ‘Give Power to Fantasy’.
Ever since, he has been unafraid of being controversial, but in a constructive way. This was much in evidence when he met WAN’s Editor-in-Chief, Michael Hammond in London last week.
During their lively exchange, many subjects were covered, including some pretty stark predictions about where the profession may find itself if it doesn’t buck up its ideas fast.
Wolf also speaks of his love-hate relationship with his native Vienna (which he likens to a Poodle), his great appreciation of Los Angeles, and how he would approach improvements to London’s Heathrow Airport (which at present he says you have to walk through ‘like a dog’).
Michael begins by questioning Wolf about his advice that young people shouldn’t consider going into architecture as it stands. His explanation is sobering: “The architectural profession is changing dramatically, and I’m afraid that it will be vanished in the next 20 years now, because most of the architects – I have to say so – are not smart enough to recognise that we are swimming like sardines. Many architects, many sardines – in the ocean of investor sharks – and we don’t have swarm intelligence.”
Wolf also bemoans the fact that, in his view, architects are given unimaginable responsibility while being denied the power to take it, then being blamed ‘if the building is too expensive, or takes too long’. He cites the example of Jean Nouvel and the ill-starred new Philharmonie in Paris, incredulous that a ‘great architect is fired’.
However, Wolf remains full of boundless energy and optimism at 73 years old, and still manages a punishing schedule of worldwide engagements (12 lectures in eight countries last year, popping over the road to the Architectural Association to pick up a Diploma from them after his meeting with WAN, not to mention the small matter of running his practice). The secret behind his remarkable stamina? “I love architecture!”
Although he currently senses a great feeling of ‘tiredness’ around architecture, he also sees this as a seminal moment in time for the profession: provided it can find a united voice and reclaim its power. It should be stressed that by tiredness, he is not critical of the fresh designs emerging – especially from students – but means that architecture is ‘overwhelmed by problems which we cannot solve – political problems, economic problems’.
In answer, Wolf urges that this nadir is ‘also a chance for young schools to build up a new profile of being an architect’. He cautions: “Architects shouldn’t escape in only designing. They should learn strategy to succeed, to build their ideas.” And he trusts the human brain to find the right solutions.
He reminds architects of the vital role they have to play in ever more complex urban design situations – that we are the experts in this, even if no-one seems to be calling on that know-how these days.
Wolf concludes his interview with WAN thus: “Architects are diminishing themselves. They are sitting on a branch and sawing on the branch, not only with saws but with motor-saws!”
COOP HIMMELB(L)AU burst onto the architectural scene during times of great change. Perhaps the moment for another revolution is upon us right here, right now…
To listen to the full conversation between Wolf Prix and Michael Hammond, listen to WAN’s ShopTalk podcast now.