Driven to build a better future, Farshid Moussavi on the power of diversity.
By 9 am prompt every day, Farshid Moussavi is at her office on Fenchurch Street. She has lived in London – with a brief stint abroad – since 1979, and still finds the city to be “full of inspiration,” from food to fashion. Moussavi is impressive, to say the least: director of her practice since she finished her training, she is an OBE and a Royal Academician; she has degrees from UCL, Dundee and Harvard; she has written three books. And this, in addition to buildings she has designed all over the world. She is currently in the midst of developing two major urban complexes (an office building in the City of London and a residential block in Paris), yet she still emanates serenity. Here, she talks about the evolution of her practice and how it has been wrapped up in politics, the projects that have brought her the most joy, and how we can build housing for a better future.
Where did it all begin for you – when did you decide to go into your field?
Architecture was always one of the subjects that was on my mind, and I think only through studying it, that over the years my passion for it grew to the extent it has now. I consider myself very lucky that I enjoy my work every day, which I think is very important. After finishing my degree here in the UK, I went to the US to do a postgraduate degree; then I went to Holland to work for Rem Koolhaas. I came back to the UK, here to London, to set up my own office and start teaching at the Architectural Association – and that’s where it started!
Did you always know you wanted to have your own practice?
You know, I’ve never been asked this before. I think I did from the beginning. I’m not sure why, because of course architecture is a very collaborative field. Maybe it’s to do with the way we were taught. I think the history of architecture was taught either through a history of style, or a history of architects. I spent a lot of time looking at other architects’ work.
Do you ever question that history, which is also a very male-dominated history? Do you design with people in mind?
When I was fully immersed in studying it, it didn’t occur to me that it was male-dominated thinking – I was looking more at the work rather than the architects themselves. I always thought, yes we need good architects, but first, we need good buildings. Once the architect is gone, it’s the building that remains. It was only much later on, for various reasons that I’ve gone to read the texts of these individuals and -sometimes it’s quite shocking!
Is it something you think about more now?
Of course, now I can put it into context and understand the significance of let’s say the Modular Man, designed according to the idea of the perfect man. Reflecting on architectural history, I feel now it’s important to know what’s important to repeat and what we shouldn’t repeat – and the Modular Man shouldn’t be repeated!
Looking back on your career to date – what are some of the projects that have shaped your practice?
I think to this day, the most significant one is the very first project, which was the Yokohama International Passenger Terminal – it’s very hard to match that one in terms of impact. It’s a huge, 48,000 square metre transportation building in Japan. We won it through an international competition, and just the scale of it was epic. We proposed to build it almost like a ship, using steel – the fact it was so far away and we were starting out; the parallels to it in the past have been the Pompidou in Paris or the Opera House in Sydney, both completed by very young architects. We found ourselves suddenly part of that history. So it remains as I think that was the biggest highlight, but I think of every project as an achievement that shapes your practice. Each one has so many odds against them, so many – that by the time you build them, they feel a little bit like miracles! You learn different things from every project, and there’s a real sense of joy when they are completed successfully.
The Victoria Beckham flagship store, completed in 2014, is a project of yours that also stands out, entirely different to that first project, but a great success.
All of our projects are unique because our way of working is open and collaborative. Rather than adopting standard solutions, we work creatively with clients, contractors and suppliers to craft buildings using simple means. So we would design a store in London differently to a ferry terminal in Japan. As a brand, Victoria Beckham had only traded online. So it was an opportunity to think about their relationship with customers and how they could encounter the brand in a physical space. At a higher level, it was questioning the idea of a physical store as opposed to an online store. It was a very enjoyable collaboration.
You mentioned the odds being stacked against you when you start a new project: what are some of those challenges and how do you work through them?
Coming up with the design takes a long time: you start with your intuitions, then you try to inform yourself by looking at it from various different angles. There are stakeholders, people who are perhaps going to donate money to a project depending on whether it’s public or private, there are functional and technical considerations, there are regulations, then, of course, there are politics involved. Projects these days take between 4 to 10 years – 4 would be a small project. Along the way governments change, policies change, there might be crashes in the world market; if it’s a private project there might be someone who wants to lease it at the end which can delay the process; the whole process can be halted for any of these reasons in fact. If it’s a public, privately funded project, money needs to be raised; donors might disappear – there are so many factors along the way. No-one could ever know what a project is going to go through.
That must make your job very frustrating at times – as you say, it’s such a protracted process, but at the same time, you’re a creative so it must be challenging to have to deal with the politics. How do you deal with it?
It can be exhausting, but it means that the idea has to be very robust and flexible. It has to be a big idea. Even if it’s a small project. Then it can find different iterations of itself. You need to have a certain amount of resilience – because of course when a project stops and starts it affects the office emotionally, but also financially. You need to have hope that one way or the other that things will come back and restart – sometimes they don’t. We won a six-month long competition to design a new music centre for the BBC, and after that, the director general resigned. It had nothing to do with our project, but of course, it halted our project. We waited until the new director was in place, then he came along, and because of the background he had, he didn’t want to build a new building, he wanted to renovate a building. So then the project stopped. You need to know that it takes time and I keep reminding myself that an architectural project is actually beyond any individual person, and ultimately an architect is designing for others – and it has to be at the right time, in the right place.
What do you do to deal with the stress?
I am only a human being, so of course, it does stress me – but I think the satisfaction and enjoyment somehow seems to balance it. I love going to work every day, despite all the setbacks and failures along the way.
I think living somewhere like London you can see how architecture can both impede community relationships and facilitate them.
Architecture has a lot of different ways of integrating buildings into its context. It’s to do with the kind of relationships it makes possible between inside and outside. Every kind of building can do it in a certain way. When it comes to housing you want to make people feel connected while respecting their individual need for privacy: it might be through spaces where they can convene, or it might be through providing views. There’s also the twentieth-century idea of the collective space that has sometimes been idealised, in my opinion – a community has to form itself. We need to recognise that some of those utopian projects that “institutionalised” collective spaces as part of their make up have failed.
Now, with the more recent housing we’ve been building, people seem to be typecast: there’s affordable housing, there’s luxury housing, there’s student housing, housing for the elderly; and it ends up separating people geographically, because of course, the high-end housing ends up being in the centre of the city, the affordable housing on the outskirts, and people become more and more distant from one another, and there is less and less understanding of each other’s needs. I think it leads to a zero tolerance society. So something as small and let’s say, basic, as housing I think has profound consequences in how we relate to each other. That’s why I think architecture can play an enormous role, in designing residential buildings where different kinds of people can live next to each other. Then they might find out that actually, their differences are also their power.