Blueprint innovation: 16 interviews with international architects

We asked 16 international architects what innovation means to them and why it is important to their work. Including: Paola Antonellli, Shigeru Ban, Odile Decq, Liz Diller, Andre Fu, Jeanne Gang, Reinier de Graaf, Francine Houben, Kengo Kuma, Tom Kundig, Daniel Libeskind, Nieto Sobejano, Michael Pawlyn, Monica von Schmalensee, Aaron Taylor Harvey, Sarah Wigglesworth

Interviews by Johnny Tucker, Veronica Simpson, Herbert Wright, Clare Farrow

Paola Antonelli

Paola Antonelli is senior design curator of architecture and director of R&D at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). She studied economics then architecture and moved into architectural writing and curation, working for Domus, Abitare, and the International Design Conference at Aspen (IDCA). She taught at UCLA before landing her role at MoMA. Her exhibitions explore the role of design and architecture in the context of real life. She has investigated healthcare and emergency design (SAFE: Design Takes on Risk, 2005), the coming together of science and design (Design and the Elastic Mind, 2008) and most recently the ambiguous relationship between Design and Violence (2015).

I think the word innovation is a little overused, in the sense that, frankly, it’s what we always do, we try and do something new — it’s the normal process of progress. It has become a bit of a key word because of the need we have to label things in order to understand them better, to teach them or sell them.

Paola Antonelli. Photo: Courtesy Paola Antonelli
Paola Antonelli. Photo: Courtesy Paola Antonelli

I grew up in Italy, which has an amazing design culture. But Italy is a complicated place. It has incredible talent, but I wouldn’t see it as an innovative country. It’s an interesting, idiosyncratic country that sometimes comes up with great ideas, but if I think of countries that have propelled the world forward in terms of visual culture, it’s the UK, big time, Japan and the USA. I don’t know why Americans feel so beaten down stylistically.

They always feel they don’t have a sense of style and design… but if you look at technology and product design, the USA has been the most innovative nation for quite a few decades. Every country has its own innovative forte that it can teach and sell to the rest of the world. Paradoxically, in the past few years, many in the fields of design and of food and sustainability have been looking at developing countries to learn how to live without waste. We are learning so much about that - and more - from South America and many African countries.

This obsession with labelling things (innovative or otherwise) is a sign of our times. A group of designers and technologists who work in an incubator here in New York told me they have a hard time naming what it is that they do. We discussed this and agreed that sometimes the best thing you can do is talk about the last thing you did. You can’t use pre-existing labels. I think not talking about innovation might be a good idea for a while.

Every time I tackle a new project I try and enter a new universe I didn’t know before. The last project was about design and violence and it enabled me to talk with people who are experts in issues such as the death penalty, euthanasia, female genital mutilation, racial profiling and many more real, urgent issues.

I find I get the best inspiration from taking a journey away from my habitual comfort zone and learning what other people do. I get a lot of inspiration from the street, in different countries as well as in New York City. It’s hard to pinpoint where the inspiration comes from. I know when it gels. It almost happens on an unconscious level. Some of my favourite places for inspiration are airplanes and airports. Being at an airport seems to trigger the kind of synthetic processing work in my brain that other people’s brains do in dreams.

Guardian Angel bags by Vlieger & Vandam from the Design and Violence exhibition. Photo: Courtesy Guardian angel
Guardian Angel bags by Vlieger & Vandam from the Design and Violence exhibition. Photo: Courtesy Guardian angel

A friend gave me the Twitter handle @curiousoctopus, after she caught me during a lecture when I was asked how I did my research. I said: ‘I don’t know, I’m like a curious octopus, my tentacles go in all directions.’ And it’s true. The process is chaotic, and then things come together in those moments.

The world of design is very diversified. There are types of design that aren’t at the forefront of experimentation - furniture design is not really where it’s at. Interaction design, augmented reality and virtual reality - they are overused terms but still very interesting. Bio design, that is really huge. I also feel drawn to parametric architecture, bio architecture - the kind of work that Neri Oxman does [at MIT], where she creates tools for architects to experiment with in the future. A lot of creativity is going in that direction: scientists, engineers, designers, architects, working together. There are other hybrid states I find extremely interesting - designers experimenting with scent and sound, for example.

Where we need more creativity is with our use of energy - that is most important. How can you create a building that has a footprint that’s close to zero? And there’s such a need for better, more responsive and affordable social housing. I like that new typologies of housing are emerging based on old typologies, such as communal living. The whole area of architecture and urban planning is always in dire need of innovation.

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