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Intelligent Design

Stefan Camenzind

Adapted from original article, Been Magazine, issue #1, Spring, 2019.

“When I came out of architecture school, I was a bit lost to be honest. I did not understand how you could make judgments on architecture, how professors could decide what was good and what was bad. Sitting at home coming up with designs, I’d ask my family what they thought. I realized it was helpful because I had someone who thinks about a building not in terms of design, but in terms of ‘I am a user, would I like to use this building, would that fulfil my needs?’ I always found that so much more helpful as a guidance rather than some kind of theoretical abstract about modernism or whatever.

That’s where it started, that’s what we as a company subconsciously did at the beginning, and do much more consciously over the years; we try to create buildings which connect to the user on a totally different level, creating spaces which people love to use.

I am not one of those ‘proper’ architects, I never started out to be an architect, I started as a technical draftsman, and studied architecture. I’d never heard of any of the architects the professors kept talking about, and I just couldn’t connect to it, it was only when I went to London and worked at Grimshaw for five years that the light bulb went off. Grimshaw was a young team which let you come up with ideas based on your creativity and enthusiasm, not your seniority. I felt like I could connect with this, where someone actually listened to me. I realized this was amazing as a team effort. I realized how important it was to work together with others, how two or three brains could spark ideas and create better solutions. At this moment I realized I could probably love this profession, so I better get serious about it. I am forever grateful for that opportunity, it taught me to believe in the impossible and in team work and to give up the idea that age defines knowledge. That was amazing.

We are open when we go into a project, with no preconceptions about what it is going to be or what we are going to do. We have to be open to what solution presents itself and react from there. Only then you find what makes you successful or what doesn’t. When you are open minded to the solution, often you find surprising results.

We take exactly the same approach in workplace design. People work in an office because that is where they get paid but we try to create spaces where people choose to work, where people want to come to work, because it is easier, better and has all the tools they need to do their job and interact with others. Companies grow and change and develop, and while they change, their values and their culture often do not change so quickly and to create sustainable design, design that stands the test of time, we design to people’s values and needs rather than to design trends.

We have developed tools to help us understand a company’s needs, the needs of its people. We really try to be smart about those things before we start trying to be creative because design is only the foundation of the solution. Through our tools, we are able to get a beautiful diagram of where the problems are, a thorough x-ray view of a company which our design must address first. Design is not the need, nobody needs design. If you are thinking of buying a drill, you don’t really want to buy a drill, you need a hole in the wall, that is what you want to buy. It’s important for designers to remember design is a tool, design is the drill. Need has to be the driving force, not the design.

Today we also try to address the needs of individuality and sustainability in architecture. We must ask how to maintain a project, keep it fresh, manage the logistics behind furniture and moveable elements, manage changes in needs and market conditions. It has become so dynamic and fascinating, and that changes architecture, gives architecture new opportunities. As a workplace designer, every time it is different and every time there are surprises, if you are prepared to look at it openly. That approach it is so much richer because you know why you are doing things, you are not just painting beautiful pictures; you are actually creating substance which has culture, values, functional requirements behind it. It becomes so much deeper and more satisfying.

When you are driven by human and emotional experience then indeed each place and project is different. That’s what makes it so fascinating because you have to challenge yourself to find the right answer to each particular challenge.

People ask us what’s the future, what’s going to be next. I am not interested in that. What I am interested in is to always be at the forefront of change, to be ready for the change. That is our job as architects, rather than predicting the future, which we can’t. If we are always at this edge, we should be quite future proof and we should be able to create buildings which can absorb the next wave or move with the waves, and that is much easier if you don’t think too hard about the future. What’s important to us is whether or not our clients feel we support them in their journey.

If I would know at the beginning of the project what it’s going to be like, what it’s going to end up like, I’d be very disappointed, because then clearly I’ve not learned anything on the journey. I’ve not overcome anything, not developed at all. I think the joy of every project is to work with other very experienced people together challenging and growing yourselves so the result is often something where you say ‘oh wow, I didn’t realize we could do that.’ Then you feel like it was a good journey.

At the end of the day as an architect, I live by people feeling good in spaces, feeling this is for them. This is the glove that fits their hand, that gives me the satisfaction, that’s why I get up in the morning. That’s how I justify building things in this world. Often we’re destroying something else, replacing nature with buildings and the only way to justify that is if you have humanity in mind and not design.

This is how we work as a team together, we are blessed with being able to do such a varied amount of work. That is what keeps us going.”

All images © Stefan Camenzind, Evolution, Zürich - To experience the full article, buy Been Magazine issue #1, Spring 2019.

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