Interview with Gert WingĂĄrdh

April 21, 2010



Conditions: What is, in your opinion, a compromise?

Gert: When you don’t do it exactly as you want it. It’s that simple (he-he). Compromises are extremely common and are also part of a healthy discussion. Sometimes you don’t know exactly what objectives you and your client want. Usually the compromise has to do with costs. We try to have a clear strategy together with the client about what we think the most important things that we should reach are. Then we agree early on that certain expenses must be allowed.

C: So you make a list of priorities?

Gert: Yes, priorities between different things.

C: Is there something an architect should never compromise? Why?

Gert: It’s hard, every project has its own soul and I think you can have good souls at different prices. Perhaps, as an architect, you should abandon one scheme and pursue another scheme if costs do not allow you to include the important things you wish to have; for example, if you want to have a building as part of the topography or landscape, there will be a certain cost for having earth and grass on top of it. If you can’t have that, perhaps you should do a very different sort of building, one which stands out of the context instead, with an ordinary roof. You should not compromise the core idea.

C: Is cost the most important “actor” in reaching compromises.

Gert: Usually that’s the main constraint that we meet. The politicians have been led to believe that buildings are cheaper than they actually are. The people who make the analyses of the costs are always wrong. They are the only people in the world who always do their jobs wrong and still get away with it. That’s quite irritating.

C: Looking at the property developers, most of the time they are looking for benefits. Do you think they make the architect compromise the society or the core values of the functions of architecture?

Gert: Yes! For instance in Gothenburg we made a big opera house with its back turned to the city, so everybody was always looking at the back side. If you do a scheme like that you have to decorate it intensely to make it viable, but it wasn’t done for cost reasons.

C: What is good compromise?

Gert: A good compromise would be when you find new functions for a building through a better analysis of the project; for example, when you discover you can do away with two entrances and just make it one. As an architect you don’t know the whole story from the beginning of your project, and of course there are ways to reduce costs and find better solutions. But is that a compromise? I don’t really know. A compromise by definition is not necessarily a good thing.

C: But is the compromise necessary?

Gert: If you want to have the building built, sometimes, yes. It is very common that you design a building, and you for instance want it to be specific to the site, but the costs won’t allow it. Like if you’re building in a city which is on limestone and you want to use the same limestone, the costs of that procedure may not allow you to do that.  Instead you will have to get limestone from China. From an ecological point of view, and from an intellectual point of view, that is a very bad compromise. But still it occurs.

C: Do you think that the compromise is a Scandinavian thing? In other words, is it culturally based?

Gert: No, no. We now have work in China, the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Finland, Denmark and there have been exactly the same sort of discussions. I think the position of the architect is perhaps stronger and more respected in Europe and Scandinavia, with Danish architects holding the strongest position – although their position may have weakened a bit lately. The positions of the architect in Germany or the UK are very much the same as in Norway and Sweden. Now with the financial crises, you read about projects from Herzog & de Meuron having to redesign completely because of costs. Even if you are on the top you are still forced to compromise.

C: With the increasing involvement and power of the property developer, money and profit have become utterly important. Who or what is being compromised?

Gert: Very often the functionality of the building is compromised. If you intend to sell the building you may not be so interested in its maintainability. I think that is very typical for housing schemes. If you are going to stay with a house, you will use high quality materials; for instance,  brick on the exterior and stone in the staircases etc. But if you intend to sell the flats to individual owners, you tend to use plaster for exterior and just paint everything white.

C: You mentioned that the role of the architect has changed. Some say that the influence of the architect is less than it previously was.

Gert: They tell me that, but during the span that I have been working I think that the contrary has been the case. I think that might be typical for Sweden. When I started to practice architecture in the mid 70s the architects were very hard-pressed. People were very reluctant to listen to them and they were forced to do pastiches and not design what their heart felt they should. But over the years I have been working architects have gained a better position. More and more clients believe that the architect has something to add to the building and is someone to be respected and listened to. I think the position of the architects in Sweden has also become better. However I have heard the contrary said about  Denmark.

C: Taking that into consideration, what is a good strategy for the architect to gain further influence?

Gert: I think it is very important to give good advice so people believe you are worth listening to. If I could advise a client how to make 25 flats instead of 20 like he had estimated, of course I add value for him. Or if I can do a work place which is efficient with less square meter per worker than what he thought, of course it’s a good thing. I think to give good advice is the key and also to provide buildings that people like. If you do a good brick building, everybody will say “that was a nice brick building. I want one too.” The power of the example is very, very strong.

C: To create a brand or a position…

Gert: Yes, the built example is a very strong seller.

C: We are in the age of icons; can you say that the icons are without compromise?

Gert: No, they also have to compromise. I don’t think, for instance, that the cladding of the Turning Torso in Malmø is the one the architect intended.

C: In a social aspect, is the icon a compromise as well?

Gert: No, I don’t think so. In Sweden we have very few icons, just the Turning Torso.

C: Is the system with the politicians and the planning department on one side and the developer and the architect on the other side a good solution? Is it an optimal system?

Gert: I don’t think the architect is on the other side of the politicians or the city servants. They could be on the opposite side, but not necessarily. In half the cases we are on the same side as the city servants and the politicians. Politicians are not always aware of how good buildings are achieved, so that can present a problem.

C: Is democracy then a problem for good architecture?

Gert: No I don’t think so.

C: What is the potential of democracy?

Gert: The potential of the democracy is to get the right sort of buildings built. If a lot of people want to live in the city, one way to achieve that is higher density, higher buildings, and that could be cause for dispute among the general public. In Gothenburg we have started a process for the southern part of the river where the politicians have tried to involve a lot of different people to get a variety of different views. There are a lot of simplistic views, like “we want to have cheap housing” or “big flats at low prices”, which is of course very hard to achieve. There are also some very good ideas, like “we must have some space for youth which can’t be rented out at market price.” I think that, in this way, democracy really helps to create the program for the buildings. It also widens the scope of the architect’s work.

C: Are there other ways for people to involve themselves in the shaping of the city?

Gert: Yes. In Gothenburg, or any part of Sweden, when a local newspaper starts to write about development, a lot of people get involved. Through websites and other media they give their opinions. It’s one of the things that people are really interested in discussing.

C: But is that being taken care of through the planning system?

Gert: The planning system is aware of it, but then you have to make a judgment. And that judgment is of course always tricky.

C: Then we are discussing communication. What is the relationship between communication and compromise?

Gert: I don’t think there is direct connection. If people are forced to compromise, that could be communicated and thus the compromise eradicated.

C: How do you think the compromise is visible on a city scale?

Gert: There is a lot of infrastructure that could be done away with. More cars in tunnels would be a good thing; as long as we don’t have that, it is sort of a compromise. In Gothenburg we would like to have a train link going underneath the city; as long as we don’t have that, it is sort of a compromise. It is also compromised because of lack of funding.

C: You are operating globally. How do you find the countries different?

Gert: When you are working in China things happen extremely quickly. That is, of course, achieved by not letting people be part of the planning process in a democratic way. I think Koolhaas did some research saying that a Chinese architect was 27,000 times more efficient than an American one.

In the developed countries, for example if you are working in New York State, there are so many legal procedures you have to follow. There is one set of legal documents on the national level, one for the state and one for the city, and there could also be one for the neighborhood. It can be extremely tricky to comply with all the laws.

C: Do you see any difference between the Nordic countries?

Gert: Not really. I think it is a bit more old-fashioned in Finland; it is easier to say what you want and get it, because of respect. I think that somehow the Danes have created a mutual respect between the politicians, the city servants and the architects. But I am not certain because I don’t know any Danish politicians. In Sweden, in Malmø, there is great continuity among the politicians. They have very strong respect for the city servants and the architects and they get excellent results because of that.

C: Enough about compromise, what is the glamour of architecture or in being an architect?

Gert: The glamour? (he-he) I think it is glamorous. We did a science center in Gothenburg – which is attended by half a million people every year – and everybody moves through the building in the way that you thought. That’s kind of empowering to feel that. And also most people like this building, and when you tell them that you designed it, they pat you on the back and say “wow, that is fantastic.” When you get good reactions from people that make you feel good, that is a very glamorous part of being an architect. And when I stand now in my flat, looking out, I can see buildings that I have designed, and I enjoy that. That is also sort of glamorous.

C: Any advice to architects?

Gert: You should make clear early on what is costly about the project so you can address the economic part from the beginning. If you don’t make the costs clear to the public, it will be very tricky to make compromises in the end.

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