FREI & SAARINEN — UTOPIA BY DESIGN

SWISS ARCHITECTURE FIRM FREI + SAARINEN IS KNOWN FOR IDEAS THAT PUSH THE BOUNDARIES OF CONVENTIONAL DESIGN. THEIR PROJECTS HAVE WON AWARDS AND COUNTLESS AMOUNTS OF PRESS IN ARCHITECTURE AND DESIGN PUBLICATIONS AROUND THE WORLD. THEIR OBJECTIVE IS SIMPLE: TO CREATE HARMONIOUS ENVIRONMENTS BASED ON UTOPIAN AND SOMETIMES HUMOROUS CONCEPTS.
PRINCIPAL MARTIN SAARINEN TALKED LONG DISTANCE WITH DIRTY ABOUT THEIR DESIGN PROCESS AND A DREAM OF AN AIRPORT TUCKED HIGH UP IN THE MOUNTAINS.
TEXT Paul Bruno

 

 

DIRTY: HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN BUSINESS PARTNERS WITH BARBARA FREI?

MARTIN SAARINEN: Barbara and I started the company in 2005, and have been partners since.

 

D: DID YOU ALWAYS SHOW AN INTEREST IN ARCHITECTURE?

MS: No. Before I studied architecture I was a ski racer. I was no professional, but I spent almost every spare minute skiing. In the summer time, windsurfing was my greatest interest. Although I share my surname with one of the greatest architects of the last century, there has never been a special connection to architecture. Barbara, my partner, was a good swimmer before her studies and like myself she did not have any particular interest in architecture before studying at the ETH Zurich.

 

D: WHAT WAS ONE OF YOUR VERY FIRST DESIGN PROJECTS?

MS: Fortunately, one of our first design projects was the extension and conversion of a cinema named “Xenix”. Although it’s not more than a humble small scale project, it won prizes and was published in architecture magazines all over the world.

 

D: WHAT IS THE FREI + SAARINEN APPROACH TO DESIGN PROJECTS?

MS: Our working method is based on a simultaneous regard to the design process from four different points of view:

1. Design as science
A scientific approach means to analyze and visualize all determining factors of a specific design task in order to identify the range of possible solutions. Every promising point of departure is discussed without prejudice.

2. Design as dialogue
Architectural design is a collective process. An intense dialogue with our client is our main inspiration, because his/her personal (and sometimes unusual) ideas about architecture force us to leave beaten tracks. There is only one strict rule: No discussion without models. When there’s nothing to see, there’s nothing to discuss.

3. Design as translation
Translation means to turn an abstract concept into specific form and vice versa. This process is not linear but highly iterative. Concretion (from idea to form) leads to new design, abstraction (from form back to conceptual scheme) leads to new ideas.

4. Design as cultural phenomenon
Architecture has to be reasonable, affordable, and sustainable, but it has to express more than that. As we regard architecture as an independent artform, we have to ask ourselves what it should stand for. Does architecture have to be beautiful? Is being “new” or “innovative” a quality in itself? Is irritating or ugly architecture legitimate? What is architecture and what is not?

 

D: WHAT ARE SOME F+S PROJECTS THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?

MS: The realization of an idea is always a struggle. Huge efforts are necessary to convince clients, to find feasible solutions and to improve the schematic preliminary design by translating it into built architecture. Therefore we are particularly proud of our first three realized projects – the above mentioned Xenix, the conversion of a Parish House in Zurich and the Lignum Pavilion, a wooden structure consisting of 541 different pieces weighting over 5 tons.

 


 

Maybe our realized projects are not our most relevant projects. We have an interest in developing concepts for questions that go beyond architecture in the classical sense. Our Great Airport Project suggests a new type of airport in the middle of Switzerland. Rural house suggests a new way of sharing a house with farm animals that heat the house and that are entertained by the human inhabitants. “Anstrengendes Wohnen” (exhausting habitation) contributes to better health by fighting obesity via forcing the inhabitant to exercise.

These partly utopian, partly humorous concepts that exceed the traditional goals of architecture are very important for us. 99% of our activities in the utopian field — we call them “Projects Nobody Asked For” — are not paid, but that does not mean that they are worthless or without any effect. A couple of months ago we were asked by one of Switzeland’s leading newspapers to develop radical concepts for more space. I imagine this utopian / humorous / conceptual diversion from production becoming more and more important in the future.

 

D: WHAT ARE YOU GUYS CURRENTLY WORKING ON?

MS: At the moment we’re working on an invited competition for a winery in the nothern part of Switzerland. Winery design became more and more important in the last years, because architecture was discovered as a marketing instrument to promote wine (plus special events that are organized within the new wineries). We’re looking to make an exiting contribution to winery design!

We’re also working on our first residential design project, as well as redesigning several schools in Zurich. In addition, we teach a program at the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts. At the moment our students develop experimental wooden structures that represent contemporary methods for design and fabrication. Experimental design with wood is extremely interesting, since almost every shape can be constructed with wood by using CAD (Computer Aided Design) and CAM (Computer Aided Manufacturing). The file-to-factory-method (design specs are sent directly to the milling machine without any plans in the traditional sense) was used for one of FSA’s project, the Lignum Pavilion, as well. Wood is by far the most ecological building material that exists.

 

D: WHAT WAS YOUR INITIAL REACTION WHEN HIRED TO REDESIGN THE 100 YEAR OLD PARISH IN ZURICH? WHAT INSPIRED THE RENOVATION DESIGNS?

MS: It was a competition focusing on the redesign of the lobby. The most important thing was to make plausible guesses concerning how the bearing structure works. This was not as easy as it might sound, because countless layers of preceding renovations blurred the clarity of the original bearing steel structure (Fortunately our speculations turned out to be correct). The most important idea was to stretch the formerly completely introverted lobby towards the facades and to cut a hole into the ceiling in order to get as much natural light as possible. The faceted geometry consisting of triangular planes was the most promising formal vocabulary to generate a generous space, because the broken but fluent formal language is able to connect all existing walls and ceilings in a relatively seamless way.

 


 

D: WHAT IS YOUR ADVICE TO ASPIRING ARCHITECTS?

MS: Do what you believe in or don’t do it. Gather experience in the most advanced architectural practices, but leave them before you lose your own personal view to architecture.

 

D: WHO ARE YOUR DESIGN INSPIRATIONS?

MS: The inspirations come from the architectural design process itself while playing around with computer models. We are deeply convinced that a playful way of dealing with the architectural form can lead to unforeseen and sometimes astonishing results. Of course, you need to know roughly what you want. But every program can be transformed in thousands of possible architectural forms, and we think that the relation between a certain use and the form of a building is pretty loose. The consequence is that, according to us, the fulfillment of a certain use has nothing to do with architecture, yet. Architecture has to go beyond the fulfillment of a certain demand.

 

D: WHAT MATERIALS INSPIRE YOU?

MS: Old fashioned, boring, banal, ordinary materials. We don’t share the in the excitement over trendy new materials. We think that it’s interesting to materialize extraordinary architectural design schemes with common materials, because we like the tension between the ordinary and the special. You can see that in the lobby of the Parish House: The fancy faceted shape of the space is somehow weirdly combined with an old fashioned way of treating the surfaces. This time-shift strategy (contemporary shape vs. traditional materialization) can be compared to Blue Velvet by David Lynch: Peter Eisenman explained in one of his writings how cars, music, objects and storyline don’t really fit together. The result is a weird tension emerging from slight incompatibilities. An interesting concept for architecture, as well.

 

D: WHAT IS A PROJECT THAT YOU WOULD LOVE TO WORK ON THAT YOU HAVE NOT YET HAD THE CHANCE TO DO?

MS: The further development of The Great Airport.

 

D: DO YOU WATCH MUCH TELEVISION? DO YOU LISTEN TO MUCH MUSIC?

MS: I don’t watch much television but mainly, because I spend most of my time at the office. But it can happen that I spend three days watching tv without a break, during holidays. TV can be inspiring, funny, informative. I’m very interested in music videos — I regard them as an individual art form. Unfortunately, there is not much music on what used to be Music Television, at least not in Switzerland. Music is very important for all of us and we listen to music frequently during work. I prefer rock music by Mike Patton, Jack White or Josh Homme, but I also like postrock bands like Mogwai or Tortoise and electronic music by Boards of Canada. Depeche Mode, The Pixies or Die Einstürzenden Neubauten used to be important bands for me and during the Parish House competition we listened constantly to Klaus Nomi. Does anybody remember Klaus Nomi?

 


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