An Interview With Christian Kerez
By Kevin Holden Platt
Vanguard architects who step onto the global stage by building across the continents often broadcast their advances – their competition wins, prizes and limelight-grabbing exhibitions – but rarely air their trials and tribulations. Zurich-based architect Christian Kerez is an outstanding exception to this rule.
Mr. Kerez experiments with the most basic elements in architecture, beginning with a small Swiss hillside chapel he designed that completely transforms impressions of the surrounding Alps, and he often crafts models that appear to be part artwork, part architecture. His design breakthroughs led to an extensive retrospective at the 12th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale and to a guest professorship at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.
In an international competition involving more than 100 architects to design Warsaw’s new Museum of Modern Art, Kerez seized first place – but that was when his troubles all started, he tells us.
Although the architect’s winning model for Poland’s MoMA generated glowing reviews at Venice, and at a Harvard exhibition, the city of Warsaw constantly pressured Kerez to change its design – to accommodate a new theatre or other emerging changes in the city’s own plans.
After spending four years incorporating all these changes in an increasingly sophisticated 3D digital model of the museum, Kerez applied for a building permit covering the project’s site in Parade Square, at the center of Warsaw.
“But we didn’t get the building application approved because the plot didn’t belong entirely to the client, to the city,” Kerez says.
Kerez notified the city that there were conflicting ownership claims over plots in Parade Square and that, unless the city secured a clear title to the entire site, a building permit would never be issued.
The Surreal Saga of Warzaw’s Parade Square
Then the story took a surreal turn. The city authorities told him: “This is all your fault,” Kerez recounts.
“And now I am in court and they are suing me for several million dollars.”
With this strange unfolding of events, did Kerez feel as if he were in a Kafka novel?
“You are absolutely right,” he replies. “Kafka, the novels by Kafka and especially ‘The Trial’ came very often to my mind.”
“The Polish authorities still represent an absolute power,” he adds.
Ironically, the new Museum of Modern Art is part of Warsaw’s master plan to remake its identity after its world-shaking democratic revolution in 1989 made Poland the first European satellite state of the Soviet Union to break free of Moscow’s control. The museum is slated to counterbalance the Soviet-built Stalin Palace of Culture and Science, which still dominates Warsaw’s Parade Square.
Jacek Wojciechowicz, deputy mayor of Warsaw, told Polish reporters that the city became entangled in the legal case because of “Mr Kerez’s incapability of changing the competition concept into a realistic building design,” according to a report in the Warsaw Business Journal.
But the only barriers blocking the construction of the museum were the ownership conflicts over the building site, Kerez says.
A Pre-Emptive Strike
The city, apprehensive that it had breached its primary legal obligation to secure a clear property title to the site, likely launched its suit as a diversionary tactic or preemptive strike.
Even the leaders of the Museum of Modern Art are backing Kerez’s account of the conflict, and state on the museum’s official website: “Land-ownership issues and incomplete planning requirements proved difficult to manage during the design process and were among the factors which lead to a suspension and eventual abandonment of that project.”
As news of the impending Kafkaesque trial of Kerez echoed across the architecture world, the Italian magazine Domus warned: “The turbulent history of the Museum of Modern Art’s project … discredits Poland in the eyes of the world, and discourages foreign architects from working in the country.”
Marcin Szczelina, the Warsaw-based architecture critic and curator, who wrote the Domus article, says in an interview that the commissioners of the MoMA project were apprehensive that the elegant but minimalist design for the museum might not generate the hoped-for ‘Bilbao Effect’, attracting countless cultural tourists and remaking Warsaw’s image in the process. City leaders therefore transformed themselves from supportive clients to legal combatants with Kerez, he says.
He declares the court case against Kerez “never should have happened,” and adds it could trigger fears among architects the world over about designing in Poland, especially if the client is a government organization.
And if the city of Warsaw seeks another leading global architect to submit a new design for the Museum of Modern Art, Kerez says: “I think it will be impossible to find an excellent architect to take on this risky business.”
The Court of Global Public Opinion
Meanwhile, to submit this case to the global public, Kerez has been highlighting it during lectures he gives for architecture students and scholars around the world, including one at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Kerez is a professor of design and architecture at the prestigious Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, whose scholars over the past century – including Albert Einstein – have collectively won 21 Nobel Prize awards. Despite the surreal conflict in Warsaw, Kerez continues to win competitions and commissions across the world.
In France, Kerez has been commissioned to design a tower as part of the Lyon Confluence redevelopment masterplan being led by Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron. Two millennia ago the site of Roman fortifications, and two decades ago an industrial center, this section of Lyon is now being re-sculpted into a cultural and living complex.
In Brazil, Kerez is designing the 450-unit social housing project ‘Paraisopolis’ in São Paulo, in which, he says, each apartment is unique unlike similar projects built in the 1970s and 1980s, which are “just boxes stacked on top of each other”.
A Paradisiacal Design in Brazil
Before sketching out plans for Paraisopolis, he carefully studied the area’s ‘favelas’, which he describes as “architecture without architects.” With the new housing complex, he adds, “I hope it will have the same notion of infinite space that is always disappearing around the next corner and changing its qualities” in the favelas.
On the other side of the world, in the Chinese city of Zhengzhou, Kerez was invited with seven other architects, including Eduardo Souto De Moura, ISOZAKI + Hu Qian, SANAA, Studio Mumbai Architects, Klotz Asociados, Ensamble Studio and Asymptote Architecture, to design a new section of the city.
Kerez has created a virtual lighthouse of experimental architecture at the edge of the waterfront, with a design for a 120-meter-high tower that experiments with basic principles of structural engineering.
While reviewing the design of New York’s Empire State Building for lectures he was giving at the Swiss Institute on the history of high-rises, Kerez recounts, he was struck by the realization that most skyscrapers feature identical floor plans and facades that mask the forces of physics, and engineering responses, at work in every building. “In this [Empire State] Building of 103 levels, the weight of the building is 103 times greater on the ground floor than on the top level,” he says. But the engineering solutions to counterbalance these forces are uniformly hidden away.
For the tower in China, he explains, “This is where our design approach started. We wanted to make something visible which is obvious but hidden in every single high-rise building built so far, the dramatic change in the structural condition from the ground level to the top level.”
A Fundamental Redesign of the Skyscraper
To illustrate these basic elements of physics and architecture, Kerez has designed a forest of thin, 25-centimeter columns, with varying degrees of inclination, on the ground floor of his Zhengzhou Tower. The number of columns decreases in direct proportion to the height of each ascending level of the building. The structural core typical in skyscraper design is replaced by a soaring atrium at the base of the tower and by a spacious open courtyard at its peak.
In an alternative design for the tower, Kerez has positioned a web of cables, resembling the tethers of a tent, connecting the high-rise’s façade to concentric layers on the ground surrounding the building. This matrix of cables, like the columns inside the tower, increases in density at lower levels of the project.
These high-tech tethers, Kerez says, will also help transform the entire tower into a massive light installation artwork every evening.
This Zhengzhou Tower is being built on a disc-shaped island that has a lake at its center; future inhabitants might walk, bike or sail to the site.
China and Poland as a Platform for Architects
Comparitively, China and Poland have created remarkably different platforms for international architects to showcase their designs.
In Poland, the pending court case against Kerez could trigger a freeze on designing across the country by international architects.
China, on the other hand, boasting super-fast urbanization and the world’s second biggest economy, “has become a melting pot for the international architectural scene,” Kerez says.
“Buildings like the CCTV Tower and the Bird’s Nest [National Stadium in Beijing] have introduced a new scale in the work of well-known architects Rem Koolhaas and Herzog and de Meuron,” he explains.
“Whether foreigners will in the future keep a small but distinctive place in the gigantic adventure of Chinese urbanization will depend on how much individual architects engage with specific Chinese conditions not only in terms of building, but also in terms of designing,” he says. “China is beyond any comparison.”