Interview: Enrique Norten
By Morten Wilhelm Scholz
Founded in Mexico City in 1986, TEN Arquitectos (Taller de Enrique Norten Arquitectos) reached international status in 2003, when they opened their New York office. Since then, TEN Arquitectos has grown to employ over 70 people, working on a diverse array of award-winning and critically acclaimed projects.
TEN Arquitectos engages a multitude of scales and typologies, ranging from furniture design, single-family houses and cultural buildings to landscape and master planning. We sat down with Enrique Norten for a talk about his recent projects and general approach to architecture at the New York office of TEN Arquitectos.
Morten Wilhelm Scholz: Mr. Norten, thank you for agreeing to talk to us today. First, let me congratulate you on your recent project, the Hotel Americano. Lovely project.
Enrique Norten: Thank you.
MWS: Could you start by telling us a little about your design process? How do you develop a design? Do you come up with an idea in the shower, or are you making a doodle on a napkin?
EN: You know, that’s a very big question. I believe that every case in architecture is a unique case. And they all have very different preconditions. So therefore, I don’t think there is a formula or one absolute approach. Basically, it takes us quite a while every time to understand what the issues are. We spend a lot of time just trying to get to know what a project is about. It’s not enough to know the challenges of the project. In reality, there are so many layers of information that start coming together. So, what we try to do is to spend some time, as much time as we can to try to understand all of the different issues and all of the different layers of information, and then try to bring all of the layers together. Then somehow, almost in a natural way, by sitting together, by discussing, we are able to put ideas on paper.
By that I mean, it is usually me and a close team. The size of the team depends on the project, of course, but it could be me and one other person, it could be me and three other people – but everyone are listened to, everyone are involved in the sketching process. I’ve always believed that my role is more the role of the director, you know, bringing together all of these different talents and understandings together and I try to be able to lead us on the path we need to follow. So, from the very beginning, I sketch with my team, I work with my team, I try to listen and define what are the most important questions that we need to ask. It’s like that with every project. From there, it starts going in very different directions. Very soon we start sketching and making small models around the office in order to understand not only the scale but also the articulation of the different opportunities that is present. Little by little, we start accumulating what I would call a baggage of knowledge about the project, which simultaneously starts being transformed into form and space. And that will of course take a certain amount of time.
MWS: So, you don’t figure everything out in your head, it’s a process that starts with you and your team sketching and making models?
EN: Absolutely. It’s a process and a lot of it is trial and error. You must try to understand the conditions before you can develop your vision. It is not, as you say, a magical inspiration. It’s not a doodle on a napkin. It’s a lot of work.
MWS: And you’re the director, as you say?
EN: I believe architecture is a group effort. I don’t believe in the Renaissance Man, or the Renaissance Architect. I don’t think he can exist in our time, because our times are way too complex. I think it’s more about the instinct of the people involved. I do need to take a lot of leadership, take responsibility and bring the team together and steer it in a certain direction.
MWS: So how do you set your team? Do you try to get people with as many different sets of skills and mindsets as possible?
EN: Depends on the project, obviously. But yes, that is my prerogative and in that respect you could say I’m acting also as the technical director of a soccer team, choosing who is going to be the goalkeeper and whether or not I need more midfielders or more forwarders. Deciding exactly what team I need for a certain project. And then, of course, there’s also the pragmatics. The matter of who is available. You know, we have 18 people here, working with us here [in New York], and we have 16 people working in Mexico. But still, everybody is busy, everybody is doing something. So one thing is, who can I bring into this project, and the other one is, I really need him or her, because I need his or her vision in a certain project and his or her capacities. So, it’s about putting the right team together, just as the soccer coach. You play here, you play here; I need to move you from here to there.
MWS: Bjarke Ingels has said that he never walks into a meeting without something physical to talk about, because it gets too abstract if you just have to talk about ideas. You have to talk about something concrete in order to communicate the ideas behind a project. Do you agree with that?
EN: I agree completely. I know that I cannot describe architecture with words alone. Because what I say might mean something completely different to you and that will only lead to misunderstandings. So yes, whenever I go to meetings, I always come with a model, I come with drawings, I come with something that can pin us all together and focus us in a certain direction. So I agree completely.
MWS: What are you trying to achieve with your architecture? What is your philosophical approach?
EN: Well, that is a big question. It can also be very abstract. Ultimately, architecture is some kind of manifestation of time and space. Architecture is very site-specific, but it is also very time-specific. You always want to have architecture that represents our time, you know – it is also our responsibility. But you always want to have architecture that represents the place it is built, as well. Within all of that, there are obviously issues that are important to all of us. We could talk about so many issues, because every project brings in different issues related to architecture. Of course there are many issues related to many other things: we could talk about politics within a certain project, we could talk about economics, we could talk about sociology, we could even talk about education. At the moment we are discussing a project, a casino, that brings together entertainment with all kinds of urban issues – so, we could even talk about the morals of gaming. We don’t want to do that, since we don’t feel that that’s the most interesting aspect of the project, but you know, if we wanted, we could.
Every project brings in such a variety of issues. But there are certain issues that are recurring in our projects. For example, I am personally very interested in the architecture of the city. I believe that with architecture, you don’t just build buildings, you decide cities, you decide places. Aside from your own buildings it is also about understanding public space, it is about understanding urbanity. Today, more than half of the population lives in urban conditions, and we are definitely moving more and more into a sort of communal living. To me that is an issue that is always very important.
I have never in my life designed a building for just one person, it is always about a kind of community. It is always a way of creating space or creating form that has to do with the lives of more than one person. The moment there is more than one person – even if you’re just designing a house for two – it’s about a community. When we are dealing with urban issues, with issues of the city, that’s a thing that has always interested me, you know the relationship between the reactions of people, in the dynamics of a community in architecture.
MWS: So, you’re interested in the urban environment?
EN: Well, I call it urban, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. It’s not necessarily New York or Copenhagen, but it is this relationship between communities in architecture. It is still about understanding the contemporary urban life. You know, there could be other borders between architecture and nature – nature doesn’t need to be understood as the beautiful campaña, you know, it could just as well be the built environment. Architecture and community, architecture and nature… these things are very interesting to me. And obviously, there is the issue of sustainability. Maybe it has gotten a little bit too much attention, but it does contain many interesting aspects. Very often, when people talk about sustainability, it gets less and less interesting after a while. It is only as you understand that sustainability is not only an issue related to the physical environment alone, but also a term related to economics, it is also a term related to politics, it is also a term related to relationships. As you understand that it is a term that really brings together a lot of issues, only then it becomes really interesting. What is architecture and what is architecture as a sustainable effort?
MWS: There should really be invented a new vocabulary to discuss these issues.
EN: Yes, exactly. We should start defining what is really interesting about all of these issues. As I said before, I’m very interested in architecture and landscape. When I say landscape, I don’t mean the landscape as in nature but also the built environment and how architecture relates to everything, we think is not architecture. How architecture becomes a part of our context – not just the physical, but also the cultural context. So to me all of these issues are questions that are raised constantly in every project.
MWS: You could argue that architecture is the only artform that you cannot escape. You can choose not go to the movies, if you don’t care about the movies; you can stay out of museums, if you don’t care for art, but you can never escape architecture.
EN: Exactly. Even if you are isolated some place in the middle of Africa, where there’s absolutely nothing and you are the first person to be there, then, by your presence, you’re creating architecture. You know, the moment you are habitating a place, that is the first moment of architecture. By creating a relationship with that first tree, or that stone, you are creating an architectural experience or an architectural moment. Without building anything, without touching anything. And by confronting yourself with other objects or other physical conditions of a place. That’s what architecture is really about. By you being present there, you are creating an architectural condition.
MWS: Do you see your architecture as being context-driven or concept-driven?
EN: I think it’s both. I think the place is very important – if we can call the contextual condition the place – I think it is very strong, you know, depending on the project. Obviously, some projects can be more conceptual than others, depending on many things. You know, I would say that there are very, very pragmatic projects that we all get involved with. For example, we are now developing a system of very low-cost housing, so that’s a very pragmatic project. It is very difficult to be conceptual, unless it’s conceptual of economics, conceptual of efficiencies – but it is not what we would consider, in art, conceptual. It is not about abstract ideas. So in the sort of work, we are calling conceptual, I’m thinking of the very pragmatic side of the praxis, no? We are developing a little prototype for building, it’s a kit of parts, that can be assembled in different public spaces of New York City. Each one of those places are different, with a different culture, different physically – but they are all parts, all parts with different scales, with different dimensions and with different expressions. The client did not know what they needed, so we told them, “We need to have sort of a kit of parts that can give you a continuity, that can provide a very different solution for every specific place. So that’s an example where the concept comes first.
MWS: Are you trying to make buildings in an easily recognizable style or do you want each project to appear in a completely new way? What is most important to you?
EN: It’s an interesting question and it’s a question we all discuss. It’s very easy to say, “We would like to invent something new every time, we have the opportunity to do so”. But that doesn’t happen. Obviously, there are some of my colleagues, some other offices that chose to be incredibly repetitive, and it’s probably completely involuntary. You know, when you need or you happen to start repeating yourself, that becomes a problem. I’ve been practicing architecture for 30 years, and with time what happens – without even intending it – you start to develop a vocabulary. A formal vocabulary and an architectural vocabulary. You know, there are certain materials, certain buildings, certain solutions that you start to get comfortable with. And even if you change that, you don’t change the gist of what you have already learned. That’s why many, many of us develop a vocabulary that you can identify.
MWS: So, you start developing different versions of the same language?
EN: Yes, you try to bring in new influences, new information. Both the clients and everyone that plays a part in the project also informs the project. And you try to be permeable, but obviously, you know, the more you have done, the more comfortable you feel within certain styles. If I think of my colleagues, there’re some – of course, I will not name any names – that tend to become very repetitive. You might think they’ve stopped making an effort. And then there are others that are much more focused on being able to invent and reinvent themselves – even within their own vocabulary.
MWS: So, in trying to prevent repeating yourself, do you sometimes choose a project that’s different from your other projects? Do you force yourself to move a little bit out of your comfort zone?
EN: You know, I think practices like ours are very lucky in the way that we don’t get easily put into a drawer. There are many practices in the world, where you say, “Oh, that’s a practice that only does those projects – and they are great at that”. You know, I have friends of mine, where people will always say, “They do the best beach houses”. When those things happen to you as an architect, you are dead. Because you have no choice than to start repeating yourself, because people start seeking you out with certain expectations. I always say that basically, architecture distinguishes itself from other creative disciplines by the fact that we need a commission. We don’t wake up like the music composer every morning with a clean piece of paper and write a symphony, we don’t have that luxury. We basically are commissioned to do something. Nobody, regardless of how important they are, get to choose what they want to build. So, obviously, we would love to have every time the opportunity to invent something new, but it is not always possible.
MWS: Architecture will never start on a blank page. You will always stand on the shoulders of someone else. Do you ever in your practice reflect on that? I guess you’re also copying your heroes?
EN: I think we all have reflected a lot on that. I don’t think anyone of us are simply copying, but we live in world where information is so available, you know, we all suck in information. It’s either arcspace, magazines or lectures. You’re just so exposed to information. And it’s the same thing, that information somehow permeates in your creative soul, you never know how. Every time you’re working, first of all you use references. Because that’s why we travel, that’s why we read. To learn. But that doesn’t mean that we’re copying that building. We may be interested in a certain solution, a certain process of thinking, and you try sometimes to refer to those conditions that you have learned. I don’t see that as copying or not copying, it’s just that we live in a very global world, where everybody – everyone of us – are learning from everybody else.
MWS: Exactly. You should really invent a new vocabulary, where you don’t talk about copying, in terms of copy versus original, but more along the lines of the architect as a director, as you said, or the football coach. What you can do as an office is basically picking and choosing between all the ideas floating around you – but by setting your teams in different ways with different people, you get new perspectives.
EN: Absolutely, and you use that information, you transform it. Yesterday, I was sitting looking at a project and I immediately said, “Listen, go look up this project of a colleague of mine and let’s see how he did this” – not necessarily to copy, but to learn.
MWS: It wouldn’t make sense to try and solve every single problem from scratch.
EN: No, and especially if you get your inspiration from people you admire, from people you respect. It doesn’t mean that other people will do exactly what I do, or that I will do exactly what a colleague of mine does. It’s just that we learn from each other. And I think that’s what’s truly great about our interconnected world.
MWS: Let me jump back to the vocabulary. Would you associate yours with any particular style? Modernism, Neo-Modernism?
EN: Well, you can call it whatever you want. [laughs] No, I’m kidding… I strongly believe that we are still living in modern times. I don’t believe that Modernism is finished, maybe certain aspects of it, you know, the beginning, the outbursts of that movement maybe are not the same today than they were 100 years ago, but I think there is a big pallet of elements that are still perfectly applicable. The tectonics of it. A lot of the issues that I’m interested in, you know, the purism of the modern thought, the lightness of the modern thought, the transparency of the modern thought, I think are still very strong within our contemporary society. Obviously, you don’t want to do the same building that Mies did in the 50s or the 60s, you know, but there still are some very valid principles there. So, when people call me a Modernist, I feel flattered.
MWS: Usually, it seems that people try to distance themselves from their influences. But I see you as someone who accepts their inheritance, someone who accepts working within the modern paradigm.
EN: I feel very confident doing so, yes. You know, you don’t reinvent the wheel every day, it’s a slow progression. I don’t think there is going to be a big revolution as there was, you know, when we started using steel and glass 120 years ago. I don’t think we will experience any such huge revolutions within our lifetime – at least not within architecture – but we are living in world of communications today and many of the situations that we are facing are smaller, but no less important revolutions. I think we are still a part of the modern revolution.
MWS: Let’s conclude by talking about some of the projects you have been working on lately. You mentioned a low-cost housing project?
EN: Sure. Yes, it’s in my home country Mexico. In recent years there has been a need of inexpensive subsidized housing. The developers have built inexpensive housing complexes, where the buyers, typically workers, have the opportunity to buy their unit and pay for it within a certain time. Meanwhile, two things have happened in the cities: land prices have become very high and the housing market has become increasingly complicated by bureaucracy. So, the easy way for the developers to do housing projects was to buy small parcels of land and build small housing units in the thousands. This way, it was easy to get permits and it was cheap to build.
Now, what has happened is that even though there’s a need for 7-or-so million low-cost units in Mexico, 5 million of the existing units have been abandoned. Basically, nobody wanted to live there, because you need to travel several hours from the city to get there. And there’s nothing else around. Which means that there’s no quality of life, plus there’s no identity, no personality. You have probably seen how in really emerging economies – I’ve seen it in Caracas, in São Paolo, I’ve seen it in Africa, I’ve seen it in Cuba – people have started to occupy, illegally occupy, abandoned structures. Even though they don’t own the building they live there – it’s the only way for them to live in the city. You know, they see some abandoned structure and they just invade it and create their own self-built housing units within that structure.
So, what we’re working on with a group of people, is to say, why can’t these structures be seen as infrastructure, and why can’t we try to to build them strategically in an urban context? It would be much cheaper for the city than all the roads and subways they would usually build to connect the city with the surrounding suburban development projects. We’re demonstrating that it is much cheaper in the long run to build on more expensive land – if the land is used 20 times. Build a structure and let the people that want to do so build their own unit within the system of those structures.
MWS: So, it’s a framework of high-rises and within it you can build your own unit?
EN: Yes, and then you have the opportunity to create a vertical infrastructure, instead of the traditional horizontal infrastructure that normally creates a myriad of problems, such as traffic, pollution, time consumption. You then hand over the structure to the people, who’d then have the opportunity to do what they want to do, the way they want to do it. And it can work on may scales – maybe young people can hire an architect to design the layout of their unit. So, in the same way that a city would create variety in a horizontal manner, you can do the same here within a vertical framework.
MWS: What you’re describing is not just happening in underdeveloped countries, however, it’s happening here in the US as well. I just read that for the first time there are more poor people living in the suburbs than in the cities. Especially in cities like Detroit struggling with a poor economy, the government is trying to get people to move back into the cities, because the quality of life is better there.
EN: I’m absolutely sure that’s true. We’re doing the project in Mexico, because we happened to get the opportunity to do it there. But at the same time, we are also doing museums. We’ve just started another museum in the Mexican city of Pueblo with a big park that is part of the urban realm. And within that park we have been asked to design a historical museum in one end and in the other, a historical archive, containing all the documents the state has accumulated over the last 600 years. It is an entire library of documents, the whole history of the country in document form. But we’re not just designing the buildings, we’re also designing a public space around them. The challenge is finding a way to reactivate the existing public space, the park, which has unfortunately fallen victim to drugs and prostitution. So, we’re trying to turn that area around by bringing culture in, bringing everything in: music, theater, cafés… you know, life.
MWS: In Denmark, we’re discussing this issue a lot, as well. There’s been a lot of development, within the last couple of decades, but we forgot to think about the public spaces. We just built beautiful buildings but they were solitary artworks in the city’s landscape. Nobody thought about the scale and the connection, so now we just have a lot of buildings but nobody’s around.
EN: When I told you in the beginning that I’m very interested in the city, that’s exactly what I was saying. It’s very interesting to me how architecture and the city become one. That was a big issue in the 60s and the 70s all around the world. We know now that just putting up buildings – whether they’re beautiful or not – will not change the quality of the life in the city for the better. Only for the worse: people cannot walk, people cannot occupy the city’s spaces. All buildings should have, I think, the responsibility, it should be committed to the creation of public spaces. If you go to Central Park or if you walk down 5th Avenue or you go to Union Square – that’s public space. It’s the space where all people – the richest, the poorest, the tallest, the shortest, the blackest, the whitest – everybody comes together. And that’s what makes a city. Without that it doesn’t matter how beautiful your buildings are.
MWS: Like Greenwich Village – everything is combined down there. You know, you have trade, you have living spaces, you have office spaces and it is all combined, and that makes you run into different kinds of people, and that’s the whole dynamic. If you separate all the functions and all the different sorts of life, you can live your entire life not running into somebody that’s different from yourself. Then you loose quality of a city.
EN: Yes, and it dies. I agree.
MWS: Mr. Norten, thank you very much for talking the time to talk to us today.
EN: It was my pleasure.