Exposing Yourself to New Circumstances / Nicolas Turchi

On August 10th, 2019 we had a cool and interesting conversation with Jenny Wu.

Nicolas Turchi is a designer currently working at Zaha Hadid Architects and a Digital Futures PhD scholar at Tongji University. Nicholas holds a Master in Architecture II from the Harvard Graduate School of Design and a Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Bologna and University of West of England. He has worked for several firms including Eisenman Architect, Xefirotarch, Mario Cucinella Architects and 5+1AA. Nicolas is particularly interested in emergent technologies and how they affect the theoretical aspect of the discipline. He has also been studying the relationship between architecture and philosophy and graduated with a thesis on Time and Space in architecture, influenced by the thought of Henri Bergson and Edmund Husserl.


For today’s episode we will be talking to Nicolas Turchi about why it is so important for him to expose himself to new circumstances, new cultures, new places, new ideologies, new everything in order to stay ahead. We talk about his different backgrounds, from Italy, to London, to the United States, and to London again… We talk about why he loves working at Zaha Hadid Architects, and he gives us some insights into his thesis project and life long obsession, time and architecture and specifically why he believes that architects must bring something from outside of the discipline, to have a more well-rounded profession. We also talk at great lengths about how parametricism is becoming a new norm, but how we as designers should always stay above that term, and not let the computer design for us nor have parametric designs for the sake of being innovative, but using parametric workflows to be more efficient and have better performance. Really interesting conversation, I am really excited about it, hope you all enjoy! Let the talk begin...

Questions:

1. Tell me a little bit about your journey through architecture school and now finding yourself working at Zaha Hadid Architects. You have lived in many different places, and studied at different schools, and worked at different offices. Tell me about that experience.

2. The central theme of your research is time — how has this research shaped you into the person you are today?

3. How do you apply the concept of time into the disciplines of parametric design and computation?

4. Do you believe you are an interdisciplinary designer? And what does that mean to you?

5. How can working into different realms, between architecture and something outside the discipline, help designers understand architecture better?

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1. Is the parametric design complex or is it just a myth?

2. How did you start parametric design?

3. What advice would you give to someone wanting to start learning parametric design?

4. Why did you go into Harvard? And how was your experience? Would you recommend anyone looking to do a postgraduate degree to apply there?

5. (in parametric design) Is the concept and idea creation phase random?

6. Explain futurism 2.0 from your works

7. Is computational design beneficial to a particular country? Or does it bring benefits to all?

8. Advice for thesis students

9. What material do you prefer in construction?

10. What is your experience at Zaha Hadid Architects?

11. Where do you see yourself next? What are your future goals?

Listen on:


Interview Transcript:

M: Hi Nicolas!


N: Hi Maria


M: How are you? It’s so nice to finally meet you. Actually, you know what I remember? That you were one of the first to follow us in the beginning. You were one of the first followers. I remember always seeing your name.


N: (Laughs) This is great. Yeah, I love the content of your page and I’m glad to be here today, I’m happy you invited me to join.


M: Thank you. Alright, so tell me a little bit about yourself, you’ve been to a lot of places. University-wise, you went to the University of Bologna, then you went to Harvard. Right? And now you’re working at Zaha Hadid Architects, but you’ve worked with other architects in the past as well, right?


N: Yeah, that’s correct. I would say that I just concluded… Well actually, let me correct this, I have not concluded that educational period, as I’m still in that first part of the career, although I just graduated from Harvard as you mentioned. I always try to look at this period of my life as a period of exposure in every sense. That’s the reason why I travel around, I travel a lot trying to get exposure to different cultures. Get exposure of different methods in working in a practice and that’s why I’ve worked in several practices, perhaps like Hernan Diaz Alonso or Eisenman. 


M: Oh really? You worked there? 


N: Yeah yeah, I briefly worked there and it was great because it felt like a boutique-practice experience where you have a one-on-one experience with the principal. But at the same time it is true, I try to combine that experience with a different one. The place I’m working right now at Zaha is about 350 people, 400 in total. It feels a lot like a big company. So I’m at the period of my life where I try to mix up different experiences and trying to get the most out of them. Also trying to understand what I like, what fits me and what does not. This is also true for education I would say, because I come from a very weird background I guess… I started in art school when I was super young, in my teenage years. And then I decided to do architecture and studied at the University of Bologna as you said before. Which was a very good school in terms of giving you strong bases in the discipline but on the other hand it was a very conservative school. So I was lucky enough to have some kind of critical reasoning coming from before because then I was able to say that after 5 years I wanted to see something else, and then I applied to the United States to other schools.


I ended up going to Harvard which was great, but I would say that the most important thing was getting there with a pattern in education and with some scope. I already had clear in mind the research that I wanted to pursue and the program I did M.Arch II gave me enough flexibility to pursue my own curriculum and to follow my interests already. So I think that was the most important part. It wasn’t only because of the University of Bologna, it wasn’t because of Harvard, it was because of building all these experiences. And of course when I was in Bologna they were very long 5 years. (Laughs).


Like once in a while I’d interrumpt them with very different experiences, like I studied at the University of the West of England which was very interesting. Coming from a one way of thinking architecture and trying to open up my mind and getting exposure, that’s what it was all to me. I really believe in the first part of your life is to absorb and then there is a moment when you feel that you can finally give back something. 


M: What made you decided that you wanted to go to the United States?


N: Well, that came with time. And the experience I had with Eisenman, who is both a practitioner and an educator, exposed me to that world. The US way of teaching is way more open minded than the one I was used to back in Europe, specifically in Italy. So, I said yes. Italian Universities are very valid regarding the history of architecture, but I wanted the freedom to explore a bit more. And you’ll know I’m not one of those people that say “freedom for the sake of freedom.” And Harvard was the perfect platform to begin my own research.

M: Yeah.. I like how you talk about your life as stating that the first years of life are the ones that should give you the freedom to explore the options around you. That’s why you went to the universities, moved to the US and now you’re in London. It’s almost as if you can make any mistakes, and it’s okay because you will learn from those mistakes anyway. And I have realized that a lot of designers are very stuck on “You know, I have to go to school, then I have to work and then be rich in like a second.” So, it’s that possibility of exploring… Because perhaps what you want to do is not really what you will end up doing for the rest of your life.


N: Yeah absolutely true. I think that if I was ever to go back I would do almost all I did in terms of education. I say “I spent 5 years in a very conservative school,” but looking back, that was really important at some point, to trigger something in me and make me realize that I needed to see more and that experience in the U.S. as well.


M: Mhm, yeah… Tell me more about the research you’re doing now. You mentioned it was related to time, and to Henri Bergson. Tell me who Henri Bergson is and what the research is about.


N: So, time has always been a theme that I’ve been obsessed with. And it is true that everything started in a way with Henri bergson. I mean this french philosopher that I got in touch when I finished my undergrad stories, so he became a part of my final thesis in a very natural way. At that time I was working in this museum of mobility and transportation -- One thing that I like to do often is, if I have a brief or a hint from the context, I try to absorb these hints and put them together. I start to wonder in between. So the idea there came with the basic idea of mobility. It was a mobility and transportation museum, so I thought of the idea of movement and deconstruct it into components; movement is basically a change through space within time. And then Bergson came to my mind, at the same time, I was reading one of his books. His idea of time was in contrast with Newton’s time.


He was trying to oppose the idea with a duality in time. On one hand you have the mathematical aspect which is rational and built by humans. And on the other hand you have the subjective aspect of that. The one he calls “time of consciousness.” So those two components became the major things regarding my project… I wanted to play with these two things, give them a shape, a language, and let the user experience it. Then I felt myself get absorbed by this notion of time.


Lately, we have seen architects move toward a more experiential architecture. I tend to refer to many, many times to Gideon, who was first to embed the question of time and not getting detach from it. After that, many times we see many practices that work with temporary architecture: pavilions, installations… There is so much evidence of this big shift. I can think of Greg Lynn, Bernard Tschumi… These are people that are addicted to interdisciplinarity. They have different passiones, they have something from outside of the discipline and they bring it into architecture in order to enrich it. And that’s another aspect that to me is super important. I’ve always been interested in philosophy, physics, and other disciplines as well as architecture. Architecture is my first passion and obsession but I cannot help bring in different fields into it.


M: Right, so you think that a successful architect and designer is the one that is able to bring things that are not really related to architecture per-se, like psychology, philosophy, etc… And bring it into the field to make the experience for the user better?


N: I wouldn’t say you need to do that in order to be a good designer. There are many designers that perhaps unconsciously they imbed something, They don’t really recognize that but they do. It is something very tough to keep aside because you devote yourself 100% to the discipline and it is very difficult to keep it with you. But I would say it is my approach. In my approach there is almost no distinction between the architect and who I am. I cannot design something if I don’t feel it myself. I would feel in contradiction with myself and couldn’t defend the project. To me, being an interdisciplinary designer is to bring fresh air to the discipline. To include interests and passions that otherwise would be left apart, and that’s absolutely an enriching moment. Turning what you love into what you do and vice-versa. I think it is my approach, I defend it but never impose it.


M: I think that most architects do it, but it is very hard to do when you have an office. TO be focused on research and on top of that, to be focused on the architecture portion. It’s almost like OMA, that has AMO, which gives research, analysis, and information to the architecture office. I think it is a very beautiful to understand architecture.

N: Yeah, I totally agree. In the practical world it is very difficult sometimes. But at the same time I would say that we are living in a world that is offering many opportunities. We are asked to find out new creative ways to respond to many issues that are raising at the moment which we have never done before. There is almost this question of “how can we be creative and still be practical?” And interdisciplinarity is one of the answers.


M: I mean, the thing is that in practical offices is very hard because you have yourself wanting to be creative and the client wanting practicality.


N: Yeah that’s true. Although I might say that, and I don’t know if the fact that I’m working for Zaha Hadid Architects, but we have to deal with clients who are actually looking for originality. I mean maybe the fact that they were approaching Zaha Hadid Architects put them in a certain mood. (Laughs) They are willing to spend money on a new approach, but yeah… I’ve seen some clients very interested in “what are you adding? Why am I choosing you? How are you bringing fresh air?” And eventually this is the best value you can bring into society. But I guess it does depend on the situation.


M: Okay, so let’s talk a little about… How in the design community you have done workshops for computational design. How do you feel about parametric design? Do you work on it for Zaha Hadid Architects and is this a part of your research as well?


N: (Laughs) That’s a very dangerous question to ask… (Laughs). I mean, I know what Patrik feels about parametricism… And this is how he would talk about it… To me… I always consider the computer, computation and parametric approach are just ways of working. I don’t see the final goals of having a fully parametric project. These tools are a big revolution for the field… I was listening to Arturo’s podcast as well, it is a tool, and it really depends on how you use it. I would discourage anyone getting into parametric design just because they want to design a cool pavilion with openings that change. That’s not the point to me, that’s on the practical side. You need to have in mind your personal agenda, why you’re using the tool. To me that is way more important.


All the workshops I have taught so far somehow all have to do with time. I use parametric… Well I wouldn’t say parametricism, I would just say parametric workflow… Which is something that allows you to go back to tweak certain components, get different results, optimize… But I would say that parametricism is all about adaptiveness… About going back, fix and correct mistakes during the process, which I think was not part of modernism. Which I think is an evolution in a way. If something that I do kind of resembles parametric features it isn’t because I’m trying to be parametric, but because I try parametric workflows. In a way it is a parametric approach but to me it isn’t the main point. I find it interesting how many of these new tools and new softwares all come from different fields, they are not for architects.


M: Right, like for video games, like unreal and so on…


N: Yeah, absolutely… VR/AR… Gaming technologies, movie industry, Maya… All come from other industries and I find it compelling that architects are willing to explore with them.The crucial message to me is that they shouldn’t drive your agenda. I started to work with Maya because I was interested in time. I didn’t learn Maya because I wanted to learn some Zaha-ish stuff. (Laughs).

M: Right, and I was gonna say that it is one of the mistakes that a lot of designers make when they refer to the parametricism that we see today that is only about cool forms. But as you’re explaining it, parametric workflows is about making the design better, tweaking, re-taking it on the computer with the software. And it doesn’t mean that you’re just doing a cool form, it means that you’re giving information to the design process and the idea.


N: I agree, yeah absolutely.


M: There was a question that they asked on instagram which I thought was very interesting… “In parametric design, is the concept and idea creation random? Do you control that?” And I know what your answer is going to be but let’s answer that.


N: Well, I think that I already partially answered that with the question from before. (Laughs). With my strong statement from before… But absolutely it is not random. I am completely against any random solution. I feel that sometimes within the playground you’re allowed to be playful… You’re learning a software and that’s fine… But when it comes to architecture with a capital A, we cannot be playing around with software. As I said before, if you have a specific agenda or you’re building it up, the software becomes the tool and a way of informing the agenda. But it is not random at all.


M: Do you believe that parametric process of designing make it easier or more complex for the designer?


N: Well it depends how we define complexity. One of the values of parametric design is to work toward optimization. Even in practice, adapting a parametric workflows… You can really benefit from it. It could save your life. It’s not about making design complex or less complex.


M: What has been your experience working at Zaha Hadid Architects? A lot of people are wondering what it is like to work at such a big firm like this one, with different locations. I know you already said that it is almost corporate, with over 400 employees…


N: Well, I’ve been working there for almost 1 year. I am still pretty new to the company but one of the great aspects of that is… It is almost like being in a corporate, but you can still feel Zaha’s signature. It keeps a way of thinking, a way of operating, which I really like. I feel like I found the place where this in-between extends out. I find myself working at several competitions… And for sure Zaha Hadid Architects knows what its strengths are. And they’re getting stronger and stronger after what happened, which is really meaningful. But they know how to run a practice, keeping a certain aesthetic and certain rules. Working there is enjoyable in that sense, you feel a part of it. 


M: Okay, last question… Do you have any advice for students right now? Let’s say… How should they move about getting a degree… Going into these firms… Depending on your experiences.


N: I like this question because it is kind of closing the circle with the first one… Since as I said before, I would do exactly what I did. I would advise everyone to follow what they feel, what they think and at the same time to be humble and expose themselves to the unexpected. Trying different experiences… Even if they think “I’m a parametric guy…” But keep in mind that architecture is not only parametricism, there are many other topics to explore. I would consider many aspects for schools, not the best school at the moment but what is the best school for you. What are you really looking for? Build an educational path that works for you and for the person you are. Because there is no worse thing than doing what you feel you should be doing. To me that’s the worse case scenario. You’re building yourself, it will be the best part of your life. WHile you’re growing! 


M: Have you encountered a lot of competition in the places you’ve been to?


N: For sure, but I always say that… Even here it is really surprising. I’ve actually found a lot of competition back home in Italy than at Harvard. That’s something I always talk about. I found a sharing attitude in Harvard which was great. I immediately fell in love with it. Perhaps being in an isolated school in Italy that mostly not many people know creates competitiveness… Again, trying to expose yourself to many cultures is very important.


M: Thank you! And thank you for redefining what parametricism is about. It is very interesting and definitely the real way of looking at it.


N: Thank you, it was a great conversation.