Alessandra Orlandoni – It’s just like Matrix Reloaded; I opened the door and found myself in a different world. There’s a red laser in the toilet…
Ron Arad – When it’s occupied, everybody knows because the red light is on. So we avoid going to the toilet.
A.O. – Of course. You were born in Israel and moved to London to study at the Architectural Association in the early seventies. Your teachers were Bernard Tschumi and Peter Cook. One of your fellow students was Zaha Hadid. Why did you choose London and the A.A.?
R.A. – Should I give you an answer?
A.O. – Well, yes. I suppose. We are doing an interview: I ask questions and you give me answers. That’s how it works, generally…
R.A. - I don’t know, honestly. I don’t know. Young people move and travel. Wherever else in the world? The A.A. was considered the best school of architecture in the world. We always choose the best, of course – Isn’t the music too loud? Please switch the music off! – Whether that was true or not, we’ll never know. That was how it was considered.
A.O. – Do you think that ambience helped you to increase your talent? Did it influence your career?
R.A. – I only have one life, and I cannot compare it with any other possible life. I can’t imagine if I had gone to Milan and met Achille Castiglioni or Enzo Mari, for instance, what would have happened. Or if I had gone to the USA…I don’t know. I think I met the people I met and I did what I did and that’s it.
A.O. – Did you already have any idea about your future as an architect? Have you accomplished what you set out to do?
R.A. – You can only be in one place at one time, right? So I didn’t make a proper decision. I found myself here and I developed here. If you now look at all of that, so it was very good.
A.O. – Let’s speak about Upperworld Hotel, your ambitious project inside Battersea Power Station, a 44-room boutique Hotel…
R.A. – Yes, Upperworld Hotel was shown in the Venice Biennale. Have you seen it? Let’s show you the video, look at it. You know the building, right?
A.O. – Yes, it’s a heritage building designed by Sir Gilbert Scott, popularly called the “Pink Floyd Building”. Actually it is the subject of an important redevelopment project by the company Parkview International that involved Nicholas Grimshaw and UN Studio as well.
R.A. – Exactly. The pig was here and me too. It’s a very long building, almost 200m in length. The Hotel goes side to side from level 49 up to level 65 and is 10.000sqm. The rooms are outside the main sides, between the “circulation tube” and the “garden tube”. This double backbone links two hubs containing restaurants and other facilities. Internal structures are in Corian® and the roof, walls and underbelly of the hubs are a single monocoque structure in red composite. Different activities will take place in the void, like fashion weeks, art fairs, theatre festivals and so on. It will be a very expensive hotel, the most expensive in London! A set of transparent horizontal lifts, a sort of shuttle, connects rooms, which are 150sqm two-storey apartments. You can lie in the bedroom and look up through the transparent bathroom to the sky and open the roof shutter just touching a button.
A.O. – Wow, the future is here. Why do you want roofs to be opened?
R.A. – To let rain come in. It is a pleasure to let rain come into the bathroom, isn’t it?
A.O. – A natural optional made possible thanks to technology. Battersea Power Station was a luxury building and it will become an iconic mix of luxury contrasts. This is the most high profile and largest project you have ever done, isn’t it? Do you think the project will be finished by 2008, as planned?
R.A. – It is. Well, every project has its ups and downs. We never know how long it will take to finish a building especially when it is a challenge, an experimental project. We should be able to take risks and trust that what we do will become real soon. Fortunately Parkview International does take that risk.
A.O. – A long time ago your “concrete hi-fi” really impressed me. Published in Modo in the early eighties, it was the first of your projects I had ever seen, and it made me reflect a lot about what design should be and about innovative use of materials. That was when I became enthralled by the British approach. It seemed to me a step ahead of radical theories. Working with Stefano Giovannoni on King Kong Production projects, we used anomalous materials to create objects and interiors that couldn’t be made by industry at that time.
Do you think that to have a vision is fundamental to bringing about the future?
R.A. – Living in London rather than in Milan maybe made the difference for me. If I were in Milan I would probably have gone for some industrial design. In London there was nothing and I had to invent my profession. I didn’t want to work for other architects and I did things I could do by myself using existing materials.
A.O. – It didn’t have to do with recycling, as many people still think. It was ready-made design.
R.A. – Exactly.
A.O. – The Rover chair is probably the main example. Then you did furniture pieces made from stainless steel, like Well Tempered Chair, and New Orleans armchair. Over the years your experimental, self-made projects have “softened”, becoming prototypes for industrial products. Is the same thing happening with your architecture?
R.A. – I didn’t have to convince anyone to do them: objects were real and people could see them, sit on them and touch them. Industrial interest in my work started from there.
Unfortunately with architecture you can’t just initiate it, it has to be commissioned. You have to find somebody who is convinced about giving you millions of pounds for a project. Most people want an easy life; they don’t want to take risks with architecture. So the process is different but the approach is the same. My approach to architecture is the same as with any project. There is the same playfulness, the same happiness, and the same experimentalism. I think that I am a very difficult architect to enclose, I don’t subscribe to any trends. I just do what I like to do.
A.O. – You are well known as a designer, even if it is difficult to hang a label on you. You’re now properly moving towards architecture. How did it happen?
R.A. – That happened to Frank Ghery too. There wasn’t a turning point. It was a continuum.
A.O. - Are there dividing lines between design and architecture?
R.A. - What is the difference? Is there a difference between designing objects and buildings? I’ve never made any distinction between the one and the other.
I studied architecture and I chose not to work for another maestro when I graduated. When you start working you just do what you can do. I never waited for somebody to ask me to do things. I started doing what I did by myself and then I was asked to design the Tel Aviv Opera House.
A.O. – What about the use of new materials and new technologies? Your collaboration with Corian® DuPontTM shows once more you’re keen on innovation…
R.A. – I always try to invent something that didn’t exist before. When DuPontTM asked me to do a project I used Corian® in a way they hadn’t thought of before. I did 3-dimensional thermoformed curved walls, obtained by a special manufacturing process. I combined white Corian®, which below a certain thickness becomes translucent, with fibre optics to enhance translucency and do something that to my knowledge no one has done before, as shown in the Biennale.
A.O. – It doesn’t seem you like speaking much about your work. Do you prefer to show animations and pictures and look at your interlocutor’s reactions. In other words, projects shouldn’t need words?
R.A. – It depends. I am a difficult, hard man. Who said that speaking a lot is better than speaking very little?
The little I’m saying to you now is probably better then the lot that someone else has told you.
A.O. –Sounds like the differences between baroque spaces and conceptual ones. Lucio Fontana said a lot just doing a cut.
R.A. – Exactly, we are in agreement.
A.O. – The room you did in the Italian pavilion in Venice, Lo-rez-dolores-tabula rasa, is a metaphor on dematerialization. It’s about designing the immaterial. Did you want walls to look like giant screens?
R.A. - I wouldn’t describe it as a screen that reflects light projected onto it. The film here is inside the material. Have you ever seen anything like that? I hadn’t, honestly. I am always interested in doing things that didn’t exist before. I wanted to implant moving images in a material that was translucent. I had a very stupid idea for this work because it is based on slavery: someone had to put each optical fibre in its address and the results are completely low-resolution images… Why change something that could have been a nice projection into something with low resolution? Totally idiotic but still wonderful.
A.O. – Of course the aim wasn’t about providing a wonderful projection but about improving the possibilities and functions of new technological materials
R.A. – Anyway, we had no choice. It was the only way to do it and the only possible effect. Do you remember this project, the Millennium House, presented at the Venice Biennale in 2002? It is a low-resolution floor. I did the sound as well.
A.O. – Do you consider sound a fundamental part of this project?
R.A. – Music is essential for me because I like it, I am interested in it. Fundamental is whatever we like. Did you see this? Lolita. You could send text messages to it. Did you sent a message?
A.O. – No, honestly, my mobile was out of batteries… I found it absolutely different from previous Swarovsky projects. Chandeliers are considered decorative objects and designers concentrated on re-shaping them. This project is a metaphor for mutation: lighting it up, sms’s continuously modify it. Somehow the project exists if someone interacts with the object. Communication is the project. What about Italian contemporary design?
R.A. – Italian design is fantastic, the best in the world. It comes from an exceptional tradition in manufacturing. I consider myself an Italian designer because I work with Italian factories. Before Italy, the best design was Scandinavian, which was very good but it didn’t develop. I think that the education system in Italy is not so good; it needs to renew itself. You saw the exhibition of my students at RCA yesterday. Is it different from Italy?
A.O. – Yes, at least it is different from Florence where I teach and where for years the situation has been a boring formal imitation process. Except for Remo Buti, who has always encouraged a research attitude. I was struck by his playful attitude, experimentalism, and conceptual research on any question of style. Of course London is different from any Italian town. It is a continuously changing place filled with stimulus. Will it become the capital of design?
R.A. - Milan is still the world capital of design. But where are the young Italian maestros?
December 9th 2004, 3.00 PM, Chalk Farm, London