Challenging Parameters: Linna Choi on Working Across Paris and Morocco and Being Disobedient
By Julia Gamolina, cover portrait by Charlote Valode
Linna Choi is a co-founding Principal of OUALALOU + CHOI, an architecture and urban design practice with studios in Paris and Casablanca, and with current projects including a cultural center in the Latin Quarter of Paris, a high school in the African desert, and the design of a new city near Casablanca. Linna has also served as a visiting studio professor at the MIT School of Architecture and Planning, Rhode Island School of Design, Rice University, and the Università Iuav di Venezia School of Architecture.
Linna is the recipient of numerous design awards, including the Rice Design Alliance Spotlight Prize, In/Arch Award, WA Award, AR Emerging Architecture Award, and was named as one of the “100 Architects of the Year” by the Korean Institute of Architects. She recently co-authored a book entitled “Territories of Disobedience” which showcases the office’s work. Linna received a Master in Architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design and a Bachelor in Arts in Architecture from Yale University. In her conversation with Julia Gamolina, Linna talks about building a practice across France and Morocco, advising young architects to always challenge the given parameters of a situation or project.
How did your interest in architecture first develop?
I remember drawing plans for my dollhouses and filling notebooks with plans of schools and imaginary towns for my stuffed animals. My husband jokes that my continuing obsession with plan drawings was born at a ridiculously young age. Nobody in my family is an architect, and I remember the fascination I felt as a child upon seeing architectural drawings for the first time when my parents started to look for a new house. I passionately collected all those plans and elevations as if they were Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings - instead of photocopied drawings of very prosaic suburban homes!
What did you learn about yourself in architecture school?
I feel that my undergraduate years at Yale were more formative than my graduate studies at the GSD. At Yale, the study of architecture was within a complete liberal arts education that emphasized architecture’s integral links to art history, literature, science, etc. It’s easy to lose track of that inter-connectivity in graduate school, and the relentless focus on one subject can be stifling and uninspiring at times. For me, architecture only makes sense when it’s constantly dancing with other fields.
How did you get your start in the field?
I was extremely fortunate in that my first professional experience was under the guidance of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. After graduating from Yale, I lived with Bob and Denise in their house. They had a tradition of inviting one student to live in their house during the summers, and I was lucky enough to live with them and to interact and learn from them on a daily basis. After the summer, they asked me to stay on in Philadelphia to work at VSBA. Bob was even kind enough to give me a desk behind his at the office — he was the kindest, most nurturing mentor — and Denise would take me to meetings with her that interns certainly would never normally attend!
Seeing how Bob and Denise managed the intertwining of their personal and professional lives gave me a great example to follow in my own life. No matter how much or how fiercely they argued at the office, the moment that they stepped through the door at home, peace ensued.
When did you start your own practice?
Tarik and I actually started the office in 2000 while I was still at the GSD. We had been lucky enough to receive a couple of commissions for large interior projects in Paris, so I was working on those projects while simultaneously finishing my thesis.
We spent the summer after graduation overseeing the construction of those projects in Paris and we had intended to move to New York City in the fall, but then the attacks of September 11 occurred, and we found ourselves stranded in Paris because Tarik couldn’t manage to get a visa back to the U.S. That’s how we ended up establishing the office in Paris.
Wow. No one ever talks about this, but the professional world for those born abroad has a whole other layer of complexity - I’m affected by these things too. How did working in Morocco come about?
We started working on projects in Morocco right away because there was such an incredible burst of development there during that time and the scene was receptive to young architects. One of our early projects, the Museum of Volubilis, garnered a lot of attention and led to numerous other cultural projects.
In 2014, we curated and built the first Moroccan Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, which was followed by the Moroccan Pavilion for the 2015 World Exposition in Milan. More recently, we designed the complex for the United Nations COP22 meeting, and we are currently working on a cultural center in Paris, a large housing project in western France, and the design of a new city near Casablanca in Morocco.
You both teach as well. Tell me about this.
We’ve always taught. Fortunately, we enjoy different aspects of teaching; I enjoy the one-on-one discussions with students at their desks far more than the wider interaction and showmanship of reviews. Tarik is the opposite. For several years, we taught the Rice University studio in Paris. Currently, we’re teaching an options studio at MIT, so one of us flies to Boston every other week to teach.
Due to the demands of practice, teaching is only an occasional pleasure for me. But because it’s not a job for me, and therefore free from all the duties and politics of academia, I’m able to approach it unfettered and with pure pleasure. For me, it’s the best of both worlds to be able to practice full-time and to teach in intensive spurts from time to time.
Where are you in your career today?
Ask me tomorrow.
Ha! You have a point. Looking back at it all, what have been the biggest challenges?
I was extremely shy as a child, and that shyness still surfaces when I have to give lectures, interviews, or presentations. I’d rather do ten all-nighters than give a ten-minute oral presentation. It would be very easy to leave all the public interaction to my partner, who is so incredibly good at it - I’m very envious of that talent. So one of my biggest challenges is to overcome my shyness in order to present the work.
What have been the highlights?
Working on our pavilion for the 2014 Venice Biennale was a fabulous experience. I gave birth to my son two weeks before the opening of the Biennale and those final weeks of frenetic preparation coupled with caring for a newborn were probably some of the most intense moments of my life. It was the Biennale that Rem Koolhaas curated, and several of my friends and classmates were designing pavilions as well, so it also felt like a coming-of-age for our generation of architects.
It’s always exhilarating to walk onto the site of a newly completed project, but sometimes the thrill comes from discovering that the space you built is generating a completely unforeseen energy which emanates from its users. We designed the village for the meeting of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 22) in Marrakech and I still remember feeling the incredible, almost physically palpable, sense of optimism generated by the thousands of people gathering for the united goal of saving the planet. I felt both thrilled and humbled to have contributed to that moment.
What would you say is your mission?
To widen the area of intervention of architectural practice. I believe that architectural strategies should be integrated into a project long before and remain long after the conventional point of entry. In a typical situation, an architect would receive a program, a budget, and a site. Tarik and I often hunt for potential sites, organize possible user groups or clients, develop programs, and raise the budget for our projects. We create the situation that the project is born in. We used to do this when we first started the office, because that's how we generated work. Now it has become our only way of doing things, even though we have more work than we can handle. We never look at a project using the parameters that are given to us.
In the office, we talk a lot about public prerogative. It’s very important to inject a notion of public prerogative into every project we work on, from the smallest scale all the way up to city planning. We fight to create a public space in every project we do, even if it is in opposition to the client’s demand. That fundamentally defines and redefines the project each and every time.
We are building a platform of disobedience. We refuse the fact that because you pay for it, you own it.
What advice do you have for those who'd like to run their own firm?
Start early, while you’re still young and reckless. When I started my firm, I didn’t have a family so the only person I was putting at risk was myself. This freedom allowed me to take risks that I would never be able to do now, but those risks were critical to the development of the office in order to be what it is today.
Finally, what advice do you have for those starting their career?
Don’t be afraid to be disobedient. Disobedience is often justified, and challenging the given parameters of a situation or project is often in everyone’s best interest.