Constantly Looking: Farshid Moussavi on Creativity Over Experience and Remaining Connected and Relevant
By Julia Gamolina, cover portrait by Paul Phung
Farshid Moussavi is an internationally acclaimed architect, founder of award-winning practice Farshid Moussavi Architecture, and Professor in Practice of Architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design. Moussavi’s approach is characterized by an openness to change and a commitment to the intellectual and cultural life of architecture. Farshid was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2018 Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to architecture. She was elected a Royal Academician in 2015 and Professor of Architecture at the RA Schools in 2017.
At FMA, Moussavi’s completed projects include the acclaimed Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland, USA; La Folie Divine, a residential complex in Montpellier; a multi-tenure residential complex in the La Défense district of Paris, and flagship stores for Victoria Beckham in London and Hong Kong. In her interview, Farshid talks about her renown global practice and the social, economic, and cultural stimuli that drive and interest her, advising young architects to always question what architecture can be.
Why did you decide to study architecture?
I liked the fact that architecture is so multi-faceted. Architecture is a spatial practice, but also a cultural, social, economic, technical, and political one too. I was attracted to the fact that it wasn’t an isolated artistic endeavor.
This was as far as I got as a teenager. Over the years, I’ve realized that all of these facets of architecture are fluid. You can never think that you know what architecture is - it is constantly changing. If you want to remain connected and relevant, and you want to pursue architecture that is making contributions to society, you need to keep asking and thinking and looking for what it can be.
You studied in Scotland, in London, and then at Harvard. What did you learn from each stage?
The first three years in Scotland felt at the time like a very archaic education. For every project we had to make a technical submission and a design submission, which were disconnected from each other. I felt frustrated by that, but I know in hindsight that had I not gone through those first three years, I wouldn’t have my current appreciation for buildings making societal differences in their way - through their actuality rather than external narratives.
Following my next degree in London, I went to America to look for research because I imagined that graduate school was about that rather than just learning more design. However, in the days that I studied at the GSD, there was no research; it was just an extension of studio work. The environment was fantastic but the teaching wasn’t really what I thought graduate school would be.
I think all this has influenced my practice and my teaching, both of which are heavily invested in research. The unpredictable nature of contemporary reality means that architecture cannot be taught or practiced by relying on any set of fixed “truths” embedded within stable ideas and practices. We should look carefully to find where it is that we can make changes, rather than start from our own interests and preoccupations.
What did you do after Harvard?
I started working at OMA, and after three years, I left and Alejandro [Zaera-Polo] and I moved to London where we started teaching at the Architecture Association. We had a hunch about teaching, but we were also were using it as a way to practice, in that we wanted to practice, but we had no projects. That became my kind of architectural life, always running teaching and practice in parallel.
What did you learn at OMA?
Part of OMA’s interest at the time was team work, which to them meant that ideas didn't come just from Rem. He was certainly the one who would direct the project, but he nurtured a horizontal structure. Everybody contributed. I appreciated that a lot. That’s how we ran FOA and how I run my practice now. People don’t feel they are just drafting somebody else’s idea.
Learning not to be fearful of large scale projects and scope was also a huge experience. As a young architect, you got to work on very large projects immediately. People think that young architects should work on a smaller scale, and when they are experienced, they can work on larger projects. All these misconceptions were thrown out the window immediately at OMA. Therefore, when we left OMA, we weren’t intimidated to enter a very large-scale competition for Yokohama, and we won it.
However, there I also learned what not to do in a practice. Competitiveness was nurtured in that environment, and people who were really talented but not competitive left. Losing talent like that was not something that I appreciated. I like to think that running a team in an architectural practice is like running a team in football - everybody has their strengths and the job of the person coaching is to understand that and ensure everyone has the right place in a larger collective. I work on that quite a lot. When I interview people, it’s not just about design and background. It’s about personality and the way they might fit with the rest of the team.
How did FOA begin?
Yokohama - winning that. When we were at the AA, it became clear amongst the tutors that the two of us were interested in competitions as a way to secure commissions. Shin Egashira, who is still a tutor at the AA and is Japanese, came to us and said, “This competition launched in my home city. You might want to enter.” We said, why not? I remember this moment because had he not come to us, we would have never seen the call otherwise. It was wonderful.
Simultaneously, Alan Balfour told us that he would like to publish our work in the AA Files. That made us look at ourselves – before that, we were doing competitions to win, but then we said, “Let’s not worry about winning; let’s do a string of competitions where we do exactly what we believe in so we can publish them.” Yokohama was the second of these competitions, and after we won, we became the cover of the AA Files! Not worrying about failing was key to our success. This doesn’t mean that we were thinking in a crazy way- we were thinking about the different parameters of the building and about its construction, but we were also thinking beyond what people thought the thing should be. So that’s how it all started.
I’ve learned again and again, through these interviews and through my own experiences, that when you approach something from a place of genuine interest, belief, and enjoyment, that’s when the magic happens.
I agree. Great work doesn’t come from following rules or what everyone else thinks you should be doing. A lot of people value experience above everything else, but sometimes experience can blind you.
Thinking about financial success can also handicap you. We never counted how many hours we worked for any project. We may have lost it in some and gained it in others. I would say that we were financially successful by not thinking about financial success. Nowadays, there is also a lot of pressure to do marketing and newsletters to remain connected. I think after a while people get really tired of it all. I prefer to put my head down and do the work. Good work will get noticed.
How would you describe the work that you did and continue to do?
The work of FOA was about embracing any kind of sector. We did public projects and commercial projects with the same level of commitment. I wouldn’t say that the commercial projects were less innovative than the public projects.
FMA has similarly embraced work from both the cultural and commercial sectors. I strongly believe that great architecture should be a social or common good. All FMA projects are unique, highly crafted, and made for their contexts irrespective of their budget, location, scale or their clients.
Switching gears a little bit, I think as students and young architects, we see a practice and we see it as an entity that is forever and that is fixed. But obviously practices evolve - some people start a practice with a friend, which then morphs out into two separate practices, and then one of the those joins forces with another architect, and a “practice” continues to evolve, not limited to a fixed entity of an office. Would you like to talk about the splitting of FOA and starting FMA? Was it difficult?
The split of FOA was really a personal split. We were a couple and known as a couple, and then we were no longer a couple. However, even before that, we had reached a state of practice where we were already working separately. We weren’t inseparable. We were quite self-sufficient in our own right - I had my own clients, I had my own projects, and so did he. I can imagine that since our divorce took a bit of time, people wondered, “Are they out of their mess? Can she do it alone? What is she about?” It takes time - not for you to step into your new reality, but for people to accept it.
Then, it takes time for a project to be realized, and thus for the public to have something new to identify you by. It’s been eight years since FOA, but a single building can take up to ten years to complete. In some ways, I was and wasn’t a start-up. I was one legally. When you apply for RFQ’s and they want your last three years of accounts, I didn’t have them. On the other hand, many of the ways we were approaching the office continued from FOA. Emphasizing creativity over mere experience, being research-led, keeping an open mind as to what’s an architectural project all stayed with me.
The work though, has changed so much. If FOA was still around, I hope it would not have been doing the same thing it was doing in the 90s. I look at people who are still doing what they were doing then and their work feels stuck in the past to me. Today’s reality is different and will continue to go different ways. I like to be optimistic about the role of architecture and the presence of architecture, but we don’t know what form it will take in the future. The only thing we know is that we will continue to need enclosures [laughs].
Where are you in your career today?
In the middle! I’m excited about the competition we just won for the Ismaili Center.
I wanted to ask you - when you first won this commission, the headline of a few articles announcing it was something like, “Farshid Moussavi beats out David Chipperfield and OMA.” How do you feel about this?
It’s just journalism. Frankly, I was happy to win this project, because the last two years have been very difficult for the practice because of the uncertainties around Brexit. We needed to win this one. But, I also felt bad, because I know what it’s like to put a lot of time into a competition and lose, and I consider both architects as friends. That’s not the way I would have communicated the result of the competition.
They left Studio Gang out of that headline though, which to me, signaled that what they might have been saying was, “We can’t believe this woman beat these men.”
On the one hand, you should absolutely be applauded for winning an important commission in a field where systemically it’s been much harder for women to do so, but on the other hand, we have to stop seeing women winning important commissions over men as unusual events. It should absolutely be newsworthy that the project goes to you, but it should not be surprising that you were chosen over firms led by men. Because of course architects that are women will win them! It’s not a surprise!
These things are unfortunately still very much ingrained in society. I was judging an award yesterday, an anonymous award, and there was one project that everyone was gravitating towards. The author was repeatedly referred to as a ‘he’, and I turned around to another fellow judge and said, “How do we know it’s a he?”
It was “she”, wasn’t it.
It ended up being a ‘she’ [laughs]. The proposal was about going into areas that are not so comfortable, to do research and such. Maybe the idea that you would put yourself in that position didn’t fit the other judge’s idea of what a woman would focus on.
Back to what we were talking about - where are you in your career today?
I am very busy but I wouldn’t say that I’m in a comfortable position.
Why not? What are the challenges?
The biggest challenge continues to be finding the work. I imagine it is the challenge for anyone who is running a company.
What do you do?
I do my best [laughs].
Fair enough. In terms of your general approach, what helps you overcome those challenges?
I try to throw myself into as many subject matters as possible to keep learning.
Who are you admiring and learning from right now?
There are many architects I admire for different reasons. What I admire above and beyond their work is their sense of collegiality, and their willingness to support other architects. This is common in some cultures, like in Japan, but not so common in the West. The West has always been more individualistic.
Support each other in what ways?
Giving each other advice, inviting each other to do things. There are many ways that architects can support each other. When we were working on the Yokohama Port Terminal, Japan was just coming out of a recession. The building was being built in steel, and the price of steel was going up because Japan and Korea were hosting the World Cup and building many things in steel. We had less and less budget to work with, and it was difficult. In addition, it was a large and complex project, we were foreigners, and we were young.
There were moments when the client was anxious, and both Arata Isozaki and Toyo Ito were very supportive. They reassured the client on a number of occasions. Toyo Ito also introduced us to a senior architect who had worked for many years for Kikutake. He would come to the office one day a week and oversee everything: talk to the client, talk to the contractors. It was a huge support for a young team.
As much as I do think competitions are great for raising ambition and thinking outside the box, they also generate competition between architects, which is an unfortunate side effect.
I’m glad to hear you say all of this - one of the goals with Madame Architect is for everyone to realize that we are all doing are best and are in it together.
With that in mind, what advice do you have for those just starting out?
You need to have one foot inside the reality of practice, but one foot out. Don’t take architecture for granted. Don’t assume what it is. Otherwise you can become blinded by conventions.