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Interview: Reiser + Umemoto on career beginnings, design philosophy and their latest projects

Last week international guests Jesse Reiser and Nanako Umemoto, founding directors of New York based firm Reiser + Umemoto (RUR Architecture DPC), visited the Melbourne School of Design as part of the 2017 Dean’s Lecture Series. The work of Reiser + Umemoto spans over 30 years of practice and is at the forefront of architectural innovation, comprising rigorous research and experimentation across both built and unrealised projects. Reiser and Umemoto presented a public lecture to a sold-out B117 Theatre, and curated an exhibition in the Dulux Gallery detailing some of their most well-known and influential projects. The exhibition will be on show at the Melbourne School of Design until September 13. Melbourne School of Design’s Chair in Architectural Design, Professor Donald Bates, sat down with them to discuss their philosophy, careers and projects.

Donald Bates: Tell us a bit about your career beginnings and how you evolved into the Reiser + Umemoto of today.

Nanako Umemoto: Starting out, we didn’t really get offered architectural projects. Because I had a degree in landscape architecture and, actually, because I was from Kyoto which is automatically associated with beautiful landscapes, people were really keen to hire us for landscape projects. Landscape supported us for many years. I designed a lot of swimming pools (laughs).

Jesse Reiser: All of our structural experimentation actually started out with garden objects like trellises, fences, pools, equipment enclosures – it’s all related to landscape projects. Much of the first elements of the Kaohsiung diagram in the exhibition came from these original little landscape projects, which then progressed and culminated in the Kaohsiung Port Terminal entry. We had always been doing a lot of smaller scale experimenting with built objects as part of that initial landscape work.

NU: We were lucky that we could convince clients that in addition to the landscape work, our clients would still need somewhere to sit while outside, so we were able to move on to small building components as part of this landscape work.

Planning detail of the Kaohsiung Port Terminal, inspired by lattice work from an earlier landscape architecture project

DB: In addition to running your architectural practice, both of you are teachers. What role does architectural education play in your professional and personal lives?

JR: The 1990 economic downturn really changed our financial circumstances. Before that, we were able to sustain ourselves just doing our design work, but after the downturn it became a financial necessity to teach. For me, there were two forces at play, firstly, we were very invested in continuing our own work outside of the academic context – we both really felt strongly about that – but it just became financially impossible. Secondly, I was naturally shy, and was really resistant to public speaking and teaching for a long time. So finally, I was pushed to a point in the early 1990s when I had to start teaching just to have consistent work, and, like Nanako, that’s when I realised that teaching was actually incredibly stimulating and I enjoyed it.  

This really coincided with the end of our hermetic phase, and with the beginning of our engagement in actual architectural competition. We were meeting colleagues, and realising that there was a wider project out there: that one could be part of a dialogue, rather than sustaining an almost hermetic internal conversation through our own work. Engaging with both students and colleagues really opened up our approach to design.

DB: Speculation is an important word for you. You have spoken of RUR’s work as being about speculation, and how that’s delivered through competitions. You have also talked about having a defined theoretical position which takes place through writing and publication. Can you talk a little more about how this defines your office, in the day to day and in the longer-term sense of what RUR is trying to do?

JR: Yes, one of the things that characterises our practice is that while we engage particular projects, sites and programs, we never assume that that engagement is tabula rasa. Rather, we are working on a series of ongoing explorations of projects within the office, and by addressing any particular competition or design project, we bring strands of different projects together.

We might have, for example, a particular set of pre-suppositions about a project that we want to bring to bear on the project. The actual design work is wrestling with those pre-suppositions then having them come up against the reality of the specific project challenges which are present – then the project changes, it wasn’t what you thought it was – and that actually advances the overall project.

Much of the theoretical work is then trying to make sense of the design work, it's retrospective: we have certain assumptions, but doing the work actually changes the way we think about the work. Retrospectively, we see a line of development.

DB: I have this idea that firms do a number of competitions and build up a reservoir of responses – ways of operating, ways of thinking – which are then employed on the next project to fill in the gaps. RUR is almost the opposite of that approach; instead of the competition and the project being the main thrust of your work and all the other stuff is the research, it’s actually the competitions that provide the context of a research moment that allows you to continue the longer project.

JR: It’s like a war game, in that there’s real pressures and constraints that you don’t have to invent which then motivate invention and development in each project. So that’s why we are not overly upset when we lose competitions – although we do get more upset than we used to (laughs). There’s still a lot of progression, and there’s also the social circumstance, the encouragement of peers being interested in the project, and it’s going to get written about and published and that would give you more confidence and buoy you up to do the next one. Because there was a context for it. You weren’t just trying to do the project to win it, there was also the promise of invention, dialogue and publication.

DB: Your two current projects in Taiwan (Taipei Pop Music Centre and Kaohsiung Port Terminal) are large scale projects with multiple components, so you essentially end up designing a precinct rather than just a singular building. Do you actively seek out projects which contain more of a contextual relationship focus out of your own personal interests as designers?

NU: I think we do actually like that kind of scale, and we already had the experience of designing the entire edge of Manhattan, so it all just aligned for these later projects. 

JR: I think also, both competitions had a requirement for a masterplan built into them, so neither really started out just as architectural projects. Taipei Pop was about the design of a district, and we were really the only entry to treat those two sites as being an urban plan first, whereas the other competitors were following a model out of OMA, where they wanted to do a massive, singular building that would be urban. It would be so big that it would be urban. We decided to distribute those components across the whole site. In the case of Kaohsiung, again, it was a planning proposal and it belonged to a series of ‘edge projects’. We were already familiar with making proposals for the Manhattan Edge and, consequently, working with infrastructure and the layers of a city.

DB: Thinking back to the East River Corridor (NY), Shenzhen Airport Terminal and your two current Taiwan-based projects, you actually have a lot of projects which deal with architecture almost at the level of infrastructure. That is to say, there are the specific components from the programmatic form, but you have to infill a lot of elements which would normally be considered infrastructure, so it’s interesting how you have become au fait with working at the infrastructure level.

JR: Yes, early on we collaborated with Stan Allen and did the analysis work for the Croton Aqueduct Study project. We were drawing plans and figuring out ways of making architectural interventions at the scale of infrastructure. It never really was that successful in the aqueduct study. But then we went on to the Venice Gateway competition, and what was thought to be just experimental prior to Croton Aqueduct, was actually much more successful as a design for the Venice Gateway.

NU: Yes, we incorporated all the bus roads and the bridge, created a new canal and created an island which defined the bridging structure. A genius invention! (laughs).

JR: Right. I think the first really successful piece of architectural design and infrastructure for us was Venice Gateway, I would say.

NU: I’m still proud of that project.

JR: Yeah, no, I think it still holds up (laughs)

DB: Is it more rewarding personally for you both when you’re involved in a precinct project, not just a building?

JR: Yes, definitely. One of the elements that developed in our own practice, ideologically too, is that landscape and planning shouldn’t be left solely to the landscape architects or the planners – as something separate from architecture. Architect initiated planning, design and infrastructure and parallel programs between these disciplines, was something that Bernard Tschumi actively promoted at Columbia University – so we really grew up in that milieu, and it’s a really exciting and rewarding realm to work within.

NU: Yes, even with O-14, it doesn’t have highways wrapping the building, but it still has a lot of bridges connecting to the main building, and also connecting from the back of the waterfront. So, it still does have an infrastructure element which makes it more interesting to us as designers.

JR: Also, the tendentious height of the O-14 is actually a response to Rem Koolhaus’ Waterfront City Dubai project, which never got implemented. We were actually fitting in with the edge master plan of the OMA scheme that never went ahead. So, the O-14 is actually like a little segment for us. It happens even in Taiwan. With Kaohsiung our hope is that the elevated boardwalk will be continued along that entire edge, but what we have control over and what will get built is the segment. So, ultimately, there’s a utopian dimension to our architectural projects, where it points towards what should be done even if we can’t control it or make it happen in the present.

A selection of 3D printed models of RUR projects displayed in the Dulux Gallery for the exhibition 'Reiser + Umemoto: Projects and their Consequences'

DB: Your office is based in New York, you live in New York, you’re so much a part of New York, yet a lot of your major projects don’t happen in New York or the USA. How does New York as an entity feed and hinder your thoughts and processes.

NU: I think actually there’s not a very big competition scene in the United States, New York is actually more of a developer driven city.

JR: We were always involved in small, specialised residential work, which is how we initially learned.  The circumstance of getting involved in all the international competitions moved us away from being focused on getting projects in New York. It was part and parcel of a generation of architects like Eisenman or Richard Meyer who were all based in New York but who only much later in their careers ended up doing New York based projects.

DB: You’re more like a multinational group and your outlook has been very international in that sense.

JR: We patterned our office on how we saw Aldo Rossi operating in Milan, which was much more a balance between an intellectual project; writing in the morning, doing, drawing then doing projects but being relatively small. Also, there are contemporaries in the New York City who are much better at business networking, so it’s ultimately a different orientation and a different approach to practice. Of course, now that we have much larger-scale projects successfully completed, we hope that there would be a possibility to do more work in New York.

DB: You arrived in Sydney, have travelled through Melbourne, and been in Australia for over a week now, what’s your impressions?

NU: Melbourne is a very interesting place because there’s so many different kinds of buildings and architecture styles. Different segments of the city have their roots in different cultures – Greek, Italian, Spanish, Chinese – and you really feel the presence of those different cultures through the built environment. Also, Melbourne is a more graded city, but Sydney is much more influenced by the topography.

JR: We came into Sydney and it was quite different and surprising in a good way. The scale of presence of nature in the topography, and in the strangeness and the largeness of the plants and the nature was uncanny.

NU: Yes, the variation of plants is amazing and each one is slightly similar to American plants but quite different at the same time.

JR: Then you see strange real estate speculation or something you might see in Columbus, Ohio, rising up out of this amazing landscape. A strange mixture of what one might find in the USA but in a completely different context.

There’s a striking difference between the Manhattan grid and what we experienced in the major and minor alternations in Melbourne’s city streets and the scale of the fabric here. And, of course, all of the invention stands out. The new architecture, like Federation Square and RMIT University, is really great to see as that type of progressive architecture would just not happen, say, in the east coast of USA. But that one can see projects like Fed Square built is great.

Jesse Reiser and Nanako Umemoto’s forthcoming monograph, Projects and Their Consequences will be released in 2018. The book looks back at their own history of projects and examines how a consequential project both connects to a generationally shared set of social, political, and cultural desires, which exceeds authorship, and at the same time develops within the practice as a sustained set of material, organizational and formal interests that connect across time, at disparate scales, programs and sites, and with a particular authorial stamp.

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