Thomas Leeser. Interview by Vladimir Belogolovskiy
We continue to publish texts of interview which will be included into the catalogue of Russian pavilion of XI architectural biennial in Venice. Thomas Leeser is the winner of competition for the project of the World museum of mammoths and the Permafrost in Yakutsk. This project will be presented in the exposition of the Russian pavilion
Thomas Leeser, 56-year-old Frankfurtborn New York-based architect is known for provocative and interactive restaurants, nightclubs and theaters in New York. He collaborated on The Wexner Center for Visual Arts and State University in Columbus, Ohio with Peter Eisenman and La Villete project in Paris with Eisenman and Derrida. His project for the Museum of the Moving Image in New York is under construction and is described in his own words as “an environment where complexity is created from the convergence of architecture and the infinite thinness of the filmic image”. In summer 2007, his firm won an open international competition to build World Mammoth and Permafrost Museum in Yakutsk, Siberia. His scheme was selected over such internationally recognized names as Antoine Predock Architect (US), Massimiliano Fuksas Architect (Italy), Neutelings Riedijk (Holland) and SRL (Denmark). The competition was organized by the government of the Republic of Sakha in central Siberia and La Paz Group, French company, specializing in ecotourism worldwide. Before becoming an architect, Leeser was interested in pop art, especially the work of Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys. Thomas grew up in the house designed by his parents – his mother, an interior designer and his father, an architect, who being Jewish spent the war years in hiding with family in Paris and opened his progressive architecture practice in Frankfurt after the war. I met with Thomas in his office in DUMBO in Brooklyn, overlooking East River and stunningly beautiful Manhattan, where all famous New York architects practice, except one – Leeser. Tell me about the World Mammoth and Permafrost Museum competition and how did you hear about it?
Well, we first saw it advertised on the internet. We thought – Mammoth Museum, so strange. We were skeptical, but then realized that the program was not so much about mammoths as a natural history museum, but it is more about the environment – half museum and half research about the environment with laboratory for cloning and DNA study. That really triggered my interest. In this part of Siberia, there are a lot of mining sites and they keep finding a lot of prehistoric bones and other fossils. There is also a big interest in the scientific community to do more research in this field. There are even talks about possibilities to clone mammoths. But, what is really very interesting is that everything we know about how to build a building does not apply here. For example, the buildings in this area sit on ice. Ice is hundreds of meters deep, so there is no solid rock. It is permafrost zone, which means that a couple of meters below the surface it is always below freezing point.
You did some serious research.
All the research came through my haircutter. Her boyfriend’s grandfather happens to be the ultimate authority on permafrost. He wrote many books on the subject and has been to Yakutsk many times. It is very difficult to build there and there are many examples of buildings sliding and collapsing. The problem is that any heat that comes from the building itself might be transferred to the foundation and melt the ice underneath. What is the main idea for your design?
There is no one idea. The site is very unusual. It is completely flat and suddenly, here comes a hill at 45 degrees angle. Our building is a direct response to this strange landscape. The building responds with a very profound bend up. Then due to permafrost, the building has to touch the ground as little as possible. We proposed legs-like stilts, which is not unusual there. Traditional buildings are built on wooden piles or even on trees. Even large modern buildings do not touch the ground and are built on columns. Once we had these legs, we thought of the inverted condition on the roof since the building should be lit well even if there is a lot of snow accumulation. That’s why we came up with these light wells that look like elephant trunks. These are very simple practical ideas. The building does look like an animal a bit or a bunch of animals. It is interesting that the competition brief asked for the Bilbao effect look. We did not really want to design a strange shape, but the expression of the building is directly linked to its particular site condition, which is strange and unusual. Also because of such extreme climate, we wanted this building to have edgy, rough, heavy qualities. The Museum’s translucent skin is patterned by selfregulating geometries of the permafrost. The envelope is constructed of translucent super-insulated double-glazed façade filled with Aerogel, a densely packed super insulator.
What is the latest word from the Museum and what is the next step?
The last word we heard from them was in November. We communicate only through the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization and the French agency and not directly with the Museum. We heard that there is going to be a new minister of tourism in the Republic of Sakha and that’s why there is this caution towards starting the building process, but we don’t really know.
It seems that this competition is not very transparent. Do you know who was on the jury?
No, I just know that they were all Russian architects and from the local government. Initially, I was all very excited to go to Siberia and see the place for myself. However, I wanted to see how serious the organizers were so I asked them to pay for my trip. They did not respond.
There was very little press in Russia about this project compare to how much the competition was covered internationally.
I have no idea why. We are constantly getting requests for information and images for books and magazines. For example, today we received such request from Italy. I think so far, there was just one request from Russia. I would really want to find out how we could help to move the project forward.
You told me that you have never been to Russia. However, would you say that Russian art and architecture played any significant role in your education or professional work?
Absolutely! I’m actually very proud of the fact that I went to the same architecture school where Lissitzky went to, The Darmstadt University of Technology in Germany. So I studied the work of Lissitzky and Malevich. At home, I have a couple of original anonymous figurative Russian paintings from the 1920’s. I’m greatly influenced by Russian constructivist movement. Also once I came to New York I met people like Bernard Tschumi, who is very influential on my work and especially his interest in Russian constructivists was always very fascinating. Do you have any favorite architect of that period?
Melnikov, of course is very influential! But you know, I have no idea about contemporary architecture in Russia. Last year I saw Russian contemporary art show at Art Basel Miami. That was so much stronger than installations from other countries.
Tell me about your office. How big is it? Who works here?
We consider ourselves a small office, about 20 people – mostly very young architects who went to Columbia University, but also people are coming all over the world. Some people come just for half a year but most stay at least for a couple of years. It is a very horizontal office. You may come as an intern and find yourself design something to a big surprise and shock. I try to have a similar setting as at school. I lead design studios at Columbia, Pratt and Cooper Union. I don’t really have any particular method of working, designing or teaching. I push students to come up with their own ideas. You went to Cooper Union just for your thesis year, right?
It is actually a very funny story. I was in the final year at Darmstadt University when I participated in a major national competition with my friend for Federal Reserve Bank Headquarters in Frankfurt, a huge project. We were awarded the second place (100,000 Douche Marks) and with a few other entries, we were invited to the second stage of the competition. So we decided to look for a collaborator, possibly a well-known architect who built a bank building before. We went to a few offices in Germany, but didn’t find anyone appropriate. So we came to New York because there are so many banks in New York City! We met with a number of famous architects, but it was Todd Williams, who agreed to collaborate with us. It was so wild – we lived in Todd’s office – at the top floor over the Carnegie Hall where his apartment is now. We had crazy parties and worked on this competition. Todd was teaching at Cooper Union and he said to me – why don’t you apply to Cooper Union? And I said – it is the best school, they will never take me. So he convinced me to apply. Some time later we found out that our project was awarded the third prize, which for us meant – we lost. But on the same day I received a letter from Cooper Union that said – you’re in! So I went to Cooper Union and so many years later – I am still in New York.
Did you take Peter Eisenman’s class at Cooper Union?
Yes, I signed up for his class and we read Tafuri. My English was horrible and I said – I can’t take this class, it is so useless. Then Peter asked one of my classmates: “Where is that German kid? Send him to me”. I told him that I did not understand a single word and he said: “Why does that matter? Do you think these other kids understand anything? You come back to my class and just read it.” I said OK. And a couple of weeks later he invited me to work in his office. He involved me in a competition and we basically worked on it together. I stayed with him for ten years. When I started, the office was just 3-5 people and when I left, it was 35 people and I was the leading designer there all those years.
Did you have any other transformative experience at Cooper Union?
I think the biggest influence was John Hejduk. I remember I was so nervous when I first came there. I thought – oh my god this a school of the gods, what am I doing here? So I started my thesis year and I had no idea what thesis meant. In Germany, they give you a diploma project, but thesis means something completely different. It was like a dissertation. Your work has to be completely original from ground up and you have to invent your own program. So first, we had to do a warm-up exercise – draw a musical instrument. I went to a flea market in the East Village and bought an accordion – took it completely apart, drew different pieces, put it back together and returned to the flea market. Then we had a review and John Hejduk looked and looked and then said: ”Oh, what a beautiful city!” I was like – it is an accordion, not a city. But he liked it and I began to see not what was there, but what he saw. In Germany, they would never teach architecture this way. They would say – no, this is too thin and that is too thick. So I got it – I didn’t draw an accordion, I drew architecture! Then the Thesis began. Hejduk came to class and he said: “Here are three words: a fan, a mill and a bridge”. I was like: a fan, a mill and a bridge. What is this? Then I remembered the accordion exercise and I realized that it was not about what he was giving to us, but what we were making out of it. It was about asking the question: why are you here, why do you want to be an architect?
So what did you come up with, a city, a house?
No, it didn’t become anything. It was an abstract architectural construct. I still have it in my office.
Is your current work influenced by Eisenman?
Of course, but right after I left his office I worked very hard to move away from him. It was important for me because I wanted to move on. In his book “Diagrams” Eisenman writes: “Architecture is traditionally concerned with external phenomena: politics, social conditions, aesthetics, cultural values, ecology and the like. Rarely has it theoretically examined its own discourse, rhetoric and its interiority… Architecture can manifest itself; manifest its own in a realized building.” Do you relate such vision to your own view of architecture?
Yes, but also this is where I wanted to distance myself from him. He likes architecture that examines its own discourse, which is very important and Peter is, in a way someone who invented architecture as a theoretical discipline. But there are so many more things in architecture. There is site, program, client, politics, which are important and they do impact the architect’s work. I think that architects should respond to all of these traditional issues and their responses do not necessarily need to be traditional or expected. I felt that there was no point for me to leave Peter and do something parallel to what he is doing, which is something that Greg Lynn is exploring. I’m now more interested in how a building is used and experienced and what it allows you to do with it.
Describe your architecture for me. What are you after?
Let me say what I’m not after. I’m not trying to be at any cost outlandish and different. But, I am after subtle and surprising experiences and experiencing environment in a slightly new and unexpected way. I’m really interested in how people use buildings. I’m interested in irony and humor. This building in Russia does look a bit like an animal. It is not necessarily intended that way, but I don’t mind it. I’m also interested in projects that reveal certain aspects of human nature. For example, I’ve done restaurant projects in New York where we played with mirrors. You look at the mirror in a bathroom, but the other side of it is a façade of a building and your private world is completely exposed to the street. It is about confronting people with their own preconceptions and basically, about creating a new context which is surprising and different. So I try to experiment with a certain degree of discomfort. This maybe comes from my heritage of being Jewish in Germany and the notion of a certain discomfort. Peter has a similar cultural background and it might be one of the reasons for what he is doing with his architecture. So I try to create projects that are never quite what they seem to be.
What is the single issue in architecture that interests you the most?
To get something built and to do powerful work, but a lot has changed in architecture. When I was just beginning my career, powerful meant something geometrically complex because everything was very simple. Now everything is geometrically complex because of the computers so the meaning of powerful has shifted. My interest is not in how the buildings look like, but in how they are experienced. It is no longer about a wildly complex thing. Since Bilbao, it is too simple and not interesting. Architecture is changing all the time.
In Three Voices
The high-rise – 41 stories high – housing complex HIDE is being built on the bank of the Setun River, near the Poklonnaya Mountain. It consists of three towers of equal height, yet interpreted in three different ways. One of the towers, the most conspicuous one looks as if it was twisted in a spiral, composed of a multitude of golden bay windows.
Dynamics of the Avenue
On Leningrad Avenue, not far away from the Sokol metro station, the construction of the A-Class business center Alcon II has been completed. ADM architects designed the main façade as three volumetric ribbons, as if the busy traffic of the avenue “shook” the matter sending large waves through it.
Steamer at the Pier
An apartment hotel that looks like a ship with wide decks has been designed for a land plot on a lake shore in Moscow’s South Tushino. This “steamer” house, overlooking the lake and the river port, does indeed look as if it were ready to sail away.
The Magic of Rhythm or Ornament as a Theme
Designed by Sergey Tchoban, the housing complex Veren Place in St. Petersburg is the perfect example of inserting a new building into a historical city, and one the cases of implementing the strategy that the architect presented a few years ago in the book, which he coauthored with Vladimir Sedov, called “30:70. Architecture as a Balance of Forces”.
Walking on Water
In the nearest future, the Marc Chagall Embankment will be turned into Moscow’s largest riverside park with green promenades, cycling and jogging trails, a spa center on water, a water garden, and sculptural pavilions designed in the spirit of the Russian avant-garde artists of the 1920, and, first of all, Chagall himself. In this issue, we are covering the second-stage project.
A-Len has developed and patented the “Perfect Apartments” program, which totally eliminates “bad” apartment layouts. In this article, we are sharing how this program came around, what it is about, who can benefit from it, and how.
“Architectural Archaeology of the Narkomfin Building”: the Recap
One of the most important events of 2020 has been the completion of the long-awaited restoration of the monument of Soviet avant-garde architecture – the Narkomfin Building, the progenitor of the typology of social housing in this country. The house retained its residential function as the main one, alongside with a number of artifacts and restoration clearances turned into living museum exhibits.
LIFE on the Setun River
The area in the valley of the Setun River near the Vereiskaya Street got two new blocks of the “LIFE-Kutuzovsky” housing complex, designed by ADM architects. The two new blocks have a retail boulevard of their own, and a small riverside park.
Three towers on a podium over the Ramenka River are the new dominant elements on the edge of a Soviet “microdistrict”. Their scale is quite modern: the height is 176 m – almost a skyscraper; the facades are made of glass and steel. Their graceful proportions are emphasized by a strict white grid, and the volumetric composition picks up the diagonal “grid of coordinates” that was once outlined in the southwest of Moscow by the architects of the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Clouds over the Railroad
In the stead of former warehouses near “Lyubertsy-1” station, a new housing complex has been built, which peacefully coexists with the railroad, with the flyover bridge, and with the diverse surrounding scenery, not only dominating over the latter, but improving it.
Towers in a Forest
The authors of the housing complex “In the Heart of Pushkino” were faced with a difficult task: to preserve the already existing urban forest, at the same time building on it a compound of rather high density. This is how three towers at the edge of the forest appeared with highly developed public spaces in their podiums and graceful “tucks” in the crowning part of the 18-story volumes.
The Towers of “Sputnik”
Six towers, which make up a large housing complex standing on the bank of the Moskva River at the very start of the Novorizhskoe Highway, provide the answers to a whole number of marketing requirements and meets a whole number of restrictions, offering a simple rhythm and a laconic formula for the houses that the developer preferred to see as “flashy”.
The Starting Point
In this article, we are reviewing two retro projects: one is 20 years old, the other is 25. One of them is Saint Petersburg’s first-ever townhouse complex; the other became the first example of a high-end residential complex on Krestovsky Island. Both were designed and built by Evgeny Gerasimov and Partners.
The Path to New Ornamentation
The high-end residential complex “Aristocrat” situated next to a pine park at the start of the Rublev Highway presents a new stage of development of Moscow’s decorative historicist architecture: expensively decorated, yet largely based on light-colored tones, and masterfully using the romantic veneer of majolica inserts.
Renovation: the Far East Style
The competition project of renovating two central city blocks of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, developed by UNK project, won the nomination “Architectural and planning solutions of city construction”.
The Istituto Centrale per la Grafica in Rome presents Sergei Tchoban’s exhibition “Imprint of the future. Destiny of Piranesi’s City”. The exhibition includes four etchings, based on Roman architectural views of the XVIII century complemented by futuristic insertions, as well as a lot of drawings that investigate the same topic, at times quite expressively. The exhibition poses questions, but does not seem to give any answers. Since going to Rome is pretty problematic now, let’s at least examine the pictures.
In Search of Visual Clarity
In this article, we are reviewing a discussion devoted to the question of designing city space elements, which is quite complicated for the Russian expanses of land. The discussion was organized by the Genplan Institute of Moscow at the ArchMoscow convention in Gostiny Dvor.
The City of the Sun
Jointly designed by Sergey Tchoban and Vladimir Plotkin, the VTB Arena Park complex can arguably be considered the perfect experiment on solving the centuries-old controversy between traditional architecture and modernism. The framework of the design code, combined with the creative character of the plastique-based dialogue between the buildings, formed an all-but-perfect fragment of the city fabric.
...The Other Was Just Railroad Gin*
In their project of the third stage of “Ligovsky City” housing complex, located in the industrial “gray” belt of Saint Petersburg, the KCAP & Orange Architects & A-Len consortium set before themselves a task of keeping up the genius loci by preserving the contours of the railroad and likening the volumes of residential buildings to railroad containers, stacked up at the goods unloading station.
Lions on Glass
While reconstructing the facades of Building 4 of Moscow Hospital #23, SPEECH architects applied a technique, already known from Saint Petersburg projects by Sergey Tchoban – cassettes with elements of classical architecture printed on glass. The project was developed gratis, as a help to the hospital.
Park of Sentiments
The project of “Romantic Park Tuchkov Buyan”, which was developed by the consortium of Studio 44 and WEST 8, and has won an international competition, combines sculptural landscape design and wooden structures, variety of spatial features and an eventful agenda, designed for diverse audience, with a beautiful and complex passeist idea of a palace park, meant to evoke thoughts and feelings.
Architecture as an Educational Tool
The concept of a charity school “Tochka Budushchego” (“Point of the Future”) in Irkutsk is based on cutting-edge educational programs, and is designed, among other things, for adapting orphaned children for independent life. An important role is played by the architecture of the building: its structure and different types of interconnected spaces.
The Gallery Approach
In this article, we are covering the concept of a Central District Clinic for 240 patients, designed by Ginzburg Architects, which won at a competition organized by the Architects Union and the Healthcare Ministry.
In this issue, we are publishing the concept of a standard clinic designed by UNK Project, which took second place in the competition organized by the Union of Architects of Russia in collaboration with the Healthcare Ministry.
From Foundation to Teaspoon
Based on the taste of their friendly clients, the architects Olga Budennaya and Roman Leonidov designed and built a house in the Moscow metropolitan area playing Art Nouveau. At the same time, they enriched the typology of a private house with modern functions of a garage loft and a children’s art studio.
Continuation and Development
The second “office” stage of Comcity, the most popular business park of the “New Moscow” area, continues the underground street of the already existing part of the complex, responding to its architectural identity.
The Flying One
Expected to become an analogue of Moscow’s Skolkovo, the project of the High Park campus at Saint Petersburg’s ITMO University, designed by Studio 44, mesmerizes us with its sheer scale and the passion that the architects poured into it. Its core – the academic center – is interpreted as an avant-garde composition inspired by Piazza del Campo with a bell tower; the park is reminiscent of the “rays” of the main streets of Saint Petersburg, and, if watched from a birds-eye view, the whole complex looks like a motherboard with at least four processors on it. The design of the academic building even displays a few features of a sports arena. The project has a lot of meanings and allusions about it; all of them are united by plastique energy that the hadron collider itself could be jealous of.
A Comfortable City in Itself
The project that we are about to cover is seemingly impossible amidst human anthills, chaotically interspersed with old semi-neglected dachas. Meanwhile, the housing complex built on the Comcity business part does offer a comfortable environment of decent city: not excessively high-rise and moderately private as a version of the perfect modern urbanist solution.
Moving on the Edge
The housing complex “Litsa” (“Faces”) on Moscow’s Khodynka Field is one of the new grand-scale buildings that complement the construction around it. This particular building skillfully tackles the scale, subjugating it to the silhouette and the pattern; it also makes the most of the combination of a challenging land site and formidable square footage requirements, packing a whole number of features within one volume, so the house becomes an analogue of a city. And, to cap it all, it looks like a family that securely protects the children playing in the yard from... well, from everything, really.
Visual Stability Agent
A comparatively small house standing on the border of the Bolshevik Factory combines two diametrically opposite features: expensive materials and decorative character of Art Deco, and a wide-spaced, even somewhat brutal, facade grid that highlights a laminated attic.
The Faraday Cage
The project of the boutique apartment complex in the 1st Truzhenikov Lane is the architects’ attempt to squeeze a considerable volume into a tiny spot of land, at the same time making it look graceful and respectable. What came to their rescue was metal, stone, and curvilinear glass.
The Union of Art and Technology
His interest for architecture of the 1930’s is pretty much the guiding star for Stepan Liphart. In his project of the “Amo” house on St. Petersburg’s Vasilyevsky Island, the architect based himself on Moscow Art Deco - aesthetically intricate and decorated in scratch-work technique. As a bonus, he developed the city block typology as an organic structure.
The project that Evgeniy Gerasimov and Partners developed for Moscow’s Leningrad Avenue: the tallest building in the company’s portfolio, continuing the tradition of Moscow’s Stalin architecture.
In the project that they developed for a southern region of Russia, OSA Architects use multilayered facades that create an image of seaside resort architecture, and, in the vein of the latest trends of today, mix up different social groups that the residents belong to.
Just a Mirror for the Sun
The house that Sergey Skuratov designed in Nikolovorobinsky Alley is thought out down to the last detail. It adapts three historical facades, interprets a feeling of a complex city, is composed of many layers, and catches plenty of sunlight, from sunrises to sunsets. The architect himself believes that the main role of this house is creating a background for another nearby project of his, Art House in the Tessinsky Alley.
Part of the Whole
On June 5, the winners of Moscow Architectural Award were announced. The winners list includes the project of a school in Troitsk for 2,100 students, with its own astronomy dome, IT testing ground, museum, and a greenhouse on the roof.
Yet another project of a private school, in which Archimatika realizes the concept of aesthetic education and introduces a new tradition: combining Scandinavian and Soviet experience, turning to works of art, and implementing sustainable technologies.
In the “Parallel House” residence that he designed in the Moscow metropolitan area, the architect Roman Leonidov created a dramatic sculptural composition from totally basic shapes – parallelepipeds, whose collision turned into an exciting show.
In the Istra district of Moscow metropolitan area, the tandem of 4izmerenie and ARS-ST designed a sports complex – a monovolume that has the shape of a chamfered parallelepiped with a pointed “nose” like a ship’s bow.
Stairway to Heaven
The project of a hotel in the settlement of Yantarny is an example of a new recreational complex typology, and a new format that unites the hotel, the business, and the cultural functions. All of this is complemented by 100% integration with nature.