Thanks to the success of some completed projects, recently awarded and published in international magazines and websites, the small RIBA Chartered firm has established itself on the architectural scene of the Gulf. It can be counted among the most promising practices in the whole Middle East. The studio is growing in size and number of projects in a highly competitive historical moment for local architects. While ANARCHITECT continues its architecture and interior design activity for private residences in London and in the UAE, new projects are being developed in Sri Lanka, Kuwait, Bahrain and Kenya.
I meet Jonathan to talk about his idea of architecture and, in particular, about the role of detail, a component of the architectural organism that seems to be the bearer of fundamental values in ANARCHITECT’s spatial expression.
CL: Jonathan, tell me about your design philosophy.
JA: Since I moved to the Middle East 10 years ago, I realized what I am really obsessed with, which is contextualism. By working in the region, I understood and appreciated the need for contextual projects. I think that by being based in a global city like Dubai, one has to perceive what is happening beyond its borders. In this sense, I started to be quite obsessed with contextual design and how architecture relates to the place. Furthermore, the team and I are committed to a site-specific design process, which delivers individual results for each project. It is about having a methodology that we trust. By having this very structured design methodology, we get these very unique opportunities for projects in regard to “crazy” contexts or quite dynamic functional programs. One example could be the private villa we are building on the top of a 25 m shifting sand dune or a dismissed petrol pump next to an abandoned grocery and clinic structures from the 1960s, which we turned into a contemporary hotel. In the end, what I enjoy, and I focus on, is embracing a global-local approach to our design.
CL: What is your definition of architectural detail? How important is it in your design expression?
JA: For me, the detail in a project is the translation of the conceptual design manifested into a physical and finite component that is part of the bigger entity. We look at particular materials and techniques, what opportunities they offer, and we emphasize the details that we want to become an essential part of the user’s experience. I have always been amazed by how passionate craftsmanship is embodied in architecture and manufacturing. I appreciate the design where I can see that embodied passion, and I like when, in architecture detailing, one can emphasize components that we thought through for a particular reason, bringing out that emphasis to communicate the main idea of the project. In this regard, there should not be too many competing details within one project, because we need to create individual moments with hierarchy.
CL: In architectural design, detail occurs when two material entities meet and must be combined in a compositional and structural unicum. Someone said that the detail is the design agent that facilitates the consistency of the architectural artifact. Is there a detail solution that often recurs in your work?
JA: I consider critical thresholds and juxtaposition of materiality. Also, I think of materials as bearers of symbolic values. They represent different things. Stone represents solidity, the grain of wood represents nature, and metal represents precision. Sometimes I use metal to combine wood and stone through a precise joint. It mechanically works like that too. I look at what is heavy or light, at what has a mass or what is fragile, and also at what is their finesse. The idea of precision, connection and refinement comes with metal and glass. Wood is all about the beauty of its grain. Stone is more dense and solid and reminds me of tradition. It is a building material from centuries ago. So, there is this perceived balance of densities that these three materials combine, but it is all about putting them in different compositions and in various projects. We consistently find ourselves looking at varying combinations of these materials in all ANARCHITECT projects. Our contextual approach and the way architecture translates from the scale of the building, right down to details and furniture, represent a flow of conceptual ideas.
It is about layering into the building and creating connections back to the bigger picture and to what is the real driving force of the design. That is why I think it is quite interesting to work in details as much as one works on the micro and the macro at the same time.
CL: Drawing can be read as a bearer of two complementary values. The visual exploration of architectural detail solutions has a maieutic function, that is discovering the truth, through a dialogue with oneself expressed through graphics. Also, the research can be conducted with a heuristic approach, the continuous variation of the signs, their overlapping, their combination, and the development of the graphic organism can constitute an investigative process that leads to an unexpected solution. How do you use drawing in the exploration of construction details?
JA: I constantly sketch. We might start the project talking about brief and concept, but there is something in there, a particular idea that might start with a detail. It might be how these two materials meet, or this specific connection is solved. For me, I always start with sketches. When I have an idea, I often test it through sketching on layers and layers of tracing paper, challenging something and looking back because I keep discovering new solutions. I take these sketches apart, and I look at them on the table. Sometimes, I dig out one, I scan it, and I put it on the computer, starting to explore its evolution together with the team. It comes a lot from working with existing structures as we do in the UK. They are often very challenging conditions, and I wonder how to solve these issues in three dimensions. I can picture it in my head, but when I start to put it on paper, it starts to take shape. Then we get into 3D modeling, we test it, we look at it, but I always go back to paper to overlay the printout with the sketch or the trace. This process is the base of the working dialogue with the team, which in the end will lead to a fully resolved set of detailed drawings, ready for construction. The communication we have with our contractors is hardly verbal. It actually takes place through sketching and drawing. What I found very interesting is that across all different nationalities, disciplines, and various types of geographies, drawing and sketching are what communicates.
CL: Is there a contemporary architect, or one from the past, who has influenced your approach towards details?
JA: I think you will probably be quite pleased because there is, and that is Carlo Scarpa. What I am interested in about his work is his craftsmanship and understanding of materials, but also how to insert, connect, and reposition. I can remember the beautiful bridge in Venice at the entrance of Querini Stampalia or how he frames objects in Castelvecchio, which is, in a certain sense, de-constructivist and brutalist in certain moments, but is so well done. Everything connects, the new and the centuries-old artifacts. I realized that even when I was in college, even before my master’s degree, I became obsessed with him. I looked at his sketches and drawings, and I could see his process of thinking, and something got my interest.
CL: The fact you mention Scarpa helps me move on to the relationship between detail and scale. Scarpa never really designed any large-scale buildings. Maybe, he managed to keep that obsessive control over the quality of details because of a certain scale. Throughout my personal career, I have met on some occasions with designers or academics who claimed that a whole project could be conceived starting from a specific detail. What do you think about it?
JA: I think it is possible, and I can mention an example. We designed a villa in Sri Lanka on the South Coast. We just started boxing out and massing options with the client. We wanted to propose a modernist approach, but the client did not like it, and he wanted a more traditional and vernacular solution, somehow related to the earlier works of Geoffrey Bawa. We had this phenomenal view on three sides, and we wanted to emphasize it, avoiding too many interruptions from the structure. The detail that started the whole project was about creating a twin column so that one could see through it. This component articulated the entire structural framing, drawing the modularization of this particular villa. From that detail, the whole idea of pairing followed through and started to manifest itself on different other parts of the project. Before the entire thing began to formulate into a plan, this was something that was driven into a solution. It was successful because it helped to rationalize the project. Instead of being decorative, that detail had a function.
CL: Your architecture seems to be strongly influenced by a rational vision of spaces. They respond to geometric characteristics that are simple, but not trivial. The contemporary trend in increasing spatial complexity, the introduction of curved or curvilinear forms usually correspond to the rise in complexity of the construction and its details. Specific spatial processing can only be controlled using specific digital manufacturing devices. What is your point of view on parametric tools?
JA: Again, I think it is about the approach and not so much about the tools in which we restrict ourselves. The whole idea of exploring the fundamentals, such as orientation, natural light, or with specific projects wind flow for cross ventilation, all these fundamentals come into play. We start quite rudimentary, and then, through technology, we challenge these parameters. We can explore through parametric tools where specifically that light is coming in. If one has to create an architectural form that draws that particular point of light into space, this can be conceived neither through two-dimensional floor plans nor sections. In this light, the support of having a parametric design is excellent because it also provides a manufacturing solution. It is readable. Technology is another tool that undoubtedly facilitates the morphing of the architecture, but the architecture principles remain the same, and I think that for us, as practice materiality, craft, and detail is something that is the parent of all ANARCHITECT’s work.