Transcript of an interview of Lester Korzilius by Nick J. McGough on 4th November, 1999

 
What do you think Le Corbusier meant by 'A machine for living in'?

I think Corbusier was a very complicated architect and I don't think his view of a machine for living can be taken as simplistically as it sounds. I think there is a psychological element in Corbusier's architecture, which comes through very strongly. If you were to read his manifestos or the Five Points it doesn't necessarily come across that but if you were to walk through some of his buildings, lets say Villa Savoye, I mean to me that feeling comes across, so I think outwardly there is a rationalistic approach to architecture but I think fundamentally for Le Corbusier it's more of an intuitive approach to architecture, in my view.


Were you taught by disciples of the Modern Movement?

I think pretty much yes, I would say so.


Did you find them dogmatic in their teaching?

To a degree yes but I think only in the sense that every architect is a dictator waiting to happen, so you have opportunities for expressing it.


Do you think Leon Krier was fair to compare and contrast the private houses of various modernist architects with the buildings they designed?

Somewhat fair, now I don't know at all his criticisms but I can guess what his criticisms would be. (After showing him the article) I think if you were to look at Richard Rogers house, it's actually very close by to here, it's just on the other side of the river; traditional on the outside but for Chelsea you'd not realistically be able to build anything else given the way the planning laws work here, conservation areas and so forth, however the interior is very much in-keeping with, you know, kind of his style, so very much so. And I would say in Norman Foster's case too, I mean again I think there would be a match in that case; but you're talking about at a certain level of the profession and a certain level of money that is being spent that is not in my mind typical of your average architect. So is it a fair criticism; to some degrees yes but in some ways an architect doesn't just design houses, you do a lot of other buildings other than just houses and you're called in to be spending other peoples money, and often great quantities of money, and so it's as an individual and a human being in the business world you don't necessarily have those resources at your own personal disposal.


Do you believe in 'the spirit of the age'?

The zeit geist; to a degree yes because I think everybody is influenced by the time that they are in, so I would say yes.


Has Post-Modernism advanced the ideals of the Modern Movement in any significant way?

In my mind no but that again is a personal opinion. I think though there are some architects that would be considered Modernist architects that their work has a certain richness to it but I wouldn't have said that has come through Post-Modernism per se, so I guess that the answer would be no to your question.


Do you think architecture has got better or worse in the last 50 years?

I don't think architecture at a fundamental level has changed and that architecture in dealing with the human spirit and I think there is always some projects that are exceptional and, you know, there is a lot of things that are decent or not decent, or whatever, but I don't know that at a substantial level that it has really changed too much. Now I think there is more money sloshing around per capita so people, corporations and so forth are wealthier so they can afford to put more resources into building a building. So from that point of view there may be some more discretion now than there was fifty years ago. So if you take it from that point of view then you would say that buildings generally are better and therefore by extension, you know, you're bound to get some better architecture just by luck of the draw.


Do you believe that architects must, wherever possible, use the latest technologically advanced building materials?

No; because then you're tied. I think every architect wants to grab onto something because if you have nothing that you're grabbing onto whether it's a structural grid or solar orientation or technology, or whatever, it's extremely difficult to design, I think the more limitations that you have the easier it is and often you have to provide your own limitations so you'll say OK well, we're going to express the structure because there is an inherent beauty in expressed structure but that's just a completely mental construct you could equally make a mental construct that we're going to expose the mechanical services and express that and subordinate the structure but again that's completely a mental arithmetic that you're coming up with.


What place should environmental concerns such as sustainability have in design?

It's certainly the flavour of the year, these last couple of years, so I think just society wise there is a much greater concern for sustainability, recyclability, so on and so forth, so I would say just if you believe in the current of the times then that's for certain become much more important.


But do you think it should be fundamental to how a building is designed, the considerations of its impact on the environment at all?

Not necessarily, no.


How do you think Modern Movement architects have influenced the built environment in Great Britain especially in the area of public housing?

I would say, if you look at a lot of the public housing that has been built it's dreadful. And it's not always necessarily an architect's fault because it's not the fountainhead that one man can change the world. But I think if you look at a country like, say for example Holland, that has some extremely good public housing and has always had very good public housing through many decades and whether it's pre-Modern or Modernist housing and that there's that culture there so it can be done, but it's not just the architects themselves that are responsible for it.


Have you modified your design principles since qualifying, and if so why?

Yes, and I think the reason would be just in terms of, I mean it sounds crass, but in acceptance of the way the world works and that if you want to achieve things you have to, in my mind, you have to do it within certain constraints and restrictions and that to ignore those then would become marginalised and, you know, it can sometimes be a little bit of rolling dice with the devil so at what point do you accept the system for what it is and at what point do you buck the system and that is a very very difficult judgement call to make and that's one thing that I think you get better as you work more and you get more experience you kind of understand, you know, what can change and what can't and, you know, when you can change it how do you change it.


Name a favourite architect and why?

Probably John Lautner, who I worked for for a number of years early in my career, I don't know if you're familiar with his work there might be a book in the library, very very tremendously creative and mostly individual houses but extremely expensive houses which would be now several million pounds each to build. For him the idea was the central aspect of architecture and he believed in it fervently and was able to actually achieve it where a lot of other architects haven't been able to do that, to that degree.


Which architects had the greatest influence on you during your training and why?

Again, probably those architects that I've worked for, so probably Paul Rudolph and John Lautner.


What is your ultimate career goal and do you think you will ever achieve it?

Well I think when I was your age my ultimate goal was to have my own practice, which I did for nine years in New York and then you realise the world looks a little different when you get to a certain thing and there's other things in life. So ask me in another ten years but I've kind of done what I wanted, been published and then you realise well some things are good about it and some things, you know, aren't what it's cracked up to be. And so then you look for other avenues, so I would say yes I've achieved what I want but now I've changed and I'm seeking other things.


So why did you come to Foster and Partners?

Partially in the potted answer, coming to England was because I have an English wife otherwise I would not have come to England, or back to England. Just as an American I think it's just too new, it's a great country but for a non-English person it just is one more obstacle, in a sense, coming from a different place. Foster and Partners is a tremendous firm and they do a lot of work and for someone like myself who has a lot of experience I can fit in pretty well with that. I have the background of a high design practice and working in that environment and it's not so easy once you have, in my case twenty years of experience, to slot in anywhere. And I think a place like this is unusual in that it has the opportunity and that the quality of the work is as high as it is, it's phenomenally high considering just the size of the practice, it's amazing actually.

How do you see architecture developing in the next millennium?

Again, as we were saying earlier, I don't think that fundamentally architecture changes, in the sense that architecture dealing with the human spirit and the certain elements of the human psyche that don't change through time and I think architecture, good architecture, will always address that. But the way that you address that will constantly change whether you're using stainless steel or fabric tension structures, or whatever. And I think societal problems will change, so in days gone by you might have had housing where you had three families in a house, maybe now you have nuclear families or single parent families and so on and so forth. Different kinds of businesses that exist now, information technology changes the way people work, so all of those will effect how buildings are designed but I think at a fundamental level architecture doesn't change.


Are the changes you are making to the house you are buying in Cornwall similar to some of the ideas in the Sylvan Hill Residence that you designed?

If you were to look in here [referring to drawing of Sylvan Hill] there is a very complicated entry sequence as you come in, it's a gradated entry with trellis and light and the way that you look at a view through a house. In a poor man's way, in this house building in a garden, controlling the approach so it's very careful and is what Frank Lloyd Wright would have done, lets say, if you look at some of his buildings how he orientates you as you come into a space. So it's this and intentionally structuring the way that you look, controlling the space so a zone of one, two, three, four, five into the main sitting area and then, again declining in a similar way that this has entry covered trellis in a poor man's version doing something a bit…, but this is really a poor man's version so in a sense some of the ideas of controlling the entry sequence and the gradation from public to private space are the same but greatly stripped down, greatly simplified and much cheaper to build because then also in something that I'd do for myself, you know, I have a certain income from working but all of these building have to be things that economically stand for themselves, so in other words if my wife and I were to sell them we would have to be able to get our money back minus a certain amount of vanity money that we might throw in. So lets say, we might say, OK we'll spend x amount of money for that but that's a very small level given our income. Whereas somebody that might have done this house for example, this house in Connecticut, they have a net worth of several million dollars. So in that case if they happen to throw away, so to speak, one million dollars, fine I mean you die eventually anyway so you can't take it with you, so why not? So in that sense they're very different but there are some similarities, but the biggest one is economic, is the limiting factor.


If hypothetically money wasn't a problem would have this been the kind of house you would have designed for yourself?

To a degree, except that as an architect you are designing for other people as well. I mean to design for their taste is maybe an arbitrary word but particularly when you're doing a house you're designing for their lifestyle. Houses are very unusual kind of buildings because they're so personal. If you were to do other kind of buildings, say commercial buildings, then I think there'd be a very close correlation if your doing a commercial building for yourself versus a commercial building for somebody coming in because clients on commercial buildings don't have the same emotional attachment that people have in houses. Houses go off the other end of the spectrum when it comes to emotional input by the client.
 

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