In Conversation: Farshid Moussavi and Elizabeth O’Donnell

On the occasion of her April 2014 Current Work lecture, architect and educator Farshid Moussavi sat down with Elizabeth O’Donnell, Acting Dean of The Cooper Union School of Architecture, to discuss the state of architectural education, the place of research in the discipline, and the contemporary role of the architect. The two share long histories of teaching, with Moussavi currently a Professor in Practice of Architecture at Harvard Graduate School of Design and previously the head of the Institute of Architecture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, among other positions, and O’Donnell a professor and now Acting Dean at Cooper Union since 1984. 

The League invited Moussavi and O’Donnell for a dialogue about Moussavi’s professional work, teaching, and research. The following conversation has been condensed and edited.

Elizabeth O’Donnell and Farshid Moussavi at The Cooper Union

Elizabeth O’Donnell: Looking at MOCA Cleveland, your World Trade Center competition submission, and the Yokohama International Port Terminal, one of the things I would never associate your work with is a style. So I was curious when I saw that your title for tonight’s lecture was “Style Matters.” My question is: why? Why the word “style,” and why does it matter?

Farshid Moussavi: I have been working on The Function of Style, a book that follows The Function of Ornament and The Function of Form. The three topics are related and intertwined in the history of architecture. My interest is in research on the discipline, particularly in revisiting these concepts, which have had unstable definitions throughout history. And to ask, do they need to be redefined again?

Ornament as it was defined in the 19th century would not be a relevant topic today, so I tried to redefine it in the context of contemporary practice as being generated and integral to built forms rather than added-on. Form was another one that had gotten caught up in its definition — is it an idea, is it a kind of matter? Is it the opposite of structure? And so it gets redefined as a term that brings all of these together, because we can look back at the history of form and find that the dualities it was pushed into are no longer needed and that form for an architect today can be all of those.

An image from The Function of Ornament | Courtesy of Farshid Moussavi Architecture

Style is trying to do the same thing. Style has a history, starting from the late 18th century when architects were liberated from having to copy nature. With the Enlightenment and the search for different rationales for forms, there were various historians and architects who defined style, from Semper, to Riegl, to Panofsky, to many others.

At the moment we’re stuck with the idea of style — the style of an architect, the style of a period, the style of a region — being almost a willful add-on to what is otherwise a rational project. But actually it didn’t always have this definition. I think style is at the core of what architects do in a multi-disciplinary design environment.

We’re stuck with the idea of style being almost a willful add-on to what is otherwise a rational project. It didn’t always have this definition.

We work with others who specialize in many of the individual aspects of an architectural built form — the environmental side, the structural side, the acoustics side, the safety side. There is a specialist for absolutely every layer and element. It’s impossible for the architect to be a specialist in every one of these, but the architect is the one who brings all of these together.

I’m interested in the approach and the objective that the architect uses to connect these different elements together — you could use style to represent yourself, to represent your region. Or you could see it as a political approach in which the architect, at small scales, changes everyday life arrangements or everyday life processes. Whether it’s in the context of a residential building or a museum building, how do you connect these various layers or materials in ways that make a difference through subverting or shifting conventions? It is necessary to discuss how assembling elements of architecture in one way versus another makes a difference. If “style” has become almost a useless term, I think we can make it useful again in practice, and in academia, to clarify what architecture is because it’s not so clear anymore what architecture is as opposed to landscape architecture as opposed to planning as opposed to urbanism. Especially since those fields have all moved to incorporate a lot more design into their disciplines, I think focusing on what we as architects do, and trying to articulate why we do things, is important. We need to develop a way of speaking, or of sharing our ideas as architects, so that the work we do isn’t limited to our own private world and so that we don’t talk another way when we go in front of the outside world for which we produce these buildings. We need to become more open or confident to talk about what we do, what we specifically do.

O’Donnell: I totally agree with you. What is at the root of our discipline, what is it that we bring to the conversation? I think that as architecture has attempted to align itself with landscape, with planning, with hydrology, with geology, the risk is that architecture finds itself in the middle of all those things with nothing to say and nothing of substance to bring into the conversation. I think this is a moment, especially in schools, to consider what are the fundamental principles of making architecture that are different from those of other disciplines. We have to know clearly what it is that we bring that is unique and distinct from the other disciplines. That’s why I thought Style was very risky.

Moussavi: That’s good. I thought Ornament was super risky! I thought Style would be easier, but the more I delved into it, the heavier I found the subject. It touches upon so many layers that relate to how we define ourselves as architects and the discipline. That’s why it is risky.

O’Donnell: So would you describe your own practice as having a style?

Moussavi: Not style understood as representation, not style as a formalism that is repeated. That’s not how I am defining style in the book. But I think style is central to the work of my office, as it was to the work of Foreign Office Architects. We have always been very consciously trying not to have style, as something that is predictable and repeats. If you do that, the relevance of style diminishes as it’s no longer context specific — by context I don’t mean the site, but in terms of whether it matters that you do a curvy form for a house versus a curvy form for a museum.

I think that both at FOA and now, we’ve always been very interested in all the kinds of instruments of architecture: geometry is one, tectonics and construction is one, architecture as organization is another. So there are all these layers or materials, and I think what gives style relevance or agency is when these are put together in ways that produce change in certain contexts.

O’Donnell: I would say a practice like yours is not stylistic — and maybe that’s another space where we get stuck, in that the word style is not stylistic — whereas with Renzo Piano, we all pretty much know what a Renzo Piano museum will look like. Frank Gehry’s projects are identifiable, they’re stylistic. With yours, I’m struck with how each project seems extremely specific to the task at hand: the program, the site, the time, all of that. What are the decisions and what is that pathway that creates this unique entity that is specific to a particular assembly of concerns and issues?

Moussavi: I think it’s problematic or impossible even that every project would start from a tabula rasa of mind and not carry any lessons from past projects. You do carry architectural knowledge with you, and the question is how you apply it and how you put it into use. There can be lines or strands that carry between projects, as long as each project puts them into use in new ways. If not, you are not experimenting or innovating but simply applying yourself. That’s when it becomes predictable.

O’Donnell: That brings me to another thought, about educating architects.

If you go into a great building and you don’t get weak in the knees, then there’s something you’re resisting about architecture.

The Cooper Union is a five-year undergraduate program in which the student’s relationship with the faculty is very, very direct. This undergraduate model starts with a highly abstract year of investigation into space and design, and concludes with a yearlong thesis project. Then there’s the graduate model, like the Harvard GSD, in which faculty from all over the world come in on a much more limited basis. Our students see their faculty two or three times a week. At the GSD you’ll see your main faculty six or seven times a semester, and frequently be working with them on a research project into an idea of architecture. Do you have thoughts about these two radically different ways of educating architects?

Moussavi: Can we not have both? It takes time to become sufficiently familiar with the tools of architecture in order to have enough distance to be able to do research. Students should be exposed to a process where they learn before they’re expected to apply that learning and to think bigger, although this does not necessarily mean teaching students histories of ideas and tools in a conventional way. Research can then be reserved to a higher graduate level, and not be confused with learning.

I run my studios at the GSD like I’m giving a program. Perhaps I would like it to go one way, but ultimately these are individual student projects and they learn through doing their own project within the umbrella that I set. The umbrella helps students see the projects against each other, and to see that there could be other ways of going about each project — it gives them a larger perspective.

However, I run my seminars as research projects on Ornament, Form, and Style. I don’t look at those as learning how to design, it’s about research — and if you know the answer to research, it’s not research. I wouldn’t set a problem for this kind of seminar if I knew the answer myself. Now the problem is that when students realize that, they can often feel that you don’t know what you’re talking about because they want to be given answers. It’s a real struggle, because if you don’t do that kind of research at a graduate level, where are you going to do it? I think it must be done at the best graduate schools in the world.

An image from The Function of Form | Courtesy of Farshid Moussavi Architecture

We have centuries of history as a discipline and we should not be driven only by current affairs. We need perspective on where we come from, and also to steer ourselves as to where we go not just by the commissions we have and not just by the crises we face. For that, research is very important.

O’Donnell: Within the discipline of architecture there is not this culture of research — certainly not the way there is in sciences or even in the humanities. So when students enroll in a post-professional program, having already attained a professional degree, they expect that they’re still going to do their own projects.

Moussavi: I think that’s a real problem but this expectation is actually instilled into them by the type of courses that have historically been offered to students. It is up to the academic institutions to advocate that learning to do research and participating in research is a way to go beyond individual design projects. It is a way to question the discipline, and develop ideas even, for new forms of practice. This is something that they would not be able to do so easily when they leave school and become confronted by day-to-day practice. Graduate school is an ideal opportunity for gaining these larger insights on what one is about to jump into. I believe the situation is entirely changeable by the way schools structure their programs and by allocating sufficient credits to research courses.

O’Donnell: I think there are schools that are just schools, and there are schools that set for themselves an agenda of a larger political, social, cultural, architectural project that transcends the curriculum as a professional curriculum.

Moussavi: In America, there is a lot of investment into education and therefore the American academic scene is on the whole incredibly strong.

Being critical of the architectural practice does not have to mean not engaging with it at all.

Yet I sometimes worry that the divide between practice and school is too wide. Being critical of the architectural practice does not have to mean not engaging with it at all. Engaging with practice doesn’t mean you’re making it uncritically; to be part of it actually means you can shape rather than just respond to it. It would be great to see the agendas of schools not just as a theoretical exercise but to reflect the kind of influence they ultimately bring into how practice is shaped in reality.

O’Donnell: The idea is that they’re part of a continuity that began before them and will continue after them, that there is an overarching project that is larger than any one student’s individual work for a single year. I think some schools have that very strongly, and some schools don’t.

The other issue that I was very interested in is your distinction between material and matter, if you would speak to that a bit.

Moussavi: Matter is physical: elements and substances. Material is all of the parameters or forces that inform an architectural project. Light is not matter or an element, but it’s very much a part of an architectural form. Sound is not matter, but it forms part of architecture. There are many, many more materials than just matter that make architecture what it ultimately is.

Architecture is the assembly, the convergence of all of those materials. The set of materials that relate to a project and the way those are brought together build or articulate a very specific way of how people come to engage with those sets of materials.

O’Donnell: I like the way you describe the stair in the MOCA Cleveland building, of people climbing the stair as if ascending the acropolis. Here’s a thing that has a very simple material actuality that when people come in and engage with it, takes on a whole new dimension, a whole new power and authority to offer a transformational experience for the people who use it. No matter how small or perhaps ephemeral, it’s still there.

The staircase at MOCA Cleveland | Photo by Ann Onusko

Moussavi: Yes. And I think this is very much where architecture’s specific agency lies. A stair may be a way to access several levels of a museum, but owing to the way its landings are made wider and its profile leans and cascades in section, it takes on a larger role of shaping experience. It thus moves away from the mere efficiency and practicality of connecting between floors to a space of interaction. A wall may divide inside and outside, but it will also have a certain texture and surface and thickness and profile, so its practical functions also form the basis for people’s aesthetic experience of the exterior as well as the interior. It is impossible to isolate the purely tangible or aesthetic kind of experience from the functional or structural, organizational one. I think that’s the larger way to look at the issue of materiality — that many elements which have practical functions also play an affective role.

O’Donnell: I totally agree with you. Sometimes I tell my students that if you go into a great building and you don’t get weak in the knees, then there’s something you’re resisting about architecture. Sometimes it is a very strong reaction, and sometimes it is quite subtle but penetrating, which you only come to realize has affected you later. I think that’s the thing about great architecture — it gets under your skin.


Farshid Moussavi | Current Work | Complete lecture video | Recorded April 7, 2014


Farshid Moussavi is principal of the London firm Farshid Moussavi Architecture (FMA), founded in 2011.  The firm’s recent and current work includes the Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland; an office complex in London; a department store in Paris; the competition-winning design for a residential complex, Jardins de la Lironde, in Montpellier; and La Defense, Lot 19, in Paris. FMA also designed the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale installation Architecture and Its Affects. Moussavi was previously co-founder of Foreign Office Architects (FOA).

A professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Moussavi was head of the Institute of Architecture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, and has held teaching positions in Europe and the United States. She has served on advisory panels and design juries for groups including the RIBA, the Mayor of London’s Design for London advisory group, and the London Development Agency. Moussavi also serves as a trustee for the Whitechapel Gallery and the London Architecture Foundation, as well as serving on the steering committee of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. Her publications include the books The Function of Ornament and The Function of Form, based on her work at Harvard. 

Elizabeth O’Donnell is the Acting Dean of the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at The Cooper Union. A member of the faculty since 1984, she previously served as Associate Dean for eleven years. She has recently presented at the 2012 Imagining America National Conference in New York, the 2012 World Energy Forum in Dubai, and the 2012 Deans’ Roundtable at the Center for Architecture New York. She was a panelist on the Town and Gown symposium “Next Steps for the City’s Design-Related Academic Institutions,” served as liaison for the New Museum’s Ideas City festivals in 2011 and 2013, and was rapporteur for the 2010 Dubai Forum. In practice she has completed numerous projects in New York City, including offices for non-profit foundations, schools, loft residences, and building additions, with an emphasis on the adaptive reuse of existing buildings and sites.