INTERVIEW WITH ARCH. TOBIAS WALLISSER, FOUNDER OF LAVA
ETEM: What made you decide to become an architect/engineer?
T.W.: When I was six years old, my parents built a new house. I was fascinated by two things: playing in the construction site on the weekends imagining other functions for the spaces and figuring out how to build the house with LEGO-blocks. I enjoyed the combination of working with your hands building models or sketching ideas and the more analytical approach of trying out how to predict, explain or calculate the way things will work.
ETEM: Which was your most challenging project and why?
T.W.: In 2001, as the creative director of UNStudio, I was in charge of the competition for the new Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart which we won. From the beginning, the budget and the date of the inauguration were set – it simply had to be ready for the Soccer World Championship in Germany with games being played right next to the building! The building is a geometrically complex structure integrating all technical parts into walls, floors and ceilings to achieve clean spaces as backdrop for the exhibition. It is a prototype in many ways, trying to figure out how to transfer the way cars are conceived into the building industry using many parametric tools that were programmed especially for the museum. It was one of the first buildings being coined a building of the era of a “digital modernity” in 2006 when it opened. I spent five years of my life working on this project and learned an incredible lot – but the biggest challenge would have been the Jebel Hafeet Glacier, a solar-powered ski-resort on a desert mountain near the equator in Abu Dhabi. We started working with some members of the team of the Mercedes Museum and had the design development almost ready when the financial crisis hit the market and the project was abandoned. The challenge to build a skin for a 2.5 km long building with 500 m height difference and a temperature difference of plus 55 degrees outside and minus 2 inside was extreme..
ETEM: Which are now the trends in façades?
T.W.: For some time now, façade elements have taken up more and more functions integrating technical features into a seamless skin. At the same time, the geometrical possibilities for façades have greatly been increased allowing architects to design more complex forms. For me, the most interesting trend is the emergence of adaptive façades that are able to respond to environmental conditions. Changes in temperature, solar conditions, noise, humidity, or even the seasons trigger different configurations or performative qualities. This is all possible through the application of nanotechnology to façade materials.
ETEM: How would you define your signature style?
T.W.: I am not sure if we have such a distinct style. Our design philosophy can be summarised as: MORE WITH LESS: more (architecture) with less (material/energy/time/cost). To achieve this we try to merge future technologies with the patterns of organisation found in nature. Naturally evolving systems, such as bubbles, spider webs and corals, are the basis of our building typologies and structures; these geometries in nature create both efficiency and beauty.
Computation allows you to simulate natural behaviour, such as growth and adaptation of species. It is often misunderstood as superficial mimicry, but the potential is in understanding the principles behind nature, not only the appearance. Our projects range from a solar station to a city in the desert, illustrating that it is not the scale of the project that’s the decisive factor for us, rather the opportunity to create innovative approaches to solutions. From small changes we see the potential to create something great.
ETEM: Regarding the state of the planet in the face of climate changes many people are very pessimistic about the future. How do you see the urban building of the future?
T.W.: We are facing an unprecedented increase in the global population. Within the next twenty years, an additional 2 billion people will require housing. This is an increase of more than 60 percent. Never in the history of mankind has so much needed to be built – generating even more of a necessity for controlled, consistent development of new buildings and cities to compensate for the enormous amount of material resources which will be required. Sustainability is therefore not a question of ecological outlook, but sheer necessity. We see this as a huge opportunity, but also a huge responsibility. As designers, we can help shape the lives of many and in so doing implement changes along the way. We see the potential to achieve great things, for instance, in creating man-made landscapes on rooftops, integrating alternative energy and new transportation concepts within urban design.
ETEM: The engineering progress and the discovery of new materials in the past decade are enormous. However, are there specific forms or shapes which are still impossible to build in the conditions of modern technologies?
T.W.: We dream of buildings that work like a piece of nature. I am less concerned about a particular form or shape but about the performance of elements. As mentioned before, one area is building envelopes – being no longer mere façades they are both smart and educational. Like a skin of a snake or a spacesuit for a new environment, they address contemporary needs for flexibility, light, air and views. A new skin can react to the environment, to temperature, humidity and air pressure, and can have embedded layers of technology and sustainability, saving water, producing energy and communicating information to occupants inside the building as well as to the outside world.
ETEM: What is your advice for young architects?
T.W.: Never stop dreaming but never dream without being acknowledged for it. The world’s future depends on the ingenuity of its inhabitants. The contribution of architects to this is the search for suitable spaces for tomorrow’s challenges. Don’t wait for anyone to ask, just be active!
ETEM: What to expect from you in the near future?
T.W.: LAVA has been named as laureate of the European Prize for Architecture in 2016 which was a great success for us and confirmed us to continue the path we are on. Our architectural motto is: Man. Nature. Technology; efficient, beautiful and sustainable. Our next step will be to focus even more on the integration of natural principles and the latest advances in technology with a bottom-up support from users. On the drawing boards there are some large-scale housing projects, small-scale prototypes and new types of iconic structures like an energy-storage tank for the IBA in Heidelberg.◀