Interview: Architect Marc Kushner

Functionality, philosophy, minimalism and modernism

Manipulating space in order to create new ways for us to live and work, architects have always experimented with their craft. Perhaps the most interesting and successful movement in architecture of recent history was the Modernist period, in which structures were stripped back—with the intention being functional. Also influenced by new materials, technology, and engineering, this style reduces architecture to its elements—more often than not in spectacular and beautiful ways. We spoke with Marc Kushner—architect and co-founder of Hollwich Kushner (HWKN), as well as the publication Architizer—about the philosophy and history of this less-is-more approach.

Mies could be called the father of Modernism. His designs were simple, clean and minimal—a departure from the dominant style of his time. Can you point to historical markers that triggered this less-is-more philosophy?

Remember that the International Style (or Modernism) was built on the shoulders of dozens of architects, artists and thinkers—a bunch of very smart people grappling with the incredible pace of modernization. Mies was a big player in this evolution that was largely centered at the Bauhaus in Dessau which he ran from 1930-33.

As other design disciplines shifted to industrial era techniques (cars, planes, boats) architects started to grapple with how buildings could learn from these advances. One of my favorite Mies projects is one of his first, The Riehl House in 1906, where you can actually see this conflict between traditional architecture and the starkness of modernism. The house is a traditional German house—all cutesy and whatnot—but it stands on a slope that required a retaining wall. Viewed from the street one might think that this was a typical traditional German house, viewed from the slope looking up a the house, a starkly Modern basement and retaining wall is revealed. It is like you can see the internal struggle of Mies play out in this one house.

Decades have passed since the rise of modernism, but the style is still strong. What is it about this reductionist aesthetic that transcends time?

I don’t think it does transcend time. I think it was out of popular vogue for decades (recall the ’80s flirtation with Post-Modernism). We can thank architects like Rem Koolhaas for reinvigorating Modernist ideas with the mess and complexity of urban life. Modernists taught us how we could reduce architecture to its elements, later architects taught us how to enjoy it.

Have contemporary architects evolved this notion of modernism? How so? Any examples you want to point out?

OMA’s campus center at IIT in Chicago is a great example of a new interpretation of old ideas—breathing new life into the idea of open-plans. And of course Bjarke Ingels, (BIG) has turned the concept of “less is more” on its head by coining the term “yes is more.” All contemporary architects are reacting Modernism in some way—it is our burden and greatest legacy.

Do you consider your work as an architect to follow the less-is-more philosophy? What are some recent projects from your firm that exemplify this?

No, and I don’t believe that Mies did either. Yes, there are only a few elements to his work, but those elements are incredibly well executed. Don’t forget, Mies also said that “God is in the details.” So when you look at something like the Barcelona Pavilion it is hard to square away why he used a chrome-plated column and the some of the world’s most expensive finishes. That isn’t less. That is more. When you look at the Seagram building and you are struck by the simplicity of its horizontality don’t forget to notice that Mies had vertical I-Beams attached to the facade to reinforce that verticality. That isn’t less. That is more.

As an architect I don’t believe in economy; I believe in effect

As an architect I don’t believe in economy; I believe in effect. We do whatever needs to be done to get people to love the spaces we create. Mies was more serious than us, but I don’t think he would disagree.

Obviously there’s a big difference between architecture and automotive design, but there are some similarities as well. What do you see those similarities to be? Funny enough, cars heavily influenced the creation of the The International Style, or Modernism. Le Corbusier’s book Toward a New Architecture lays out some clear historical triggers to the creation of Modernism. In particular he was interested in the aerodynamic functionality of industrial design, particularly in planes and cars of the era.

Hero image courtesy of Fundació Mies van der Rohe, Riehl House image courtesy of The Mies Society, Fondazione Prada and IIT images courtesy of OMA, Seagram Building image courtesy History 375 Park Avenue, portrait by Jason Lindberg