A while back, Rockwell Land sent me an invitation to meet a “starchitect” with whom they are working on a project. The text said, “Do you want to meet the architect of the Burj al Arab?” Of course I wanted to.
The interview was with Carlos Ott, an Uruguayan architect based in Canada. He first became famous when he won first prize in 1983 (among 744 architects from all over the world) for the design and construction of L’Opera Bastille in Paris, France. He has since designed and built other landmark projects around the world like the Federal Court Building in Ottawa, Canada, Simcoe Plaza in Toronto, Canada, the Jiang Su Opera House in Nanjing China, National Grand Theatre of Hangzhou, China and many more. He claims to have been the one who originally designed the Burj al Arab in Dubai – a very interesting story. He currently has offices in Toronto, Quebec, Shanghai, Dubai and Montevideo.
Carlos and I broke the ice by talking about his and my old home, Toronto. He told the story of how his conservative neighbours in the posh North Toronto district would throw eggs on his house because he built a “monstrosity” of a cube. I googled his house, very interesting.
I have a video of this interesting Q&A conversation. I will upload it soon and share with you. For now, I hope you enjoy highlights of our conversation. Intelligent architects. I could talk to them for hours. Here are snippets from our conversation…
Daphne: You’re a starchitect. You’ve made landmark buildings around the world. Is this something that’s going to be another landmark building?
Carlos: Everything is relative. I’ll tell you a secret. But don’t tell it to anybody. I will try to do a landmark building. The only thing is I hope that Rockwell doesn’t think it’s too crazy. And shuts it down. My interest is to try to do something unique. Having said that, I’m quite confident that Manila, Makati is developing very fast. There’s a lot of Starchitects coming in designing buildings here. As a matter of fact, Rockwell has before me, used very well known architects from all over the world to design buildings. So I guess I’m integrating to a process whereby the city of Manila, Makati are coming into a new era with the growth of the country and looking for newer, better, more interesting buildings.
Daphne: A lot of cities now are starting to look the same. As an architect is that something you participate in or would you like cities to have their own characteristics?
Carlos: I love cities to have their own unique look. It’s a pity. It’s one of the negative sides of globalization. I think that Manila, you Filipinos are very unique people in the world. Filipinos look different from other people in the world. Their cities should look different. And hopefully we remain that character. On the opposite side, we will be bringing theories and images and looks that are very international. But hopefully, hopefully, the work we do will have its Filipino character.
Daphne: So what have you come to realize about Manila, about the Philippines that so far you think you will work into your design – characteristics that are Filipino?
Carlos: The Filipinos I knew – the diaspora of the Filipinos I know overseas until I came to the Philippines and met Filipinos who live in the Philippines – they all have a common denominator I would say. And they are very warm people. Very intelligent people. Very ambitious people. They all love music. They all sing. They all play a ukelele or piano or whatever. They are very artistic. That character hopefully will be included somehow in a venue in this building. Because Filipinos should be able to sing or to paint wherever they are. Here you go out in the restaurants at night, at least here in Rockwell, they’re full. People are all over. I think all that externalization which is a character of Filipinos and perhaps is a character also of us Latin Americans – we’re very outgoing people. We have to create buildings that are not for Danish people or for Eskimos or for Americans. We are different. Filipinos are different. So we need outdoor spaces. Meeting places. Lot of places where a crazy Filipino can come with a guitar and sing. Don’t you think?
Daphne: When you built the L’Opera Bastille you were ahead of your time, it was a building that stood out, glass and steel in the 1980’s. Now the rest of the world’s caught up. It’s all the same materials. Where do you think your architecture is headed in the next 20 years?
Carlos: To start with, it must be a green building. When we did those glass and fancy buildings that were on the cover of all the architectural magazines, we forgot that operating costs were a very key role. Today the cost of oil keeps on going up. And the buyer, the intelligent buyer, will not only look at the glossy and glassy façade but how much it’ll cost to cool it and to operate it. So we have an ethical obligation to minimize the use of non-renewable sources of energy and use sun, wind, rainwater. So definitely we’ll do that.
Hangzhou Grand Theatre, China. 1999-2004. “A pearl in it’s oyster’s shell. This moon-shaped building formed only by curvilinear planes incorporates teh green open area surrounding it.” – Carlos Ott website.
Daphne: I can say this because I live here and I’m Filipino. Manila is not the best city in the world. But you see pockets of beauty and progress. What do you think is your role as an architect in improving cities like this?
Carlos: I’m an architect, I’m not God. And I’m a so-so architect. But let me go back. True, Manila is not Rockwell project. Makati is not Manila. And there’s pockets here and there. But believe me, you go to Sao Paolo it’s exactly the same, Rio is exactly the same. You see pockets of the rich, well to do, maybe superficial showy architecture. You see some favellas where poor people live that perhaps are more interesting. You have old parts of the city that’s decaying, the new part of the city growing. Manila is very similar to old Latin American cities. We learned a long time ago, and probably you did too studying as an Urban Planner in Canada, that the architect has a limited role. There’s many other issues. There’s a limited amount of work you can do as an architect but yes, you have to create (if you allow me to use the theatrical language) the stage for this to happen. To that extent, we will achieve our goal.
Carlos: And the other thing we must do is make buildings where you integrate different uses, different levels of people different activities. So I don’t think today, would be a right to do just a residential building. We learned from the cities in Europe for example, or maybe Manila. A vibrant city is a city where the resident lives where the doctor is, where he works, where he shops, eats. Nothing is worse than the dichotomy of the downtown area where people work and the suburb where people sleep.
All photos of architecture from www.carlosott.com
For more information on Carlos Ott’s project with Rockwell Land, click here.