TEN is an architecture research studio made up of individuals from the fields of architecture, design, architectural history, writing, academia and making. We come together outside the frame of our institutional research to develop interdependent and collaborative project partnerships across the broad spectrum of cultural production, with a specific focus on design-by-research briefs. TEN, unlike conventional architectural offices, practices its ethos through a portfolio of self-initiated projects that we undertake with specialized research departments, civil society, local governments and community representatives. Our output includes public events and symposia, teaching programs resulting in related publications and exhibitions, and a design practice encompassing both theory and making. We see every project, whether a construction project, a teaching unit or a written text, as a chance to develop a holistic production that links these various facets of architectural practice.
TEN are Lukas Burkhart, Alexa den Hartog, Emma Letizia Jones, Ognjen Krašna, Scott Lloyd, Guillaume Othenin-Girard, Luka Piškorec, Nicolas Rothenbühler, Karl Rühle, Yves Seiler, David Stoeger, Nemanja Zimonjić
SAA: How would you describe the style of your office?
TEN: We dream up projects and write our own briefs to realise them, even if they might seem impossible at first. That’s the fun of it for us. Since most of us already work within university institutions, we created TEN to offer the possibility of doing projects that we might not be able to do within those other frameworks. In a way, we act as inventors of our own architecture, so that we can take more risks and explore new territory.
Rather than the term ‘style’ we prefer to base our practice around a common set of values. Questions of style then have to reflect those values. When we were first starting out, we wrote down a list of what was important to us. Now, if we are wondering whether we should take a potential project on, we test it against those values. Mostly, the values reflect our main interest, which is the importance of architectural literacy: How the interaction between words, drawings and buildings can be operative in the production of architectural thought. By literacy, we don’t just mean talking to specialists, we mean the legibility of architecture within wider culture. TEN actually started because we felt that the language of architecture was becoming increasingly obscure, irrelevant and remote from everyday life. Since many people don’t necessarily know what an architect does, they reduce the architect to a service provider. Providing a service is certainly a part of the job, but its only one part. We are quite against what we would call the ‘professionalisation’ of architecture, that has taken hold over the second half of the twentieth century.
We also have some difficulty describing ourselves as an architectural office, partly because we have ‘office’ jobs outside of TEN, and partly because we aren’t all architects. There is a great diversity within our structure. We like to imagine ourselves as a record label, under which a mixed and rotating group of architects, writers, artists and historians come together to initiate research collaborations. We’re very inclusive! There is definitely no employer/employee dynamic within TEN.
The other thing that distinguishes us from an office in the traditional sense (at least in Switzerland) is that we don’t enter architecture competitions. Instead, we pitch self-initiated ideas to potential funders or patrons. Even if we work with someone who you could traditionally name a client, we address them as collaborators and nurture a culture of conversation, even though the architecture side of things remains our responsibility. And since we are not wholly dependent on TEN financially, this gives us a certain level of freedom to pursue paths of research by design that are interesting to us. We are definitely more fascinated by asking questions than producing answers!
SAA: Can you tell how one of your project marked / will mark its environment, surrounding, public space? (maybe the one which you’ll present at the exhibition)
TEN: The project we call Nautilus Construct is the first project we did as TEN, and it remains an important one, because it made us realise how much we could achieve when we all banded together. The whole idea of that project was to provide the city of Skopje in Macedonia with an urban stage on the embankments of the Vardar River. Nautilus had no client and no owner. It was initiated, conceived of and made by the people who built it as a gift to the city. This makes it a collaborative work in essence, made by young architects, artists, students, builders and craftsmen as a reaction to the lack of public space creation initiatives in Skopje. Nautilus was able to give local groups in the city a stage where freedom of expression is imperative. We also drew a lot of stimulus from the masterplan once designed for the site by the Japanese architect Kenzo Tange, but sadly never realised.
The intention of Nautilus wasn’t to engage in the on-going litany of development that has overtaken the city, but instead to re-animate an overlooked and neglected part of Skopje with the much-needed possibility for people to gather in public space. In that sense, unlike the other structures in the area, Nautilus did not transmit concrete messages, but offered open questions. We had such limited means both financially and materially with this project, that the real challenge was to make one intervention that could turn that ‘forgotten’ space into a real place. It was all about finding a way to mark the environment we were in with a single intervention that could transform it.
SAA: Do you think that architecture should become more socially/ecologically driven?
TEN: That goes without saying, yes. But at the same time, we hope that the social aspect is in every project we do. We take issue with architecture that purports to be ‘social architecture’ but instead becomes about architects swooping in like superheroes to solve other people’s problems without actually stopping to engage those communities in conversation about what they really want. That seems quite presumptuous, and not at all what we mean by social architecture. All architecture, since it deals with people, should have a social agenda by default – it doesn’t matter what kind of project it is. For example, we are just now developing an exhibition project on the mid-century Brazilian architect Vilanova Artigas, and when we went to Brazil for the research, we saw how every project of his had some form of social agenda, whether it was a university, a school or a private house for a wealthy client. That was quite inspiring: it reinforced the fact that no project is excluded from those concerns, however small. And that the architect can have a role to play at all levels of society.
Ecologically driven projects for us probably relate the most to economy of means: how to make the most of limited resources and the availabilities of a site. In a gallery project we recently finished in Belgrade called Lager, we found so much value in the existing industrial structure that there was no need to be heavy-handed with our own interventions. Trying to preserve what is already there is a responsibility for us. It’s also about laying down the ego, and the urge to control everything in design. Getting rid of the existing is not making our cities any more beautiful, and it involves a huge amount of waste.
We also do a lot of technological research as a matter of course. Actually, one of our group members is currently developing drawings with robots. He’s also conducting a materials research workshop in Belgrade this summer, which we will release more information about soon. We have quite a few makers in our team who make it their business to research new construction applications for existing materials, and to develop things like new casting processes. Every project is an adventure, a chance to test and invent. Sometimes the process ends in failure, but this just means taking stock and devising a new way to do it.
SAA: How does architecture change the world? And your architecture?
TEN: Through education. Through public literacy. With that it’s important to start early. For example, we would love it if our work could engage children, raise their curiosity and be playful. Children have the capacity of being mesmerised by the world. We try very hard not to lose that quality! In a wider sense, we are often wondering how architects can expand the idea of architectural education to become a mutual exchange with a greater audience – not necessarily only those educated inside the profession. There are definitely audiences outside their immediate sphere that architects don’t talk enough to, and because of that we like to develop projects in conversation with people having a very different outlook and area of expertise to ours. We’re actually about to launch a series of summer schools investigating what a literate architecture could be, asking questions like: what does it mean to ‘write’ a contemporary building in a legible way, when we no longer use universal ornamental standards that are culturally recognised, as we once did?
As for our architecture, we see the practice of drawing as an incredibly powerful medium for changing the world. Drawings should be looked at as speculative documents for transforming the social and material conditions of the present. There has been a recent interest from the art world in different forms of architectural drawing, we think precisely for this reason that it is both practical and speculative. It doesn’t represent, it proposes. In teaching and exhibition projects, we have been going back again and again to the Renaissance concept of ‘disegno’. Disegno on the one hand meant ‘to draw’; but it also meant to conceive of a project in the mind. It was related to the capacity for invention. So, the word held the double function of the mind and the hand working together. Every drawing in a sense is just that: a manual task, and a proposition for some kind of transformation of the world, however small or large. Drawing is a great responsibility. It can be the first step towards transforming a single site, or a city.
SAA: What is the most impressive building you visited lately? Can you describe why?
TEN: FAU, Vilanova Artigas’ Sao Paolo School of Architecture in Brazil. As we mentioned, we were there recently for research into an exhibition we’re preparing. We loved it because it’s an intensely political building, but it says everything it needs to say through the language of architectural form. That’s its power. For example, the most striking thing about this building is that it has no doors, which makes it a truly public architecture. You just walk in, and find yourself in a central void cutting up right through the middle of the building. This is the model of an urban square, only it sits under the shared roof of the school. In this way, the building becomes a microcosm for a city. It’s a small city, and it’s run by students: administrators can’t touch it unless they ask the students first. Materially, the building withstands a lot; it’s a tough concrete shell. But the students learn by it – they measure distances on their drawing by the distances between two columns in their studio; heights on their designs by the heights in the building. We found out from looking at his sketchbook that Artigas designed it according to the teaching program he also devised for the school curriculum, which is a perfect example of how building and pedagogy can be combined – something we have been thinking about intensely lately. Again, it goes back to literacy for us. Artigas built an inclusive architecture that can be read by everyone, but it still remains architecture. It’s not trying to be something other than that. Life goes on inside it, but the building doesn’t try to control that life. This is the hardest balance to strike.
SAA: Tell us about a place/building/landscape, that inspired you lately.
TEN: We recently completed a Monk’s Residence in the Thame Valley in Nepal. The residency forms part of a larger 300-year-old monastery complex that acts as an active archive of local architecture, craft, rituals and the cultural governance of the valley. It’s a beautiful, almost inaccessible mountainous region. Everything except the locally quarried stone and lime needed to build the house had to be carried up the mountain on foot – that’s an absolute economy of means.
On the other hand, prosaic landscapes also inspire us on a daily basis. Fictional landscapes from literature inspire us too, and feed our work constantly. We would love it if our architecture, with all the massive amounts of resources, cooperation, time and energy that it takes, could evoke even half as many possibilities as literature can in just a few sentences.