Projects such as the Yokohama International Port Terminal and the forthcoming BBC Music Centre have established Alejandro Zaera Polo (1963-) and Farshid Moussavi (1965-), the husband and wife co-founders of FOREIGN OFFICE ARCHITECTS, as leaders of the new generation of architects who are defining a new design language to reflect the speed, ambiguity and uncertainty of contemporary life.
No one sees the world quite like Foreign Office Architects. Their architecture lifts flaps of skin from the ground, and mutates them in contorted twists, like plastic surgery for the earth’s surface. Buildings become landscape, and landscape buildings, man and nature in one indivisible embrace. Their first major project, the Yokohama International Port Terminal in Japan, stretches the city into the sea, its beach of boardwalks weaving like braids through wooden “dunes”, ducking and diving, inside and out, as you promenade to your ship. When the terminal opened in 2002, it looked like nothing else, guaranteeing star billing for Foreign Office in the international media and yanking them in their late thirties — an unusually tender age in architecture — into the premier league.
Next up, taking on old timers like Daniel Libeskind and Norman Foster, FOA were shortlisted in an architectural super-group, United Architects for the World’s Biggest Architectural Competition, that is the Ground Zero project in New York. The most cerebral of the contenders, they were, ergo, least likely to win. Undeterred, FOA sized up against Zaha Hadid and Future Systems in the competition to design the BBC Music Centre in White City, west London. They won with a design — like a slumped sheet of damp wallpaper, freshly peeled from a wall — which promises to be the UK’s most radical building when it opens in 2006.
Inside FOA’s office-cum-laboratory-of-architectural-genetic-engineering in east London — a small, cultish hothouse peopled with intense boffins like them — all sorts of other freakish shapes are bubbling up in frothing computers, to be grafted onto the world. First comes Spain, where they have completed the design of an origami police station in Costa Blanca and a seaside park for the Barcelona International Forum of Cultures, which whips concrete and trees up from the land like icing. While Torrevieja sprouts an FOA-designed theatre that looks like a chunk of rock ripped from the ground by an earthquake.
Such fluid shapes could pigeonhole FOA with the blobs and angles of so many of their peers. Wrong. The husband and wife founders of FOA – Alejandro Zaera Polo and Farshid Moussavi, hate the “starchitect” system and remain detached from their sudden fame. Their website quotes a newspaper soundbite — “the world’s coolest architects” — in irony. “We reject the icon!” announces Zaera Polo, in mock earnestness. “We love Gehry,” Moussavi butts in, “but our generation can’t operate in the same way”. Once exported round the world, the mass-produced quirkiness of Frank Gehry or Libeskind ends up making everywhere seem the same, all jostling icons yelping “look at me!” — as antiquated as the one-style-fits-all international style of Mies Van Der Rohe, Gropius and Le Corbusier.
In its place comes what FOA are after, something in between: localised globalised architecture, if you like. If Gehry’s older generation deconstructed the modernist box, FOA’s generation is more interested in reconstructing, from the landscape upwards. Zaera Polo and Moussavi are not interested in flashy gestures designed to sell cities as Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum has done for the Spanish city of Bilbao. “Our biggest problem today is identity,” says Zaera Polo. “With globalisation, it is difficult to identify exactly who we are and where we fit in space.” “We are all, to a certain extent, foreign these days,” adds Moussavi. “It’s a modern condition.”
Hence the company name. She is Iranian, he Spanish, and they travel constantly. The architectural symptoms of globalisation are non-place, branded junkspace, the tendency for everywhere to end up looking the same — freeways and malls and Dunkin Donuts. The solution? “Something which helps us identify ourselves in the melee of globalisation,” that references place, landscape and history — especially in marginalised spots like London’s Lea Valley — with complexity and subtlety, without veering towards the kitsch of 1980s post-modernism.
That’s where it gets tough. The FOA duo have big brains and conduct conversations leaping from Stockhausen to calculus. The pair fell in love in Harvard University Library. On Christmas Day. They were kindred spirits searching for the same goal, to yank the avant garde out of the ivory towers of academia, and set it to work building this new landscape. Or as they put it, ensuring that theory and practice are “no longer understood either in opposition or in a complementary, dialectical relationship, but rather as a complex continuum in which both forms of knowledge operate as devices capable of effectively transforming reality”. Got that? Trying to find the words to explain what this localised globalised architecture might be to lay mortals is, confesses Zaera Polo with a sad shake of the head, “very difficult”.
So they use a lot of metaphors, their favourites are ecological. “Each building
is like a species grown for a specific ecosystem, an antidote to homogenising globalisation,” notes Zaera Polo. In other words, FOA does not stamp one style wherever, whatever. They take root. “We territorialise ourselves, try to become locals in each place,” with on-site offices staffed by local talent sniffing out the genius loci. The FOA exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 2004 was structured around a giant “genetic tree”, showing the evolution of their species as the “seeds” of ideas take root in particular places. “We try to let the building grow by itself,” says Zaera Polo, in “a riff” between the computer — “a tool like any other” — and the qualities of the place — from the budget to the exact curve of a particular slope. In their scenario, the architect simply “edits” or “conducts” what emerges, no longer playing the heroic artist, but a midwife delivering a latent form, which was buried in the landscape all along. “It’s like a winemaker,” suggests Zaera Polo. “You have a grape. You know that if you go to Chile or Napa Valley a particular grape will grow in ways that will produce different flavours.”
FOA’s proposed designs as part of the architectural team behind London’s 2012 Olympic bid are an apt illustration. The Olympics is the ultimate globalised brand which, every four years, descends on one particular lucky – or unlucky – place. Usually icons and monuments are built, or an Atlanta Olympics corporate circus passes through town. FOA’s Olympics, though, will be “an antidote to the usual sanitised, branded theme park that could-be-anywhere-Olympics,” stresses Zaera Polo, something that “distills the character, crystallises the ambience” of the site, east London’s rundown Lea Valley. “We don’t want to clean it up, cover it in concrete, and put a few white elephants on a platform,” says Zaera Polo. “We want to grow the Olympics from the bottom up”. And, adds Moussavi, “capture some of the “the gruff, east London street culture of a hundred languages, the unexpected, the quirky, the weird” that makes London’s hybridised buzz the envy of every metropolitan rival. To most of its inhabitants, Lea Valley is a post-industrial junk shop of viaducts, scrapyards and warehouses, cobbled together with rampant buddleia. But to Alejandro Zaera Polo and Farshid Moussavi, it is paradise, an exciting man-machine, eco-techno organism from which to conjure up astonishing architectural shapes.
The challenge they have set themselves is the same that has confronted the British since Carlyle and Ruskin, when industrial revolution and empire started to churn up the earth by blurring geographic boundaries. How to find identity in a world of flux? The solution is the same: “the sublime,” says Zaera Polo, “a physically exciting form to project the things around us to a higher level”. No different from the Renaissance. Except that our age is not fixed and knowable, but shifting and nonlinear; our spheres are not ordered but chaotic; our universe is not closed but expanding; our human is no Renaissance man, but a mongrel, with many slippery identities. Our landscape must follow suit, with waves, curves, loops and folds twisting, contorting and melding like, well, like another metaphor, the classic one. “We want our architecture to be like entering a piece of music,” concludes Zaera Polo. “Music is about spatialising and distributing forms. It surrounds you.” But don’t expect Mozart. “We listen to techno.”
Design Museum + British Council
1963 Alejandro Zaera Polo is born in Madrid, Spain
1965 Farshid Moussavi is born in Shiraz, Iran
1981 Zaera Polo starts seven years of studies at the ETS of Architecture in Madrid
1983 Moussavi enrols as a student at the University of Dundee
1987 After working for a year at the Renzo Piano Building Workshop in Genoa, Moussavi studies at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London
1989 While studying for their masters degrees in architecture at Harvard Design School, Zaera Polo and Moussavi meet.
1991 Having graduated from Harvard they work at Rem Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture in Rotterdam.
1993 Alejandro Zaera Polo and Farshid Moussavi marry, and found Foreign Office Architects in London, where they have moved to teach at the Architectural Association. Later they also teach at the Universities of Princeton, UCLA and Columbia in the US.
1995 FOA wins the competition to design the Yokohama International Port Terminal in Japan. They are the youngest architects to win such a prestigious international competition since Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano won the commission to design Centre Georges Pompidou over 20 years before.
1998 Completion of FOA’s first built project, the Belgo restaurant on Ladbroke Grove in London.
1999 FOA moves to Yokohama to oversee construction of the ferry terminal
2002 Completion of the Yokohama International Port Terminal. FOA is chosen by the British Council to represent the UK in the British Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale. Appointment of Zaera Polo as dean of the Berlage Institute in Rotterdam, and Moussavi as professor at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna.
2003 Submit a proposal for the Ground Zero project in New York as part of the architectural super-group United Architects for the World’s Biggest Architectural Competition. The proposal is not successful.
2004 Opening of the Auditorium Park at the Forum of International Cultures, Barcelona. Exhibition of FOA’s architecture at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. Appointed as architects for the London 2012 Olympic bid with Allies & Morrison, HOK and EDAW. FOA wins the competition to design the BBC’s new Music Theatre at White City in London.
2005 Completion of a theatre in Torreivieja, Spain.
Design Museum + British Council
Visit Foreign Office Architects’ website at f-o-a.net
Foreign Office Architects: Working, University of Michigam Press, 2005
Albert Ferre, The Yokohama Project: Foreign Office Architects, Actar, 2003
Agneta Eriksson, Foreign Office Architects, Eriksson + Ronnefalk Forlag, 2001
For information on British design and architecture, visit Design in Britain, the online archive run as a collaboration between the Design Museum and British Council at designmuseum.org/designinbritain
Design Museum + British Council