Thoughts on the IBDA’ Terminal. In conversation with Florian Busch.




A New Type of Building — An Interview

BC: As a new type of building, one could imagine many shapes for a creativity terminal. What are the advantages of making a ring? Did you test different forms, and would you reconsider the ring if the site were to change?1

FB: As the client conveyed a strong image of a ring, we responded with studying it alongside several alternatives to make sure nothing was missed. We looked at various concepts, all focusing on the question: How can such diverse programs2 go beyond mere juxtaposition and interact with each other in the best way? After several weeks, we reached the conclusion that a ring is indeed a viable solution, and, compared with the others we studied, a very good one at that. At the core of the vision for the project is production. Not the conventional idea of a clear start-to-finish result-oriented process, but many parallel, ever-evolving processes. The ring’s infinite linearity became more and more intriguing as we introduced more and more of a network into it. The ‘circular infinity’ means that bifurcations on the way do not constitute unalterable choices. Beginning and end, front and back, are no longer dichotomous. It is about the betweens.
However, there is still the fundamental problem that the generic absolute rules out specific differentiation which makes a perfect ring a dubious proposal. There had to be a way to keep, or even strengthen, the advantages of the circular by taking away the ring’s absoluteness. And gradually, this is what happened. In a rigorous process, simple gestures broke up the inevitable certainty of the ring: It was no longer the ‘alien spaceship’ but an ecotone which has formed between two distinct environments.
A process of de-formation based on analytical processes changed the project from the plump imposition of something our minds prematurely consider exact into the formation of something anexact. So while the overall integrity of the project is kept, it will always be different, as it seeks the optimum response to a specific location.

BC: Can you elaborate? What are these processes, how do they respond to different conditions?

FB: If we look at it in more detail, what might conceptually have started as a ring is sliced and filled with a diversity of program. The conventional storeys become shifting levels which not only emphasise the interlinked relationship, but also create a variety of different spaces. Fixed enclosures become transitional zones. The perfect ring undergoes transformations seeking structural and environmental optima. Everything is in flux. The continuity of the circular layout means that we can keep moving. The spatial dynamics are part of the dynamics of this ever-evolving content. It is an uplifting experience to see how approaching the optimum means increasing ‘imperfection’. Once we break the predictability and inevitability of the generic, what is left of the ring becomes a flexible, responsive system.

BC: The more we look at it the more evident this idea of a flexible system seems to become. Does the structural system play a role in guaranteeing the flexibility of the spatial layout?

FB: The structural concept of the porous walls is a very good example. It began with very pragmatic concerns: In order to make construction feasible in the most possible locations around the world, we replaced the obvious, but technically quite elaborate, columns with relatively simple-to-construct concrete walls. The circular arrangement meant that we could depend solely on the sequence of the radially aligned walls to account for all forces, including seismic loads. So the structure is really comprised of only walls and slabs.
A sequence of walls, however, seems diametrically opposed to the project. To maximise exchange and to minimise the amount of material, we used structural algorithms seeking the areas where the walls could be punctured. The engineering prowess was instrumental in minimising material effort. Hundreds of holes turn the 80 radial ‘walls’ into veils which are both dividing and connecting at the same time. The correlation with the traditional architecture of Jeddah, where the project originated, with its intriguing porous layers to filter light and air, is not accidental.

BC: One of the most striking aspects of the building is its ever-changing appearance. The facade seems to appear and disappear as if it were only a volatile membrane between inside and outside.

FB: The constantly changing appearance is a combination of several factors. When the observer is in motion, the shifting levels, with their continuously varying degrees of cantilever, and the porous layers undo the stasis of a building. The perception of clear outlines is blurred, depths change, the building seems to flicker. While these effects depend on the observer’s movement, the facades are actively kinetic. Thousands of louvers can each do one simple operation: rotate. But in their entirety, they are like a skin that can cleverly respond to exterior and interior feedback. Where a skin begins to sweat and trigger the production of melanin in order to protect from overheating and solar radiation, the louvers —on a far lesser level of complexity— rotate to open and close. They are programmed to constantly respond to environmental changes. The program uses sensors to find the ideal degrees of rotation in sync with the environment, yet it can be overridden by individual user input. As the louvers rotate, their brushed aluminium surfaces reflect the surroundings constantly blurring the perception of inside and outside.

BC: Chance and randomness seem to hold an important place in the appearance of the Terminal, but also in its functionality. Is randomness an important ingredient of the creative process?

FB: At the core of the project is an unusually high degree of programmatic diversity. People with vastly different backgrounds and interests come here sharing the same goal: production. Chance encounters between them will become the single most important stimulant of the entire experience. And therefore the design focuses on how to make such unexpected encounters not only possible, but probable. They will drive the eventual production of content beyond the conventional limitations.
What you describe as ‘randomness in the appearance’ is actually not based on the random. It only appears random because it surpasses the human cognitive capacities. Not unlike, to give an example, the observable pattern in the growth of trees. It is humbling to see how we are fundamentally incapable of understanding its full complexity even after thorough analysis. And yet uplifting to feel the importance of a gut response to the inherent beauty. It is based on simple rules and yet too complex for a quick understanding. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that trees are among the closest things to a universally accepted idea of beauty. And while the gut is the most important and perhaps all that is necessary to perceive this beauty, it keeps getting more beautiful the more we dive into understanding the logic behind it: We begin to discover the structure of beauty. Richard Feynman expressed this perfectly in the conversation he had with a friend of his.3

BC: The Terminal is a combination of existing building types in a new type of building. Are there any famous buildings that inspired you for this project? What is the archetype of the IBDA’ Terminal?

FB: It was actually pretty late in the process that we began to compare our ‘follies’ with built and unbuilt precedences. And frankly, that we were able to find so many references with striking similarities both in scale and spatial characteristics surprised even us. What we had been working on all this time was no less than an assemblage of seven fully functioning buildings in their own right. But we had never looked at the project in this way. Rather than ‘a concert hall’ in the vicinity of ‘a photo studio’ and so on, the various ‘follies’ were always seen like the different organs of an organism: We know their individual functions, but it is all about how they interact. So the ‘archetype’, if it makes sense to speak of an ‘archetype’ here, might be the interconnected diversity of a city, and the potential for cross-fertilisation this triggers.

BC: The Terminal is neither fully public nor is it really private. Would you say that this hybrid quality prefigures the future state of the city, where formerly strict boundaries between public and private no longer hold as much importance?

FB: Yes, we can argue that there is a sense of urbanism in the project. The public-private mix creates the ideal incubator for encounters. The freely accessible zones of the foyer, hallways, terraces, and the garden lead through the entire building. On your way, you will repeatedly come across ‘programmatic hubs’ (auditorium, event space, library, store, music studios, visual design studios, restaurants). The individual, privately owned studios/office spaces are interspersed between these larger hubs. The project is not about the exclusion as seen in the conventional office but about interaction. The project is both continuous and diverse, which creates an inevitability of chance encounters, disrupting the conventional, stimulating the unexpected.
And yes, these are all phenomena of a striving city. I am not so optimistic about the future state of the city, however. What we are witnessing all over the world is a soberingly ‘curated version’ of the public. Instead of interaction between public and private space, we see the absorption of the public into controllable private spaces: Public space is turned into lockable enclaves of mainstream taste. In screening who gets access, the conflict and friction necessary for any production is avoided. Complacent boredom replaces innovation.
But the I’T expresses optimism with regards to a positive exchange between public and private. The I’T is deliberately designed to let the urban surroundings flow in and out of the building. What we call the ‘public areas’ have no clear beginning or end, they are akin to streets, squares, and parks in a city. You are inside a building, yet constantly forced to make unexpected encounters. But the extent of the public-private mix will need to be addressed by the eventual operators.

BC: The dimensions and the similar level of diversity call for a comparison with an entire urban block… Do you think a possible site could be the replacement of a city block?

FB: What differentiates the ring from the ‘city block’, which is part of the same inside-outside typology, is a seamless continuity. We might have different associations in our minds here, but if we think about a city like, for example, Barcelona, we would probably soon agree that it wouldn’t work. We’d want more space around. In other words, rather than squeezing the Terminal into the confines of an existing ‘city block’ fabric, it might be more interesting and meaningful to think about the extent to which it would make sense to design a city based on the typology of the Terminal. Having said that, the original site is in a prime location in Jeddah, not in the intricate historical centre but a vast site with ample open space still flowing around the finished building.

BC: As an architecture critic, I am often confronted with the fact that we are witnessing a move away from the global, iconic architecture that characterised the architectural scene of the early 2000s. Instead of high-tech and sculptural experimentation, trend-setting architecture events like the Venice Biennale or the yearly Pritzker Prize nominations now tend to emphasise the social content of architecture. In my opinion, this leaning towards regionalism, localism and social or environmental activism reflects a more general shift from neoliberal to populist discourse in our politics and in society at large. Would you say the architecture of the Terminal is in tune with this direction? Or is it an outlier?

FB: Although this project might not easily avoid being labeled so, being ‘iconic’, is never what we aim for. Nor is social activism. Not only in a project like this, architecture is the vessel for content, and if it were to be revered —in years to come— as a catalyst for extraordinary content, if it facilitates this content rather than stifling it, in other words: if the content evolves because of it and not in spite of it, we might have achieved timeless relevance. That would be the greatest honour.
The political climate has seen an unfortunate shift towards propagating simplistic certainties —which are of course almost always inherently flawed. The architectural language we choose is about undermining any certainties the moment they appear in order to gear our minds towards embracing openness. With this project we sketch out a ‘simple certainty’ only to make it obvious that one has to retract this certainty. The moment of ‘Aha, easy: a ring!’ quickly turns into a more meaningful ‘hold on, I might be wrong. What is actually going on?’. The project reveals, layer by layer, a play between preconceived simplicity and actual complexity. When we are forced to question our certainties, everything becomes possible.

BC: Coming back to the question of adapting or responding to different environments… The Terminal does not have a definite location yet. How would you alter the design if the location changed to Johannesburg or Geneva?

FB: When it became clear that the location would not only change but that there was the ambition to bring the ‘Terminal’ to cities all over the world, we addressed what kind of architectural concept would best anticipate this and therefore avoid the absurdity of the twentieth century ‘International Style’, which failed because it surmised technology would make any building possible anywhere. Were we really to allow such hubris back into our design, while we were suggesting the exact opposite, namely that sustainability was not the after-the-fact technological add-on but based on a specific response to local conditions?
The undecided state of the site became one of the key points of the design process. Not unlike an organism responding to changes in the environment, we had to devise design strategies capable of adjusting whilst keeping its overall integrity. While this approach resembles an evolution set on fast-forward, we obviously don’t claim that we can compete with the complexity resulting from million-year-long cycles. But the potential of feedback systems from the earliest stages of the design onwards is exploited to find optimum solutions for many likely and unlikely locations.

BC: The notion of sustainability is an integral part of the architecture of the Terminal, and can readily be experienced by the users in the form of local microclimates. Do you think this environmental design will have an impact on the ideas of the creators using the Terminal?

FB: Absolutely. People are increasingly embracing the idea that our human existence is not about shielding from, but engaging with, the environment we are part of. Several microclimates across the site will cater to the diversity of users and usages this project is all about. As they change in daily and seasonal cycles, these microclimates will add a temporal dimension which in turn will stimulate the users. The sheer scale of the building makes such microclimates both possible and desirable.

BC: You speak of an architecture of the twenty-first century. How do you envision the role of architecture in the twenty-first century? In many cases, we see virtual space taking precedence over physical space: social media is becoming the new public square. Similarly in the arts, new technologies provide means to share, create and showcase at a distance. How does the Terminal fit into this trend?

FB: Social media are not replacing the public space but may indeed have taken the role of the public ‘square’. However, where the public square was used by some courageous speakers to address passersby, social media have taken that idea to an entirely different level: They constitute the opportunity for anyone at anytime to disseminate his or her or its message, and without the need for physical presence. The courageous speaker has been replaced by anonymous tweeters and bots. The inherent lack of accountability makes these ‘social’ media an unprecedentedly powerful platform. For architecture, the implications of ‘going virtual’ are interesting. The virtual is giving architecture a chance to focus again on the essential. After the early thrills, the presence of gimmicks is losing its appeal. Technology is more and more expected to be the invisible supporter of the ‘real’ (as embodied by the physically experienceable). Since such physicality is no longer unavoidable but deliberately selected, it often comes with a strange romanticism: Stripped of the usual clutter, the scent and touch of wood are receiving an affection, are lifted to luxury. Architects are of course among the first to embrace the opportunity of the pure. Including light switches and electrical outlets in the design of a wall have never been anything but the accepted necessary reality.
I have always rejected the idea to separate or even oppose the virtual and the real. And as we are now experiencing hitherto unknown possibilities of the invisible and immaterial, the virtual and the real are gradually becoming one.
On another level, the virtual as modus operandi during the design and construction is making rapid progress and will have a decisive impact on architecture and the wider construction industry. We have seen decades of computer-informed architecture where things become reality that would have been impossible to conceive only years earlier.
So if you combine both trends, the paradigm shift will be the fusion of technology and nature. Biomimetics is one of the examples where learning from nature is advancing our existence towards an essentially harmonious relationship with the planet we inhabit.
To come back to your question about the role a building like the Terminal might play in the trend of the virtual replacing the real. I believe we will see the virtual not replace but augment the real. The Terminal is being designed in a time where we are beginning to see the potential this sets free.

BC: With the Covid-19 crisis, we see airport terminals around the world running empty and gatherings in museums or concert halls cancelled. What is your reaction to this situation, and has it influenced your plans for the Terminal at all?

FB: The current pandemic is showing us brutally how weak our societies are. Although it is becoming more and more evident that some of the changes we have been forced to adopt almost over night are here to stay, it is hard to forecast how or even if the majority of our ‘everyday routines’ will be changed permanently by Covid.
On a whole, we are forced to admit how myopic our societal behaviour is: Despite the ‘intelligence’ which we like to argue sets us apart from the other life-forms on the planet, the human brain seems to evaluate danger only in a very short-sighted way. Although it is obvious that we are steering towards the abyss, the overall course will not be altered until we can see the first people falling off. We are currently suffering from the haphazard reactions to a surprise attack. Except that this wasn’t a surprise. A global pandemic has been an indisputable ‘when, not if’ scenario for decades. More pandemics are on the way, and they will all be dwarfed by the more and more brutal effects of climate change. But instead of a constructive collective effort we are still fighting petty partisan battles.
This project started well before the pandemic, but we haven’t had to make any significant change because of it. If anything, the new situation makes it clear how important openness is. The Terminal —as an example of the architecture I have been pursuing for a long time, an architecture favouring the flexible and open— is a spatial network which can respond to changing circumstances whilst keeping its overall structural integrity. It is part of a larger environment. Considering that abundant natural ventilation has been identified as the best protection from the transmission of the disease, an architecture which breathes by opening up and letting the outside in seems a good start.

BC: Were there any specific challenges you experienced during the design phase?

FB: With this project we are breaking ground for departures from conventional confines. The fundamental challenge of this project is its non-definition. From the beginning, the definition has not been one but many, and therefore vague. And in order for it to be successful, it —like its many authors— must remain open to multiple possibilities.

BC: Where do you draw your inspiration? Has your design been influenced by your experience in Japan?

FB: The immediate environment of one’s daily routines certainly has a huge impact. Over the years, I have been granted the opportunity to reflect on my native culture’s compulsive zeal for clear definitions and to see it in the dialectic of the ambiguous. Whenever I spend time now in the environment I grew up in, there is an interesting friction. The inadvertent surrender to clear-cut definitions creates a cultural undertone of self-righteous assertions which make life tragically small.
If you see the project in this context, you might discover how the vague and polyvalent have been a major influence, and how they may yield a much more sensitive and productive encounter with the world.

Transcript from an interview conducted in late 2020

  1. The interview was conducted after a presentation of the IBDA' Terminal project, during which the idea of a New Typology was discussed. ↩︎
  2. The building comprises an unlikely combination of functions: work studios, museum, auditorium, library, event space, restaurants, shops: “Where usually a project is content with being either a museum or a concert hall or a library or an office or an event space or a studio or a store, the client wants it all.” ↩︎
  3. ”I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. … Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I mean, it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. … It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions to which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.’” —Richard Feynman ↩︎