Design Manifestos: Marco Vanucci of OPENSYSTEMS Architecture

Marco Vanucci (Photograph courtesy of OPENSYSTEMS)

Marco Vanucci is founding director of OPENSYSTEMS Architecture. He studied architecture in Italy and in the UK where he graduated from the Architectural Association in 2004. He then worked for Zaha Hadid Architects where, among other projects, he was part of the design team for the new London Aquatic Centre for the Olympics 2012 and the Chanel Pavilion. He worked with AKTII Part Team where he found the opportunity to develop his interest for organizational and performative systems and the middle ground between architecture and engineering. OPENSYSTEMS Architecture, in line with the spirit of the contemporary avanguarde, pledges research and innovation as the paramount driving force of the design process and its actual manifestation into built forms. The practice bridges experimental design and practical solutions through the rigorous implementation of physical crafts and computational protocols. Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to learn more about Marco’s unique approach and design philosophy.

On becoming an architect
I’ve always had a fascination for drawings, images and visual culture in general. At the end of high school when I had the chance to figure out what to do next I naturally grew towards architecture. At the time, I was naturally oriented towards a carrier in a creative field: I had an interest for graphic design, but I thought of architecture as an intellectually more stimulating discipline. I started my studies in Florence, in 1996, where I had the chance to study with some of the protagonist of the ’60 and ’70 ‘radical’ avantgarde (Archizoom, Gianni Pettena, etc). During my years in Florence I developed an interest to continue my studies abroad and, in particular, I was attracted to the Architectural Association in London. Very few people in Florence actually knew of it at the time.

I moved to the AA in 2002, a very interesting moment where the theory and the practice of architecture were challenged by the ‘digital revolution’. In London I found a very exciting atmosphere: the AA reflected the optimism of the new digital paradigm. We were studying the post-structuralist philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari and their thousand plateau: the virtual plane of infinite possibility before things actualise into a final form is what we were discovering by studying and designing in school. In many ways we were experimenting the analog parametrisation of architecture before the introduction of parametric softwares. We were trained in our brain to think parametrically. We were also interested in the genesis of form through an iterative design methodology.

‘Diatomic’ (Photograph courtesy of OPENSYSTEMS 2011)

On discovering his voice as a designer
I have a few names and faces that were definitely very important in my formative years. At the AA, I studied with Michael Hensel and Achim Menges. Under their supervision, I’ve learnt the study of material systems as a mean to actually re-define the relationship between form, structure, programme and performance in architecture. They also introduced me to the passion for computation and its application to architectural design. Ciro Najle was also a very influential figure for me in understanding architecture as a problem of organisation.

We were considering architecture as a ‘material practice’. This paradigm was declined in various way: on the one hand, those who saw the world as a place of action, to get involved with the material fabric of contemporaneity. On the other hand, a more philosophical approach for which the understanding of architecture as a material practice meant overcoming subjectivity in favour of the machinic and the self organisation properties of matter.

We were experimenting with form-finding, questioning form through physical and digital experiments.

Those were defining years for me and have determined my future path as a designer.

After graduation I spent two years at Zaha Hadid Architects and then, following my passion for organisational and performative systems, I joined AKT, a structural engineering consultancy. At the time, engineer Hanif Kara, one of the principals at AKT and a former professor at the AA, was setting up a team of architects and engineers to form the Parametric Applied Research Team (p.ART). The idea behind was to address the shift in the architectural culture which saw the introduction of parametric software, digital fabrication, as a possibility to study and realise non-standard architecture.

I was at AKT for 6 years and I had the chance to be involved in many seminal projects: among others, the Sheik Zayed National Museum with Foster&Partners, the UK pavilion at the Shanghai Expo with Thomas Heatherwick and the Coca Cola pavilion for London 2012 with Asif Khan and Pernilla Ohrstedt. I also taught architectural technology at KTH school of architecture in Stockholm and I run a unit at the AA with two former colleagues from AKT.

‘Wave’ (Photograph by Valerie Bennet courtesy of OPENSYSTEMS 2013)

On how his practice has evolved
For me starting a practice is a bug, it’s not something you come up with, it’s something you have inside and can’t do without. I’ve always had the idea that I would set up my own office at some point.

Certainly it is a rather difficult venture and, to make things more complicated, I belong to a generation that experienced one of the biggest recessions in modern history. I started to work just before the end of a period of exceptional wealth and progress in architecture and elsewhere. In my professional experience I witness the raise of emerging economies as well as the extraordinary development of London as a world capital. The 2012 Olympics were the apex of this economic and cultural cycle.

In 2012, in the most counter-intuitive moment in time, after four long years of recession, I was approached for the development of a factory in Northern Italy: a company was planning to expand and build a new complex. I thought I wasn’t going to get another opportunity like that so I felt it was time to venture. My time at AKT had been exciting but I also felt I was ready for a change. I decided to take a leap and set up my own company.

Looking back, beside all the planning, there was an element of ingenuity and intuition in my decision. In retrospect there’s a lot of risk attached to that decision but I’ve never looked back and I’m still here.

‘Dice’ (Photograph by Liam Clarke courtesy of OPENSYSTEMS)

On principles he strives to adhere to
OPENSYSTEMS works along the notion of applied research. This is something that I’ve learnt from my experience at AKT and before, to a degree, at ZHA: the idea of linking the experimental with the pragmatic. During my time at AKT I’ve been involved in many projects that challenged the notion of what I call prototypical architecture. These projects were seminal in the definition of a new type of architecture which pushes the boundaries of material system, organisation and program.

In the project for the UK pavilion at the Shanghai Expo 2010, designed by Thomas Heatherwick Studio, I was responsible for the setting out of the spiky facade. The building was perforated by 60,000 identical rods of clear acrylic, 7.5 metres long, which extend through the walls of the building and lift it into the air.

The design process employed intuition and a degree of naivety to push the boundary on what architecture could be and looks like. This idea of turning the facade of the pavilion into a highly pixelated skin is something that we hadn’t seen before in architecture. It’s almost like treating architecture as product design. That is for me applied research: it is about taking the knowledge and the methods from the theory and apply it to real world. Trying and testing ideas with real matter is fundamental. It was an important lesson for me.

‘Nexo’ (Photograph courtesy of OPENSYSTEMS 2015)

The other project I worked on was the Coca Cola pavilion for the Olympics 2012 with Asif Khan and Pernilla Ohrstedt. It was the first Coca Cola pavilion without the logo but instead the facade was made out of 5 meters long ETFE pillows that could interactively be trigger to produce sound.

The project question the integration of interactive technology within architecture. I was responsible for the setting out of the ETFE facade and the question of organisation and patterning was a very important feature of the design.

This idea of applied research is important and influences the way we practice at OPENSYSTEMS. We pursue this agenda questioning the performative quality of material systems and see how they can affect the social, technological, and ecological realms. We try to find opportunities through collaborations with various industries: from fashion retail to art galleries. That allow us to think outside the box and propose solutions that go beyond/ transcend the given design brief.

Pavilion, installations, pop-up architecture are good opportunities for us to develop this agenda.

On the firm’s name
OPENSYSTEMS comes from my story. When I was studying at the AA there was an interest for systems theory and complexity theory.

The opportunities offered by digital technology and mass customisation opened the way to rethink architectural systems beyond standardisation. Continuous variation and differentiation of building components cater for new building types that have the capacity and flexibility to address heterogeneous spatial conditions.

I was also particularly interested in the idea of architecture as open-ended system. Christopher Alexander wrote an interesting article entitled ‘Systems generating systems’. I liked this idea of an open-ended architecture whose aim is to reconnect to the complexity of life itself.

OPENSYSTEMS initially was the name of a blog. There I would actually record my interests and experiments on the possibility to use computational protocols to produce ‘performative and organisational systems’.

It was a platform where I would publish my experiments. When I opened my company I thought ‘this is a natural evolution of the same concept and now we’re going to step up and become an architectural business.’ It was a good enough reason to use the same name.

‘Homeostatic Serie’ (Photograph by Valerie Bennet courtesy of OPENSYSTEMS 2009)

On his aspirations for the future
As a young practice we know we can bring a lot of value to a project, beyond what is perceived as the ‘standard’. We are very focused on finding opportunities to fully express our capacity and talent as designers.

The ambitions is to create an environment at OPENSYSTEMS where it’s possible to imagine a new kind of practice. For it, the relationship with challenging and ambitious clients is paramount. We are aiming at growing our clients appetite for ‘non-standard’ solutions.

On the future of architecture in the next 5–10 years
There are multiple challenges. Perhaps it’s cliche but I think the future has to do with how technology can change the way we build, we experience space and think of the built environment. It is often used in construction to answer existing questions and solve problems (building efficiently, faster, etc). Nevertheless, technology is becoming ubiquitous and it’s questioning the very idea of space: a wifi connection is more effective in describing proximity between people than their postcodes. For this reason, I suspect that, beside the excitement, lays a certain cynicism in the possibility for architecture to have a real impact on the built environment, especially if we consider the already insignificant percentage of buildings designed by architects.

Cedric Price had the famous saying, ‘if technology is the answer, what is the question?’. We are interested in figuring out new questions arising from the employment of new technologies in architecture. My former boss Hanif Kara says that ‘good engineers have great answers; good architects provide great questions’. I think this a good definition of our design ethos.

I’m currently teaching Intermediate Unit 7 at the Architectural Association and with the students we are interested in studying the building envelope as the main architectural element embodying the multifaceted relationship between architecture and the surrounding natural and cultural environment. How does technology can make our built environment more performative and resilient? How can we think of new spaces where people can work and live?

On advice he would give his younger self
I’ve always been driven by sheer passion. In many ways all the things I’ve done are because I have followed what I really wanted to do. I would suggest to continuously take risks -possibly calculated risks- and to be very committed but don’t take things (and myself) too seriously.

This post was previously published on on 1/4/16.

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