Dominik Sigg was born in Switzerland and received his Architecture Diploma (master degree equivalent) from ETH Zürich in 2007. He joined Steven Holl Architects in the same year and assumed the role of project architect in 2009. He has since led several projects and competitions. One of those projects includes a new building for the design school opposite the famous Mackintosh building at the Glasgow School of Art. The 11250 sm design school building with its ‘driven voids of light’ has received several awards, including the Architects Journal 2014 ‘AJ100 Building of the Year Award’ and the Glasgow Institute of Architects 2014 ‘Supreme Award’. Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to learn more about Dominik’s unique approach and design philosophy.
On becoming an architect
Early on in my life I had a great interest in visual art and aesthetics, mainly drawing and painting at first, which brought me to Parsons School of Design. During freshman year my interest began to evolve towards 3dimensional, holistic and interdisciplinary concepts. I was not satisfied with my work being confined to the flat and immaterial world of canvas, print and video screens and felt like architecture, as the discipline bringing design and art together in 3dimensional materiality offered the complexity I was interested in learning to work with. So I decided to go back to Switzerland to study architecture at ETH.
On his influences
As a kid I was inspired by the art of H.R. Giger. His dark, biomechanic worlds led me to really start painting in a serious way and had a big influence on my sense of aesthetics and the notion that biology and technology are going to fuse together in the future. In high school I wrote a paper on biologically informed design and came across D’Arcy Thompson, the Scottish scientist who studied the mathematics of biological form. In a way he gave me a scientific justification for my obsession with Giger’s biomechanoid aesthetics. My biggest influence is Buckminster Fuller, mainly because of his visionary and holistic worldview and notion of how design can contribute to solving the world’s challenges. Reading his ‘Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth’ was eyeopening for me in that it revealed the fallacy of human selfishness which makes us unable to solve problems at a global scale, whilst offering the more advanced and enlightened perspective that the world population, through technological evolution, has the potential for everyone to sustainably enjoy the highest living standards. I believe it is one of the most important mandates for architects to work towards this goal and to demonstrate it’s achievability to those in power who are still stuck in a ‘you or me’ way of thinking.
On the evolution of his role at Steven Holl Architects
I was always drawn back to New York, and Steven’s work had the kind of pure and poetic language that spoke to me. He had large scale projects which still maintained a great sensitivity to detail which I considered important. The first few years were tough as I had to learn how difficult it is for architecture to actually happen. All of the projects I worked on were either put on hold or completely canceled due to the bad economy or other unfortunate circumstances. This finally changed with the competition for a new design school building at the Glasgow School of Art, which I was leading in 2009 and which (finally!) led to a finished building in 2014. During the project I evolved from team member to project architect as I was given more responsibilities to coordinate the design team and correspond with the general contractor.
On discovering his voice as a designer
I have a principle to keep a radically open mind as I believe this is the only way to work in today’s fast and ever evolving world. I therefore let myself be influenced by a lot of very different ideas and teachers, which sometimes led to difficult situations as I often saw many equally valid possibilities to respond to a design challenge. At SHA I work to represent Steven’s voice and my personal input is reflected in the way I interpret his sketches and resolve a myriad of design questions to get from an abstract drawing to a working building.
On the principles he strives to adhere to
I like an architecture that recognizes and enhances the potentials of its site and context. Architecture should be a result of an interdisciplinary process that draws from the vast knowledge available today from materials science to global ecology in order to be intelligent and responsible. But further to that, and that’s the biggest challenge, architecture should still be simple and pure and allow for the enjoyment of the fundamental phenomena of light and material.
On 3D design software in his process
3D design software is absolutely essential in our process. Starting with Steven’s watercolors, we build elaborate 3D models and go through many iterations which we test with 3D prints in a rapid prototyping process. As the project progresses, especially if the geometry is complex, we keep adding detail to the computer model until every corner condition and handrail termination is resolved. It’s an indispensable design tool.
On the state of design software
Design software has been heavily monopolized for a long time, leaving innovation up to a small number of major players. I think therefore design software has not taken full advantage of the possibilities of today’s technologies. It may be difficult for newcomers to establish themselves in that kind of monopolized environment but then again digital technology lends itself very well to disruption.
On his favorite project
My favorite project is the Reid building at the Glasgow School of Art — it’s the first project I was involved in from the beginning to the end and it was great to see how the students embraced it and used its sculpted interior to explore their own creative expression.
On projects that represent his unique approach
The Glasgow School of Art Reid Building and the Maggie’s cancer caring center in London are both good examples for Steven’s approach in dealing with a prominent historical context by introducing something radically different, which in turn preserves the integrity of the existing.
On his dream project
I think there is a confluence of different factors that make a project ideal. Apart from an interesting context and program it is definitely important to have a client who understands the importance of ambitious design and is supportive through the often difficult phases of the design, approval and construction process.
On disruption or innovation in architecture
Unlike with digital technology I see architecture innovate slower and in a nondisruptive manner. I have been wanting to see more intelligent, ‘living’ buildings built by robots with skins that can adapt to the changing environment and generate their own electricity etc. and there are many promising developments in that regard, but none of this happens over night. I think architects need to accept that their discipline is not developing at the same pace digital technology is exactly because of its materiality and the way many different components need to come together to make it happen. Nevertheless I think that buildings in general will become much more like biological systems in that they manage resources more efficiently and are much better integrated in their environment in general.
On the future of architecture in the next 5–10 years
5-10 years are a small timespan in architecture. It can easily take 45 years for a midsize project from start to end and I’ve seen projects take 8-10 years to get done. When I was in school I envisioned a world where buildings are built by robots and grow like biological systems, with materials and mechanical systems completely integrated. A lot of research on this was already being done then and is still ongoing with many interesting developments but the truth is that implementing these technologies into the building industry proves to be difficult — whether this is because of true technical and practical problems or simply because of a certain conservatism and reluctance from the construction industry’s side. However, it’s clear that architecture will be increasingly influenced by the digital design and fabrication capabilities that are getting developed. In terms of architectural language I feel like there is still a search for a purity and clarity in the digitally driven creation of architecture as far as fully functional buildings go.
On advice he would give his younger self
I would probably try to beat my younger self into learning computer programming so that I would now have a solid leg in the fast growing field of information technology which would in turn enhance my design practice.