Gilles Retsin Architecture is a London based architecture and design practice investigating new architectural models which engage with the potential of increased computational power and fabrication to generate buildings and objects with a previously unseen structure, detail and materiality. The studio is interested in the impact of computation on the core principles of architecture – the bones rather than the skin. Gilles Retsin graduated from the Architectural Association in London, prior to founding his own practice, he worked in Switzerland as a project architect with Christian Kerez, and in London with Kokkugia. He also co- founded SoftKill Design, a collective design studio investigating generative design methodologies for additive manufacturing and 3D-printing. Alongside his practice, Gilles directs a research cluster at UCL/ the Bartlett school of Architecture and is a senior lecturer at the University of East-London. Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to learn more about Gilles' unique approach and design philosophy.
On becoming an architect
The question is when you really become an architect. Is it the moment you graduate from architecture school? Or when you start it? Or the moment your first building is built?
I wanted to be an architect since I was very young. I think I have indirectly been pushed into architecture by my parents - who surrounded me with architecture and art books when I was young. I enjoyed studying architecture, but I think I only started to really understand architecture much later when I was working in Switzerland. I think being an architect is reallysomething that continuously develops. Sometimes you think you’ve finally understood it, and then the next time you discover there are still so many unsolved or misunderstood issues. I think that’s probably what is so exciting about it - you can keep becoming an architect for the rest of your life.
On discovering his voice as a designer
I studied architecture at Saint-Lucas in Belgium, which was back then still an art school more than a university. It’s a typical continental European school, in that sense that the design education was not overly academic or institutionalized as you see it in the UK or the States. Our teachers were mainly practicing architects who would come in to have a look at your design. The absence of an academic agenda encouraged you to really find your own position, discovering everything from scratch. With a group of friends we started to learn 3D software, and we were looking a lot at what was happening in schools abroad like the AA. The last years of architecture school I was lucky enough to get Kris van Weert as a teacher, who had been one of the first students of the AA-DRL Through him I met Kristof Crolla, another Belgian who had studied at the DRL and who was working for Zaha at the time. After graduating I went off to work for LAVA in Germany, where I was able to work with computational tools on real projects. After LAVA I moved to Switzerland to go work for Christian Kerez. This was a really interesting experience for me. When I started working for Christian there were only two interns there, and we had to start working on a massive project for the new Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. The team grew bigger over time, but I was able as a very young architect - I was actually only 23 - to take a lot of responsibility. In Switzerland I learned an approach to architecture which is more interested in the core, a radical interest in what really constitutes buildings. I liked it much better than the more superficial discourse you see so often in the “digital” work. After the project in Warsaw stalled I decided to move to London and study at the AA DRL. I would argue that the combination of these experiences was quite important for me as a designer. It allowed me to relatively quickly develop my own approach and agenda after the AA, taking a distance of what we were taught and what the whole discourse was about.
On the process of starting his own studio
After graduating from the AA I started working and teaching with Robert Stuart-Smith - he runs a research based office together with Roland Snooks. I had been following their work since a few years, so it was great to be part of their research for a bit. Later Alisa Andrasek, invited me to teach in the Bartlett and setup my own research cluster with Manuel Jimenez Garcia. This enabled me to go independent and start up the practice alongside the teaching. In the first few months of the office I was working on a house for a friend back in Belgium, and started doing a lot of competitions. The first one - in collaboration with Isaie Bloch from Eragatory - was a second prize. The third competition, for the New National Gallery and Museum Ludwig in Budapest, in collaboration with Lei Zheng, was a big surprise - we got selected as one of the winners of the first stage, alongside SHOP. Unfortunately the competition was cancelled and the organizers relaunched a new one where you could only take part if you had won the Pritzker prize or a RIBA Gold award - SANAA won it in the end. Anyway, that competition success was very important for me. It brought some financial support, and also confidence that the design agenda of the practice was feasible and could convince in international competitions. The Budapest project was one of the first ones which articulated the design agenda clearly I think: the idea of an architecture which is really based on one single, very simple element which starts to organize spaces and structures, in a kind of diffused, distributed way. Although the building is composed of a series of thick slabs - it’s really a volumetric approach - defining mass through lines rather than surfaces.
On projects that represent his unique approach
There has been a deep interest in my work in the idea of the line. All the initial projects are defined bylines rather than mass or surface. These lines start to connect and define porous volumes. The mass of the building is literally dissolved into a highly detailed assemblage of thousands and thousands of lines. You can follow this idea of the line from the very beginning, from the SoftKill Proto House (2012) which we did in DRL, until the current projects. In the SoftKill project, we really developed the concept to have a linear element defining volumetric elements. It also introduced that idea of a higher-resolution architecture, the diffused mass etc. The SoftKill project was however only really possible to fabricate through 3D printing. It’s continuously differentiated and ultra-detailed. We established a collaboration with Materialise to print a huge model- which is now in the Centre Pompidou. Later on, I started working with the same idea of diffusing volumes to the practice, but tried to embed it within an idea of assemblage, control and constructability. The Karosta Kube(2013) with Isaie Bloch was the first project which attempted this, and really gave rise to that idea that maybe heterogeneity does not have to come from mass customisation of building elements, but more from the way how you organise standardised pieces.
All the subsequent projects further investigate this idea, as for example the proposal for the Guggenheim Helsinki competition, which I worked on with the engineers of Price and Myers. It’s super high-res but has at the same time a high degree of repetition. The differentiation really comes from the organization and mere amount of elements. The roof consists of thousands of recycled timber strands which form a kind of space frame like structural lattice.
Another key project is the “Blokhut”, which started out as a small house for a friend back in Belgium. But it then evolved into something more like a research project. The project is introducing a design method which is fundamentally based on discreteness. It’s based on small parts that come together in a more complex whole and which are very cheap to fabricate. They’re always the same pieces so you don’t need to cut millions of different pieces and then micromanage them for days and years in order to fit everything together. Through very precise zones of customization, you can create an architecture that’s differentiated and heterogeneous but is at the same time cheap and accessible. We just built a large-scale physical model of this project and are now looking to push it into the next stage.
I am currently also working on a project for a multi-family house, in a rural - suburban area. The building consists of three floors and sits in a big garden. It’s completely serialized - it only makes use of 2 different types of elements, repeated on three different scales. The line, which was previously thin and maybe slightly messy is now really thick, volumetric and controlled. The lines almost becomes a figure in itself. This project is in a way a continuation of the Blokhut project, as it pushes this idea of discreteness and serialisation further - but it doesn’t need any customization.
On his design process
The intellectual ambition of my work is really looking at how architecture absorbed the digital. In the first two decades of digital experimentation, computers have not really been used as digital machines, they were used as analogue tools. They were used to sculpt, to post-rationalize forms, to make drawings. Which results now in the so called “Post-Digital”, although the actual nature of the digital has not yet been used to design and fabricate buildings. I am interested how we can create “digital” architecture - in that sense that the building its physical organization is fundamentally digital. Imagine a large amount of discrete, prefabricated pieces which interact with each other through that kind of basic and primitive male-female / 0-1 connection.
I am currently working across the practice and academic research on an agenda of pure discreteness and assembly rather than mass-customization and continuity. We are looking at how we can define very simple, accessible systems, where the intelligent organization of a single part can result in differentiated, heterogeneous structures. We design a kind of abstract piece of matter, kind of lego-like. It’s not a piece as we know it: it’s not a column, nor a beam, floor plate or stair. It’s really something almost as generic as a brick - with the difference that there is design intend embedded in it. Look at it as a constrained brick - however you assemble it it will always produce some interesting spaces and structures. The result of this approach are really buildings which don’t have an exterior - they are pure interior. floor, columns and ceiling seem to be carved out, as one monolithic thing. There is no facade. The figure of this buildings is dissolved, diffused- it’s unclear where it starts and begins.
The teaching agenda is intrinsically linked to questions I investigate with the practice. The research cluster I lead together with Manuel Jimenez Garcia at the Bartlett has also been crucial in creating a position within the field. I’m really enthusiast about our current research which is looking at robotic additive assembly and discrete computational design. We develop particles or bricks if you want, which can be quickly assembled and disassembled with the robot into various structures. The previous years we have been working more with robotic 3D printing - but we believe this agenda is running to an end - 3D printing has been hyped for a while, but it actually has lots of problems with structural performance, time, multi-materiality, reversibility etc. It’s essentially a continuous, analogue way of fabricating, not unlike pottery- and we’re more interested into pure “digital” assemblies.
In UEL I teach together with Isaie Bloch, which has been a great collaboration. Isaie has a different design method and framework, but I would say that our aesthetic sensibilities align very well. So this has been quite interesting to learn from each others approaches and see what the students make up of it.
On aspirations for the next 5-10 years
The main aim is to further develop the practice through built projects. I think that is the challenge probably of every young architect - to convince clients and get the first things built. I am interested in the design agenda maturing over time - becoming less academic and more open, harder to predict. In a way the research which I am doing now is still investigating one very particular strand - and I would like to see that become wider. Also I would like to see the office develop expertise in multiple domains such as small scale product design or larger scale urban design.
With the research cluster at the Bartlett we are working on industry collaborations - the aspiration there is to really build up a proper laboratory in the next few years with a good combination of radical blue sky research and real world applications which can make a difference for the construction industry.
On the future of architecture in the next 5-10 years
I’m very happy I’m a young architect now and not ten years ago. Ten years ago, someone like me who is interested in computation would be much more a victim of the lack of tools or the lack of maturity in the discourse. I’m really excited about seeing how lots of different practices are starting to work with new theories and technologies and driving it in entirely different directions.
A colleague of mine once told me that at some point Peter Behrens forced Mies as a young architect to design classicist buildings again , although they had already done many Art-Deco projects. Behrens gave up on the Art Deco. But a few years later Modernism would become commonplace. Somehow I feel we could be in a similar moment now - we’ve only just touched briefly on the possibilities of a new kind of architecture. The experiments of the last two decades with new design and fabrication technologies have only focused on a very specific approach based on ideas of continuity and mass-customization, but there is so much more, so many parallel domains to be discovered and explored.
On advice he would give his younger self
When I started studying architecture, I’ve always believed that if you push design and you really believe in design and try to find how things work- somehow you will get there. I believed that back in the day and I still believe it now.
I also think it’s important to continuously question what you are taught or what you see. I don’t think institutionalized experimentation works. You always have to aim to do things differently than is assumed. This is not to be unique in some way - architecture is a collective research and not a kind of celebration of pure personal creativity. This questioning of what is assumed is in that sense also a collective endeavour. Design does not happen in isolation - I learned a lot from other people - be it through conversations, collaborations or watching lectures. So I would definitely advise to keep communicating and sharing with other people - that way everything goes faster and becomes more interesting.
Check out our UNBUILT post Fossilized, featuring Gilles Retsin, one of the mentors on the project.