Güvenç Özel is an architect, technologist and researcher. He is a lead faculty member and Program Advisor of IDEAS, a multidisciplinary research and development platform in UCLA Department of Architecture and Urban Design, and the principal of Ozel Office, an interdisciplinary design practice located in Los Angeles, USA. His work is at the intersection of architecture, technology, media and research on urban culture. A native of Turkey, Özel studied architecture, sculpture, and philosophy in Bennington College. In addition, he holds a Masters of Architecture degree from Yale University, where he graduated with multiple awards. Prior to establishing his own practice and research, he worked in the architecture offices of Rafael Vinoly, Jürgen Mayer H. and Frank Gehry, amongst others. His projects and experimental installations were exhibited in museums and galleries in the USA and Europe such as Istanbul Museum of Modern Art and The Saatchi Gallery in London. He formerly taught at Yale University, Woodbury University and University of Applied Arts in Vienna. His recent work has been heavily published in online and print media such as CNN, BBC, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Architectural Digest, Wired, Gizmodo, Creators Project/ Vice, Dwell, Designboom, among others. At UCLA IDEAS, besides teaching his post graduate masters design studio with support from Autodesk, he continues his research on 3D printing, computation, virtual reality, robotics, interactive spaces and sensing interfaces. Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to learn more about his unique approach and philosophy on design.
On becoming an architect
I’m originally Turkish and I grew up in Istanbul, so I was surrounded by a very dynamic, evolving city that was constantly changing. This notion of change has become very important in my work, which is usually seen as something that is conflicting with the essence of architecture — which is more about permanence and statis. In my education and my understanding of buildings and cities, I was always battling with this opposition between permanence and change, which over the years has become an influential aspect in my work. Initially in my undergraduate studies and in my Master’s at Yale, I had taken an interest in digital tools and media technology as a way to think about transient and temporal concepts as influences that affect architecture. That was why I was initially interested in computational design because it always introduces an element of change and evolution. Later on I became interested in interactive interfaces, which is primarily what is the driving force in my work right now — to create spaces that are enhanced, dynamic, changing, and evolving, in response to the user. That has to do with my belief that nothing in design is meant to be permanent anymore.
On starting his own firm
Since I graduated from graduate school I always had the objective to go off on my own. I gave myself four to five years to gain experience in the field so that I could equip myself to do that. After I finished graduate school, I worked for Frank Gehry for a few years in order to understand how very complex building are designed and built. Seeing that operation was immensely helpful for me in realizing that architecture is actually not a by-product of an isolated vision, but a product of a much larger spectrum of collaboration that involves multiple different kinds of expertise. It is a platform for these different bases of knowledge to create something together with a singular objective. For me, there’s also something special about a small, boutique practice. I can play a bigger role in the design decisions as well as maintaining quality control in a smaller operation. That was another objective for why I wanted to go off on my own.
On how his approach to design has evolved
Many young architects and designers, as much as they wouldn’t like to admit, need role models and mentors. I was lucky enough to have people around me that are more experienced than me to guide my approach. This is obviously happening through a platform of shared interests; you gravitate towards people who you want to be like. Although the most impactful mentors I had were committed to the discourse of architecture, many others were outside of the discipline. As a consequence of that, I have a much broader interdisciplinary approach towards design. In the beginning of my career, I was following a lot of architecture blogs to keep myself up to date on what was happening in the design world. The more I progress in my career, the less I see myself spending time exploring the work of my colleagues but I mine through design inspiration in fields that are outside of architectural practice, such as the arts, technology, or science. These are seemingly outside of the discipline, but have a lot of potential in terms of providing organizational structures that architects could learn from.
On the Burger Lounge Project
That was a proposal for a startup in San Francisco that had the ambition of designing the first burger machine, which is meant to be a fully autonomous robot that would make burgers made to order. You could customize the kind of meat, the toppings and other ingredients, all happening without any human involvement in the fabrication process. What was exciting to me about that project was that it is similar to my current research in architecture. It was about interactive systems and their spatial manifestations, forms of architecture that could transform and reconfigure themselves and has the capability to respond to human presence. Interestingly, we were playing around with similar technologies but from two completely different disciplines. The design objective for the interiors of their flagship restaurant called into question some of the very fundamental things that we would take for granted in a restaurant; such as service and the process of ordering the food. Thinking about the restaurant experience outside of this mode of human interaction was very challenging. In order to still maintain that level of exclusivity in a restaurant experience, meanwhile integrating new technology, we thought about re-inventing certain typologies that are related to the experience of an American burger. These included the counter, booths, and how the concept of fast food relates to the notion of service in a restaurant. We came up with bespoke, robotically manufactured furniture pieces that could create this notion of exclusivity, meanwhile integrating technology into it where you could order from either a mobile app or through interactive interfaces embedded into your table. Eventually with either ordering option you would go pick up your burger from the machine itself. Still you would be surrounded by a combination of very natural materials and very artificial materials that are fused in a coherent way.
On the Cerebral Hut Project
This was my first interactive installation. The premise of Cerebral Hut is to create a submersive environment where the user would be influencing the physical makeup of the environment through a technological sensory interface that detects your concentration levels. The user wears a helmet that measures brainwaves and works primarily with concentration levels, then through an algorithm it translates the data into motion through actuating electromechanical systems within the walls of the installation. The more you concentrate, the more the space is transforming physically, which in return is affecting the way you concentrate. It creates this constant feedback loop between you and the architecture. In a way this was a career defining moment for me where I made a commitment to technologically enhanced sensory architecture as a field of discovery and research. That has been the primary driving force in my career right now. That has also pushed me to research more novel fabrication technologies, such as robotic fabrication and 3D printing. I was recently shortlisted by NASA and I got the first runner up prize in their International competition for 3D printing a habitat for the first colony on Mars. The technology that I proposed in that competition is based on a collaboration that I am doing with the engineering department at UCLA. I am a faculty member at UCLA Department of Architecture and we have this collaborative platform right now where we’re looking into using high performance materials for 3D printing large scale building elements. In a way, at this point my design motivation is less about formal invention, but more about figuring out ways to integrate contemporary technology into building design, production, and operation. Obviously that enforces its own set of visual, aesthetic, and spatial rules and approaches but primarily it is very important for architects to find meaningful ways of integrating technology into spaces as opposed to just using technology as a design inspiration. Big paradigm shifts in the history of architecture always happen through fundamental technological shifts.
On limitations in software
A lot of things I do require complex technology and specialized equipment, so it’s not something that I can just doodle on my own and leave it in theoretical form. In order for it to be convincing, it has to be built, whatever small or large format. It integrates multiple different kinds of experts, ranging from coding to mechanical design. Therefore, I sometimes hit certain limitations about how much expertise I need to have in order to make something work flawlessly and efficiently. That’s why a lot of my projects end up being collaborations with people that are either engineers or coders, which is also the upside of the process that allows me to exchange information and knowledge with other experts. It also allows me to create a platform for engaging other disciplines into my work. It is a very difficult and time consuming endeavor since you’re relying on a lot of different kinds of people in order to realize your projects.
On the future of ozel office in next 5–10 years
I would hope that my firm becomes a design-build firm that not only builds technologically enhanced buildings but also creates and licenses technology for building such environments. I’m hoping that, as my practice grows, it involves people other than architects- technologists, inventors, engineers, as well as designers — to create structures that evolve, respond and interact with humans. I see my practice becoming a research and development platform, so I would hope that some of the technologies that we create along the way will impact the history of building in fundamental ways. For instance, the collaboration my with the UCLA engineering department is the first step toward achieving that vision. I would hope that it becomes a 21st century version of a design-build practice where we are designing and building with the technologies and the machines that we create.
On the future of architecture in the next 5–10 years
Architecture always happens in cycles, and ideas fall in and out of fashion very quickly. It was discouraging to see how much the profession was affected by the economic crisis and how that pushed a lot of my colleagues into an isolated form of practice. They create works that are extremely creative, but they do not necessarily involve a collaboration or engagement with other disciplines. Architects are always concerned with the power and significance of their discipline, but to me that’s not a priority because the discipline is always about change and it’s always dependent on outside forces. There are always major shifts in the discipline and they happen as a consequence of advancements in the world of technology. I find this co-dependency with the culture of technology very productive, as opposed to something that we should fight against. I would hope that architects progress and become more of technologists as opposed to designers that are more concerned with self-expression. To me, the most interesting mode of self-expression is one that involves the engagement of a larger cultural paradigm.
On advice he would give his younger self
I would probably not listen to a lot of people who have recommended me to get more professional experience in the field of architecture prior to establishing my own practice. Architectural practice is so specialized right now that the scope of one firm doesn’t apply to the scope of another. If somebody has the motivation to start their own practice, and if they have an idea about what they want to do, I would suggest that they get to work right away, as opposed to trying to diversify their experience through exposure to multiple modes of practice. I would advocate for gaining some professional experience after professional training, but if somebody is motivated to go into research and academia, like I always was, then I don’t see the point of waiting.