ARCHITECTURE MATTERS: AN INTERVIEW WITH MADDY SAMADDAR

This is an electronic version of the original unedited interview which appeared in edited form in the print edition of the 2016 issue of  Unbuilt  magazine. 

Other articles in Unbuilt featured artist/activist Sue Coe, author/poet Kevin Powers, musicians Jake Schwartz & Mat Fieldes (known for their work on Broadway’s “The Book of Mormon” & “Matilda” respectively among other gigs), author Bradford Morrow, journalist Sarah Kendzior, author and naturalist Diane Ackerman, rock icon Iggy Pop, and other artists, designers and musicians.

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Interview by Alex Skolnick. Photography by Vincent Li

Too often, especially in the US, there is a limited sensibility about the field of architecture and urban planning. Many (myself included) may recall as fictional architects the good-natured TV sitcom dad, Mr. Brady, or the uncompromising Howard Roark (of controversial author Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead), while in the real world, besides awareness of a few names like Frank Gehry and other famous male architects (known in the trade as “starchitects”), there tends to be a large gap in our knowledge of contemporary architecture. So I decided to ask someone who knows a lot more.

Maddy Samaddar (M.Arch., M.L.Arch.) is trained in Architecture and also in Landscape Architecture & Urban Planning, with more than a decade of experience working on projects in over a dozen countries spanning five continents, encompassing numerous works in urban design, architecture, interiors, concept art, landscape architecture, master-planning, as well as city and regional planning. Maddy runs her own design consultancy and has previously worked with noted Montreal architect and Order of Canada recipient Dan S Hanganu. She’s also worked as a consultant for several prestigious firms in Canada, U.S.A and Italy. While in her early 20s, she founded her first company which implemented design projects in Asia. Her work has won her several academic & professional awards and she has also given talks at various institutes. A polymath and a polyglot, in her early years she was also very active in classical dance and theater.

I had a highly informative talk with Maddy in Brooklyn near the Manhattan Bridge. While more ground was covered than can fit in these pages, these excerpts alone make a great first step towards increasing one’s architectural sensibility.

Tell me in your own words: Why does architecture matter?
The history of human civilization is encased in stone in the history of architecture and through it we can see how our ancestors in various regions lived, worked, played, prayed or innovated. In modern times, more than half of the world’s population, at times up to 80-90%, – live in urbanized areas. So our cityscapes not only shape our daily lifestyles, but more importantly – the fabric of our urbanscapes as dynamic living environments determine our patterns of movement, define our relation with our surroundings and form the matrix for all our interactions related to work, education, habitation, recreation and so forth.

What we describe as the “beauty” of cities both in terms of desirable places to live in or visit as tourists is largely determined by their architecture and planning. Why do you think we love Venice or Paris so much, or the Cinque Terre villages of Italy…or Istanbul or Tokyo or Prague, or feel energized while walking through London, New York or Chicago or let’s say – the French quarter of New Orleans? Take away the framework of their cohesive architecture or layout – take away what makes them lively and enchanting – for instance, convert them into some mundane cookie-cutter US strip mall – and when you visualize the contrast – you can clearly see how the visceral impact of the great cities, towns and villages of the world is largely due to their physical form shaped by conscious architectural planning. (And I’m not even getting into the many architectural wonders of the world here – which are integral for tourism or archaeology – be it Machu Pichu or Angkor Vat or Mohenjo-daro etc. – symbols of our ancient histories….)

Conversely, when industry, manufacturing or the infrastructure supporting the economy of communities fall, the first impact is viewed through the neglect of its architectural artifacts. Which is why when we are trying to resurrect or heal back from war or destruction or even from a recession – the literal “building back” of our architectural symbols and restoring our landscapes is emblematic of the resilience of the human spirit.

So Architecture and Design matter because they create immense tangible, physical and psychological effects through the three-dimensional spaces we occupy, use or inhabit and define our public, private and intimate spatial territories  within our communities-at-large. It is also important to realize that a single building doesn’t make much of a difference – it is cohesion with the surrounding urban space, landscapes, waterways, neighborhoods and region as a whole that constitute urban planning & architecture.

Architecture, particularly in the US, hasn’t received the mainstream prominence it deserves. Why do you think that is?
Well, part of it is due to the simple fact that the US is a relatively younger country without the architectural history of the Old World or the Orient. Europe and Asia have historic and more prominent relationships with their architects and city planners dating back from ancient emperors to Renaissance-age citizens. However it’s worth noting that the US did gift an iconic architectural style to the world – the skyscraper, the first of which was built in Chicago.

Now within architectural circles, there are plenty of exhibitions, symposiums, biennials, our own magazines – but oftentimes in the mainstream media – what is viewed as “architecture” is not what many in the field would consider innovative. By this I mean – just as there are top 40 pop lists and they may not include the jazz of Coltrane or Miles or music by Keith Jarrett, similarly there are buildings which are greatly appreciated in architectural circles but you will certainly not see featured in more commonly available magazines like Architectural Digest, House & Garden or Martha Stewart. They will be in the more independent or niche journals (Detail, Architectural Record, Domus, books by art publishing houses Taschen, Phaidon etc.) Also, when mainstream television does shows on buildings, these are hosted by “decorators” who promote very kitschy, flowery or unimaginative styles, and do not showcase contemporary or avant garde architecture.
Another reason is that architectural circles tend to be more introverted, exclusive and less exhibitionistic both in their modus operandi of marketing or advertising, so they don’t push themselves into the mainstream as some other fields. Of course there are the few overused names that have crossover appeal as “celebrity architects,” but then that’s too limiting.

Let’s talk about your own background. How did you first get interested in architecture? Was there a certain architect, building or urban planner that triggered a spark?
Ever since I was a little girl, I was fascinated by spaces and volumes, by both science and art. I’ve also always been a very visual and spatial thinker. My parents had Ph.Ds in Geology and Philosophy respectively and my great-grandfather was a well-known archeologist and author; so I’m very thankful to my family for my very early exposure to books on a variety of topics. Of course I absolutely loved playing with Lego, building blocks, meccano sets too instead of dolls, and had started painting from the age of 4, but I never imagined I’d become an architect – I wanted to be an astronaut!

Then at the age of 9 I saw and explored an institutional building designed by Estonian-American architect Louis Kahn. (He may be more recognizable now due to his son’s Oscar-nominated documentary “My Architect,” which hadn’t been made yet.) I was struck and mesmerized by his play with light, materials, openings…. It was almost a spiritual experience moving through the volumes and spaces of his design. It was then that I realized I wanted to be an architect. I had already seen a few famous traditional architecture monuments by then like the Taj Mahal, Gothic cathedrals, Buddhist stupas etc., and yet it was Louis Kahn’s contemporary design that triggered that spark and made me go for my Architecture degree. Some working years later, since I was equally fascinated by ecology, the environment and cityscapes, I also studied landscape architecture and urban planning.

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You’ve worked on projects all over the world, from Asia, the Mid-East, Africa to Europe and the Americas. What has been the range of the work you’ve done?
I‘ve been very fortunate to work on over eighty projects in more than 14 countries through my own consultancy or as a consultant for some fantastic firms. Projects have included high rise towers, libraries, concert halls, finding eco-sensitive solutions for multifamily housing, waterfront developments, transit-oriented-communities; working on the design of the first luxury hotel built in Kabul, Afghanistan which opened in 2005 and was a very difficult and dangerous project – but we employed many local craftsmen and helped local women in the textile cottage industry; the award-winning urban design installation & lighting of the Fontaine de Tourny – a historic gift from France – in front of the Parliament building of  Quebec City; the  landscape design of 350 acres of the General Motors factory site in western India, under my own firm; the master-planning of a 16 square mile eco-city proposal in West Palm Beach, Florida; school projects  funded by the Aga Khan Foundation in Madagascar, Kenya & Tanzania; a playscape for the Montreal Children’s Hospital; residential communities and urban parks in China and other places; an artisans’ eco-tourism village in coastal Algeria (a Canadian International Development Agency project); new work on the McGill University Law Library with Dan Hanganu; architectural work in the Ravi Shankar Institute of Music in New Delhi, restoration work on the Canadian Parliament’s West Block in Ottawa (both with Le Groupe Arcop); high-end interiors in New York, Miami, Toronto, Montreal; art, civic & cultural projects in Europe & the Americas….I prefer working on social, academic, cultural projects much more and also environmental work with ecological ethics – work that has more meaning by helping local populations and preserving local landscapes and habitats.

How does working in a particular region affect the design?
My personal views: You have to understand and respect the climate, geography, local materials, the unique cultural or traditional usage of functional and social spaces, blend the Genius Loci with the Zeitgeist. You have to design not against, but with the local topography, landscape forms and geology. You cannot be so arrogant as to think your “signature style” or “form” can be imposed anywhere without practical, climatic, cultural or geographic sensibility. A good designer really listens to the Land, to the Landscape, to the people who will use the places. You have to be responsible and plan within the budget and push for energy-efficient solutions.  And especially to try and preserve, even heal the natural ecology of the region.

Architecture seems to be far more demanding than other creative endeavors in terms of discipline, perfectionism and the pressure to ensure human safety. What are some of the skills required to succeed?
Many have this false notion that architecture is a glamorous profession. Alas, that’s only the first 10% of the process in the initial concept stage, peppered with fancy presentation graphics and “archispeak” jargon. What occurs behind the façade – is an insane amount of area calculations; civil and structural engineering, mechanical, electrical, sanitation and other such unglamorous sensibilities; a whole lot of AutoCad ; hair splitting adherence to zoning, parking requirements, building codes and regulations, LEED mandates, estimation, costing, itemizing every single component from a window to a handrail….the list goes on. And of course the necessity to coordinate with sound structural engineers to make sure those buildings or bridges don’t fall. Also, getting permits from the city, construction scheduling….and we haven’t even got to the interiors and the landscape design yet! So yes, you’ve to combine imagination and pragmatism; art and science; poeticism and law; fine art and finance. Also, marketing skills so you can convince your clients to hire you! Frankly it’s a very brutal, masochistic profession due to the long hours and never-ending deadlines.

Over the years the various branches of design have become too overspecialized but in the days of the ancient architects like da Vinci or Marcus Vitruvius – the 1st century BC ‘father’ of Western architecture – an architect needed to be a well-rounded polymath who, according to Vitruvius, should balance Theory and Practice, be well-versed in drawing, climatology, science, the laws of nature, physics, history, mathematics, music, sculpture, law, contracts and even astronomy and medicine(!) and especially philosophy to stay “high-minded….not self-assuming…and honest without avariciousness.”

Although “good” architecture can be subjective, most of us can agree on “boring” or monotonous architecture when we see it. For instance, what led to strip-malls across America? Or particularly the sprawling tract houses and “McMansions” which do not have much character compared to say, the older neighborhoods of San Francisco or Brooklyn. How and why does this stuff get built? Why is it so prevalent?
The answers are multi-fold and entire theses have been written on this. But in a nutshell: The mass production of automobiles radically changed the North American landscape, directly linking cars and government policies to urban sprawl, especially from the post-World War II period. Federally funded programs made it easy to buy homes in the countryside for returning GIs and expanded the spread of suburbia. There was a rapid decline in mass transit and rail systems, except in older cities like Boston, NYC, SF and Chicago which still functioned reasonably well as transit-based communities. The 1956 federal highway Act reinforced massive inter-state roads which took residential areas further away from city cores.

And this unchecked suburban sprawl has continued for decades, placing immense pressure on the environment, increasing fossil fuel consumption through long commutes; clearcutting large forested areas and destroying sensitive natural landscapes and habitats; replacing neighborhood stores with giant big box superstores…Do you know the entire city of Florence can fit within a large cloverleaf of an American highway-interchange?

So when you start designing for cars not people, when the oil and asphalt companies deliberately encourage sprawl, and developers no longer care about design but want quick turnovers with boring, cookie-cutter template subdivision layouts and at times outright garish styles trying to promote “bigger is better” dictums – you end up with these monstrosities as well as ethical and visual bromide marketed as “desirable.” Kunstler’s Geography of Nowhere. And eventually overbuilding and sub-prime mortgages led to the housing market collapse of the Great Recession And we still haven’t learned! Unless the American public decides to consciously make lifestyle changes this rape of our environment will continue. And the price of real estate will keep rising in older cities built in the vibrant pedestrian-friendly style.  Sprawl-style developments did not practice ecological planning or pedestrian-oriented community design and lost the “sense of place” seen in older, walkable, neighborhoods. To understand more on this topic I highly recommend reading Jane Jacobs’ timeless book: The Death and Life of Great American Cities. There have been some successful movements and efforts starting from the mid-‘90s to promote urban revitalization and walkable communities but some of these end up looking  rather tacky at times – where you drive for an hour or two and then park to walk on a short retrofitted “traditional street” with a cafe and some shops!

Another reason for “boring” designs are the very rigid zoning laws and municipal by-laws of the US and various city planning committees and legal bodies which regulate how a building or complex should be designed – which tend to stifle more creative alternatives.

Who are some of your favorite architects and designers?
Carlo Scarpa, Renzo Piano, Dan Hanganu, Louis Kahn, Tadao Ando, Frank Lloyd Wright, B.V. Doshi, Sim Van der Ryn, Jan Gehl, Oscar Niemeyer, Eero Saarinen, Odile Decq, Antoine Predock, Zaha Hadid,  Jeanne Gang, Tom Kundig,; Landscape architects Kathryn Gustafson & her firm Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, Kongjian Yu & his firm Turenscape, Hideo Sasaki & Associates, Frederick Law Olmstead, Robert Zion; and selected works of Steven Holl, Diller-Scofidio-Renfro, Santiago Calatrava, Richard Meier, SOM. There are other great designers but not all end up in books or blogs, or enter competitions or send in their work to be published. Some big names are not necessarily my personal favorites, but you can look them up easily on google by searching “famous architects,” “top contemporary architects” etc.

Architecture is often perceived as a “man’s field.” What are your thoughts on this? As a woman have you experienced particular challenges along these lines?   
It’s true there are far fewer women in this profession. In recent times, even if students and interns have a near-equal gender split, by the time it gets to sustained practice and especially leadership positions in firms – that ratio trickles down to less than 17%. While there are high numbers of women practitioners in Greece, Croatia, Bulgaria, India, Brazil, the number gets much lower in the U.K., U.S. Canada and Australia – and several studies have explored the causes. Sexism does play a big part – in pay scales, condescending attitudes, denying due credit etc.
This has been rampant from the time of pioneering women architects like Marion Griffin (who made many of Frank Lloyd Wright’s watercolor sketches and designs) and Sophia Hayden Bennett till today.

The ones who are often prominent are married to another architect – not that this helps necessarily in getting due credit – the case of Denise Scott Brown being a good example. But those who run their individual well-known solo practices are few – Zaha Hadid, the Hariri sisters, Odile Decq, Revathi Kamath, or landscape architects Janet Rosenberg and Maya Lin are good examples. Of course there are several others but they get nowhere near the attention reserved for male architects or even theorists or TV show “decorators.” There have been cases of women working in multidisciplinary firms being pushed into interiors or even kitchen design. One has to really be pushy to be given the chance to design towers or cultural & institutional buildings. You have to act 10 times more tough, unemotional, rational and no-nonsense to be taken seriously while the men get a pass if they act goofy or when male bosses throw tantrums.

Also, while the “sexiness” of male architects is treated with giggly humor, if a woman architect or engineer confidently displays her smarts and talent WITH feminine glamor – she will often not be taken seriously by other architects and engineers for shedding the ‘asexual/tomboy persona’ often required to succeed in the field – or as I call it “the architectural burqa” of the black turtleneck and shapeless pair of trousers. While certain aspects have improved immensely among younger generations, in most countries including here, it’s still quite the boys’ club and to break in you really need a Teflon hide.
Also, oftentimes not just men but even the majority of  female critics, curators and journalists make a beeline for showcasing younger(and older) male “starchitects” and give them more publicity, in a quest to play “Dominique” to their “Roark” delusions, while women architects are ignored or recognized only after they are dead or reached menopause. So yes, it IS interesting, and there are many layers [laughs.]

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Architecture is frozen music.” Who said this? Thoughts on this statement?
The full quote is “Music is liquid architecture; Architecture is frozen music.” It’s by German author  and polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. I’d clarify – only good architecture is frozen music and can inspire and move us emotionally.
Of course there have been several interpretations and elaborations on this. But for now – let’s interpret the quote based on philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s attributes of Apollonian and Dionysian qualities: the union of these two dualities or opposites results in the balanced expression of Art. Both Music and Architecture are two art forms since ancient times viewed as a harmonious synthesis of Apollonian-Dionysian traits – or in other words the logical, structured, controlled & rational meeting the emotional, spontaneous, wild & passionate to give birth to Creativity in form and expression. Therefore there’s a similarity between good architecture and good music with regards to their structure, form and emotional impact and especially in their conceptual and creative processes within our brains. So they can be described as interchanging states of Matter – whether “flowing” (liquid) or “frozen” (solid) respectively, and that brings us full circle to why both art forms matter, or to Architecture Matters.

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