OMMX Architects, the London-based practice set up by AA alumni Jon Lopez and Hikaru Nissanke, operates under what one could call a pluralist approach. It looks out into a world beyond architecture that, much like literature, encompasses all of life with its different types of personal narratives, tensions, character traits and daily rituals. In these often superficial times, OMMX are part of a faction pursuing a greater depth and resolution in, both, their thinking and design, which fluctuates from the scale of the city to the microscopic structure of materials.
(Images above: Canonbury Grove)
Apart from practicing, you teach at Cambridge and at the Bartlett. Are there moments of disconnections between students’ outlook on architecture versus your own?
HN: Students seem to think you study architecture, not live it. Your training as an architect is realising that you live and breathe architecture all the time, and it’s a way of looking at the world and understanding it. When you’re studying you’re always looking for ‘high architecture’, like the great modernists for example. But when you leave you start looking at the every-day and it produces another type of architecture.
Does this interest in the everyday and the more subtle aspects of architecture influence your teaching?
JL: Not consciously but it’s more a sense that looking at something is also designing, or rather that the process of design starts at observation.
HN: One thing we do talk about a lot is restraint. When you understand that something is interesting or that something has an intrinsic quality it’s about amplifying and fine tuning that instead of overdesigning. I think if you don’t look closely enough things become overwrought and they don’t need to be like that. Architecture is very layered and plural, and it can be interesting in different ways apart from form and ornament. These things are still important but they are not everything. In our teaching, it’s really crucial to understand restraint and to realise when something has gone too far.
JL: We don’t say it as much now but while teaching we used to say, “What is the least that we can do?” That idea of scarcity is quite a useful check on these things.
HN: Scarcity and suggestion I think are important. There’s a skewing in education to want the student to explicitly state everything to the point where those implicit judgments are somehow devalued.
(Images above: Thames Quay)
This intense observation of not just architecture but of the life surrounding it is quite a literary way of seeing the world. When a writer writes he is creating a new architecture through observing reality, manipulating it and as you say ‘amplifying’ what’s of interest. The writer does this immaterially but you seem to do this physically in your architecture. Does literature influence your work?
HN: People often talk about the poetics of space, but really we should be investigating poetry as a discipline. Poems are very edited and concise pieces of work, and at their best they are incredibly powerful; they resonate with you for a long time. The poetics of space should be understood as a way of working, not just about how we experience space. It’s also interesting to understand certain conventions of writing such as syntax and the way writers use these conventions to then subvert and play with them in a very controlled, precise way.
Are there any specific books that influence your work or is it more about literary conventions?
HN: The last thing I read and fell in love with was Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics but now I’m reading On Art and Life by John Ruskin. My reading is quite diverse, and I think Jon’s is the same.
One thing we do say about architecture is that it’s part of a cultural discourse; it’s not a self-contained discipline and should therefore be embedded within the discourse of art and literature in order for it to remain relevant. It may absorb things directly and explicitly like in the crossover between film and architecture, but I don’t think those direct crossovers like ‘architecture and film’ are really for us. Literature allows us to understand that architecture has some sort of intrinsic quality in and of itself. However, that’s not to say it can’t be informed by other ways of thinking and seeing the world. There are lots of things in the life around architecture that aren’t necessarily to do with the traditionally valued things which are taught in architecture school. This can be something as simple as knowing a room can be lit by the glow of a street lamp at night.
It’s quite a writerly way of designing then. Is your approach to architecture ever misunderstood?
HN: We’ve been accused of being minimalist on a few occasions and we don’t see our work as minimalism at all. For us, it’s like describing a short story as minimalist.
I agree, I think minimalism implies that you’ve eroded the presence of the human and the story of their life in the architecture, but your work doesn’t seem to do that at all.
HN: Narrative drives our work a lot, but it’s understated; it’s a device we use, a bit like collage to thread all the strands together.
How does that narrative then translate to media?
HN: We had a problem with this recently while commissioning a photographer for a project we’ve finished. We were talking about the impossibility of photographing the project because it has never been designed around static images but instead around a journey going up through a building or a set of spaces. In this particular project, there’s a totem embedded in the house, and you’ll only ever experience glimpses of it, not its full form. It’s a real challenge to document this in a way that’s easily digestible, so that we can continue to get work, while also not compromising everything we’ve built up so far.
(Images above: St. Loo)
Your way of drawing is also unique in comparison to what other architecture offices produce. They have this surreal and kafkaesque quality to them by giving equal weight to furniture, floor finishes and personal items such as shoes and books. Are the drawings also part of a project’s narrative?
HN: We think drawings are a vehicle to explore what’s interesting to us. It helps us understand a project’s various relationships. They enable us to examine all the scales that you’ve mention at once—for example, a construction detail within the context of the whole project.
JL: They’re vehicles in the sense that they become ideas of the project instead of a representation of the project.
HN: And they help us establish a set of principles that we can anchor a design off of, and then everything can be appraised against those principles.
I think the idea that drawings are a tool to design and sculpt a narrative of ideas goes against the purely aesthetic CGIs that practices usually produce.
HN: We often get asked about how we make our images as an aesthetic, but for us the aesthetic’s not as important as the concept of the project—what we’re looking at or talking about. So it comes back again to this conversation about language; we adopt a certain language, and we use that language to speak about something other than the thing itself, in this case, drawing.
(Images above: Live/Work)
Literature brings someone’s inner thoughts or inner life out into the open. Spatially, it creates a kind of blurring between public and private, and this has now bled into our reality as our private lives are published everywhere online. How did you address the idea of public and private space in your ‘Live/Work’ project?
JL: We actually expanded that into a teaching brief this year in Cambridge. We found that ‘Live/Work’ is a historical and ancient thing; ts only in the last 10 or 15 years—with the emergence of different patterns of working—that its becoming a fairly urgent question about how we might live and work.
HN: One thing we did realise through that project is that there’s this obsession with the categorical division of programme or function, such as Live/Work, and that there are problems inherent in this separation. Does putting life and work adjacent to each other go far enough to allow a different kind of living? It’s now quite well documented that, for example, people work from home and live in a café, so the distinction is much more fluid. So rather than fit into these models and categorical divisions we wanted to unravel it and just talk about what it is to live.
–Image of Thames Quay courtesy of Nick Seaton.
–All other images courtesy of OMMX. To see more of their work, click here.