Open Mic. A conversation with Jeannette Kuo

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Open Mic A conversation with Jeannette Kuo Cooper Moore Jean Paul Soto-Torrado Seth Chase Reece Berry Logan Heffelman Gwen Miceli-Spieker Michael Van Aken Jarrod Halperen Maegan Mickley Samantha Kirk

Made by students enrolled in the “Video, Media, and Architecture� class taught by professor Marco Brizzi at Kent State University in Florence in Fall 2019


Contents 4 Biography 6 Interview




Jeannette Kuo is co-founding partner of Zurich-based Karamuk Kuo Architects and Assistant Professor-in-Practice of Architecture at Harvard Graduate School of Design. Her research and work focus on the intersection of structures, space, and culture. From multi-unit housing to cultural infrastructures like the Augusta Raurica Archaeological Center, the work of the office spans across scales and typologies to address collective culture and public urban life. Each project finds spatial and conceptual opportunities within the constraints of everyday reality, working from the inside out to define new relationships between program, structure and space. Recent built works include the International Sports Sciences Institute in Lausanne and the Weiden Secondary School. Publications include the two-volume research on workspace typologies: A-Typical Plan (2013) and Space of Production (2015), as well as the recent El Croquis 161 monograph on Karamuk Kuo.



Jeannette Kuo FLORENCE 2019



Jeannette Kuo (photo by Angelika Annen).


How did you discover that architecture was for you? Do you think that any of your past childhood experiences could have affected that choice? I think it actually evolved organically. I don’t think that there’s any one moment that I can specifically pinpoint, but I think there were a lot of things that sort of led up to it. I knew that I was always very creatively engaged. As a kid I was drawing all the time, but I was also very much interested in things that were quite scientifically grounded. I was always very curious in terms of how things worked and what that meant in terms of the mechanics of it. So I think all of those aspects naturally led towards architecture in the sense that it was something which was combining both attitudes: a more creative and artistic side with a more technical and scientific side. On top of that - and this is something that I might not have even realized early on going into it - I think that one thing that really drew me to architecture was the sociological side of it. The fact that it has to do with people. What was your biggest struggle when you started your own firm? and what advice would you give to anybody who’s starting their own design practice? Well, maybe the advice is to say that


you’ll never know enough and you’ll never know what you think you need to know. So it’s just about trying it, that’s the first thing. I think that the first struggle to overcome is always your own inner struggle, in the sense of having the confidence to say what we’re doing is right. And actually, most of the time I don’t even know if what we’re doing is really right. It’s just what we believe in. I think that one of the things we may not realize as students is that there’s no right answer, especially in architecture. That’s the beauty in it: there’s no right answer to it, there are so many different approaches to it. There will always be conflicting opinions, there will always be those haters out there who don’t appreciate your work, and that’s also okay. It’s about trying to understand how we could fit into that bigger picture. So for a long time, in fact, we operated very much with our blinders on, just trying to do work and find ourselves in that work. I think maybe the biggest struggle with that is having enough drive and conviction to continue with it because very often we feel like we’re alone in the world, very often you don’t know if this is going to lead to something, and that uncertainty I think sets a lot of people back. So the advice I would give is just try.



International Sports Sciences Institute. Core typologies.

I have a follow up question. At what point in your career did you feel like you actually accomplished your own design company? where you felt “oh this is actually a real thing?” I am not even sure, to be completely honest, you know, it’s very fragile. I don’t think people realize that. Running any business is fragile because you are exposing yourself to criticism, but it’s also that the times change, things fall in and out of fashion, and you maybe appreciate it at one moment but maybe not at the next. So part of that is also just trying to navigate the whole thing, and then at the same time understanding that at the end of the day it’s also a business, you need to survive. Being an architect is a very risky business, and I think that maybe that’s also the thing that makes it exciting. There is no moment where we say “this is the business” because the moment it happens then it’s old formula and it’s probably not the right thing anymore. So we’re always trying to rethink, in a way, how best to approach things, and what we do can respond to what is relevant today.



International Sports Sciences Institute. Concept model. Photo by Karamuk Kuo Architects.

So in that sense I am not sure if we have ever felt like this is the business. But maybe the fact that we moved beyond having a few interns to having more people who come with a certain amount of responsibility, hence knowing that you’re not there just for yourself, the risk that your taking is not just about you in the world and your own survival, but it’s the survival of ten people that depend on you. That, I think, maybe hits home sometimes.

International Sports Sciences Institute. Photo by Laurian Ghinitoiu.



International Sports Sciences Institute. Photo by Laurian Ghinitoiu.

What was that experience like when you realized those blinders could come off and you could explore other things? Well, the moment I think we started getting published. Which is always a bit of a surprising thing. Perhaps certain people might just have innate confidence and assertiveness and just know that what they’re doing is so fantastic, that it will always be published. I don’t think we ever had that confidence. We were just doing things to test things and to see what our interests could be. And the other aspect is, of course, that my partner and I were not necessarily working for a long time together



International Sports Sciences Institute. Photo by Laurian Ghinitoiu.

before we started our office. So part of the whole process was also trying to understand that we have to work with each other , and what that process meant and how that, as an organization, also evolves . When did you decide that maybe it was time for the blinders to come off? Well, I sometimes wish that there were still more blinders on. And actually we tried to put those blinders on, because I don’t think it’s healthy to always be plugged into what is contemporary. Of course we’re very much aware of what our colleagues are doing. But


we also try not to be influenced by that. We try to find more within ourselves and in the history of the discipline and trying to position ourselves within a broader history, rather than looking at the kind of current landscape. The blinders, I think, are something that you sometimes have to artificially create for yourself.


in the idea of space, and that might seem very obvious, because we’re architects that design spaces. But I think in at least my own education and the much broader education, of those of my generation, coming from the US, space was never really talked about in school. Space is the byproduct of designing a building from the outside, or from a set of more Early on in your career did you systematic approaches or conceptual already have a style for your approaches. But we were never taught designs or did you develop that off to see or to understand or to design an influence of another architect? spatially, so that was one of the things how did you come to your design that we very early on, hit on and were style? really interested in; how to develop a Style is actually a word that we tried to process where we can look from the avoid a little bit, not to say that we don’t inside out. have our own bias, and probably we do The second aspect that we were have a very obvious style when you kind both interested in is this kind of of look at it in the broader landscape of independence. We came from very things. different backgrounds, very different sort Style for us has a lot to do with bending of educational backgrounds as well, but to the trends. Therefore it’s about a kind somehow we both had heavy engineering of contemporariness that we try to be influences in our lives, before we even wary of and also be critical of. started our office together. For example, I think for us the “style” is not so much dealing very much with structural a style as rather a process for a set of systems and structural geometries and interests that align us to produce a certain in trying to think about architecture type of work. more from its fundamental, let’s say core, I know it sounds a bit vague. elements which has to do with structural Maybe to pinpoint it down, I think for us ideas and strategies. there’s a few things that we’re very much Then I think the third main issue that interested in and reappear in different we’ve been tackling a lot has to do with sorts of configurations in the work we do. an attitude or a responsibility towards One is that we are very much interested a collectivity. That means that a lot of



International Sports Sciences Institute. Study models.

the work that we do, even in private commissions, to a certain degree is about how we approach the idea of living together, of us as architects contributing to a society of people who have to be collectively in a space. What does that space mean for not only the sets of activities but for the attitudes and the kind of habits that might form out of that. What is your overall design process for any project? Where would you start tackling a project? and is that process similar in almost


all of your projects or does it vary often? I think that the process depends on a set of parameters that sometimes have more weight on one side or the other. For example, site is a very important consideration for us, how the building actually sits on the site. So sometimes if the site constraints are really strong then it might be something that is more formally driven in the very beginning. I think on the other hand there may be projects where the site is just almost like a blank slate in which case it becomes much more about the functional or typological questions that underlie the building that becomes a more heavy driving force. But I would say that the process itself always starts first with a kind of research process. I mean, maybe it’s not so different than what you would potentially be doing in studio. We try to understand what has already been done in history for this kind of building, what has also been done locally, so the sort of laws and regulations and things like that and how people have responded to it. Very often our work is also a direct critique of some of those things that maybe become almost knee-jerk reactions to a specific law that we try to avoid doing again or repeating again. As a physical process, it’s very much


physical model based. Does that process change at all based on the scale of the work you are doing or does that change based on what you envisioned the project as being? Yes and no, I guess, obviously when a project is, say, a lone standing building within a greater context and that aspect of it is also really at the core of it, we start, of course, very often with a 1:500 massing model that really deals with a very broad context. We try to understand how it sits within a broad context and what that actually means. It’s never a linear process. At the same time we are thinking of the different activities that are happening in that building and the constraints defining the site. So, I think that in the end it’s kind of a messy process. I can’t say that there is a formula to that but maybe what is particular in our case is that we do a lot of big and small physical models early on, and that has been the case for pretty much every project that we have worked on. In going into that process, does your surrounding environment such as noise or music or location affect your approach to work? Our physical office environment has a


“We try to find more within ourselves and in the history of the discipline and try to position ourselves within a broader history.�

bit of influence. Our office is in an old auto garage, a big industrial space. Of course we have a dirty area for model making and a clean area for computers. My partner and I sit together with everyone else in one open space. It gets noisy sometimes because you hear everyone on the phone and you are aware of everything. We have three different construction sites going on and are in competition early phases at this moment. The office is small enough and inclusive enough that we are all aware of what we are up to. And of course that is important to the culture we are trying to set up in the office.




Spreitenbach Townhall. Model photo by Karamuk Kuo Architects

How much does your work, as you conceive it digitally and through models, differ from how it finally materializes in the built environment? We do a lot of the working construction documents in CAD etc, but we do a lot

of studies in 3D modeling programs like rhino for details. The majority of the design components during the early conceptual phases of our projects are all done analogue in the sense that we build physical models. You’d be amazed how closely the space remains in the translation from model



for Sports Sciences and so they did that article about that project and they showed an interior photograph and it was almost exactly the same as in the model. You’ve probably met with the client or you haven’t yet, and you don’t know if a project is going to be built, but you need to communicate it. What is your medium of choice when you have a vision and you are inspired? We almost immediately go into very quick, dirty models. Stuff you can just intuitively just churn out like a hundred of them. A lot of them are not very good but that whole process is about a weeding out of ideas, of refining an idea, of trying to understand where to take it. So there is a lot of rough heavy production going on at the beginning.

into the built form. There was an article that was published in a Swiss design magazine and they do that a lot... they compare an image from when the competition was won and an image of the resulting built work. And those two views are strikingly similar. A year ago we finished the Institute

Some people would critique architects (as a profession) especially now we’ve built enough. How does your firm and your practice push humanity forward knowing what we know? I think for us that question is multilayered. There are a lot of things embedded in that question you just asked. There is the very immediate issue of sustainability and the climate-change and how we respond ecologically. There’s

“We’re interested in something that gives back to the community inside the building because those are the people that will ensure that the building actually lives on.�

Weiden Secondary School. Photo by Mikael Olsson.


“That whole process is about a weeding out of ideas, of refining an idea, of trying to understand where to take it.”

also an expanded aspect of that which has to do with imagining how we as a society move forward which also relates to that question, I would say. You know that the topic of sustainability has been around for quite a long time. But for a long time it was approached mainly from a couple points of views. Mainly from a material standpoint, which is not to say that’s not important or that it’s not a part of the things we do. In fact, this project I was just mentioning in Lausanne was built completely out of recycled concrete. So we do try to embed ecological aspects into our work. But I think the larger question behind that is ‘how do we try to build or design more durably?’ I’m using the term durably mainly because I want to disassociate from sustainability, which comes with certain baggage as a word. And again it’s not to say that we aren’t interested in all the other words that come with it, you’ll see later that a lot of our work is about



“How do we build judiciously? how do we behave consciously with our resources?”

how to address certain energy consumption issues or material issues. But it’s also about: how do we build judiciously? how do we behave consciously with our resources? It’s not that in 20 years we will rip down this building and build a new one because it’s no longer functioning. I know of projects that, before they even opened, are kind of obsolete. So how do you deal with those kinds of questions and how do you deal with questions about a type of sustainability that is more about social sustainability. I think that’s just as important. And you see a lot of buildings that don’t work and they don’t work because there was not so much consideration at the time they were conceived that was given to it with a broader vision of what a collective means. Very often in some of these earlier and more




International Sports Sciences Institute. Photo by Laurian Ghinitoiu.


functionally oriented buildings you see that they responded very well to that kind of brief. Point-by-point you can go ‘okay check, we have such-andsuch rooms, check, these are such-and. such square feet,’ but that doesn’t really lead to architecture, that’s facility space planning. And what we’re interested in is something that gives back to the community inside the building because those are the people that will ensure that the building actually lives on. If you get people to have pride in their neighborhood or in their place, then they will create a culture or a community that will last. There are theories in urban planning that precisely address this topic. Well, I firmly believe that that’s the case also with architecture. But that’s never really been discussed at that level, that contributes towards a way of addressing how we move forward in the future, and also just about how we are as a society. So for us that’s a kind of underlying thesis that may not be so overt, but i think that if you look at our work, every single one of those projects actually cuts through that.. As students we really appreciate you being here. We gain a lot from hearing lectures from architects like you. I was wondering, what do you learn from students coming to your lectures. Is there anything


you learn that just opens your eyes? I think that these types of events allow us to step back and reflect on our own work. It’s probably a way of “lifting the blinders” that was mentioned before. You know, very often, when we are in the office, we try to artificially put those blinders on because we need that safety bubble to do our work without being distracted. But at the same time, once we’ve done it, we need to step back and re-evaluate. Where do we go now? was that the right thing? Sometimes there are things that maybe we have been unable to handle in the best possible way. So for me preparing for a lecture is really a very enriching experience. As students, and especially students that are graduating soon, we are wondering if there are any opportunities that you offer to students and recent graduates? We have a lot of graduates that join our office. We also usually have a couple of interns who join us before finishing their studies. I think that for us this kind of engagement is very important. I’m also teaching a lot right now too, so all of that combined together is part of the ongoing dialogue we have with young graduates.


“Sometimes we have to unlearn certain things and allow ourselves to revisit things that we may have preconceptions on.” You studied and taught at highly esteemed institutions. How has that academic relationship affected you and your practice? So I think one of the things it constantly does, it kind of acts as a checks and balance in the sense that I have to always be aware of one important thing. While I may seem to have more education or know more than the students, I am always surprised by what actually comes out of them, in a good way. In the sense that sometimes we have to unlearn certain things and allow ourselves to revisit things that we may have preconceptions on. So that part of it, we very actively brought into our practice. It’s the same way that I engage my students. I try to hold myself back and say “I was taught this, but is it still true?” There’s things that, looking back, I wonder why they ever taught me. Teaching is a constant challenge. It makes you question and be more critical about how you approach something and try to be more open about a process. Yes, that’s the thing that I gained most out of teaching.



“If you get people to have pride in their neighborhood or in their place, then they will create a culture or a community that will last.” How has the discourse changed in relation to pushing boundaries? I think that is probably something very personal because I can’t divorce that from a context or from where I’m at in my own career. So, you know I came back to teaching in the US after being gone for awhile. I am now heading into my 10th year in Switzerland. So it is a very, very different world, and also very different types of conversations. I won’t lie I’ve had a bit of culture shock sometimes, going back into the U.S. and entering into the academic realm where things are very cerebral, intangible at times. What I bring into it is the more tangible aspects of the profession. That may seem to be a little old school... but I think that for me it is a necessary dialogue between those different worlds. What are the bigger issues that you and your firm are trying to solve? I would say for sure it would have to do with the users. I think all the other stuff is just noise. We are aware of what’s going on in the current



Thurgauerstrasse Public School. Model photos by Karamuk Kuo Architects

architectural discourse, but we did not see the objective of participating into all of it. We did not seek to be known. In setting up a firm, there is always a sense of ego that’s involved. I don’t think we were seeking fame or recognition. For us the greatest affirmation is if the space is working well and how it evolves with the people in it.



What is an Architect’s overall greatest challenge? I think the architect’s overall biggest challenge is being able to hold it all together, without being torn apart by all the different people that want different things from you. Because at the end of the day, what we don’t learn in school, is that architecture is a very collaborative and diverse set of issues that we have to confront with. And



we’re at the center of it. We are essentially the conductor at the front of a messy orchestra. At the end of the day much of our time is to retain the essence of the project and to allow that vision that we had at the beginning to survive until the end. And that means a lot of different things. How to deal with people? how to negotiate with clients? how to convince people of your vision, or make them understand it? The other actors involved in the project need to understand what your vision is so that they are on board and help you realize it. Architects are sometimes portrayed as having the arrogance of not wanting to deal with the issues of the users or of the other consultants. Well, I actually think that we were at fault as a discipline if this belief still exists or if we allow it to exist. I think that part of it has something to do with the education that we’ve had which is about promoting a kind of authorship of a singular person doing the project and thinking that that’s gonna be it. Well, it’s never going to be so simple. What we had to learn a lot about when setting up our practice was that the majority of our time was going to be spent communicating and negotiating and trying to understand things on other people’s terms before being able to push our agenda. Probably ten, twenty years ago a lot of


architects were pushing their agenda to the detriment perhaps of a larger reputation of the profession. What was the best or most meaningful or helpful advice that you’ve received as a student that you wouldn’t mind passing onto all of us? [Laughs] I need to test my memory here! I can’t give away how old I am! Well, it’s been awhile since I was a student, so I really have to think about it. You know, I don’t think I can pinpoint it to one phrase. I was very lucky to always have people that were believing in me to some degree.And I think that helped. Because, like I was saying in the beginning, very often I think we are our own worst enemies. Especially in a profession like ours where we are constantly exposed to critique, how to deal with that in a healthy way and how to stay above that is sometimes very difficult. I had the luck of having people at the right moments of my academic and professional career that nudged me forward and allowed me to expose myself in that kind of way. So, maybe that refers back to one of the initial questions of what my advice would be but I guess I would just have to say, go-ahead and try.



House on a Slope. sectional model photo by Karamuk Kuo Architects.

Maybe not being too comfortable? Yeah, and that’s the other thing. I don’t know if someone actually told me this, but sometimes the best thing to do is to just confront your fears. And just do the thing that makes you most uncomfortable because the worst that can happen, is that you learn from that as well. And it may not be the thing you end up doing but at least you tried.





This interview with Jeannette Kuo was focused upon her growth as an architect, design process, background, and her experiences in architecture. It was a collaborative effort among students of the Video, Media, and Architecture course at Kent State University Florence. Guest lecturers were brought in from all over Europe for a Fall lecture series and students were tasked to create an interview before each of these lectures. After analyzing numerous interviews with other architects, students researched and explored the work of the visiting lecturers. Questions were then devised by each student, and these questions were analyzed based upon their thematic similarity and their relevance to the work of each lecturer. The most appropriate questions were chosen for each interview, and the specific students who created these questions then were charged with interviewing our guests, using the chosen questions as a base and posing any other questions that flowed with the interview.


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