Neil Denari’s Conversation with Design Stories

You have a career as a teacher , a lecturer, you are a writer, a designer and you are also practicing architecture as well.

Do you feel that you miss something in between practice and theory?

The question seems to ask if there is possibility that one might lose focus on a particular area of research or expertise if one is working in a variety of media. The simple answer is that I am an architect who is interested in culture beyond building and the various media and activities that I work in are used to investigate architecture itself. As such, I don’t think I work necessarily in parallel worlds as much as I use these to think about my own medium. Many American architects doing interesting work structure their practice in the same way I do, using teaching for instance, as a setting in which to carry out experiments that extend one’s interests in the office. Teaching takes up a lot of time and that does make for a challenging schedule, but the intellectual commitment to do it is the easy and rewarding part of it. One thing I always tell my students is that there is no difference between school and practice-I try to take out the wedge that is usually driven between these two worlds. The academic realm is not a free-fall of unlimited possibilities nor is practice a world of limits and compromises. For me, my various activities state that it is simply one world to inhabit, although it’s a complex one.

A lot has been said about Architecture loosing its heart struggling to impress than to fulfill the needs of society. How can an architect maintain a balance? Or there should be a clear path?

These days, with environmental concerns becoming more and more a fault line of morals, politics, beliefs, etc. in architecture, one forgets that design does indeed need to create emotional responses. This is too often confused with the ego of the architect as a self aggrandizing figure. Architecture, like food and sex, comes in many tastes and fulfills many purposes, many of which are debatable or controversial, as opposed to say, the purpose of affordable housing, which is clearly a need in all societies. I think that this binary has driven architecture into an either/or binary: either it’s super spectacular (and therefore all about image and impression) or reserved/silent/banal (as a way to codify seriousness or humility). Well, I don’t subscribe to that binary as I believe in responding to projects with an outlook that blurs beauty and pragmatics. I don’t believe that you carry out a political agenda simply with forms. I think you carry out agendas with a suppleness of thinking that uses the necessary techniques to make something work, and by work I don’t just mean in the agreed upon functional ways.

You once said ” Once you stop expanding there is no future” Do you think that the multicultural dialogue ,the collective work, the abolition of any cultural barriers is the future of Architecture?

I think my quote is more about having an active mind versus a globalized or multicultural approach to architecture. To address the active mind idea, this is just a reflection of how to direct one’s energy and restlessness. The challenge is to keep experimenting without losing a sense of self. Basically it means operating in attack mode rather than protect mode. In terms of the smooth space of globalized society, well with so much work happening in Asia for instance, the idea of the home town architect has precipitously eroded. The currency of architectural expertise, whether that expertise is recognized in the form of signature style or is based on expertise in certain building types (high rises for instance), has superseded local proximity. Architects, because of expanded markets, are being forced to rethink their understanding of the world. Here, it helps to be someone who is curious about culture outside of one’s own milieu. Being from Los Angeles, a city at the edge of the West, at the edge of the Latin-American world and the Pacific Rim, I find it to be uniquely central not only geographically but also culturally to the conversation on globalized society.

Does the phrase “When Attitude becomes Form” reflect your approach to the contemporary design?

As I mentioned above, forms alone do not reflect the sum total of all agendas in architecture. Make no mistake though, I am very interested in the physical properties of building and in forms that do come with connotations and emotional reactions, because they may not always be conventional or expected. Novelty and difference in architecture can be a powerful mission, just like in any other expressionistic medium. There is innovation in geometry or in the application of techniques that generate and control form and these areas of investigation are often supplied simply through the interests of the architect, not via the program or the client. I think though that the phrase “When attitude becomes form” (or ATTITUDE = FORM) can accurately reflect what it means to take a position on something. It just should not necessarily imply that form must be exotic to reflect innovation. The one thing I can say about the work of NMDA is that we try to deliver a degree of difference in every project to see if some sort of progress can be made in any aspect of design. I feel that if we can only generate a response that is generic or has been polished already so to speak, then we are not going to offer anything to the conversation. This is not really an ego-based decision. It’s rather based on a desire to expand ideas for our culture, to share in the scene.

In our times Urbanism has to be rethought,re-understood reapplied accordingly, I would like your comments

At UCLA, I spend most of my time these days running studios on super large urban scale projects. I am deeply interested in the mysteries of the largest scales and in our desire to play out strategies for them. I realize they are fictions and that they extend the discourse on urban ideas illustrated in the 20th C, yet we operate with more and more plausibility because of what’s happening in Asia and the Middle East with massive urban installations. Finding new scenarios for urban growth, for preservations, for limiting decay, for creating density and human comfort, etc. is an extremely difficult enterprise. We can work for a year and only take a small step in this area, but I am nonetheless an advocate for urban research, even if it means working more with doubt than certainty. That is precisely why it makes for great studios in the University situation. Unlike controlling the scale of a building, the larger scale inquires are unsettling. Design vs Politics: that’s the real battle facing urbanism. And Markets vs Design: Markets support and inhibit new urban design at the same time. How to work our way out of this?

In the end is the Architect an Artist or a draughtsman?

Neither or both



Neil Denari is an architect and principal of Neil M. Denari Architects, Inc. (NMDA) in Los Angeles and a professor of architecture at the University of California–Los Angeles. Denari started his career in the office of James Stewart Polshek and Partners in New York City. During this time he began exhibiting his own speculative projects at the Storefront for Art and Architecture and at PS 1. In 1986, he was awarded a New York Foundation for the Arts grant which allowed him to begin his own independent practice. He moved to Los Angeles in 1988 and founded Cor-Tex which merged with NMDA in 2000. NMDA is dedicated to the exploration of contemporary life through the media of architecture, urban planning, and industrial design. The office is engaged with projects of various scales in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, with a particular focus on Japan where the office has completed a series of banks for the Mitsubishi United Financial Group. Current projects include a 14-story condominium tower in the Chelsea district of Manhattan and a 300,000 square meter residential complex in Weifang, China. Denari is the author of two books, Interrupted Projections (TOTO, 1996) and Gyroscopic Horizons (Princeton, 1999), and he is currently at work on a forthcoming monograph entitled Speculations On. In 2008, the American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded him the Academy Award for Architecture, and in 2009 he was named the USA California Community Foundation Fellow. Denari received his bachelor of architecture from the University of Houston and his master of architecture from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.

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