One needs to have a sense of curiosity. Interview with Thomas Phifer

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[PL] Zofia Maria Cielątkowska: You spoke a lot about energy of Warsaw. Where or how do you see this?

Thomas Phifer: I've been coming to Warsaw for more than a year now. I feel incredible energy there, almost like a renaissance. These two buildings are going to be the voice of Warsaw, and the voice of Poland. I feel an energy that is new, fresh and invigorating. I hope these two buildings will express this kind of extraordinary renaissance.


I remember talking with Martha Rosler who said that her first impression of Warsaw was that, "the center looks like a giant jumble of unplanned buildings." I think there is definitely something there in her statement. Also, while I was in the US, in one of the universities I presented photos of Warsaw with giant advertisements covering half of the buildings. The students were really surprised that that kind of advertising is legal. You are an architect, so you have a specific approach to the city. Do you have a similar impression of Warsaw? Is there anything else that attracted your attention be it good or bad?

Warsaw is a kind of evolving city. It has this giant Palace of Culture, which was built after the war and which is surrounded by an enormous amount of commercial architecture. When we place these two new buildings at the base of the Palace and in the midst of commercial buildings, we have to find a new spirit and a new language. The new language that represents the optimism, the openness and the spirit of these buildings - it can't look like the Palace; it can't look like the commercial buildings. It has to find a new way to manifest the culture of Warsaw.


From your presentation, I understood that you have a preference for minimalist art and empty space. How is it going to work in the building?

I think that the work here in Warsaw is that voice. It is in the theatre with the performative installations and it is in the museum with the art installations. We have to make appropriate spaces to honor these works. Some of the spaces have to be filled with light; some of them have to be sized in proportion with the installations' grand scale and some of in proportion with their smaller scale. The museum building is really in service and in honor of the art. As an experience, we clearly have the rooms we are designing for the works themselves, but we also have break rooms for contemplation and celebration of the city. It is not going to be one relentless tour through the art works, but a tour with wonderful moments of pause to view the city where the building resides.


We already know from the plan that the museum building will be more light, open and transparent, while the theatre building will be more closed with black as a dominant color. Can you speak more about these two buildings at this stage? How are they going to communicate to the people and urban fabric of Warsaw?

I think that these buildings will form an ensemble comprised of the Palace, the new square, the museum and theatre building, and commercial architecture that is across the street. Our buildings will fit there and will have sense of openness and accessibility. In plan, the theatre building is completely open with enormous doors. People can walk through the theatre so that the theatre building participates actively in the life of Warsaw.


I think in this project there is a lot of space for dialog between you as an architect, people from the theatre, museum and the city. It is more like a discussion on functionality, philosophy, ideas and form than discussion on the already planned structure of the project. Looking at it from your experience, is this your standard way of work?

As an architect, I think that one needs to have a sense of curiosity. I mean a curiosity about the place, a curiosity which motivates you to listen to the desires and rhythms of the place in which you are building. For example, Warsaw has an extraordinary history. We, the architects, have to listen to and respect that history. We have to pay attention to the site, but also to the renaissance that is happening on the ground. We do so by speaking with the people of Warsaw, by speaking to artists, performers, and the directors of the museum and theatre. We have visited Warsaw and will continue to do so in order to hear what people have to say and try to express their ideas in the design of these buildings so that they embody the new spirit of Warsaw.


It seems that in your previous projects light is a very important factor. Perhaps this factor was influenced to certain extent by Richard Meier. Maybe I'm wrong, but I've got impression that you think of architecture in terms of the light. Warsaw is quite a gray place for almost half of the year. How will light function in the building?

Light marks the passage of time and it connects us with nature. We want to make as many rooms as we can in the museum and theatre buildings that are flooded with light. We want people to experience the light, its movement, and its changing colors in the rooms that we make. We strive to create architecture that celebrates light and its timeless quality. We hope that by honoring light in the design of our buildings, we will create a museum and theatre, that while new, embody timelessness. In that way, the architecture will reflect the current renaissance in Warsaw, but will not be solely a product of its time. Light, its internal characteristics and the way in which it interacts with the built environment, people and nature, gives space an ethereal quality that extends beyond the present moment and creates architecture of depth.

What about materials? Do you already envision the dominating elements? If we think about transparency, glass comes as a first association, but I suppose there are some other possibilities?

We try to keep the materials really simple. The architecture is about the nature of the material and about how light falls upon simple forms. Our design is not comprised of the bare essence of the material, rather it is about celebrating the material and the light together.


You have probably heard of problems with the competition for this building. Did you have any concerns about that?

I don't spend much time thinking about the competition because my focus is on designing these two buildings for Warsaw. When I first came to Warsaw, I became incredibly enthusiastic about the renaissance happening there and I am working extremely hard on how to respond to the language of this city. It is quite an exciting time; the city is going through a vibrant and important shift. We are focused on making two buildings that will represent this spirit.


What are other projects you are working on currently?

We are working on several museums. Probably the most important is the Glenstone Museum in Washington, D.C. Most of the works there are not going to change. They will not be moved for a long, long time, so we are designing permanent installations in the rooms.

Thomas Phifer. Fot. Jason Schmidt
Thomas Phifer. Fot. Jason Schmidt