27 October 2016
In the beginning there was the cinema, and for years Marcio Kogan’s life and professional career wavered between architecture and the big screen. What made him plump for the former was not so much his success with the design of buildings but the financial aftermath of his first full-length film. Never mind: this providential cinematic failure has given us one of the most interesting and influential architects of his generation. Kogan is the founder of studio mk27 in São Paulo, the Brazilian metropolis where he was born in 1952 and continues to be based, despite working all over the world. His architecture is experimental, and yet does not lack references to the designers of his country’s glorious past. He often cites Oscar Niemeyer, the undisputed champion of Brazilian Modernism, but with his style he also pays tribute to another famous compatriot, the architect of Italian origin Lina Bo Bardi. studio mk27’s designs, appreciated for their pure volumes and a simplicity always attentive to details and finishes, take on the difficult task of reconsidering and giving continuity to the Brazilian architectural tradition. An honorary member of the AIA (American Institute of Architects) who has won over two hundred national and international awards, Kogan represented Brazil at the Venice Biennale in 2012 and has been included by Época magazine in its list of the “100 most influential people in Brazil.” At the age of 64 he continues to bring his creativity to bear on design along with the twenty architects in his studio, whom he urges to be “constantly connected with everything that surrounds him.” In addition to an enviable ability to handle difficulties and failures, this interview reveals his awareness of the goals he has achieved and of the role the architect has to play in today and tomorrow’s society. Marcio Kogan is a visionary personality obsessed with elegance, but if you ask him to describe himself he simply says “a timid, humble man who wears glasses and loves Italy.” Especially a certain kind of cotoletta…
How does one become Marcio Kogan?
The recipe is easy: find a father named Aron and a mother named Judith.
Joking apart, what is the meaning of architecture for you nowadays?
I am reminded of something Niemeyer said: “We have to dream, if not things do not happen.”
What was the “sliding doors” moment in your life, the time or event that changed the direction of your career?
At the age of sixteen I was a terrible student because all I thought about was wandering around the streets of São Paulo. One day it started to rain and I took shelter in a movie theater, where I saw a film that changed my life, Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence. I saw myself in the boy Johan, and at that moment I understood the importance of art in our lives. I identified with the black-and-white, with the sense of solitude, with the anguish and its ghosts, and my life had changed by the time I left the theater.
Were there other turning points after that film?
Yes. For example, when I was studying at the school of architecture of Mackenzie Presbyterian University in São Paulo I was fascinated by “Hippie Modernism,” neglecting the Brazilian modernism and Paulista School that were all the rage. But the day after I graduated I realized that, apart from theoretical and cultural preferences, I knew nothing about real architecture. And this realization turned out to be very important.
What role has the cinema had in your professional life?
Until 1988, when I directed my first film, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to be an architect or a moviemaker. I had had a successful career, producing 13 short films, but this full-length feature was a total flop and wiped out all my savings as well as the architecture office I had just founded. I then started over from scratch, focusing exclusively on architecture. Once I had got over the trauma, I decided it had been a providential failure, and I think my career as an architect owes a great deal to my experience as a moviemaker.
And as an architect, what was the turning point?
Some projects like the Gama Issa house in 2001 have helped me get over difficult moments and consolidate my position.
Have you got any regrets at this point in your career? Anything that you would wish to have done differently?
I don’t think I have any regrets. I think of myself as a mule pulling my cart very slowly and never looking back.
The British designer Jasper Morrison once said that when objects are designed, “they should be better than what existed before, something that is not always easy or even possible, but worth a try.” Do you agree?
Certainly. I too think that everything has already been done and that there is no room for those who dream of revolutionizing everything at any cost.
Given the fact that everything seems to have already been designed and built, what are the challenges you would like to take on?
I like the idea of improving and changing things with simplicity, gentleness and elegance.
You mentioned Oscar Niemeyer, the famous Brazilian architect who had to pay a very high price for his political stand. How have your political views influenced your work (and your life)? How important are political connections when practicing architecture today?
I believe for architects it is fundamental to be connected with everything around them, be it a Hussein Chalayan fashion show or the most seasoned social and political movements. Niemeyer used to say: “more important than architecture is to be tuned into the world.” A while ago I posted a text on Instagram about the impeachment process of former president Dilma Rousseff that got a lot of reactions. Half the comments were enthusiastic and the other half made all kinds of threats: from clients saying they would never work with me again to certain followers telling me to go build houses in Cuba. After fourteen years of left-leaning government and very balanced positions, a right-wing generation is emerging in Brazil. Even in the office this story has been controversial, provoking some good fights, but as a former rebellious kid I don’t mind that at all!
In today’s architecture what can be regarded as extemporary and what can aspire to last instead?
I don’t like people who try to innovate just for the sake of it, without any more profound principles but carrying out operations that are purely “cosmetic.” Obviously, there are many good things, but many others that remind me of Postmodernism, which has left a lot of rubble behind it.
How do you deal with defeats?
I am obsessed with perfection. It is a defect that I acknowledge with a certain amount of pain. I never have gone to see a finished project and totally loved what I had done. I’ve never said: Wow! This is great! I only look at what could have been done better. If any of my projects ever created a major problem I would fall into a terrible depression. But then I would get out of it by coming to Milan to eat one of your marvelous cotolette.
What is your “playground?”
My life or maybe our lives: with slides, seesaws, trampolines, merry-go-rounds, swings and little houses to build.
What do you feel about your past works? And the ones that will come in the future?
Architecture is a very difficult profession, especially in the early stages of a career. When I think of those days, I feel sick. But it is also like the work of an ant, done tiny grain by tiny grain, in a constant learning process. You’re in it for the long run and I love this! As for the future, I just want to survive and to keep humbly “pushing my cart.” To quote Niemeyer again: “Life is a breeze.”
What makes your architecture unique and different from that of your contemporaries?
I don’t think it is different, it’s merely a small piece of glass in a large kaleidoscope.
I’ve already asked other architects this question and I would like to know your thoughts on the matter, as you are directly involved: what do you see as the role of emerging markets—China and India, but Brazil too—in the future of architecture?
I have always been optimistic about Brazil and I think it will continue to be a great country and a huge market. The country is rich and large, and people cram themselves onto buses in the early hours of the morning to go to work and improve their lives. But if you read the papers your reaction can only be one of despair. The politicians in this country have carried out one of the greatest robberies in the history of humanity.
What touches you most? When does architecture move you?
Architecture must move you, period!
What are the obstacles you encounter in practicing architecture today?
My studio has projects in numerous countries, each with its own peculiarities. In the United States the laws and the market dictate what you do and architects there do not have a simple life. In India, our projects are controlled by an advisor on Vastu Shastra (a traditional Hindu system of architecture, editor’s note). Then there are places where it is becoming increasingly difficult to get projects approved by public authorities. In Brazil we are facing a terrifying crisis that is killing architecture. In other words, our lives are not easy and we risk at least one heart attack a year. By the way, cancel my cotoletta alla milanese!
What does Marcio Kogan do in his spare time?
Despite thinking that the history of cinema came to an end on October 31, 1993, the day Federico Fellini died, I still go and see movies.
Have you got any hobbies or passions?
My passion is to live and to be able to eat the cotoletta alla milanese that I just “cancelled.”
It’s impossible not to recognize a certain consistency in your projects, but in always proposing the same archetypes don’t you run the risk of descending into repetition?
I am aware of this and at mk27 we have made a great intellectual effort to modify our approach to design in order to find new modes of expression. At the beginning of a career it is extremely difficult to achieve good results. But once you are established, a new problem arises: a client comes to you and asks for a house you have already done. This is currently one of our specters.
In your view is there a type of architecture that best expresses the spirit of our time?
All the projects that I call “histrionic.” Here in Brazil last year the Mexican-Brazilian architect Aurélio Martinez Flores passed away. He was eighty-six, had been my favorite professor at university and is the most elegant architect I have ever known. And yet not a word was written in the local press about him. I asked myself why and the only answer that occurs to me is this: it is the end of elegance. Nobody cares about elegance anymore, it has absolutely no significance.
Is there a project of yours that you consider important but which has not yet been built?
Like every architecture office we have a stock of unrealized projects and many of them are better than the ones that have been built. But I don’t want to think about this. When it is not meant to happen, it won’t. That’s fate.
At this point in your career, do you still get a kick out of working?
Yes. I want to be like Oscar Niemeyer who, dying in a hospital bed in Rio de Janeiro at the age of 104, was worried about not getting back to his office because he still had some projects to finish.
How would you define your work? Can you try to give as precise a definition of it as possible?
I don’t like to talk about my work. I live with it night and day and have already lost track of what it is. I just know that I have a humble and slightly timid vision of everything I do.