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Michel Mossessian talks to Lucy Lethbridge

Michel MossessianHe was born in France, spent his early working years in the United States and now works from a former industrial building in Hoxton, the trendiest spot in London's East End. The architect Michel Mossessian is truly a global citizen, transporting round the world his vision of buildings that emerge from local contexts, born out of dialogue not only with planners and developers, but with artists and with those who live and work in the surrounding streets. "Architecture is an international language", he says, "it is important in all cultures."

You have worked as an architect in both America and Europe. What differences do you find between them in attitudes to architecture?

"I can make a parallel between the American internationalist style - where they can produce the same building in every country in the world, and the European style where architects have more interest in culture: the buildings produced in Europe are more embedded, more concerned with responding to local context. In Europe we are interested in meanings, in purpose.

NATO Headquarters, Brussels – Winning competition design by Michel Mossessian as SOM Design Director.You are the designer of the award-winning NATO HQ in Brussels, which is inspired by the shape and idea of clasped fingers. What were you trying to convey in that building?

The NATO HQ was an example of the particularity of the European vernacular in architecture, of our response when dealing with people who are not from our culture. There were 26 countries involved in the project, all the NATO member states, and I had no access to individual clients. So right at the beginning I had to capture the essence of 26 cultures and also to convey the notion of inter-dependency. The challenge was to convey a sense of unity with diversity - of fingers touching across borders. But to reach this design, I went into what I call the Black Box.

The Black Box?

This is my term for the process by which you must rid your mind of all predetermined assumptions; you simply identify the players in the project and they give you their ideas, and you begin from there by establishing a common vision. By looking at aspects of social, economic and environmental dimensions - you find something in common across borders. Listening is the most important thing we do as architects. And we start listening right at the beginning. There was a time when architects received a commission then went alone into an ivory tower and produced a design. But those days are gone: a building which has been through the process of the Black Box will speak to people. Now that sustainability is such an important concern, we have to be more in tune with dialogue. As architects we now listen, we do not always speak.

But there are many things for an architecture to take on board as well as design?

An economic culture gives us the value of the floor plate, how many square feet, units and so on. We then talk about space, light - and these have no economic value. Our clients take care of the work of the building, but nobody treats of the space between buildings of the public realm - who can deal with that? So this is the multi disciplinary process that is now so important for architecture.

You are well known for your work with artists.

Architects have always used artists, but traditionally they consult them at when the project is completed - when they are asked to come up with a sculpture or a fountain. But it is part of my process to start the dialogue with everyone involved right at the beginning of the project so we work together, artist, architect, planner, local workers and residents, at the earliest stages.

Your impressive new residential buildings on the Paddington Basin in London are now nearing completion. Is there a new optimism in Europe about architecture?

Definitely. And because environmental aspects mean we cannot build the same building in Madrid as in Oslo, we have to look carefully at different contexts because we are using the sun, we have to be intelligent with the elements. Planning regulations vary from country to country in Europe - and sometimes these things can be difficult: but we were surprised and pleased in a housing development in Slovakia for instance how seriously they took our ideas about the importance of the quality of light.

Merchant Square, London – mossessian & partner’s first office building currently under construction at Paddington Basin. Why did you choose to open your office in London?

London is a very tolerant place, a truly diverse city. I have 16 people working here in my office and they speak 11 native languages between them; I have a piece of the whole world here. London reminds me of a machine in motion. Where Paris is finished, London is unfinished - there is a feeling here that we can change things, that we can change the skyline.

What's your favourite period for European architecture?

The Renaissance - if the religious factor was left out, if the Pope was not involved. The way in which disciplines then crossed over - art, architecture, science - that is pretty well like today. We are on the edge of our own Renaissance - pretty well everything that consumes energy must be changed, machines, vehicles, tools - so a radical shift is needed.

And your favourite European building?

The Pompidou Centre - for what it gave to the world and to the city. It is incredible - an internal public realm, everything inside out. It completely changed the mindset of architects. But I also like the Convent of La Tourette, near Lyon, which Le Corbusier built for the Dominican friars in the 1950s. To me it showed that a building can change attitudes: by 1968, the monks were Marxists!

How do you see the future for European architecture?

This is a period of optimism. Good designs don't cost more money - they are about dialogue, collaboration and imagination.


© Lucy Lethbridge. All views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to the European Commission.