Zoka Zola: As unimprisoned as possible

In an ongoing series of discussions with prominent women architects, Zoka Zola discusses her practice, sustainable building, and the state of American urbanism.

Over the course of the millennia-long, multinational development of architecture, the contributions of women have been essential but under-recognized. In the age of early modernism, female designers began to gain prominence, but largely behind the scenes and often without fair compensation. The history of modern architecture in particular is contaminated with anecdotes in which female collaborators were relegated to the shadows while their male colleagues soaked in the spotlight: the movement's most revered masters, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, each had a female collaborator—Lilly Reich and Eileen Gray, respectively—from whom they famously took inspiration and credit. The fact that these women's efforts were misidentified is both a personal injustice—to Reich, Gray, and others—and an intellectual deprivation to the generations of designers that have followed them but not benefited from access to their thoughts and ideals.

Fortunately, in recent years a number of female architects have emerged to challenge the perceived male domination of the discipline. Their insights and ambitions are reshaping how our cities look and how their profession operates. In the 2011 edition of its interview program, Brendan McGetrick talks to foremost women in the field, a series first published in Domus China. Through a series of in-depth conversations, we will explore the personal and professional experiences of female practitioners of architecture and urbanism. In the process, we hope to provide new entry points into their work and a fuller picture of a practice too often defined by the male ego.

Brendan McGetrick: In this series we're trying to better understand female architects' work by discussing the experiences and interests that inspire it. So I'd like to begin by talking a bit about your personal history. I understand that you were born in Croatia, educated in Zagreb and in London and Chicago; you've worked in Rome and in Vienna and you now live in Chicago.
Zoka Zola:

This experience of moving from one cultural environment into another is very interesting, I think, and it seems central to your work. So I'm curious to hear your thoughts on that process—relocating, reorienting, and re-educating yourself as you enter and attempt to interact with a new place—and how that affects your approach to architecture.
I think that it is twofold: first, moving from one cultural environment to another is very time and energy consuming, because you need time to adapt. Everything gets turned upside-down. All of the values are different; your values from one place don't apply anymore to your new place and it takes time to understand, let alone adopt, these new values. And of course it takes time to emigrate from one place to another. [Laughs]
The other aspect of moving is that you can't operate from your own cultural background, which is very important. Instead, you slowly accept that there are many different ways of looking at and doing things and that you have to change yourself, which is problematic. [Laughs]

So for all their difficulty and inconvenience, these experiences payoff because you gather new ideas and approaches along the way....
I would say that it is not only about drawing from different cultures or recognizing how cultures react to a certain issue. As an architect it's especially interesting because you have to adapt fully and, as a result, you develop a level of ability to zoom into different ways of thinking and develop a willingness to look into different cultural frameworks, and I believe this is reflected in the work. In the long term, I hope that this is something that helps to develop a very flexible and all-encompassing global view of what is important to do for each project. I believe that is the main benefit of moving from one culture to another.

So are you saying that when you travel to these new places and engage their peculiar qualities or challenges it helps you to notice and focus on certain things that could perhaps be all-encompassing and constant?
I wouldn't say constant; it's almost like looking for a non-constant. Constant sounds like something that one finds and believes that it is universal, right? What I'm saying is more about always looking for the variable. For example, I'm going to be part of a conference for Dallas. They have a problem of not being able to get urban planning to work because people get in and out by car and so there is little street life. Visitors arrive at the new Dallas opera house in cars, not by the big plaza that Norman Foster designed for them. This is a climatic issue but also a social and cultural issue, because that's the way that people live there; they will always choose to do that when it's 100 degrees [37C] outside. So, my first thought was not that they should do what people in Kuala Lumpur do and adopt a lifestyle where they prefer to be outdoors, because it's not natural to them. The idea isn't to try to transfer cultural approaches but to instead look for the difference. These differences are so interesting because Dallas and Kuala Lumpur have a similar climate but different cultural needs and expectations. So my first reaction to the problem of street life in Dallas is that I need to understand these cultural needs and expectations and how the people of Dallas relate to their climate.

And do you have the sense that the citizens of Dallas want to address this issue of street life?
Yes, now there seems to be a desire among the people of Dallas to find a solution to their lack of street life. As an introduction to the conference I was told that Dallas got a string of Pritzker Prize-winning architects to design different public buildings in the city center but they are not really resulting in life on the streets of downtown Dallas. So the question is, Why is that? What could be done differently?

Do you have thoughts on that? Because not only Dallas but many southern American cities such as Atlanta, Phoenix and so on are now being held up as negative role models of undynamic, unsustainable cities.
Apparently there is an awareness of that and this conference is one mechanism to think that issue through and to devise different methodologies. I was told that there is a lot of interest in that, but it's just a question of not quite knowing how to do it, because some attempts have failed. But, as I was saying before, my approach would be to first look at the particular situation of Dallas—people's needs, behavior, expectations, the specifics of climate, of interaction, of day and nighttime. I would take this very tailored approach to this or any problem. That involves making a kind of micro-reading of what is happening, what is already given, and then from that considering what an architect can do with it. Do you see what I mean?

Yes, and I understand that you aren't actually working on this issue for Dallas, so you haven't undertaken this micro-reading that you describe and without that it's very difficult to make proposals.
Yes, I have only been invited to speak at a conference there. I will be speaking not about possible solutions, but about some of my projects of different scales, from houses to mixed-use buildings and urban design projects, each being site-tailored with an ambition to improve the city beyond its site. None of the projects that I will show will be perfectly transferable to Dallas but together they will hopefully show that many different methodologies need to be considered. So if you are asking me, What are the solutions for Dallas? I don't know, but with the experiences that we talked about in your first question, being forced to understand different cultures, I am confident that there must be ways to arrive at functional urban solutions for southern cities in the United States—solutions that I would find satisfactory or interesting, at least. [Laughs] I am confident that there is a solution if you are willing to think about it.

That's an important point I think—after all of your experiences working and living in different places, being forced to adjust yourself to them and accept them on their own terms, you've gained a confidence that any context is ultimately understandable if you put the time in and care deeply enough.
Yes, you put it very succinctly.

That said, it might be interesting to now talk a little about your current home, Chicago. That's a city with, by American standards, a very rich architectural heritage. The first skyscraper was built there; it was Mies's second home and he built several prominent and beautiful buildings there. I wonder how, or if, you as a modern architect are affected by that history.
I like this interview. You are asking difficult questions. I'll have something out of it in the end. [Laughs] There is something that I noticed from the very beginning and that I still enjoy very much about Chicago—and this is unlike all of the other places that I've lived in. Here architecture is like an indigenous culture. London is a place, for example, where dramatic arts are an indigenous culture; so if one were to be in advertising or in theatre or a writer, then that is the right place to be. As an architect in London you always have to justify your experience and you are always looked down upon, because architecture is really not needed by that culture. So, though I studied there extensively, I did not have profound admiration for the history of architecture in that place. But here, being an architect is immediately understood as doing something that could reach the heights that Mies or [Frank Lloyd] Wright or [Louis] Sullivan reached. It's almost hoped for. In other places you are always starting from zero and minus zero in terms of trust in what you're doing or recognition of the significance of what you're doing. In these places you often have to hide your agenda, so that you seem to be doing less than you actually are. Being an architect in Chicago, people expect or hope that you can do something that will make the city better. That is not the case with all clients, especially if they are excessively pragmatic, but it feels like it is almost always the case with people on the street, Chicagoans.
In addition, it's not only a question about expectation; it's also a question of the indigenous spatial sensibility of Chicagoans. They can understand space: I find that Chicagoans actually have experiences of architecture that they cherish—architecture that moved them. They look at architecture and make pilgrimages to it. It's different than in Rome, for instance, where people are aware that they are living inside a piece of architecture and they love it to bits. In Rome people sit in a traffic jam and keep exclaiming, 'How much I love this city!' Chicagoans relate to architecture as to a great play or the symphony orchestra, with the difference that architecture is accessible and visible to every Chicagoan. They are in tune with where they live and what the city has to offer. New architecture is something Chicagoans look forward to and they eagerly expect architecture to offer the maximum it can offer.
Chicago is not timid and does not have that small scale thinking that you find in some places. This attitude is very useful for architecture. Chicago is a broad stroke city—at its best. When it comes to the production of architecture, the ability of the building industry to follow architecture and become more advanced, or the money that people are willing to put to meet their high expectations for architecture, then you find a pragmatic schism of some kind. That is a less attractive part of Chicago.

You mentioned two issues that seem to be in conflict—on one hand the ability of people in Chicago to appreciate architecture and on the other the difficulty producing architecture. I'm curious about this issue, because it came up in an earlier interview that we did for this series. The Beijing real estate developer Zhang Xin spoke critically about the quality of construction in America, New York in particular. She said that she felt even New York's most prominent, 'great' new buildings were executed to a lower standard than is one can find in China. I think this would surprise many people, especially people in China, and I'm curious to know understand why it is the case. Do you think that's something particular about New York or something more systemic?
This is a difficult question, because I have to restrain myself. [Laughs] It is totally systemic. I hear it from many architects who come to build things in the US from abroad—you just cannot do things here that you can do elsewhere. In my interpretation, this is because America is a country where most of the money is in the middle market. It's a huge country and the companies from the building industry are making money by selling these products that are aimed at the largest market, which is the middle section of quality. Then they can downsize it and cut corners for the lower section. So products that can be customized are virtually non-existent—although in recent years I see some improvement in that. Still, there are certain things that my office has been trying to make for the last eight years that could be done within in a week in London. And we've turned over every stone in this country to find somebody who can do it, and you cannot believe that nobody can do it, because it is very simple.
Companies don't want to do difficult work, because they either don't know how to or it economically doesn't make sense to them. So it is frustrating and can mean that you waste huge amounts of time as an architect, unless you are doing what is being done all the time already.

Do you have an idea of what it will take to improve this situation?
I think this problem might be improved through evolution, because it has not always been like that and it can incrementally change around. It is more likely to change around through a revolution of industrial customization.

Let's talk about some of your work more specifically, for instance the Pfanner House, the house that you designed for yourself and your family in Chicago. I'm curious hear about the thought process behind it.
It is a project that has a lot of do with your first question about moving through different cultures, etc. By far the most important idea, which was there from the beginning, is that since it's a house for myself it should be an ideal house in terms of putting myself in the best state of mind. The best state of mind, according to this house's concept, is a state in which you are not imprisoned by the space but you feel that there are always other places to go to. It revolved around the question, What is a totally open space? Not a space that is open in terms of modernist open plan, which is really a plan that at a certain point has a boundary but ultimately has an ambition to go on forever, but in terms of space that is specific but in which all of the adjacent spaces around are present. You feel their presence: you are in one room but the presence of other spaces that can be easily entered are part of that room. These openings from one space to another—whether outside or inside—are what this project explores.
It turned out to be an extremely hard thing to achieve—this new kind of opening, one that qualifies as a higher degree of opening and could be explained in anthropomorphic terms as like a body language in which one person is open to another, willing to acknowledge fully another person as somebody different but of interest. To achieve that in 360 degrees in the space had to be done through trial and error. There was no method or formula that I knew to achieve that high level of openness. And I must say that after years of having the opportunity to describe it, I still haven't found the right words. I think you can accept the idea only when you visit the building. Then I see people in full agreement of the value of the concept, which they can describe in their own words.

You mentioned that the concept has biographical qualities. What do mean?
Coming from London, going to the States, [the house] was like an idealized situation of how I would have wanted to be treated in London. I would have wanted there to be a certain openness to what and who I am—rather than trying to either make me the same as one is expected to be or simply ignoring the ways that I am different. So the house was a reflection of this interest to be acknowledged—without having to be either included or excluded. That is what these openings are doing; they are acknowledging the other space and enabling one to move freely from one condition to another. It is about emphasizing those moments in life when you are aware that there is more beyond where you are, that you are not locked in. Like, for instance, when you are in high school and are preparing to begin college, there is that wonderful sense that there are many more places to go to and that the world is opening to you.
I observe that the world has become much more diversified since my days in London, but especially at that time the sense was that it was either London or nothing—maybe New York or Tokyo, but that was it. Everything else was of little interest. And, as a result, these cities become very claustrophobic places, because the situation cannot be ideal but there is no other place to go, because every other place is considered inferior from the perspective of this cultural framework. So my desire to create a situation in which there is the comfort that everything is fine where you are, partly because there are other places to go to, produced an urge to make a house that makes you feel like that all the time.
When you design your own house, it is very likely that in a certain way the house becomes a kind of prison, because you have to live inside your mind frame at the time you were designing the house, inside whatever you thought was an ideal house at that time. It creates a situation in which the space or the ideal is locked, often because it is superior to everything else around it and you are supposed to be happy inside it, exactly because it's better than the outside world. Instead, this house aimed at being a kind of perpetual motion machine that could generate a continuous movement in which the exterior is an essential part. You can always easily exit or observe what's outside of the house, whether it seems interesting or not. Whether you see a leaf moving, rain falling, a kid bouncing his ball off your door, or cars passing by, whatever is happening outside isn't idealized because the view is not particularly pretty but through this opening it is acknowledged with a sense of interest. The spaces are designed to make you feel as mobile and unimprisoned as possible—mentally and physically.
Then there are also other ideas that are part of this house and that are about the relationship between the city and the building or the guest and the host and many other things that are consequences of the initial idea of openness.

I think the idea of designing a house based on how you would like to be treated is really beautiful. It reminds me of the early Constructivist architecture in which a building was thought about as a kind of machine for generating a particular way of life or best case community.
[Laughs] No wonder you are a writer, because you sum it up very quickly. I makes we wonder why I talked for such a long time. [Laughs] It's interesting that you said that, because I wonder if architecture can do more than 'best cases'. I have an artist friend, the photographer Laura Letinsky. She does still lifes but not still lifes like [Paul] Cézanne did, instead they are still lifes where things don't quite go right. Where peaches are not beautiful—they are either half eaten or rotten. They are scenes of after a dinner when maybe everything didn't go according to plan. This kind of portrait of reality is of great interest to me, but I find that architecture is not a medium for that. Maybe it is, but one has to find in what ways it could be done constructively, because this idealized... Not idealized, how do you just put it? You can save me some time [Laughs]

I don't remember anymore. [Laughs]
OK, let me try. These cases in which you try to create a space that reflects how you would like to be treated and this experience of being bound to Utopia, in a way, is quite a unique property of architecture as a medium, no? Film, painting, dance, music, photography, literature and other media are by no means bound to Utopia. You might never want to create scenarios in architecture that evoke feelings like those Letinsky still lifes where things don't go according to plan or even go wrong—even though it would be useful I think, because it would produce a kind of facing of reality. But because architecture is for lots of people and is permanent in a way it calls for solutions to problems, rather than just acknowledgments of problems.
It's actually a subject that I am exploring with my students now: at some point there is an urge to not give in to this problem-solving property of architecture and to not fully abandon this trail of reality in all its disappointments and imperfections. And it's a question of first whether architecture can find ways to address reality face to face. I believe that I should never try to do anything within architecture that comes from an envy of another media. So I want to find to what degree architecture as a medium is able to manifest the imperfect reality and whether architecture could be enriched by doing so. Or should it just be left to other media.
In a way, though, the imperfect and dysfunctional reality that you're describing affects architecture inevitably because it is public and it does last for years. Entropy has a strong influence on it in ways that it doesn't on a photograph or painting that can be shielded from reality and kept in the same condition that it was in at the moment of its creation. Architecture will never go according to plan in that sense.
Yes, it is likely to fail and become imperfect over time and, moreover, you can project on it its future failure, right? This is interesting to me because indeterminacy, which used to be a buzzword, was always of interest to me. The idea is that you design things to change, right? You can say, OK whatever happens I accept it and it's actually very interesting to see it misused in some way. There are certain projects where you would relish seeing it used in different ways. Nevertheless, I think it is important or interesting to consider whether dysfunctional reality could be part of the work, rather than just part of reality that will take over the work.
I just remembered that one of my earliest projects back in London, an Italian coffee shop in a shopping mall, was centered on its imperfect reality. The volume of the main space of the shop had its center of gravity dislocated outside of the habitable space, which brought an unsettled but not unpleasant feel to the space. In addition, the artificial light changed throughout the day to simulate daylight, then a bar-like night was projected on the back walls in the evening. In a way this project was one example of how architecture can make people relate to and even enjoy a manifestation of their imperfect or disappointing reality. It is interesting for me to think that I am coming back to an old topic I almost forgot about. That coffee shop was very successful in town. I think it is still doing well today.
I think historical and vernacular architecture can teach architects solutions to this in the same way that they can teach us about many other issues, but then I believe once we understand them we must aim to advance them. The building has to be able to accommodate new technology just as it always has.
One other thing I wanted to talk to you about is your efforts to design zero energy architecture. Your Zero Energy Home in Chicago and Rafflesia House in Malaysia have received a lot of attention and I guess as a consequence you have come to be associated with the movement in architecture to design more sustainable buildings. It seems to me that this movement generally clusters around two approaches—one that advocates hi tech solutions and is using the desire for sustainability to push technology forward and another that seems more interested in much older approaches that focus on issues like orientation and ventilation, techniques that were developed a very long time ago before science allowed architects to alter or deny the natural climate. So I'm curious to hear how you approach these sorts of issues when you go about designing a zero energy building.
I would say that I am much more invested in the second approach. I think the unique job of architects is to work on what the building itself can do. I am interested in different strategies that architects can design, not only in terms of orientation or ventilation. The projects in Kuala Lumpur that you mentioned, as well as a recent project for a hostel in Hong Kong, are particularly concerned with ventilation, because they are in a hot, humid climate where ventilation is a key to improving thermal comfort. But the project in Chicago is concerned with creating a green house effect through good orientation, isolation and thermal mass, then heat extraction through chimney effect, the careful positioning of volumes of the building on the dense urban site, etc. These are important for designing in Chicago's climate.
I think historical and vernacular architecture can teach architects solutions to this in the same way that they can teach us about many other issues, but then I believe once we understand them we must aim to advance them. The building has to be able to accommodate new technology just as it always has—it had to be able to accommodate electrical or mechanical technologies, plumbing and so on. But that's not the main point. Maybe someone like Norman Foster is interesting because he put himself in a position to actually improve technology and the building industry. I'm not in a position to improve sustainable technology because nobody would do it for me. I would need to have larger projects with larger budgets in order to contribute to the improvement of sustainable technology. At this time I can only specify the best of what's available with the help of my engineers.
I think it's much more important for architects to develop new strategies that are micro-climate specific and made with the knowledge of old strategies. I find these new models interesting and so I concentrate on exploring what architecture can do in itself—before technology becomes involved. Then you have to accommodate and incorporate technology to apply that extra that only technology can do to reach zero carbon, for instance.
In all of these projects, zero carbon is used not only as an aspiration, but also an attraction. You are attracted toward this goal and so you put everything toward optimization and that provides you inspiration and generates attention. It's used to give an image and to advance solutions and make them clear to other architects and interested people. And you are right, there is a lot of interest in that.

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