[Interview] REX architecture

joshua prince-ramus

what is the best moment of the day?
when I come home and my daughter yells 'daddy' and runs to me.

what kind of music do you listen to at the moment?
sufjan stevens. 

do you listen to the radio?

what books do you have on your bedside table?
the master and margarita (by mikhail bulgakov) and seven pillars of wisdom (by t. e. lawrence). 

do you read design / architecture magazines?

not even flip through them?
I flip through them (admits). 

where do you get your news from?
my blackberry, in the morning, on my way to work. I have a web news service. I key in issues important to me and articles from the new york times, the wall street journal, etc. get dumped  onto my blackberry.

I assume you notice how women dress. do you have any preferences?
simple and elegant, but also sexy. I have a huge  partiality to prada and to miuccia (prada).

what kind of clothes do you avoid wearing?
I like very simple colors - light blue, white, grey and black.  I'm really uncomfortable with anything that has detail. all I have are pure cuts. I would never have a shirt that had funny buttons, or a funny pocket.

do you have any pets?
not at the moment, but I had a cat.

when you were a child, did you want to become an architect?
yes. since a very very very young age. since 5. my grandfather was a very successful engineer and had worked with a lot of very good architects and exposed me to the field.

where did you study architecture? your first job?
I studied at harvard. I graduated in '96 and rem koolhaas was at the school and on my final review. I approached him right afterwards and he offered me a job. I went almost immediately to OMA and was in rotterdam until 2000. my first job was a 70 thousand sqm office building for universal studios in the hollywood hills with a budget of 350 million USD. I was directly out of school and the project director was only two years out of school. we didn't have any idea what we were doing (smiles and shrugs shoulders).  we just did it. lots of confidence and 'brute force.’ just energy and conviction and figuring out as you go.

and REX architecture?
later I became a partner of OMA and came here (new york) to open the US office in 2000. in 2006, I bought rem (koolhaas) out of his half of the company and changed the name.

you're well introduced
no question, I’m very, very lucky. but I would say that's true of anyone who worked at OMA, because OMA is set up without hierarchy. if you excel in that kind of environment, you're given incredible opportunities that young people would never ordinarily get. when we opened this office, the first major project that we finished was the seattle central library. it was an important building for OMA because it was built very well. people began to understand that the 
office was no longer just a bunch of kids, that we could deliver really good pieces of architecture. it was also very inexpensive. most people have no idea it cost only 272 USD per sq ft, which is about 2900 USD per sqm. or 2000 € per sqm.

is a big restraint a good thing to start with?
the first thing we say to a client is 'tell us about your problems. tell us your constraints. we'll make something out of them.’ of course every architect would like to have more money to play with, but if there are big constraints, you're obliged to come to very creative solutions. we've never seen a constraint 
that we didn't like. the office's ethos is about not designing objects, but designing processes... and to have the confidence that with enough people, enough intelligence and enough energy, the process will lead to a conclusion that far exceeds anything you could have sketched initially or individually. we call this the 'lost art of productively losing control.’

where do you work on your projects usually?
here in the studio, but in the beginning of a project we work with the client at their place, their site, their office, their institution... to understand how they operate. 

describe your style like a good friend of yours would describe it.

please describe an evolution in your work from your first projects to today
actually, the seattle library for this office was a watershed moment. frankly, it was one of the reasons why this office eventually split from OMA. the analytical design process on seattle was something that OMA had been thinking about and advancing, but OMA does many things. OMA tries many 
different avenues. on seattle, we pushed this highly rational methodology very far. it was exciting and everything we have done since has been an evolution to that project’s design process. I don't think rem (koolhaas) was as comfortable to be so focused on one way of working. the research process we did with the seattle client, we have repeated with every client since.

this was also the project that has given you the most satisfaction until now?
yes, the seattle library. it was in 1999, at the height of the internet technology boom. seattle was filled with incredibly smart, wealthy people who were doing everything they could to kill the book. they all believed religiously in the internet, web TV, e-books... and therefore there was a lot of skepticism about why the public library was spending 112 million USD to build a repository for books. architects should guide collaborations rather than impose solutions. so we agreed with the board and the city librarian to research the situation and take collective positions before starting to design. the library board included the vice-president of boeing, the CFO of microsoft, the first investor in bill gates' company... they were all used to taking educated risks. we asked 'did the book still have an important position within the information media explosion?' and our collective position was 'yes!’ our analysis confirmed that no really potent form of technology ever disappears. 

who would you like to design something for?
an’s the mother of the arts. it deals with everything from dance to scenic design to acting to music’s also an institution that is clearly in crisis.
since we're very interested in advancing and challenging typologies, I think it'd be interesting to design a contemporary opera. The opera's problem is not its content. The problem is its form, decorum and the expectations it puts on people. If you could design an opera environment which appeals to 22 year olds, they would go. and if they could be themselves...if they could sit and drink and talk and watch (laughs).

is there any architect from the past you appreciate a lot, who has influenced you?
certainly mies (van der rohe). trying to think if there could be anybody else...

and those still working? contemporary ones?
(rem) koolhaas. rem was my mentor. I don't know how else to put it. certainly an enormous amount of our intellectual production continues things that I learned or started while with OMA. also, attempting to negate things that I learned or saw at OMA...I'm either reinforcing or negating this experience. it is still a dialogue, whether it's directly with him or not (laughs). 

do you discuss about your projects with other architects?
yes, I have a group of friends that were friends long before any became successful. we talk. people like julien de smedt, bjarke ingels, gary bates, arne quinze. I think one of the nice things about this younger generation of architects and designers, (laughs) anyone under 45, is that they are more open. I'm not even sure it depends on age - it has maybe more to do with our position within the profession, that we're not so guarded and we don’t take the position 'these are my toys and I don't want to talk.’ we talk about approaches to a project and whether or not it's intellectually credible. we talk about papers that we're writing and the ideas behind them. for example, I happen to be very good at at contracts.I have lawyers in my family and it is always something 
I've understood. I send REX’s contracts to my colleagues and say, 'this is how we fought for and established intellectual property rights, and you should use this language.' we also exchange information about standard fees and what's expected. we have a feeling of ‘it's us against the world.’ 

what advice would you give to the young?
I have one specific piece of advice: don't follow conventional paths. this is the best moment you could ever be a young architect, because the playing field in this economy is becoming even. for a long time, the older generations ate the young. they're going down right now and there's no definition of what architecture will be. don't try to get a junior job at the best firm you can and spend the next 30 years working your way through. this is the moment to move back home, use all your contacts and start operating locally. do great work locally and define what architecture will be for the next 50 years. the more general advice is that no one can teach you how to design. no one can teach you how to be creative. but they can teach you to be self-critical. in school you should focus on learning to be self-critical and on contracts (laughs). spend most of your time- if you're in architecture school - over at the law school 
or the business school because that's where you're going to learn tools. the real things you can learn in architecture school are tools. focus on tools, not on your studio course

museum plaza, louisville, kentucky, 2009 image courtesy REX architecture

museum plaza, skyline, louisville, kentucky, 2009 image courtesy REX architecture

museum plaza, louisville, kentucky, 2009 image courtesy REX architecture

itra, the finnish innovation fund low2no sustainable development, helsinki, finland, 2009 image courtesy REX architecture

the dee and charles wyly theatre by REX/OMA, at the AT&T performing arts center, dallas, usa image © iwan baan

the dee and charles wyly theatre by REX/OMA, at the AT&T performing arts center, dallas, usa

munch museum, exterior view, oslo, norway, 2009

munch museum, level 1 plan, oslo, norway, 2009

vakko headquarters and power media center, istanbul, turkey, 2007 - completion 2009

vakko headquarters and power media center, view of the construction site from july 2008

vakko headquarters and power media center detail of the building’s slumped-glass façade

doll house, for the calvin klein collection store on madison avenue, new york, usa, 2008

seattle central library, seattle, usa, 1999 - completed on 2004

joshua prince-ramus was born in 1969. he received a bachelor of arts in philosophy with distinction from yale university in 1991 and a master of architecture from harvard university in 1996. joshua prince-ramus is president of REX and principal in charge of all projects. he was the founding partner of OMA new york. while REX was still known as OMA new york, prince-ramus was partner in charge of the seattle central library and the guggenheim-hermitage museum in las vegas. in addition to the recently completed at&t performing arts center’s dee and charles wyly theatre in dallas, texas, other cultural projects by REX include museum plaza, a 62-story mixed-use skyscraper housing a contemporary art center in louisville, kentucky, and the new central library and music conservatory for the city of kortrijk, belgium. current projects also include the istanbul headquarters for vakko and power media, turkey’s preeminent fashion and media companies; the university of louisville’s college of business campus in kentucky; and a line of public furniture for belgian furniture company quinze & milan. REX recently placed second in both the international competition for the new edvard munch museum in oslo, norway, and the finnish innovation fund’s low2no sustainable development competition in helsinki, finland. he is currently a visiting professor at columbia university’s graduate school of architecture,  planning, and preservation, and has previously been a visiting

professor at both harvard and yale.  / 2009.

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