Housing. Not flats

His work as an architect mainly involves housing. Rather than simply just flats, he sees it as the invention of livable and attractive places. For her podcast Arquitetura Entre Vistas, Ana Catarina Silva spoke to Philipp Esch about undetermined spaces, housing as the background of the city, architecture as a process and beauty as the most enduring measure of sustainability.

listen to the conversation

Ana Catarina Silva: Philipp, how inventive can we be when it comes to the Housing design? We have tried out so many housing types. What is there left for us to try?

Philipp Esch: Housing is indeed a particular passion of our office. I'd like to point out that our passion is about housing and not about flats. Housing adds the dimension of urbanism to it and I think the core of our research is about creating place – livable and attracting places - in an urban context. We have a forensic interest in how the floor plan of an apartment is as an imprint of the everyday life. Then, when you add all those floor plans together to a larger project, they become crystalline and mathematically elegant.  What I consider the most interesting about housing is this dichotomy between a very abstract floor plan and the body warm concreteness, this tension is what is so fantastic about this endless field of housing.

ACS: I appreciate this idea of housing being different from flats due to the urban dimension one has. I can sense this interest in your projects as you work very close to the surface, you don't really explore the deepness or density of the wall. Your issue is more about having the inside space very connected to the outside space, as a continuity.

PE: One could say that urbanism is tailor made to a specific place, and the floor plans are a kind of a connecting tissue. As so, the floor plans must have this tolerance to adapt to very different ways of life.If you look at floor plans from the 1980s, typically modernistic floor plans, they are custom made for a family with two children and everything is predetermined, whereas today we encounter a much wider field of forms and of cohabitation. In my point of view, floor plans must adapt to this. They have to be more open and less determined. Perhaps spatially quite determined, but functionally rather undetermined.

ACS: What considerations do you have when designing for someone you don't know who it’s going to be? How do you design specifically to unspecified people?

PE: Well, when I started as a self-employed architect in 2003 – before we founded the office – I think there was a lot more certitude of who would live in your project. By the time, flat sharings weren't something welcomed by house owners, meanwhile, they particularly like it today because you'll always have a tenant in an apartment that is shared. By today, more than half of the apartments in Zurich are one person households, whereas in 2003 the percentage was around 35%. So, a lot has happened in these 20 years, and we try to adapt to this loss of certitude. A lot of functional shifts have happened in the meantime, and I think this is something extremely interesting to respond to.

But in the end, I agree with you, it's always a sketchy idea of who would be living in there. And so the important issue is to create attracting good places that people like and appropriate in a visible manner. Looking back, our apartments grew less avantgarde through the years. Maybe, our urbanism has become more courageous, and the floor plans have become more generic in the course of the last ten years, I think.

ACS: I find very interesting that you use geometry as well as the context to draw these different floor plans. I might give an example, you have designed a plan that is an articulation of triangular shapes which ensures that each apartment is oriented towards two or three sides. In another project, you design a geometric oval garden to protect the housing from the impact of increased building density on the surroundings. Is form always linked to something else or is form about form itself? There is also the possibility that you are just playing with forms, matterless of what it might provoke, and then you come up with a good narrative to it just to engage people.

PE: The narrative is a crucial aspect of our work. I'd say these narratives are like the red thread that explains our projects. At times they are short texts, other times they are a title of a book or a part of a poem. The interesting thing about narratives is that you can always deviate a bit from them, make them a bit more opulent and lose yourself in a detail here and there and these narratives are what holds it together. It's more than a picture, a narrative is richer than it as it also has the aspect of time in it. 

When I was studying, the concept was like the condensed form of your design in one or five words, everything had to be subordinated under that concept. The narrative is something different, it is something way richer that allows for exceptions and deviations and anecdotical qualities. All these aspects are very important for good housing as housing has a lot to do with the emotions of the people who live there.

ACS: Do you think that the housing patterns are changing, or is housing the most stable program to work with?

PE: It is a very stable program despite those demographic shifts we’ve discussed beforehand. The narrative for every housing project is different as each project is linked to a very specific place and, maybe, to a clientele. We once built two houses within a park with very old trees. But how could people, the inhabitants, experience that? Here the narrative was about how one could experience the proximity of the leaves. It was like a treehouse as one could open the window and touch the leaves.

ACS: I can picture you walking around your city, appreciating the beauty of a tree, and articulating the idea of opening a window and grabbing a fruit from it. Perhaps you're interested in collecting these moments to further develop upon your housing projects.

PE: The point is architecture is an incredibly local business. It is about your personal experience of a place. It is crucial to go to the places that you're planning for continuously and experience them in rain and sun and in the evening and at night. And that gives very important clues to the development of the narrative.

ACS: It is an immersive experience.

PE: Yeah. I doubt whether I could invent a good housing project in Paris or London. I would love to, but I think there are some very important clues that I would be missing.

ACS: Curiously, many people say that Álvaro Siza has this characteristic of always being adequate to the place he's working at. He does a housing in Berlin and he knows how to build in Berlin - the same here in Portugal. Do you think architecture is about its geographical context or rather about a broader cultural context?

PE: A core quality of Siza are his housing projects. Whether they be in Venice, or in The Hague or in Berlin, they are indeed rooted in these places. One of my favorite pictures is Siza as a young man sitting amidst future tenants of this big project in The HagueA and discussing the proportions of the rooms with them. They even built a one to one scale mock up of the apartments. It is wonderful. I think there's an empathy for housing. I believe housing is, culturally, a very conservative task, as so, it's crucial to understand the local specificity of housing. Le Corbusier talks about the biology of living. As he describes them, the floor plans are like the intestines, like a sequence of organs that have to be arranged in a certain way to work. I like this expression, the biology of it. Biologically, we're all the same, all the world over, but there are very specific habitats that differ. If I plan in Geneva, I have circumstances that are very much different to those I have here.

ACS: In one hand, Siza is looking for the specificity, on the other hand, Corbusier is looking for the biology. What is it that you look to achieve with your housing programs?

PE: In the end, what we all strive for is beauty, right? The difference between building and architecture is beauty, and beauty is the most sustainable quality of architecture. But I think it is underrated in many countries in Europe, for most it's not even an issue for architects anymore. It's viewed as a product you can order without requiring an architect. That is a tragedy.

What interests us is maybe the architecture of the background. I consider interesting to think housing as the background of the city. If you take Aldo Rossi's Architectura de la Citta, he differentiates the monument - the symbols of power and public relevance – from the tesoto – the housing issue. Interestingly they need each other, as if the foreground is worthless without the background. Our passion for housing makes us wonder: how does a good background looks like? There's a theorist, Georg Franck, who wrote a very noteworthy book where he talks about the economy of attention.1 The currency of our times is attention, so everybody tries to get as much attention as possible. We try to look at the background in architecture, and make everything a background. Many times, clients ask me for an unique selling proposal but I consider that to be a complete misunderstanding. The good part about housing is that it is not unique. I mean, it is unique, but not on the first glance, only when you look closely and begin to find its particular qualities. The privilege of housing is that it is what ties the city together, and this condition is what we like so much about medieval cities.

ACS: Let's make an analogy. It's not so much about Mona Lisa, it is rather about the chiaroscuro Leonardo Da Vinci was working in the background.

PE: Back in 1973, the Austrian architect Hermann Czech – an extremely inspiring person – wrote a wonderful article titled "No need for Panic” (“Nur keine Panik”),2 and he said, “architecture is background and everything else is not architecture”. He doesn't want to devaluate architecture by saying that, but it's like a kind of a demarcation, he wants to protect architecture from having to serve the goals of marketing. He defends the autonomy of architecture is in the background, where architecture is not appropriated by marketing.

ACS: We share the idea that architecture protects people, but now architecture is making a call that we must protect architecture from these logics of market.

PE: Absolutely. It's a good point. I would like to stress that in Zurich we have this particular privilege of a very strong cooperative culture. All our projects are competitions, we’ve never had direct mandates so far, and almost all of them are cooperatives. Cooperatives or public investors are the drivers of innovation in Zurich, and they take a keen interest in keeping the high architectural quality. To a certain extent, we are liberated from the logics of the market.

ACS: In your studio, do you ever get to talk about architecture, or do you always end up having the cost-efficient driven architectural talk?

PE: No, we are talking a lot about architecture. There are a couple of core questions we ask every week: Why would you die to build this project? What's at the core of it? What's the particular opportunity that prevents you from reproducing solutions – which I think is the death of architecture? For example, we did a study trip to Vicenza and to Palladio with everyone at the office. Upon our return, we were greatly inspired by Palladio's villas and the idea of how to inhabit them. It was interesting to notice our projects changed in the aftermath of this short trip.

ACS: You came back contaminated by experiences from the past.

PE: Yes, exactly. In a Palladio villa, you have these big central halls, and then you have a wonderful, completely pure plan that is not spoiled by toilets, by kitchens, by stairs.B It's just an arrangement of rooms where you sometimes sleep in one room, other times you sleep in another room. The only thing that is clear is that the central hall is meant for the banquet, for coming together. It's extremely inspiring. Maybe we should be much less determined with the functions that we give to the rooms; this is discussed a lot in our office.

ACS: Amazing. We can analyze these villas and understand that the elements Palladio plays with are actually always the same. It's always about: stairs, rooms, columns, roofs, etc. The many arrangements under these same rules are what give very different architectures.

PE: Exactly. And there are many hints that you can translate into the modest scale of today's apartments. Many certitudes are dissolving in the way of how we live together, many opportunities are opening up. We have recently finished the conversion of a wine storageC building into an apartment where people live together, in individual apartments that are fairly small surface wise, but they share a lot: there is a big communal kitchen, there is a “chambre d’amis” where you can host your friends, there are ateliers and a cafe that you share. The generosity of the collective spaces compensates for the avarice of the individual space.

ACS: In this former wine storage into housing project you aim for the narrative of bringing the outside inside. It is interesting to then find out that you refuse the idea of a corridor – usually very close and oriented – by design an internal street which. In this case, we are so connected to the outside light, and we have such iconic structural elements that it falls far from being a corridor. It is almost as a communal space in which you are inside, but you are somehow outside as well. How do you treat these spaces in your projects?

PE: There’s a certain cautiousness about building corridors, we rarely plan them. In this specific project, there are different ways you can go through the house, you are not forced to take this one corridor to access your apartment, and that's something you feel. In a way, the interior circulation has a kind of urbanistic quality. Maybe if the corridor was the only way to access, and it has only one staircase, then it wouldn’t feel like outside at all, it would feel like you were trapped inside. It is rather similar to a kasbah network within this colossal pharaonic structure first built for massive loads.

ACS: And as you get to choose where to go, architecture is freedom once again.

PE: Aldo van Eyck makes reference to the “labyrinthian clarity” and I think that should be the aim of urbanism. The “clarity” is for the outsider and the “labyrinthian" quality is for the insider. The visitor benefits from clarity and can identify the complicity of those who have a deeper sense of orientation. I consider the circulation network in the wine storage to have that quality.

ACS: This is paradoxical because the architect is supposed to make decisions, but you also want people to be able to choose their paths and to have a decision. Do people become architects after the architect has left the building?

PE: The longer we are practicing as architects, the more I think an architectural project is a process and not a product. I don't know if you know this text of Claude Lévi-Strauss La Pensée Sauvage (Wild Thinking), where he compares the engineer with the bricoleur.3 He says the engineer has a determined aim he has to achieve which requires him to select or create the tools necessary to get there. In contrast, the bricoleur has a determined set of means and fragments at hand and must then figure out what they can create with them - his goal is not fixed, the goal is determined by the set of elements at his disposal. And this is exactly what we feel when we are doing conversions. Architects have this terrible sickness: they want to make order once and forever, they want to solve everything permanently but “la vie est plus fort”. Whenever you think you have a firm grasp on something then you can be sure that it will dissolve immediately.

ACS: But architecture lives under this condition that you always have to choose one thing over the other. You cannot have everything everywhere at the same time, sometimes we have to prioritize them. It is essential to achieve: well-lit rooms, staircases with daylight and a strong inside-outside connection. These kind of priorities might increase the facade costs. How do you go about making these choices?

PE: That's our daily work, isn't it? I mean, we have a set of circumstances given and then we prioritize them. It is essential to accomplish a certain complicity, a congruence of aims, with the client. And then you can explain and recommend them to spend some more money on the facade because they will be recompensed by x and y qualities. Whenever we couldn't have a conversation in this openness, we failed. We constantly find ourselves trying to promote architectural qualities without talking about them, but instead talking about facility management and architecture as a hidden agenda. But overall, it's about trying to make his interest yours and your interest theirs.

ACS: Comprehensively, clients get enchanted by the process of architecture, but the following minute they are asking “but when will it be ready?”. Let’s say, the architect cares about the process, not the product. Whereas the client cares about the product, and not so much about the process.

PE: Very good point, actually I think that is the key problem when it comes to persuading clients not to demolish buildings but to work on what already exists. Working with existing structure doesn’t cost more and there are surprising liberties that lie under the conversion of buildings, the wine storage is a good example for this: you would never propose a room height of 4,30 meters for a social housing project, but in the existing structure you already have it.

Unfortunately, the client is usually asking for a product and not for a process that has, of course, many unpredictable aspects. But at times you succeed, we have a growing proportion of conversion projects in our portfolio. I'm always fascinated about the tolerance of concrete structures where we can take almost every wall out, put a pillar here, glue some carbon on the ceiling and somehow it works. That is bricolage. I always get amazed by looking at Jan de Vylder’s projects as he leaves all the scars and traces visible and stresses the autonomy of the elements he found. I recognize it is hard to convince a client of these qualities.

I want to highlight a particular privilege in Zurich, and that is that you can rent out almost everything, which takes a bit away the pressure. It is not that you are on a market that is shrinking. It is not a city that is contracting, it is rather a city that is expanding at a fast pace and is in desperate search for positive images for densification.

ACS: You are answering to a question I have in mind: how do we densify without building too much? Are we talking about conversion?

PE: We're talking about conversion, and we should also be talking about its standards. What standards are we insisting on? With “we”, I do not mean us architects, but I mean clients, and I mean the city. We should be lowering these standards, but we are, instead, insisting on the same standards as if we were building anew. That would allow for a lot more conversion projects and these would contribute for a positive impression of densification among people. Switzerland has currently around eight and a half million inhabitants and is going to have 10 million inhabitants by 2050. This means a massive growth on a very limited surface. High rise is no solution for that, and we want to be carbon dioxide free by 2050. We must find very different approaches, and conversions are the right way for it.

ACS: You even get to imagine a project out of water towers, and I recall another one where you drew inspiration from wooden pallets, you thought of them as potential wooden residential towers. So you take inspiration from these very trivial objects that are around us in the city and you convert them into housing. Do your eyes ever get to rest or are you always looking around for new architectural shapes?

PE: I think that's the symptom for being architect, that you always are pacing the world with the eyes of a hunter. You're always looking at things and thinking about whether they could be used in a project. There's this wonderful definition of Fritz Neumeyer, the German theorist of architecture, who says “architecture is the art of spatial interrelating” – he says so in German.4 Re-use enlarges this definition into architecture as time interrelating. We're interested in how materials age and how it can be explored as an aesthetic quality.

ACS: But currently, everything moves so quick, and the desire for quick, easy, and cost-effective solutions is evident. On the other hand, architects want to go against this movement: they want to have time to look at things, to be precise, to be very attentive to what is around. How does architecture fit in this new kind of world that wants everything so quick and easily? Are we, architects, doing architecture for ourselves? Is it possible?

PE: No, I don't think so. In a way, economy has long shifted to digital economy, the analog production is not where money is made anymore: be it cars, be it houses, be it clothes. But why would so many young people still want to study architecture? Because I think they want to create something lasting, that’s the secret. There are not many things that survive us, but a humble house will survive us. It’s a wonderful thing. This is a promise that attracts not only clients but also young people who study architecture.

ACS: Maybe we're looking for a purpose. If nothing else gets to last in this world, maybe architecture will.

PE: Yes. Interestingly, the most lasting thing is change. It should be an architecture that is ready for change, an architecture that is open to a process. I'm always telling my clients - and I think it is quite a valuable argument – that the building costs are only a fraction of lifecycle costs. In Switzerland, the building costs are 20%. It is nothing compared to what you can economize by building with materials that last longer, that feel more valuable, that you grow attached to all these aspects. On the long run they are economical and sometimes my clients believe it. (laughs)

ACS: Well, that is a great argument, and I might use it with my future clients. But once again, when talking to people outside architecture, we must bring numbers to the table. The narrative inevitably becomes more concrete and mathematical, let's say, just so they believe in the value we are adding.

PE: Yes. In our case, the main obstacle is to survive the competition but once you win, you don't have to defend urbanism neither the expression of the building, you start from another point. You are legitimized by a jury, and that's a privilege. I've always suffered under the effort of competitions, and it took me a while to see what privilege it is.

ACS: Actually you make it seem that it's very easy to win competitions because you won many of them all under the theme of housing. I imagine this to be just the tip of the iceberg. Do you ever wonder if all the time, energy and money is worth it?

PE: Maybe it's a question that you don't permit yourself when you are running an office with 30 people. But whenever the building is taking shape, I find myself walking through the building site and remembering the first sketches and discussions on how to conceive it. That is a very rewarding experience. At times I wonder, how it would be if we weren’t into competitions. How do you do that? Do you ask your former classmates from school? I wouldn't even know whom to ask. Definitely, it's worth it.

Maybe it’s because I'm growing older, and my skin is growing thinner but I have the impression the conditions are worsening. Doing the maths I realize I might build eight more houses, maybe six, maybe ten. Then I think about the privilege of Swiss conditions: being paid decently, and also being paid for all the detours that we do – looking in this direction and then failing looking in that direction and failing and taking another turn – that’s something you can't afford when working under French, Italian and, probably, Portuguese conditions. You must be determined too quickly, otherwise you can't finance it.

ACS: Thank you, Philip and everybody at the Esch Sintzel team. Einstein once said that creativity is intelligence. Having fun. Well, it is quite clear that you have a lot of fun in your studio and thank you for that.

PE: Thank you, Catarina. I will be thinking about what you’ve asked me, the good answers come always later.

Philipp Esch: born in Göttingen, Germany (1968). From 1986 – 92 studies at ETH Zurich and at the CEPT in Ahmadabad (India). 1994 – 97 member of staff at Morger Degelo Architekten in Basel and HPP Hentrich Petschnigg Partner in Berlin. Assistant to Meinrad Morger and Martin Boesch at the ETH Zurich and the EPFL Lausanne from 1997 – 2002. Subsequently writer for the specialist journal «werk, bauen+wohnen» until 2004. In 2008 teaching appointment at the HSLU Lucerne. Independent private practice as of 1999, from 2008 onwards together with Stephan Sintzel. Since 2016 member of the panel for urban design in Winterthur. From 2017-20 teaching appointment at the ZHAW Winterthur. Starting 2021 visiting professor at Accademia di Architettura in Mendrisio. 

Ana Catarina Silva: born-and-raised in Porto, Portugal, in 2000. Back in her days in university, she wanted to know more about hides behind the buildings, the, drawings, the publications, the texts, etc. The podcast "Arquitetura Entre Vistas" - debuted in 2020, with 100 interviews to portuguese practices - is the consequence of profound unconsciousness (that kind of naiveness curious people suffer from). The second season is going "abroad" since January 2024, in search of architectural ideas around the world.

Housing. Not flats

1/18/2024

A conversation with Philipp Esch

His work as an architect mainly involves housing. Rather than simply just flats, he sees it as the invention of livable and attractive places. For her podcast Arquitetura Entre Vistas, Ana Catarina Silva spoke to Philipp Esch about undetermined spaces, housing as the background of the city, architecture as a process and beauty as the most enduring measure of sustainability.

listen to the conversation

Ana Catarina Silva: Philipp, how inventive can we be when it comes to the Housing design? We have tried out so many housing types. What is there left for us to try?

Philipp Esch: Housing is indeed a particular passion of our office. I'd like to point out that our passion is about housing and not about flats. Housing adds the dimension of urbanism to it and I think the core of our research is about creating place – livable and attracting places - in an urban context. We have a forensic interest in how the floor plan of an apartment is as an imprint of the everyday life. Then, when you add all those floor plans together to a larger project, they become crystalline and mathematically elegant.  What I consider the most interesting about housing is this dichotomy between a very abstract floor plan and the body warm concreteness, this tension is what is so fantastic about this endless field of housing.

ACS: I appreciate this idea of housing being different from flats due to the urban dimension one has. I can sense this interest in your projects as you work very close to the surface, you don't really explore the deepness or density of the wall. Your issue is more about having the inside space very connected to the outside space, as a continuity.

PE: One could say that urbanism is tailor made to a specific place, and the floor plans are a kind of a connecting tissue. As so, the floor plans must have this tolerance to adapt to very different ways of life.If you look at floor plans from the 1980s, typically modernistic floor plans, they are custom made for a family with two children and everything is predetermined, whereas today we encounter a much wider field of forms and of cohabitation. In my point of view, floor plans must adapt to this. They have to be more open and less determined. Perhaps spatially quite determined, but functionally rather undetermined.

ACS: What considerations do you have when designing for someone you don't know who it’s going to be? How do you design specifically to unspecified people?

PE: Well, when I started as a self-employed architect in 2003 – before we founded the office – I think there was a lot more certitude of who would live in your project. By the time, flat sharings weren't something welcomed by house owners, meanwhile, they particularly like it today because you'll always have a tenant in an apartment that is shared. By today, more than half of the apartments in Zurich are one person households, whereas in 2003 the percentage was around 35%. So, a lot has happened in these 20 years, and we try to adapt to this loss of certitude. A lot of functional shifts have happened in the meantime, and I think this is something extremely interesting to respond to.

But in the end, I agree with you, it's always a sketchy idea of who would be living in there. And so the important issue is to create attracting good places that people like and appropriate in a visible manner. Looking back, our apartments grew less avantgarde through the years. Maybe, our urbanism has become more courageous, and the floor plans have become more generic in the course of the last ten years, I think.

ACS: I find very interesting that you use geometry as well as the context to draw these different floor plans. I might give an example, you have designed a plan that is an articulation of triangular shapes which ensures that each apartment is oriented towards two or three sides. In another project, you design a geometric oval garden to protect the housing from the impact of increased building density on the surroundings. Is form always linked to something else or is form about form itself? There is also the possibility that you are just playing with forms, matterless of what it might provoke, and then you come up with a good narrative to it just to engage people.

Neudorfstrasse residential development, Wädenswil, 2012 – 2017 – © Esch Sintzel Architekten
"Kuppe" housing estate, Trift , Horgen, 2015 – 2021
"Vertical garden city", Zurich, competition 2019 – © Esch Sintzel Architekten
Living in a former wine warehouse, Basel, 2018 – 2023 – © Esch Sintzel Architekten
Hönggerberg housing estate, competition 2022, 1st prize, 2022 - – © Esch Sintzel Architekten
Neuwiesen housing estate, Zurich, competition 2020, 2nd prize – © Esch Sintzel Architekten
Residential and commercial building Seestrasse, Zurich - 1st prize, project suspended – © Esch Sintzel Architekten
Railroad station site, Bremgarten, competition 3rd prize – © Esch Sintzel Architekten
"Stellwerk 2" residential and commercial building, Winterthur, competition 2019, 1st prize, 2021 - – © Esch Sintzel Architekten
Brunnmatt-Ost residential development, Berne, 2009 – 2013 – © Esch Sintzel Architekten
Friedackerstrasse housing estate, Zurich-Oerlikon, 2018 – 2022 – © Esch Sintzel Architekten
Hebelstrasse residential building, Basel, 2014 – 2018 – © Esch Sintzel Architekten
01 | 13
Neudorfstrasse residential development, Wädenswil, 2012 – 2017 – © Esch Sintzel Architekten

Siza in The Hague

La Malcontenta

Weinlager Basel

1 Georg Franck, Ökonomie der Aufmerksamkeit, München 1998. / Georg Franck, Vanity Fairs, Hamburg 2020.

2 Hermann Czech, «Nur keine Panik», in: Protokolle 1971/2, S. 142.

3 Claude Lévy-Strauss, La pensée sauvage, Paris, 1962.

4 See: Fritz Neumeyer: Nachdenken über Architektur. Eine kurze Geschichte ihrer Theorie; in Fritz Neumeyer: Quellentexte zur Architekturtheorie, München 2002.

PE: The narrative is a crucial aspect of our work. I'd say these narratives are like the red thread that explains our projects. At times they are short texts, other times they are a title of a book or a part of a poem. The interesting thing about narratives is that you can always deviate a bit from them, make them a bit more opulent and lose yourself in a detail here and there and these narratives are what holds it together. It's more than a picture, a narrative is richer than it as it also has the aspect of time in it. 

When I was studying, the concept was like the condensed form of your design in one or five words, everything had to be subordinated under that concept. The narrative is something different, it is something way richer that allows for exceptions and deviations and anecdotical qualities. All these aspects are very important for good housing as housing has a lot to do with the emotions of the people who live there.

ACS: Do you think that the housing patterns are changing, or is housing the most stable program to work with?

PE: It is a very stable program despite those demographic shifts we’ve discussed beforehand. The narrative for every housing project is different as each project is linked to a very specific place and, maybe, to a clientele. We once built two houses within a park with very old trees. But how could people, the inhabitants, experience that? Here the narrative was about how one could experience the proximity of the leaves. It was like a treehouse as one could open the window and touch the leaves.

ACS: I can picture you walking around your city, appreciating the beauty of a tree, and articulating the idea of opening a window and grabbing a fruit from it. Perhaps you're interested in collecting these moments to further develop upon your housing projects.

PE: The point is architecture is an incredibly local business. It is about your personal experience of a place. It is crucial to go to the places that you're planning for continuously and experience them in rain and sun and in the evening and at night. And that gives very important clues to the development of the narrative.

ACS: It is an immersive experience.

PE: Yeah. I doubt whether I could invent a good housing project in Paris or London. I would love to, but I think there are some very important clues that I would be missing.

ACS: Curiously, many people say that Álvaro Siza has this characteristic of always being adequate to the place he's working at. He does a housing in Berlin and he knows how to build in Berlin - the same here in Portugal. Do you think architecture is about its geographical context or rather about a broader cultural context?

PE: A core quality of Siza are his housing projects. Whether they be in Venice, or in The Hague or in Berlin, they are indeed rooted in these places. One of my favorite pictures is Siza as a young man sitting amidst future tenants of this big project in The Hague and discussing the proportions of the rooms with them. They even built a one to one scale mock up of the apartments. It is wonderful. I think there's an empathy for housing. I believe housing is, culturally, a very conservative task, as so, it's crucial to understand the local specificity of housing. Le Corbusier talks about the biology of living. As he describes them, the floor plans are like the intestines, like a sequence of organs that have to be arranged in a certain way to work. I like this expression, the biology of it. Biologically, we're all the same, all the world over, but there are very specific habitats that differ. If I plan in Geneva, I have circumstances that are very much different to those I have here.

ACS: In one hand, Siza is looking for the specificity, on the other hand, Corbusier is looking for the biology. What is it that you look to achieve with your housing programs?

PE: In the end, what we all strive for is beauty, right? The difference between building and architecture is beauty, and beauty is the most sustainable quality of architecture. But I think it is underrated in many countries in Europe, for most it's not even an issue for architects anymore. It's viewed as a product you can order without requiring an architect. That is a tragedy.

What interests us is maybe the architecture of the background. I consider interesting to think housing as the background of the city. If you take Aldo Rossi's Architectura de la Citta, he differentiates the monument - the symbols of power and public relevance – from the tesoto – the housing issue. Interestingly they need each other, as if the foreground is worthless without the background. Our passion for housing makes us wonder: how does a good background looks like? There's a theorist, Georg Franck, who wrote a very noteworthy book where he talks about the economy of attention.1 The currency of our times is attention, so everybody tries to get as much attention as possible. We try to look at the background in architecture, and make everything a background. Many times, clients ask me for an unique selling proposal but I consider that to be a complete misunderstanding. The good part about housing is that it is not unique. I mean, it is unique, but not on the first glance, only when you look closely and begin to find its particular qualities. The privilege of housing is that it is what ties the city together, and this condition is what we like so much about medieval cities.

ACS: Let's make an analogy. It's not so much about Mona Lisa, it is rather about the chiaroscuro Leonardo Da Vinci was working in the background.

PE: Back in 1973, the Austrian architect Hermann Czech – an extremely inspiring person – wrote a wonderful article titled "No need for Panic” (“Nur keine Panik”),2 and he said, “architecture is background and everything else is not architecture”. He doesn't want to devaluate architecture by saying that, but it's like a kind of a demarcation, he wants to protect architecture from having to serve the goals of marketing. He defends the autonomy of architecture is in the background, where architecture is not appropriated by marketing.

ACS: We share the idea that architecture protects people, but now architecture is making a call that we must protect architecture from these logics of market.

PE: Absolutely. It's a good point. I would like to stress that in Zurich we have this particular privilege of a very strong cooperative culture. All our projects are competitions, we’ve never had direct mandates so far, and almost all of them are cooperatives. Cooperatives or public investors are the drivers of innovation in Zurich, and they take a keen interest in keeping the high architectural quality. To a certain extent, we are liberated from the logics of the market.

ACS: In your studio, do you ever get to talk about architecture, or do you always end up having the cost-efficient driven architectural talk?

PE: No, we are talking a lot about architecture. There are a couple of core questions we ask every week: Why would you die to build this project? What's at the core of it? What's the particular opportunity that prevents you from reproducing solutions – which I think is the death of architecture? For example, we did a study trip to Vicenza and to Palladio with everyone at the office. Upon our return, we were greatly inspired by Palladio's villas and the idea of how to inhabit them. It was interesting to notice our projects changed in the aftermath of this short trip.

ACS: You came back contaminated by experiences from the past.

PE: Yes, exactly. In a Palladio villa, you have these big central halls, and then you have a wonderful, completely pure plan that is not spoiled by toilets, by kitchens, by stairs. It's just an arrangement of rooms where you sometimes sleep in one room, other times you sleep in another room. The only thing that is clear is that the central hall is meant for the banquet, for coming together. It's extremely inspiring. Maybe we should be much less determined with the functions that we give to the rooms; this is discussed a lot in our office.

ACS: Amazing. We can analyze these villas and understand that the elements Palladio plays with are actually always the same. It's always about: stairs, rooms, columns, roofs, etc. The many arrangements under these same rules are what give very different architectures.

PE: Exactly. And there are many hints that you can translate into the modest scale of today's apartments. Many certitudes are dissolving in the way of how we live together, many opportunities are opening up. We have recently finished the conversion of a wine storage building into an apartment where people live together, in individual apartments that are fairly small surface wise, but they share a lot: there is a big communal kitchen, there is a “chambre d’amis” where you can host your friends, there are ateliers and a cafe that you share. The generosity of the collective spaces compensates for the avarice of the individual space.

ACS: In this former wine storage into housing project you aim for the narrative of bringing the outside inside. It is interesting to then find out that you refuse the idea of a corridor – usually very close and oriented – by design an internal street which. In this case, we are so connected to the outside light, and we have such iconic structural elements that it falls far from being a corridor. It is almost as a communal space in which you are inside, but you are somehow outside as well. How do you treat these spaces in your projects?

PE: There’s a certain cautiousness about building corridors, we rarely plan them. In this specific project, there are different ways you can go through the house, you are not forced to take this one corridor to access your apartment, and that's something you feel. In a way, the interior circulation has a kind of urbanistic quality. Maybe if the corridor was the only way to access, and it has only one staircase, then it wouldn’t feel like outside at all, it would feel like you were trapped inside. It is rather similar to a kasbah network within this colossal pharaonic structure first built for massive loads.

ACS: And as you get to choose where to go, architecture is freedom once again.

PE: Aldo van Eyck makes reference to the “labyrinthian clarity” and I think that should be the aim of urbanism. The “clarity” is for the outsider and the “labyrinthian" quality is for the insider. The visitor benefits from clarity and can identify the complicity of those who have a deeper sense of orientation. I consider the circulation network in the wine storage to have that quality.

ACS: This is paradoxical because the architect is supposed to make decisions, but you also want people to be able to choose their paths and to have a decision. Do people become architects after the architect has left the building?

PE: The longer we are practicing as architects, the more I think an architectural project is a process and not a product. I don't know if you know this text of Claude Lévi-Strauss La Pensée Sauvage (Wild Thinking), where he compares the engineer with the bricoleur.3 He says the engineer has a determined aim he has to achieve which requires him to select or create the tools necessary to get there. In contrast, the bricoleur has a determined set of means and fragments at hand and must then figure out what they can create with them - his goal is not fixed, the goal is determined by the set of elements at his disposal. And this is exactly what we feel when we are doing conversions. Architects have this terrible sickness: they want to make order once and forever, they want to solve everything permanently but “la vie est plus fort”. Whenever you think you have a firm grasp on something then you can be sure that it will dissolve immediately.

ACS: But architecture lives under this condition that you always have to choose one thing over the other. You cannot have everything everywhere at the same time, sometimes we have to prioritize them. It is essential to achieve: well-lit rooms, staircases with daylight and a strong inside-outside connection. These kind of priorities might increase the facade costs. How do you go about making these choices?

PE: That's our daily work, isn't it? I mean, we have a set of circumstances given and then we prioritize them. It is essential to accomplish a certain complicity, a congruence of aims, with the client. And then you can explain and recommend them to spend some more money on the facade because they will be recompensed by x and y qualities. Whenever we couldn't have a conversation in this openness, we failed. We constantly find ourselves trying to promote architectural qualities without talking about them, but instead talking about facility management and architecture as a hidden agenda. But overall, it's about trying to make his interest yours and your interest theirs.

ACS: Comprehensively, clients get enchanted by the process of architecture, but the following minute they are asking “but when will it be ready?”. Let’s say, the architect cares about the process, not the product. Whereas the client cares about the product, and not so much about the process.

PE: Very good point, actually I think that is the key problem when it comes to persuading clients not to demolish buildings but to work on what already exists. Working with existing structure doesn’t cost more and there are surprising liberties that lie under the conversion of buildings, the wine storage is a good example for this: you would never propose a room height of 4,30 meters for a social housing project, but in the existing structure you already have it.

Unfortunately, the client is usually asking for a product and not for a process that has, of course, many unpredictable aspects. But at times you succeed, we have a growing proportion of conversion projects in our portfolio. I'm always fascinated about the tolerance of concrete structures where we can take almost every wall out, put a pillar here, glue some carbon on the ceiling and somehow it works. That is bricolage. I always get amazed by looking at Jan de Vylder’s projects as he leaves all the scars and traces visible and stresses the autonomy of the elements he found. I recognize it is hard to convince a client of these qualities.

I want to highlight a particular privilege in Zurich, and that is that you can rent out almost everything, which takes a bit away the pressure. It is not that you are on a market that is shrinking. It is not a city that is contracting, it is rather a city that is expanding at a fast pace and is in desperate search for positive images for densification.

ACS: You are answering to a question I have in mind: how do we densify without building too much? Are we talking about conversion?

PE: We're talking about conversion, and we should also be talking about its standards. What standards are we insisting on? With “we”, I do not mean us architects, but I mean clients, and I mean the city. We should be lowering these standards, but we are, instead, insisting on the same standards as if we were building anew. That would allow for a lot more conversion projects and these would contribute for a positive impression of densification among people. Switzerland has currently around eight and a half million inhabitants and is going to have 10 million inhabitants by 2050. This means a massive growth on a very limited surface. High rise is no solution for that, and we want to be carbon dioxide free by 2050. We must find very different approaches, and conversions are the right way for it.

ACS: You even get to imagine a project out of water towers, and I recall another one where you drew inspiration from wooden pallets, you thought of them as potential wooden residential towers. So you take inspiration from these very trivial objects that are around us in the city and you convert them into housing. Do your eyes ever get to rest or are you always looking around for new architectural shapes?

PE: I think that's the symptom for being architect, that you always are pacing the world with the eyes of a hunter. You're always looking at things and thinking about whether they could be used in a project. There's this wonderful definition of Fritz Neumeyer, the German theorist of architecture, who says “architecture is the art of spatial interrelating” – he says so in German.4 Re-use enlarges this definition into architecture as time interrelating. We're interested in how materials age and how it can be explored as an aesthetic quality.

ACS: But currently, everything moves so quick, and the desire for quick, easy, and cost-effective solutions is evident. On the other hand, architects want to go against this movement: they want to have time to look at things, to be precise, to be very attentive to what is around. How does architecture fit in this new kind of world that wants everything so quick and easily? Are we, architects, doing architecture for ourselves? Is it possible?

PE: No, I don't think so. In a way, economy has long shifted to digital economy, the analog production is not where money is made anymore: be it cars, be it houses, be it clothes. But why would so many young people still want to study architecture? Because I think they want to create something lasting, that’s the secret. There are not many things that survive us, but a humble house will survive us. It’s a wonderful thing. This is a promise that attracts not only clients but also young people who study architecture.

ACS: Maybe we're looking for a purpose. If nothing else gets to last in this world, maybe architecture will.

PE: Yes. Interestingly, the most lasting thing is change. It should be an architecture that is ready for change, an architecture that is open to a process. I'm always telling my clients - and I think it is quite a valuable argument – that the building costs are only a fraction of lifecycle costs. In Switzerland, the building costs are 20%. It is nothing compared to what you can economize by building with materials that last longer, that feel more valuable, that you grow attached to all these aspects. On the long run they are economical and sometimes my clients believe it. (laughs)

ACS: Well, that is a great argument, and I might use it with my future clients. But once again, when talking to people outside architecture, we must bring numbers to the table. The narrative inevitably becomes more concrete and mathematical, let's say, just so they believe in the value we are adding.

PE: Yes. In our case, the main obstacle is to survive the competition but once you win, you don't have to defend urbanism neither the expression of the building, you start from another point. You are legitimized by a jury, and that's a privilege. I've always suffered under the effort of competitions, and it took me a while to see what privilege it is.

ACS: Actually you make it seem that it's very easy to win competitions because you won many of them all under the theme of housing. I imagine this to be just the tip of the iceberg. Do you ever wonder if all the time, energy and money is worth it?

PE: Maybe it's a question that you don't permit yourself when you are running an office with 30 people. But whenever the building is taking shape, I find myself walking through the building site and remembering the first sketches and discussions on how to conceive it. That is a very rewarding experience. At times I wonder, how it would be if we weren’t into competitions. How do you do that? Do you ask your former classmates from school? I wouldn't even know whom to ask. Definitely, it's worth it.

Maybe it’s because I'm growing older, and my skin is growing thinner but I have the impression the conditions are worsening. Doing the maths I realize I might build eight more houses, maybe six, maybe ten. Then I think about the privilege of Swiss conditions: being paid decently, and also being paid for all the detours that we do – looking in this direction and then failing looking in that direction and failing and taking another turn – that’s something you can't afford when working under French, Italian and, probably, Portuguese conditions. You must be determined too quickly, otherwise you can't finance it.

ACS: Thank you, Philip and everybody at the Esch Sintzel team. Einstein once said that creativity is intelligence. Having fun. Well, it is quite clear that you have a lot of fun in your studio and thank you for that.

PE: Thank you, Catarina. I will be thinking about what you’ve asked me, the good answers come always later.

Philipp Esch: born in Göttingen, Germany (1968). From 1986 – 92 studies at ETH Zurich and at the CEPT in Ahmadabad (India). 1994 – 97 member of staff at Morger Degelo Architekten in Basel and HPP Hentrich Petschnigg Partner in Berlin. Assistant to Meinrad Morger and Martin Boesch at the ETH Zurich and the EPFL Lausanne from 1997 – 2002. Subsequently writer for the specialist journal «werk, bauen+wohnen» until 2004. In 2008 teaching appointment at the HSLU Lucerne. Independent private practice as of 1999, from 2008 onwards together with Stephan Sintzel. Since 2016 member of the panel for urban design in Winterthur. From 2017-20 teaching appointment at the ZHAW Winterthur. Starting 2021 visiting professor at Accademia di Architettura in Mendrisio. 

Ana Catarina Silva: born-and-raised in Porto, Portugal, in 2000. Back in her days in university, she wanted to know more about hides behind the buildings, the, drawings, the publications, the texts, etc. The podcast "Arquitetura Entre Vistas" - debuted in 2020, with 100 interviews to portuguese practices - is the consequence of profound unconsciousness (that kind of naiveness curious people suffer from). The second season is going "abroad" since January 2024, in search of architectural ideas around the world.

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