The first time I heard name “CEBRA” – was when my teacher at architecture school, showed their work as an example of good housing design. And so it stayed – being one of the several architectural practices, I dare to say, defining contemporary architecture in Denmark. CEBRA themselves, call their architecture Healthy Eye-candy – and it really is more than extraordinary design. With Mikkel Frost, working in Abu Dhabi, at that moment, we talked about those intangible virtues and hidden tasks of architecture of today.

Mikkel Frost

Mikkel Frost

CEBRA is a part of the Danish pavilion in this year’s Venice Biennale. The curators of the pavilion stated that they want to highlight “the humanistic focus of Danish architecture”. What do you consider to be humane (humanistic) architecture? Is it related only to the typology: schools, hospitals, etc., or if there is certain features of architecture that make it humane?

It is certainly something that architects discuss.  I think different architects could have different views of what exactly that is, but probably the reason why it has been chosen as a topic, it is because Denmark is a welfare society. Like the rest of Scandinavia. We pay high taxes, and all of that money is distributed to create an equal society, in terms of possibilities and wealth. People in Denmark have the idea that the money you pay, when you pay taxes, belongs to everybody. So that the things we build together, as a society, should somehow serve everybody and be for everybody. This means that when you are planning a building, you are not only designing it for an influential, powerful, rich person. You are designing for everybody in society: tall – short, woman – man, Muslim – Christian, etc. That is running deep in our DNA, because we are children of a welfare society. That is something that we don’t even think about. I have to go abroad, like here where I am in Abu Dhabi right now, to realize that what we have in Denmark is a certain type of society model and a certain way of thinking. Therefore, I think most Danish architects are very cautious about the users of their buildings. This has also led to a lot of user involvement in a design processes. That means, instead of the architect, trying to figure out everything by himself, you would interview a number of users, and work together with them.  This helps to make sure that what you are doing serves as many people as possible, and so that tax money is spent in a clever way. I think that is the basic thing, for us personally, as architects in CEBRA. We also work this way with private clients. It has to do with the fact that we are very conscious about our client, we must have a sympathy for him/her. We do realize that what ever we do as architects – we intend to serve a client. But it does not mean that you are a “servant”. When you listen to the client, and design afterwards, it does not mean that you are doing a bad design. You can do a fantastic designs, it just means that the client will be happier, because he/she could recognize himself/herself in the project. We always work this way, I don’t know, maybe it is because we are children of welfare society, but for us it’s the same, there is no difference in our architecture between spectacular design and user friendly architecture. It is not a contradiction.

Have you ever refused to do what your client wishes, because you did not agree with him?

No, we have not experienced that. We never slammed the door and left a project. But we do have agreements on our board, probably things we wouldn’t do, probably we wouldn’t design plans for a factory, producing landmines. Not because we believe that war is something you can avoid – you probably can’t. But we are by heart pacifist and we do not want to be part of it. You would find clients that we probably would not work with for moral reasons. But in general we always manage to work out our disagreements, we always end up with solutions, that everybody can live with. That is the interesting thing about architecture, whenever you finish a project, people, who were not involved in the process, would say: “Wow, that is a great house, congratulations!”. Yet, if you were involved, you have a tendency, to focus on things that could have been different. No architect has ever built a building that ended up looking, the way he/she wanted. Even the Sydney Opera, does not look, like Jørn Utzon wanted it to – and that is one of the masterpieces of all time. It is just the nature of architecture, that you take it as far as you can, of course, but you always have to give up on a few things.

Street dome - Skate and street sport center (Haderslev, Denmark)

Street dome – Skate and street sport center (Haderslev, Denmark)

Let’s go back to this humanistic aspect of architecture – does humanistic also mean that you are designing open, public spaces near, let’s say, private, administrative buildings?

Well, I would say it is more like a mind-set. For example, you are designing a facade, and the facade looks beautiful with the windows up high, and you want it to look that way from the outside, but you find that from the inside, people cannot look out the windows. Then you say “OK, do I want a fancy picture for a magazine; or do I want something that actually works, and that people are happy working in the building?”. Now you try to design your way around things, still making a beautiful facade. I know it is a very primitive example. But I just want to say that we never let artistic and aesthetic issues rule the process of designing. We always consider that it should work for people, and be a pleasant working environment, or a pleasant dwelling for a family. But I think some architects compromise on that and basically it is unethical. It is sort of giving up – if you cannot design something that is both beautiful and works for people. It is a mind set when you are always thinking about the people who will use the building, and less thinking about yourself as an architect. You have to remember that architecture is not only piece of art, people actually live there everyday.

Do you have your own style, design trademark, or do you adapt more to a clients will, or culture or context?

I think you can always recognize a CEBRA project. We do have a certain way of designing, and we do have certain design ideas that we interpret and reinterpret, certain “trademarks” that we use, but at the same time we adapt to different climates and cultures.  I think some signature architects, like for instance Hadid, do projects that look pretty much the same all over the world. To me this is very strange, because it seems they are not paying attention to their client or the culture in which they build.  Whereas other architects are able to maintain their style and identity, and align it with the local cultures. I think one really good architect in doing this is Jean Nouvel. He is doing spectacular and impressive architecture and still responds to local culture. Here in Abu Dhabi they are building the Louvre museum right now. Such an interesting and brilliant building. It looks like Jean Nouvel immediately, it is very monumental, and in certain ways very French. At the same time you can clearly see, without any explanation, that it has an Abu Dhabi touch to it. For me it is the ideal way to work – maintaining yourself, maintaining your own beliefs and then adapting to climate and culture. You have to look to local building traditions and learn from them.  I think that architects can be ignorant sometimes, when they think they are more clever than ten or hundred generations of architects that worked before in that area and learned how things work and how the climate is. Studying old traditional buildings is really useful. For instance, here in Abu Dhabi, there is a tradition of using wind towers – it is a little tower which comes up, and pushes the wind down into the atriums, so that you are actually creating a draft inside your building. This is a way of cooling a house, which does not cost any energy at all, and at the same time this tower gives character to the building. It is all about listening – to the client, to the culture, to the climate. Being attentive, knowing exactly where you are, and who you work with, and then respond to that.

What is the most significant thing that you have learned in Abu Dhabi, do you remember one?

Well, there are a lot of cultural surprises here. First thing that we learned is that all the Arabic peninsula, is not just one culture. It is a number of very different cultures – going from Abu Dhabi to Saudi Arabia, or to Yemen, or Oman – it’s all very different. It is the same in Europe of course – it is very different, France is really different from Sweden. But still for some reason, you have the (wrong) idea that you would not necessarily find the same differences in, let’s say, South America. The climate down here, is such a powerful design driver, that I am realizing more and more, that we have to make climate a part of the way we build again. Because climate is really something that you cannot change. I think the idea of building glass skyscrapers all over the world, and just heat them in cold regions and cool them in the warm ones – it does not really make sense. I think it is one of the downsides of modernist architecture – that we have just exported a Western model to many regions of the world – instead of looking at the climate there. It is not very sustainable and it is not very conscious either.

Center for early childhood development (Abu Dhabi, UAE)

Center for early childhood development (Abu Dhabi, UAE)

But isn’t that the people themselves, that want to have these skyscrapers?

That is actually changing now. Probably in some places they want that, but here in Abu Dhabi they are very eager to preserve local identity and preserve local values, and to somehow reinvent, local but modern architecture. That is part of what we are doing with our clients here. It is to try to figure out, what is the precise essence of Emirati culture and how that can be incorporated in a modern, contemporary type of architecture. It has to do with materials, some of it has to do with ways of cooling with wind towers, some of it has to do with the way things are organized and so on. It is incredibly interesting to study the past and find out, how they used to build and why they used to build that way and so on. For instance one typology that is really popular here is the courtyard house, which is an enclosure and from the outside it is just a square wall, and from the inside you have a few houses along the edge and a tree in the center, for shade. Those models of arranging the space are something you can easily reuse in modern buildings. Of course there are some traits of this culture that are the same as in Danish culture. In Denmark you would also find farms, that consist of four houses, creating a square. It turns out there is also some basic human psychology, that lies underneath our different cultures, and it is probably the same everywhere in the world. You want protection and you want shelter. So, there are of course many layers to work with, but the most interesting layer for us is the local culture. I have to say we are still learning though…

So what is the next country you are planning to work in?

We have always been focusing on our neighboring countries – Norway, Sweden, etc. It is natural to just expand your own circle from where you are. One of the reasons for setting up an office in Abu Dhabi is that from here we can expand to a number of other countries because this is an international hub. So that could possibly bring us projects in other parts of the region, or Common wealth countries. For now, we are not looking any further than that, that’s more than enough. I mean just getting it right down here is a big job already.

On the other hand we really begin to think about something as banal as distance and its’ pros and cons. For instance, if you work in Australia – you´ll spend your time in airplanes or you do everything on Skype, which is quite difficult actually. Personally, I am starting to think about distance. About taking jobs which are on the other side of the planet. I can work, but one needs to consider the circumstances and conditions…

You are afraid that you cannot control the process?

Exactly. I am afraid that I will spend too much time on the airplane and much less time at the drawing table. As an architect you should be at your desk and with your design team. If you look at your life in a more holistic way – even if you get a great commission – are you willing to pay the price and live like that? Living in airports it is no fun at all.  It is something you do for great commissions and I am happy to do it, but it is not what I am looking for. If there is an interesting commission in Denmark – it’s great! Or here in Abu Dhabi, where we already settled down.  So it is a balance. You cannot do projects abroad if you do not want to travel. On the other hand, one should try to limit it, if one wants to have a decent life. And of course, have time to actually design buildings, rather than being in transit all the time, while others design for you. I guess I’m talking about balance…

You have mentioned the drawing table… Do you still design yourself?

Oh yes, I do that a lot. Of course with a huge project, like we are doing here in Abu Dhabi, I cannot design everything myself. But I do drawings, sketches and so on. I insist on being part of the design team. I am not a manager. I am an architect.

Center for early childhood development (Abu Dhabi, UAE)

Center for early childhood development (Abu Dhabi, UAE)

Have you ever experienced that some sustainable solutions for architecture are badly influencing the design of a building itself?

No, it does not have bad influences, in fact it can be an interesting design driver. But, yes, it does limit your possibilities. If you work with sustainability in the real way, not just to brag about it. Sometimes clients think, that to be sustainable is to put a wind mill on the roof. You might call that showcase sustainability. On the contrary – you can easily design a building that is very sustainable and yet nobody will notice. We work a lot with the passive side of sustainability which has to do with how you orient buildings on a site. How you orientate your windows, how much isolation you use in the facade. It also has to do with the overall shape of the building and the surface area. Things like that are very important, because it is not something you change from day to day, whereas you can always change solar cells or your windmill. It is just technology which is upgraded all the time. On the other hand, the passive characteristics of a building, the shape, the orientation, that is something that stays for a long time. The typical simple sustainability would be a facade with plants – it looks green, because it is green, and people like plants and it is a symbol of harmony with nature, etc. But you can have a green facade and then behind it – a building organized in a really irrational way – so you waste energy everyday while heating it, while lightning it, while maintaining it. So certainly working with sustainability limits architects’ possibilities, but it is not a bad thing. It just means that there will be certain ways that your house cannot look. I think most of the time, as an architect, you need limitations in order to make a good design decision. If you start with all possibilities in the world – how are you going to choose the one perfect solution? One of my favorite examples is from the creators of the Dogme 95 movement – they just set up a bunch of rules for themselves, that actually limited their possibilities, but out of that limitation, they were forced to think in really innovative ways. Their movies are just brilliant – and it did not cost anything to produce them, and they are way better than many expensive productions.

Have you done any projects for charity, for no money at all?

I am doing one right now, it is a charity project for refugees in Denmark, but I cannot tell you so much about it till we go public with it.

In terms of charity, the way we usually do charity is like a secret type of charity, that nobody knows about, because it is often about doing something for a client who cannot pay for it. Let’s say you have a project, but the fee is very bad. But if you do a little thing for free, and spend a day on it, maybe you will really improve the design of that building. For instance, we could design a children’s playground near the building. We do this for a client if we know that the client genuinely does not have any more money for the design. It is an invisible charity – it’s there, and we do it, but it is nothing you can brag about. But charity is not about bragging, it is about doing the right thing.

What are the main weaknesses and failures of today’s architecture and how do you think it could be overcome in the future?

That is a difficult question. One thing, we were talking about yesterday, is that because of the internet everybody share ideas and designs very quickly today. Sometimes you see a ‘wining scheme’ in the Netherlands, but before they actually build it in Holland, which is democratic and slow, somebody already copied it, and built it earlier than the original author. It just means that architecture looks pretty much the same everywhere and everybody’s working with the same ideas, which is a little annoying. Of course you would always be a product of your own generation, it is natural that we all inspire each other – that is good, I guess.  Still, at the same time, it seems that there is an industry of competitions. A lot of architects in the world get work through competitions – we do the same. Here you always have a pressure to come up with a winning scheme in a very short period of time. And you want to sell your scheme and win, so you do your flashy renderings. In the end, a lot of renderings look the same, because you know what “kills”. So you end up not doing drawings, but rather spending time on ‘real estate broker’ type renderings. You also end up with certain concepts that are very efficient and have a nice, understandable story, that can be told in a few simple diagrams. So that everybody could understand it instantly, as everybody is so busy. The world has become more mainstream, I would say. Sometimes you feel like being in an architecture factory. Really thinking deeply about things and really taking time to dig deeper and find your way to the very core of things – it is just very rare these days. Disturbed by e-mails and phone calls all day long – we are working under quite difficult conditions, I think. Another thing – I am sort of going back to the start of our conversation – I think, as architects, we are not paying enough attention to local climates and cultures. I think we have a tendency, especially, so-called signature architects to do the same project here, in New York, and in Denmark. I believe that we have to be much more conscious about climate and culture, really try to fit in where we built, and really find local qualities. Today you can go to the mall in any city in the world, and you could not tell where you are – you find the same shops and cafes. You look through the window and you see the same twisting skyscrapers – because everybody wants a twisting tower. I think it is a bit of a shame in a way. I am totally for an international world, I am totally for the world where we share ideas, I am totally for open borders in Europe, etc. But at the same time I would also like to keep local flavor.

You think this is the future, you think that people may turn to local?

Maybe… Well, in terms of sustainability, this is something that you just have to do in the future. The fact is that now in Denmark you cannot get a building permit unless you do a low energy design. But 10 or 15 years ago, being a sustainable architect, was a selling point! That was a way to attract clients. Today, if you are not sustainable – you simply cannot practice – so everybody is sustainable. The interesting thing is that in Denmark we had a new regulation for the year 2015, but a lot of clients decided: ‘Well, I’m going to go for 2020!’. So in fact the private market went faster then legislation. Clients have realized that buildings built for much lower energy consumption, will be worth more. Private investors saw an economical driver in being sustainable. Sustainability became a part of your everyday life. Of course not in all countries, they many do not have strict laws, like we have in Denmark. Probably in Scandinavia and in Germany we have the toughest legislations regarding energy consumption, but I think it will happen in the rest of the world too. And if it won’t – we are kind of screwed, actually. It just has to happen. The next level, after that, is when we’ll learn how to to produce clean energy. When that happens – than we can turn on the heating and open all windows! (smiles) But today we will have to build houses that save energy.