It’s one thing to have the benefit of superstar mentors, a harder thing to emerge beneath from their colossus intact. Christian Wassmann was introduced to the theater impresario Robert Wilson while still  a student in Zurich. The result was a ten yearlong mentorship, which spawned a significant number of collaborations. When Wassmann moved to the US, he took a position with master architect Stephen Holl and soon became his protégé.  In 2005 Wassmann decided to leave Holl’s firm and go solo. Since then, with a variety of unique design and installation projects, Wassmann has been transmitting his own distinct signal and charting a trajectory all his own…

Helvetica Bold spent an afternoon with Wassmann, rummaging through his design philosophies, “I always do drawings for myself or write little manifestos that are not for publication but lead to something I try to share or have in my office culture—“

We thought we’d come up with a manifesto of sorts that reflect Christian Wassmann’s sense of place.

The Dream Project

A Dance House—not a club, that would be too easy. This Dance House would be an ideal place to explore all my different interests from like seeing a ballet like the so-called “e-arts” die ernst zu nehmende Kunst und die unterhaltende Kunst—  (highbrow and lowbrow) where you bring everything together… Somewhere on the rooftop you have a fancy bar and maybe there is a basement where it is just a raw space—and more experimental. That’s part of New York’s quality: here you can go out and you can go to a fundraiser event or an opera and you’re dressed up in a tuxedo—then you go from an Italian opera to a Japanese restaurant for dinner—then to an English pub and eventually end up in an illegal underground party in Brooklyn–and that’s all in one night. So beautiful!

New York is very horizontal, there’s no real hierarchy but there are still codes you have to respect—I don’t try to hide that I’m the “punk/skater boy” at the Opera House—but I do it without shocking. And that’s just the quality of New York; it’s accessibility and acceptance. The Dance House could be something like this. Dance in particular has everything to do with body movement —the body in space is something that interests me a lot. Dancers are often colliding with music—which is something visual—something everybody can experience personally. It has something to do with your body in space.

I love when cultures clash. When I had my office party I invited everyone I knew and people just showed up from all these different contexts—architecture. design, theater— party animals I only know from the nighttime. It was such a pleasure to see them collide.

On Urban Life

Most of my current projects I found just by being at the right time at the right place—I enjoy that a lot. It’s really a pedestrian city where you bump into people on the street or in the cafe, in the bar—you talk and eventually something develops. You get to know the city very well by being present–it’s not something you can do by being far away.”

It has to do with a more fluid way of living–I go out a lot and I dance a lot and I like to be surrounded by people. Not just like gossiping and chatting, but I really enjoy the stimulation in New York that you constantly have. Also sometimes the criticism that people give you–they walk up to you and give you advice (even though you didn’t really ask). Always about clashing or friction and maybe actually chemistry. It’s about connecting: you feel like an atom floating around–and suddenly you realize you are part of a bigger chain reaction–one thing leads to the next…

For me the term is urban is not a cliché—it’s about people interacting. I believe in stimulation of life in the city by little interventions. So I did a radio station on 1st Avenue –East Village Radio–an online radio station which is right on the sidewalk–so it has a big impact on the street–a lot of people pass by and there’s a party going on. Even though the scale is really really small—and this is only interior design it becomes urban design. That’s the kind of the small scale of what I’ve imagined to be my life in the future–not necessarily in New York, it can be anywhere.

24 Hour Radio Station Without End

They told me “We have a radio station we’d like you to redesign”. So I started off with this minimal space of 22/26 square meters, which incidentally is what Corbusier says is the minimal space for a human being.

I started playing around with mirrors, angles of mirrors to create an endless space. The back wall is tilted backwards, so when you look inside you don’t see yourself in the reflection but you see the tree behind you… I was thinking much more about the urban scale—even though it is a small thing—but the sidewalk or the tree is immediately part of the interior—its like a wallpaper wrapping around and these 15 degree angles

A side effect of this was that the acoustics were ideal because in a music studio you don’t want to have parallel walls, or else you get an echo— it bounces back and forth. With the 15 degrees angles —if they really crank the sound all the way up—it bounces off at the same angle to the ceiling, which is insulated with foam—so the sound quality of this little space was actually pretty good.

Because the walls are angulated by 15 degrees—which creates this loop effect so that the space itself is actually a 24th of a full circle—which has to do with the radio station being 24 hours–so it kind of represents that. It’s also next to a pizza restaurant—so it’s a slice of “Pi”.

There is a square window in the bar (next door) where you can look in and see into the DJ booth—but they can’t see you. It’s a two way mirror—like in police stations and this is where you see this endless effect very clearly once you’re inside. There were three different kinds of mirrors — a Beech mirror which was yellow/gold, a silver mirror and this two-way mirror.

The floor is custom made, from a hundred percent recycled truck tires, sliced into pieces and fused back together–it’s very very sturdy.

I was asked to design a table and they were afraid that people would put their beer on the equipment—so I decided, let’s take a very traditional Saarinen table and slice it in half and mount it to the mirrors. In the mirror it looks like a full table so when you have a half full beer–you actually have two half full beers.

On Mirrors

Conceptually mirrors go way back for me–to my studies in Vienna of (French psychiatrist/linguist) Jacques Lacan and the mirror stage–which is the first time a child or a human being around the age of 18 months, the child recognizes itself for the first time in it’s environment—is a crucial point in human development. For one year I did only projects related to mirrors, like self-reflections.

On Paying Attention

I’ve done a lot of seating for theater companies or dance companies—designing spaces for them to present their work. I like when people are really focused, when they are forced to sit through performance of two hours or when they go to a museum their senses are much more open, they expect something, they are looking for the difference–it’s not like they take it for granted that something is being presented, they know somebody made something for them to see it, so you expect something different.

I kind of like that as well about restaurants, where you know people just sit there for two hours or an hour maybe for lunch, but they are in a space and they start paying attention—sometimes out of boredom or feeling that something is different from what they’ve seen before–I just like the level of attention you can get when you do something a little bit on the outside of architecture, meaning stage sets, exhibitions on the entertainment level of architecture.

The Future Belongs to Specialists

With all the people I’ve ever worked with, from Bob Wilson to Steven Holl, I’ve never had to separate one field from the next. In architecture school they always want you to decide and specialize: you should be this or that. I don’t believe in that, I believe the future belongs to generalists and inter-disciplinary groups—a scientist meets a musician meets an artist and then they discover behind it all there is the same logic. I don’t want to say structure, but there are certain things like human proportions that have to do with music–and that’s just one thing. I was teaching a class at Columbia with Stephen Holl on the subject of architecture and music and there is so much in common. It’s more proof that I don’t want to specialize: I want to do everything from the big urban idea to the building to the interior to the furnishing to the door end to the lamps. And I’m not saying I have to do everything–control it–I’m not a control freak, but all that blends together.

On Office Materials

Our office walls (which are curved) all made of 100 % recycled materials—this is homasote which is usually used for sub flooring—when I called the factory they told me not to use it for furniture because its not structural—but then I discovered that the curve gives it structural integrity—it’s kind of a flimsy board but once you put it under tension it becomes really rigid. the furniture is shaping the space but also leaving it pretty open. The loft in the beginning was a perfect square, in the beginning it was very noisy, you could hear yourself on the phone–with this it just gives separation without isolation–you have the feeling of cocooning.

I’m looking for stone, fire, wood and air. I also try to avoid plastic, like whenever I go shopping I avoid the bags—it’s just a material I don’t feel comfortable with.

Oscar Niemeyer’s Curves

When I was 19 I was in South America for 4 months, working in Paraguay and traveled a lot in Brazil and Argentina. I went to see most of the Oscar Niemeyer buildings that were accessible it was just like wow! The way he treats space, the curvy-ness of his buildings was so intriguing —I haven’t seen anything since, in such continuity that deals with curves in his oeuvre—without computers, going back to the 40s. It’s very very physical—there are very good buildings by Zaha Hadid too—but these thanks to the computer, they never have the physicality of a raw Oscar Niemeyer building—where you feel like there was somebody with wood, concrete and stone bringing this whole thing together.

Today it’s much slicker you have it in the computer and modulate it then you make the form then cast in concrete and there’s not much more to it.

The Longest Day of The Year

About three years ago and I visited this observatory in Jaipur India that was built in 1725—there are many reasons why I really love it–one of them being that it is a huge jungle gym, there are no handrails, you walk up, you climb up–it’s a real physical experience–and it’s not only physical intensity–it’s totally in relationship with the cosmos. And that dimension you really experience, it’s something that you feel in your bones there. This in particular is in relationship to the sun and it’s the biggest sundial in the world. From one side to the other, it’s 27 meters and you can measure the time in a precision of 2 seconds. This slab of marble–it’s about 4 inches by 8 feet and it just goes down and around—you can actually see the lines were you could read the time by two seconds.

“Whatever time and space mean, place and occasion mean more.”

Late modernism starting in the fifties —is all about time and space. There is this book by Siegfried Giedion –which touches on much more than architecture, it’s called Space, Time and Architecture –and in it Giedion was sort of rationalizing what a human being needs —how much space we need, how much daylight we need—sort of taking Corbusier’s ideas, Bauhaus ideas and some other modernists and streamlines this into this school for people to follow.

I’m simplifying it, but there is a certain dogmatism to it that I always hated in art school. A lot of my teachers came from Ulm–which is a direct result of the Bauhaus–Max Bill was there–and it was always very very rational. And I didn’t believe in this way of rationalizing life so I started reading other authors and came across Aldo von Eyck who said “Whatever time and space mean, I’m not sure—but for me location and place mean much more.” Reading that sparked something in me and I thought, “That’s exactly what my life and my work should be about.”

It’s about the location and the energy that’s around and the people that you meet—and the place—really inhabiting something not just a space, a space is an abstract thing. It’s a lot to do with the people—taking an existing environment and turning it upside down— like Bob Dylan would say,

All the people that you mention, yes I know them, they’re quite lame,

I have to rearrange their faces to give them all another name.

He nails it.