Silvia Jencinella of MosArtek interviews Andrea Langhi of Andrea Langhi Design.
Silvia – How long have you been working in Milan?
Andrea – I’ve worked on my own account since 1995, and I’ve been in Milan since 2000.
Si – I’ve read about you, I’ve read what you’ve written on your blog, I’ve seen your videos and I’m intrigued by your design work. Your projects have been successful and you have happy clients. How many successful commercial premises have you delivered since the start of your work in the field?
An – A nice, round five hundred or so across almost twenty years of work. It’s a gratifying number, some of which no longer exist and others that have been refurbished. I’ve recently been doing a sort of timeline, looking back through my old work, and I’ve rediscovered some things that are interesting even with hindsight. It’s about so many different aspects, not just the numbers. Then, if you add in all the projects that ultimately have never seen the light of day, it’s almost double that number.
Si – Things to be done.
An – Full schedule, yes.
Si – But It’s not the case that they definitely won’t happen.
An – Indeed, I might pick some of them up again.
Si – Your ideal target client is the one you seek out for yourself, because as I understand it, it’s more a question for you of selecting a specific client rather than availing yourself to a mass of random strangers. You say “when there’s a competition, don’t invite me to take part”.
An – Put like that it sounds rather presumptuous…
Si – But it makes sense.
An – Paradoxically, it makes sense for both our interests. Since I only do commercial premises, the experience I gain is both in the design of the locale and also how the business ultimately works. As such, I’m convinced that my role, from my customer’s point of view, is to help him succeed. How do I help? Through the design.
I don’t indulge in naval-gazing; I have to get into harmony with your business ideas. I don’t have my own unique style, a style I apply without regard to the specific client project. Other architects take this approach with great success, and are recognizable precisely because they have their own particular language and style.
For my part, I seek to adapt my specific abilities to the creation of many different, varied things, one after the other, on the basis of the requirements of the client. However, those requirements are not his personal taste or his vision for the premises, but rather what in effect is useful to him with regard to his ultimate success. I see design as a marketing instrument, for the acquisition of clients and leading them to an understanding of who I am, what I do, where I position myself and the type of experience I can open them up to by creating something tangible.
Before starting a project I need to get to know the client; I ask them about the kind of experience they want to bring to their customers, the product they’ll be offering and the sort of people they’re targeting. If they don’t know these things it’s a problem for me because I don’t know the kind of design to create. However, do you see that their part of the issue, that of not knowing what they want, is much more problematic for them than it is for me?
Si – Certainly.
An – I don’t choose a client on the basis of personal criteria; the only determining factor is that, through the design, I’m in a position to help him to achieve a marketing mechanism that helps improve the customers’ perception of him and his position in the market. If we fail to agree on these aspects, or if he doesn’t even understand what I’m talking about, it means that he doesn’t consider these aspects relevant.
Si – He doesn’t consider it helpful.
An…or to be discussed with me, which is a problem because that is the value of my work, to be measured in the way that I’m able to help him succeed. To say that the place is beautiful or otherwise is relative, because one person may like it but another may not. As such, the measuring stick is not the aesthetics of the premises, but that everything is in accordance with you and your objectives.
Si – Certainly.
An – If the client himself lacks this clarity, clearly…
Si…he’s in a bit of a fix.
An – Exactly, because how am I supposed to say that red is better than yellow without a reason? This is the playing field of opinions, but my choices cannot be motivated only by my personal taste or a particular style.
Before considering the design I press the client on matters of positioning, marketing and business. When the business aspect is clarified and they come to me saying “We are this and we want that”, then I’m in a position to help them.
Si – There’s a dialogue.
An – The client is then also in a position to evaluate my work; otherwise it becomes “I don’t like your suggestion, I’m not convinced, my wife says she doesn’t like it” and so on. The criterion cannot be thus.
Si – Over the course of your career how many problematic clients of this type have you encountered? Have there been many? Have they caused problems?
An – There are clients who are setting up a business in Milan for example, and who are familiar with the scene there. I started out with discos and night clubs, where the design itself is the product you’re selling. For these particular market conditions, that type of client is relatively easy to accommodate.
With other clients it’s been more complicated; in some cases I’ve refused the job, in others I’ve accepted it because I particularly liked the task, it worked out, the premises were completed, opened and were successful, but shortly afterwards they closed down.
When there are projects I judge to be interesting from a design perspective but which close down it’s because they’re badly managed. You might say to me “just take the work, at the end of the day a job is a job, you’re being paid and if it doesn’t work out what do you care?” No! This being my only job, looked at in the round this way of thinking makes no sense; I can’t spend my energy…
Si…nor your vision
An – Absolutely. I can’t say “I was responsible for that and it was fine even if the rest wasn’t”. It’s not like that. It’s the overall result that counts.
Si – Yes, that’s what I had in mind with “choosing the client”, in the sense of knowing who you’re dealing with from the outset.
An – Yes, it’s in both our interests to have clear ideas, in which case I’m in a position to help them.
Si – What kind of expressions of gratitude and appreciation have most struck you?
An – I’ve not been to an opening ceremony for a long time now. It’s become a kind of superstition with me because I need a bit of time for the winding down process. If I visit one of my projects very soon after completion, I tend to see only the problems and I can’t enjoy the evening.
I have to say that the thing that pleases me most and also embarrasses me is when I decide to go to an inauguration and you have everyone congratulating you. This is a bit embarrassing for my kind of personality. I have colleagues who enjoy it and can’t wait to be there. They live for these moments – architects are vain and like being the centre of attention.
The thing which truly gives me the greatest pleasure is when I read comments that describe exactly what I had in mind when I envisaged the project.
I like to communicate things to the people who go there. I don’t mean in a technical sense, “you see we’ve got the balance right here, the overall feeling, the spatial aspects”. Customers go there with a much more global mindset, to feel good, be at ease, to recognise themselves in certain things, appreciate others and enjoy the contradictions.
They notice things and say “I like this”, “I don’t like that”, “the toilets are amazing!” and so on. I’m talking here about ordinary people. This is what really gives an sense of the success of the work and gratifies me a lot. I see my job as an instrument for communication: in essence, rather than communicating through words, I do it through design.
The fact that people translate into words the ideas I had in mind and tried to communicate to them, and they do it without ever speaking to me and having seen only the thing I’ve created, that’s gratifying because it gives a sense of the successful achievement of my aims.
Si…The penny drops.
An – Yes. “So they understand why it was done in that way”. That’s the point. You might like or not like something, but that’s not the outcome I worry about or pursue; rather, that you look at something and understand the reason why it was done in that way.
Si – So the message hits home when they understand the thing you set out to achieve.
An – Yes, when they understand certain things and describe them in a way I’d like them to be described; when the reason they appreciate certain things coincides with the reason I did them to begin with.
Si – I was reading in your blog articles where you talk about commercial property design and you refer to your “brand-orientated design”. I find this concept intriguing; can you explain it better?
An – Certainly. It depends on the type of design language I plan on using. As I see it, at least three ways of designing something exist:
1) The first is authorial, personal. It’s a bit like in fashion, where each stylist has their own recognisable characteristics. It follows, for example, that an Armani suit is recognisable as Armani. When you deal with an architect with a unique style all of his own, a Zaha Hadid or Karim Rashid, a rapport between designer and customer is created in which the value on both sides is recognisable.
2) Another is to follow trends. As such, with an understanding of the tastes of the public in a given period you make a design choice which isn’t exactly unique to you the designer as in the first one, but which is linked to circumstances. Using again the comparison with fashion, this is the method used by Zara: Zara doesn’t have a uniquely recognisable style, but each collection follows the trends of the moment. Both these methods have their limitations. Taking the example of the personal one, it fell to me to design three properties in Corso Sempione, Milan. Adopting an individual style for all three would have had the result of all three being alike, which wouldn’t work.
3) The third way is in Brand Oriented Design. Before designing a location I find it useful to suggest to the client that they decide on the appropriate design for the brand – “brand” meaning a series of values: placement, product differentiation and enhancement, relationship with the public and so on. If I can enhance all these aspects with the design, the better it is.
Consequently, if I want to create a homemade bakery where the craftsmanship aspect is to be emphasised, the design will be conceptualised through an understanding of what that aspect calls to the mind of the customer. When the design is consistent with the positioning of each brand, even two enterprises can sit one adjacent to the other. Since each one is different, the design needs to reflect this.
The research I do is “brand orientated” in the sense that I prefer to communicate it physically rather than just through words. Words are a placement mechanism, the design is another. Both need to communicate the same thing. This allows me to work on very varied projects that can seem to compete with one another, but while they are similar, with my design they can both have their own identity.
In this way of doing things the architect behind the project is hard to identify. And again, since an architect is typically an egotist his personal identity is usually at the centre of the project, whereas I prefer to keep it hidden. This way I believe I serve best my client’s interests.
It’s unhelpful if people recognise my hand in the design work; what is helpful is that they recognise the brand and the owner of the business.
In this way, the fact of prioritising the purpose of the business’s brand allows me to have greater expressive freedom. My identity isn’t required to stand out, in fact the less it does the better. So doing, my work evolves and stands better the test of time.
Si – I saw the video you made at the Horeca di Milano during the course on architecture and marketing. You talk about design uniformity.
An – Uniformity is the only thing people fully absorb. They go into a bar or a club and take in the whole atmosphere. What is it that establishes this perception in the most favourable manner? It’s the uniformity of atmosphere, product and service, communication and all the various components, from smallest to biggest.
If you’re dining American in a western style ambiance, the hamburger has a different appeal compared to eating it in a nondescript restaurant with no atmosphere. Here, the design enhances the experience in uniform manner, in the sense that everything fits together almost automatically. When there’s a clash you feel ill at ease – “there’s something here that doesn’t fit, that doesn’t convince me”. Or “I was expecting one thing and I got another”.
Uniformity is the element that fits things together, that regulates and weighs everything. And it’s something that can be planned: each element should be balanced and harmonised with the others. When this fails to happen something negative is created that the customers pick up on, even if they don’t consciously give voice to the sensation. The service is bad, they don’t greet you when you go in, the cloakroom isn’t right, the seating layout is wrong. These kind of details create a unbalanced experience. This or that defect cannot be left to chance, because getting every single thing right makes all the difference in the world.
A uniform design is in synchronicity with everything: atmosphere, service and product have to be balanced between themselves or else the identity of the place remains unformed in the minds of the customers.
Si – Instead of attracting, it repels.
An – It repels because you sense something that doesn’t work. “Uniform” is not a synonym of “coordinated”. In fact, an extremely interesting thing to do is to create short-circuits and contradictions. This is because, as we said previously, of the few things people notice it’s mainly the things that clash. I sometimes play around in this way, intentionally using furnishings that contradict and clash with others, specifically to create an incongruity that may be either horrendous or effective – it doesn’t matter which – but as long as people notice, then you’ve created a critical rapport with the available space. If on the other hand things go unnoticed…
It’s absolutely fine for me to hear something like “I went to that place where the lighting was fabulous / awful”. If on the other hand a person says “I went somewhere, but I couldn’t say what kind of a place it was”, that’s a problem.
I design a project not just to furnish it and no more; I have to do it in such a way as to ensure that this spatial confluence of physical elements communicates something – an idea, a sensation or a message. That the communication is positive or negative doesn’t matter; what matters is that something is communicated.
It has to take shape in a manner in synchronicity with the kind of person you are. As such, if you are “original” then the project needs to have an original twist. If you’re informal, informal it will be. If you’re elegant…and so on. You can’t create elegant surroundings and then install plastic Chinese lamps just because they cost less than high quality alternatives. It doesn’t work like that. Unless you do it with a sense of irony it’s really rather inadequate, as if you were saying to me “yes, I’m stylish but I wear a fake Rolex”.
Si – A case of “I’d like to but I can’t”.
An – Achieving coherent uniformity means adopting this kind of attitude. If you can’t afford a luxurious project, don’t attempt it. Don’t go around saying it’s going to be the hippest nightspot in the district if you don’t have the option of making it so. Your target clientele will judge you on the final result, not what you’d like to be able to do but can’t.
Being well positioned in the market is fundamentally important. Generally, I approach the market from the point of view of the spending capacity of the target clientele. There are people with a certain budget for a meal out in the evening, and those who can spend ten times as much.
The problem of market positioning is best expressed thus: who is the target clientele? “I want my premises to be within everyone’s reach”. Fine, then I’ll create somewhere recognisable, interesting and accessible but I’ll also go on to make a chain of them. Rather than just one in a remote location, I’ll make one in every city. In each case the design and the premises need to be uniform and the customers’ experience needs to be equal to their expectations.
The offering is aimed at the requirements of the customers. People can go somewhere different all the time, transforming every day into a different target. Your particular target will be all those people who on the evening in question have that particular desire or need. “In my venue we satisfy that particular requirement in the best and most interesting way possible for you”. That’s it! There will always be different types of people. Your target could be almost anyone, potentially. However, by “anyone” I mean all the people who have that particular need on that particular evening.
If you’ve positioned yourself at the high end of the spectrum you’ll know the type of customer you’re aiming for. Equally, the customers themselves will know that, for example, open-toed sandals aren’t appropriate footwear in your establishment. Every now and again this kind of argument crops up: “These Bermuda shorts cost 250 Euros”. “I understand, but in this club you can’t wear Bermudas, they’re not appropriate for the ambiance. You’ll need to wear something different”. If not, there’s the risk of compromising the experience of the other customers – the perception of the value of the place may be lost in their eyes if they see people in Bermudas, which is why dress codes exist. You wear a jacket because even without the perfect figure it makes you look better.
Si – I’ve read that you’ve designed places both in Italy and abroad. Out of all your work, is there a particular one that’s the apple of your eye or that you’re most proud of?
An – I’m often asked this, and it’s really difficult. Paradoxically, I sometimes end up more satisfied with the creative process involved. If I couldn’t think of something or couldn’t find a solution to a problem, when the solution finally hits me I end up getting greater satisfaction from the experience, even if it’s a small place rather than somewhere big in Ibiza.
As to foreign projects, the difficulty lies in understanding how things work in that particular environment. As such, I sometimes need to adapt the design, along with choices, methods, and various specific customs and habits.
At this moment in time I’m working on two projects in Saudi Arabia. In that country, when families go out to eat they tend to sit apart from other people. Accordingly, the design of the premises has to be adapted to these ways and customs – it needs to yield the possibility of closed spaces for individual families. What I’ve done here is to put up curtains, which works better than using temporary screens to create the required sense of enclosure.
So it isn’t so much the fact of being in Italy or abroad. Let’s say that I get most satisfaction from something where the planning phase is quite intense, and I’m also able to work in easy harmony with my client. When I work with someone over a long period of time we develop a rapport based on respect and trust. In these situations, my motivation comes from a desire to demonstrate my competence and the client trusts me to deliver. The jobs I like most are those where that particular relationship between the client and myself exists.
Si – What types of materials do you use? Do you have a favourite? Wood, ceramic or otherwise?
An – To answer that question I need to go back to the earlier discussion of brand orientation. Materials are like words to me. If design is language, the materials used are the words of the language. As such, I don’t prefer one material over another. Maybe a given material communicates a particular something better than another such. If I decide to use rough wood, stone and iron, in some way I’m communicating informality, tradition and naturalness to the public. If on the other hand I use wood that’s lacquered, polished or with a brass sheen I may be trying to underline the concept of luxury, elegance, refinement and so on. For me the question is: which material best expresses the desired concept?
The concept is conveyed by the positioning within the market, not my personal taste. If it’s an informal establishment I have to ask myself “which are the best informal materials that allow me to deliver this concept?” Clearly, there’s no such thing as an “Italian design dictionary”. It’s always down to the architect’s choice. Nonetheless, over time I’ve become convinced that certain materials convey very precise messages. Combinations of different materials also do this.
Design for me is the translation of one language into another. To that end, it gives me satisfaction when someone does it the other around and, looking at my design, explains in words what they see. When this kind of dialogue takes place, then I’m happy.
Materials are for me like words and are chosen on the basis of what I want to say. Obviously enough, if I have to make a floor which I know thousands of people are going to walk on I’ll choose a durable material rather than something more aesthetically pleasing but that wouldn’t be realistically workable. In this there’s a difference between public and private locations: in your own home it’s fine to put down a waxed parquet floor, because you want to experience the warmth of the wood with your bare feet.
Si – It’d last two days in a public environment!
An – Absolutely. However, if you want to create this kind effect there are other materials that can achieve the same aesthetic outcome. If I make a ceramic floor with the appearance of wood, the wood effect is obviously an imitation. The thing that interests me is achieving this experience or that sensation whilst respecting the realities of exposure to the public. That’s a technical choice. Nevertheless, even in the arena of technical realities my previous comments about materials as vehicles of communication remain true.
Si – I also read something you said about “timeless” projects. This is a subject very dear to me – I work with mosaics, as you know. The fact that something can be pleasing to the eye and at the same time resistant to wear concerns me directly. I understand that you’re familiar with industrial mosaic as an element of design, furnishing or upholstery. Have you ever used it in a project?
An – Yes, it’s another of those materials that come and go. We recently refurbished an establishment opened originally in 2005 here in Milan, and it’s one of the few in which I recognise this concept – one of the few projects actually planned from a “timeless” perspective.
The average age of a bar, a club or the like is around four or five years, because over that period of time things change completely. We used to think in terms of centuries, then in decades, and now we’ve ended up with these radically shortened lifetimes. This kind of speed is helpful in the sense that an awful lot of energy is whizzing around at the same time, but swift burnout can also take place. It can happen that things come into being and fade away over the course of almost no time at all, without ever really taking advantage of their full potential or expressing themselves properly. That’s why some things come back into fashion over the course of half a generation.
The people who go out to enjoy themselves today will be completely different in five years’ time – they’ll be listening to different music, drinking different things, using more advanced smartphones and their dress sense will be completely changed. There’s one consistency, however: they’ll still be going out to eat, drink and have a good time.
This kind of speed of change ensures that people rediscover the ways of having fun of previous generations. I’m currently working on some steakhouses and pubs; twenty years ago when my career started I often designed pubs; this was followed by a period in which the public got tired of beer and wanted to drink other things. Then, that generation of clubbers that had acquired a taste for American cocktails and long drinks started to rediscover the pleasure of beer. In this way, things come full circle over a period of twenty years or so.
As such, some current projects are paradoxically more similar to older projects I was involved with twenty years ago than others from just ten years previously. Some places, on the other hand, are able to resist the fashion earthquakes that take place every few years, staying quintessentially the same with only small alterations. They succeed in maintaining their identity over time and become a point of reference for generation after generation. This is the meaning of “timeless”: if somewhere manages to find a stable mode of being that helps it to endure through the decades with its ups and downs, keeping true to itself and with reliable quality of products and aesthetics, this kind of establishment can pass the test of time. In design terms, this requires finding a formula that corresponds to the identity of the project and which doesn’t seek to slavishly follow the craze of the moment. If we do seek to follow the current trends, the customers can get used to the constant changing and a perception of bland sameness is created. When this happens, after a while people get bored and look elsewhere. This all acts as a kind of balancing mechanism.
Mosaic is another of those elements that was popular for a while, faded away and then became popular again. When things from the past come back into fashion they’re never exactly the same as before. There are always new styles, trends, materials and attitudes. As such, nothing is a ever a direct copy. When they come back in this way you have to remember that the world has changed. Conditions and outlines will be different. Accordingly, it’s not a vintage in the sense that it’s stayed exactly the same with no changes, but rather a new manifestation of a way of life or a value, or maybe a particular value that didn’t quite work properly over the short period of time it was in existence, and so fizzled out.
In past generations there was an attitude of rejection or refusal of this or that alternative. In the sense of being between one generation and another, we ourselves tend to have a rather more relaxed attitude. I find myself much better disposed to accept the new while at the same time being able to appreciate the value of something old. I don’t feel the need for change just for the sake of it.
My ideal concept of “timeless” goes along these lines: a vintage leather armchair with a plasma TV.
Si – Beautifully put!
An – I don’t aim for vintage in everything. I’m not one of those people who says “either everything old or everything new”. Some things can be dovetailed. Maybe the temporal consistency of “timeless” is its way of taking from every period in history that particular something which has reached a level of excellence and quality, including from the point of view of perception.
There are those things which impart a certain sensation outside of their particular value. If I see a crystal lamp rather than an old television or armchair, it gives me a sense of familiarity and belonging which isn’t connected to its intrinsic value. These objects tell a story; I like to imagine myself sitting in that armchair feeling nice and comfortable.
One could theoretically sleep on something sticking out of the floor. A rock is the fundamental prototype of the chair, so we sit on said rock, representing as it does the first type of chair. Still, a lot of progress exits between a rock and more advanced seating furniture. When you take a baroque armchair, you’re not taking only something to sit on but rather the evolution that has taken place between the rock and the chair. Whether or not you’re sympathetic to this way of thinking, it’s part of the whole.
One is reduced to thinking “OK, a chair is a chair and no more”. In truth I hate it when designers put a catalogue in front of me and say “here you go, this is the chair catalogue; now choose one”. Are you choosing a chair to be seated and no more? At this point, just pick a rock and plonk yourself down on it – it’s the exact same experience. A chair should be something more than that.
Going back to the earlier discussion: I catalogue all materials not from a technical perspective (chair made of wood or iron and so on), but rather for the type of story they tell. A basic chair, a baroque one, a rustic one, a new one: what does it communicate to me? What kind of sensation does it impart? Even if I wasn’t an architect or a designer, when sitting on a particular chair with this additional value present, then I’d sense it as part of the whole. If this is all implemented in a coherent manner it communicates to us what we were talking about before. Otherwise a chair is just a chair, a table just a table and so on.
Design is a lot like marketing – you need to be able to empathize and gel with what people think. If you can do that, even if a lot of the time people haven’t had certain direct experiences because they haven’t seen certain things, you’re still able to extract from their experience and their background something tangible, something that they know and can understand even though they’re not architects. You need to employ a universal language.
Si – We spoke about industrial mosaic earlier. I imagine you’re familiar with hand-made artistic mosaics also. Would you use it in one of your projects if the context was right?
An – You have to bear in mind that it’s always a question of budget and opportunity – sometimes I find that certain materials are just too classy to justify their use in a club or an eatery, and not only because of the cost or durability of the material.
For me, not everything costs or is worth the same in terms of the design of the interior. You need to make a list of priorities, whereby the ability of one particular thing to change the perception of the surroundings in a particular way makes the investment worthwhile, because that element will be what I aim for in order to achieve the desired result.
If something achieves the sought after objective I don’t worry about the cost in relation to the alternatives, as those other options wouldn’t have the same impact. It’s like my earlier comments about plastic Chinese lanterns: a luxurious establishment needs appropriately luxurious lighting fixtures. If you use a cheap alternative, either it’s going to look ironic or it communicates a sense of “I’d like to but can’t”.
Si – It’s cheap.
An – That’s basically the determining factor, in addition to the fact that certain materials can be excessive with regard to the desired outcome. If I’m looking to create a high-end establishment and I’ve got a budget of fifty million euros, I should be able to do it. The problem comes about when I’ve got a limited budget for a high end project and I need to best optimise the money available, the difficulty being that I can’t afford to buy everything at the top of the range. Sometimes when I take this kind of thing into consideration I use materials or methods which aren’t necessarily substitutes but which allow me to get to where I want to be within the constraints of the budget.
It’s different when it’s a private project. If you want a mother-of-pearl flooring in your house you don’t worry about the cost because it’s a question of personal taste. In dealing with a commercial property the reasoning is different; something might be pleasing to you, but what counts is the public taste.
If something can’t be done without a given material I say “it has to be that one and no other”. I’ve used industrial mosaics in this way, which represent a compromise along the lines of “I want a actual graphic image and not just a specific texture or leather, but with a creative process that involves the working of multiple tiles”.
I don’t reject it on principal; it’s always a question of coherence and balance.
Si – It obviously has to be justified.
An – Yes, it has to be justified. If I spend money on something I have to be able to make good use of it. For example: “look, this bar has the biggest mosaic in the world”. In this case, the element in question would be so powerful and appealing to the public that the cost would be justified.
Si – That’s the question, if there’s a reason for it and it works in context. If not, the customer’s perception of it wouldn’t be as one would expect.
An – The more the cost of a given element rises the greater the need of a clientele that’s in a position to appreciate it; the playing field is restricted by necessity at this level and cannot be totally random. The element itself – mosaic or otherwise – needs to stand out as really distinct and not be like any of the other aspects of the design. If this is the case I don’t exclude any kind of material. If it can’t be appreciated in the right way it’s use is not justified. It would be a great shame to use a high value element in surroundings that devalue it and where it ends up going unnoticed. This is a big mistake when dealing with top range products.
Si – To finish I’d like to ask a couple of personal questions. What led you to choose a career as an architect?
An – There was one time at infants’ school when apparently, I drew attention to myself because I was painting pictures of houses rather than flowers. Aside from stories like this that do the rounds, it wasn’t so much specifically about being an architect rather than the business of creating things. I always thought that I needed to find a job that I enjoyed and that allowed me to express myself.
Some people have a job and a hobby, in the office from nine to five and then off fishing; the job brings home the money and the hobby keeps them happy. For myself, I’ve always liked to bring the two things together rather than having to say that I’m either working or enjoying myself.
Architecture is possibly one of the few jobs that involve the artistic and creative aspects of other careers but where you end up literally walking through what were originally only your mental processes. You can look at a photo or wear a suit, but at the end of an architectural process you can wander around the actual interior of an idea that was inside your head and had no physical reality. You can verify around you the contents of your mind. And it isn’t only you who does it – anyone can enter your ideas by means of the structures you physically create. I still get emotional today thinking about this.
I wanted to do something that would let me express my creativity in a physical, material way while having a social and historical impact. I can create a bar with a violet underwater effect composed of green sphere shapes which lasts four or five years, and that’s all to the good. Then I look around at these industrial depots and blocks of flats…
Imagine going to Rome to see, for example, the forum. There’s nothing left now beyond the ruins, but seeing those columns you can imagine how everything was in years past but exists no longer. Looked at that way, those ruins are more emotionally moving than any of the other architecture around them.
My kind of architecture has a different aesthetic impact to it’s more practical counterparts. The construction of a building isn’t a simple thing. You might follow current fashions, maybe you’re doing it from an investment perspective, maybe you’re looking to save money or you just like the thing. Nevertheless, it outlives you.
Confronted with buildings maybe four hundred, even four thousand years old, you can find yourself thinking “wow, it’s almost all collapsed but it’s still; a wonderful building”. For others that are maybe only four or five years old you might think “why don’t they just knock the thing down?” This was the kind of heavy responsibility I never wanted. I wanted a path that would allow me to be creative but without the obligation of thinking things through to extraordinary lengths. That said, I sometimes plan my designs more thoroughly than property developers who build housing estates. When I see industrial warehouses I find myself thinking “what were they thinking when they designed a thing like this that’s going to have to last a long time?”
The paradox of beauty of this nature is when an architect thinks “this is going to be my house and I want it to be fabulous”…then you open the window and see a block of flats from the 70s across the road. It seems to me that the lucky ones are the ones opposite, the ones that open their windows and see my house. I’m the loser in this exchange – I’d honestly rather be in their houses looking out on my beautiful home.
The same reasoning goes for the inhabitants of the Bosco Verticale (the “Vertical Forest”, two residential tower blocks in Milan): the lucky ones are the people living in the surrounding area, not the ones who inhabit that beautiful building but look out on housing estates from the 60s.
I have my work photographed by professionals, I don’t take the photos myself. I do this because they’ll see things from different perspectives, they’ll tend to seek out views that I hadn’t thought of. I might have visualised the project in a certain way while I was working on it, so I like to see the kind of impression that others have when they walk around and look at it for themselves.
Sometimes I find myself looking at fascinating things. I find architecture to be a way of expressing myself and achieving fantastic results; that’s why I continue to do this. When you see great works like the Brunelleschi dome or the dome of Saint Peter’s basilica, you think “good heavens, this was a true architect”. Michelangelo and Brunelleschi are universally known for the fact that they were architects. As such, every architect has the potential to be able to write himself into the history books.
If you end up creating something that stands the test of time and is worthwhile, subsequent generations will know your name. Architecture is one of the few jobs that physically change the world and the lives of the people in it. If someone buys a house opposite the Brunelleschi dome, Saint Peter’s basilica or the Coliseum, their life is improved. It’s a great responsibility that someone like me, who designs commercial properties, doesn’t have.
Si – Because they only last five years or so.
An – Because if I stopped my work now, in four, five or six years, maybe maximum ten years, everything I’ve ever done would be gone, with just a few photos on the internet remaining. I’ve come to a way of thinking about this, one which is very romantic from many points of view. The job is a bit depressing in this sense. You invest so much energy, passion and ideas into the achievement of fleeting things, things that don’t last and so cannot testify to your work. That said, there was one occasion when I read comments on the subject of one of my projects. These people were talking amongst themselves and not directly to me. One such mentioned an old entry ticket which he posted on Facebook saying “do you remember when…” And then there was a series of such comments: “Oh yes, I remember, it was a lovely place”, “Yes, I met my fiancee there” and so on. This led me to realise that what I do is actually a part of the lives of the people who visit my establishments. In this way, although my work doesn’t live on in history, it stays alive in the hearts of the people who experience it.
It’s as if I’ve participated in the existences of everyone who’s lived a part of their lives in my clubs, bars and restaurants, drinking too much, enjoying themselves, falling in love and suchlike. There’s an almost immortal aspect: staying alive in the hearts of people is akin to a building that physically survives on the side of a hill. From this point of view I can start to make inroads into the subject of me not creating “meaningful” things; in truth my projects don’t have gravitas, they’re ephemeral and fleeting. However, they leave a sign which is similar to the experience of standing in front of a great monument or something of that kind. That’s because they’re connected to the way people live.
I like to think that people spend a small portion of their lives in my establishments. Even without knowing who I am they can experience that kind of emotion thanks to the thing I’ve created. That’s the kind of gratification I feel just before putting the lights out at night.
Si – One last question: have you ever regretted it?
An – Choosing this career? No. There have been many times when I’ve felt the pressure and the difficulty of being a freelance professional. In Italy a creative or intellectual job doesn’t always yield great monetary satisfaction – everybody gets by, but putting food on the table with a creative occupation like this isn’t easy. There are many different measuring sticks – “how much of the area have you polished?” “I’ve polished this entire wall”. “How many fixtures or square metres have you produced?” Equally, “How many ideas have you had today?”.
What if you’re completely bereft of productive ideas? The thing which has forever worried me the most isn’t the creative side but rather the fact of having to operate as a business, always attracting enough clients to satisfy my financial needs.
My basic starting point has always been “I’m paid to help you to achieve what you want”, but this isn’t always as easy in reality as it might seem. Consequently, there have been times when I’ve found it hard to attract clients and understand the best way forward. I’ve worked with independent contractors – electrical engineers, safety overseers and the like – who were always fully employed and would say “I can’t help you because I’ve got a full schedule until December”. I’ve found myself envying these people and thinking how lucky they are.
Over the last few years I’ve developed greater clarity of vision. For example, an architect taking a course in marketing might seem odd, or at least when I was starting out it did. But when I talk to colleagues these days about such things, they fully understand.
This particular aspect isn’t about creative side of things; still, in order to join together the two sides, work and passion, I’ve come to realise that there are mechanisms you need to utilise in order to create added value. Nobody pays you because of what you personally consider to be your worth. You’re paid because you provide a service that the customer considers to be worth something additional to price you’re asking.
The hardest thing is to successfully get this across in the arena of intellectual work, because it isn’t measurable in a concrete manner. There’s no absolute way to measure creativity. You need to create a mix of relations and recommendations in order to make concrete and physical something which, in reality, is neither. You need to document and describe your work.
After a while you create your own visibility and credibility. When you’re starting out it’s hard because, at the end of the day, who are you? As such, I’ve never regretted going about things in this way, but looking back there have been some difficult moments. Sometimes my parents would say “IKEA are looking for architects”. In my mother’s eyes I wasn’t even at the level of competence of IKEA’s in-house designers. One way or another, I had to keep strong.
When I reflect on it I realise that you need a good mix of things in order to be successful. As I’ve said already (with maybe an excessively romantic tone) I don’t judge my success on the basis of the number of clients I’ve had, the projects I’ve brought to fruition or the money I’ve made. At the end of the day these things can mean everything or nothing at all.
Maybe the idea that I’ve managed to learn something is what gives me true satisfaction, my ability to transmit this knowledge to people and to change their lives. It seems a tad arrogant to say so, but over the passage of time the people I’ve worked with have come to understand that I’m able to help them achieve something. That said of course, the credit for our success is always shared between us, it’s never all mine, but without my help that little thing that makes the difference would be absent.
You come to realise that your value lies in the difference you make to people. A skilled surgeon obviously has much more direct impact on a person’s life, but once that person is well again they want to celebrate. Where do they go to do that? To a club, a discotheque, a restaurant.
Si – Or else if they’re not fully recovered, they just go out to feel better.
An – I might be simplifying the whole thing a bit too much.
Si – No, the point is well made.
An – If you try to take a more visionary and less materialistic a view of your work you can get past the tricky moments with greater ease. Satisfaction is a combination of a great many things – experience, success and lack of mistakes made. At the outset it’s easy to be most concerned with bringing your projects to swift conclusions, but this can become tedious as time passes and the focus is only on the money you’re making. The greater meaning is something else entirely. If you don’t seek it, you end up just repeating the same things over and over until you die, and then what? You’re dead – thanks, goodnight and over to someone else. Rather than that, is it not better to use your time on this earth to make a difference to the lives of others?
Si – Listening to you talk, I like the idea that your concern isn’t so much the self-gratification and self-aggrandisement which is so often the case with the typical egocentric architect, but the fact that you enjoy helping people. For me this way of looking at things has the greatest value. That said, you clearly want to make money the same as everyone else, and when someone goes to an Andrea Langhi venue and thinks “this is a whole lot nicer than that other one”, it’s satisfying to you. But in addition to that, the fact of helping a businessman succeed in his endeavours with your work is of huge value.
An – At the end of the day it’s about creating value and being useful. Each one of us should focus on this wherever we can and to the best of our abilities. There are many more indispensable jobs than architecture. Sometimes I get shivers down my spine thinking about how teachers have to go on strike to get a pay increase when the job they do revolves around the development of the minds of their pupils. What I find unacceptable is when people take money for things of no value whatsoever.
Si – Or even for things that represent loss of value.
An – Yes, I pay for something that offers nothing in return. Noone has a right to a job. The right to be useful: yes, we have that – and the more useful, more valuable you are, the more you’ll find that your utility is recognised by others.
This is the way it should work, having the outlook where you ask yourself what it is that you’re doing for people. It’s not about “you have to pay me”, because that yields the response “no, I’ll only pay you if you give me something. If you give me nothing, how am I supposed to make the money myself to pay you in return?” If you generate value for me, I’m going to be happy to pay you because your work yields something that enriches me. I pay you if the thing I receive from you is worth something additional to what I pay. For me, money is a measuring stick of value, in the same way that metres measure distance and kilos measure weight.
If you don’t want to pay me it’s not because you want to save money but rather that you don’t consider that my work has value. Either you understand this or you can’t be a client of mine, or else I haven’t successfully communicated it to you and I need to try harder to do so. If still nobody gets it, it’s pointless to leave the misunderstanding unresolved. You need to operate in such a way as to ensure that people comprehend what true value really is in the world.
Si – Andrea, thank you for the chat.