Meet the Architect: Interview with Matthias Hollwich

Matthias Hollwich is a co-founder of Hollwich Kushner (HWKN), a New York based architecture practice that is now designing the new building for The Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.

Matthias Hollwich (photo credit: Hollwich Kushner (HWKN))
Matthias Hollwich
(photo credit: Hollwich Kushner (HWKN))
There are very few young architects that can confidently articulate their architectural or social agenda, if they have one at all. Yet Matthias Hollwich, young by architect standards is already at the head of a number of different architectural discourses.
As well as a retrospect on Bauhaus and Modernism, Hollwich has been putting forward his manifesto for reinventing the aging experience, named “New Aging.” His ideas focus on a greater acceptance of the process of aging, and planning early for the needs of the future, both physical and social. Although he is only 42, he already calls himself old because he believes that the earlier we realize that we are all aging from birth, the better prepared we will be.
His approach is refreshing by contrast to the Western obsession with perfection, replacing it with the notion of faults, imperfections, and change as a commodity. There are parallels in Japanese thought and design philosophy, especially Wabi Sabi, which goes as far as to actively highlight and celebrate the erosive and destructive effects of time. According to Wabi Sabi, faults and imperfections, whether from an object's inception or throughout its lifespan, are a sign of character and should be celebrated.
It is fitting therefore that Hollwich is these days interested in talking about "personality."
“We really like to break down a building into a personality”, he explains.
The idea resonates quite clearly in HWKN’s winning design for the Museum of Modern Art’s Young Architect’s Program. The angular sky-blue pavilion held up by a scaffolding grid was named Wendy by its designers. Its naming suggests endearment, and in its making and intentions Wendy is a friendly creature. Her fabric is treated with a spray that neutralizes airborne pollutants, cleaning the air to the equivalent of taking 260 cars off the road. Wendy also blasts out cool air, mist and water to create a more comfortable environment for visitors in the New York (and now Abu Dhabi’s) summer heat.
Wendy at MOMA, New York (HWKN)Wendy at MOMA, New York (HWKN)
“People just love the project, it looks aggressive and spiky, but it’s also very relatable because of the familiarity of its scaffolding and because it has good intentions towards its surroundings,” Hollwich says.
He suggests the same could be said for HWKN’s new Pines Pavilion on Fire Island, the culture and nightlife hub in the primarily gay Pines community in Long Island. “It’s very modest and down to earth, but it has a very strong identity. It empowers people and makes them comfortable.” Hollwich can list a number of the building’s “components geared towards socializing attributes,” for example, a jagged bar to encourage strangers to socialise instead of sitting in a straight line.
Pines Pavilion (HWKN)Pines Pavilion (HWKN)
In both projects, Hollowich embraces imperfections as a bi-product of the building process. It is these faults that he believes contribute to the personality of a building. In the Pines Pavillion, the economized structural system emerged, quite expectedly, with some aesthetic imperfections.
One cannot ignore the fact that despite this, the images available of the pavilion so far portray a rather immaculate appearance. Hollwich agrees but is going to change that: “We’ve planned another photo shoot to capture the all the interesting details that emerged throughout the building process. There are many that the client and us decided were good to keep as is, without further treatment.”
Hollwich explains his approach to these flaws. “I could start a lecture with a photograph of a woman in a beauty pageant, and say to the crowd ‘yes I know you would like to date her, but do you think she would in the end be your perfect partner?’.” He begs to differ. “You can find somebody who is maybe a little bit quirky, a little bit weird. Then you actually fall in love with the weirdness, and not just the beauty”.
Hollwich wants to continue designing buildings that aren’t driven just by beauty, but also by other aspects that encourage visitors to invest in them emotionally. He believes relatability is key, drawing from his evident interest in a building’s personality.
HWKN are now also working on a hotel in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It will have a structure made of Corten steel that will quickly acquire a layer of rust, playing on people’s perception of its presence and age over time. “We believe that people will embrace it from the first day on because it won’t feel so new and alienating.” He mentions that, like the Fire Island pavilion, the building process has to be partly intuitive, so that it doesn’t take on the aesthetics of a perfect rendering from a 3D modelling program.
Hollwich hopes to apply the successes of his previous work to HWKN's current project in Jerusalem where they are now designing the new building for the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.
He finds the challenges of building in a such a setting an interesting opportunity to explore further the potential of his approach. With the complexities of the surrounding, having to clad the building in Jerusalem stone (per regulations) and security considerations, it will be interesting to see what kind of personality the building will adopt with the help of its designers and client.
It is perhaps Hollwich's strength in compacting complex concepts into easily understood ideas that places him in a good position to succeed in Jerusalem. In a city where complexity is the norm, it's likely to be refreshing to find a personality more accepting of its surroundings and at ease with change.
On the July 19, Hollwich, as well as five other international architects, will be talking at the Symposium "Aftermath," a year end event of the Architecture department at the old building at 1 Bezalel st. , Bezalel Academy of Art and Design Jerusalem.