Interview with John De Salvo 18.12.02

Tell me something about where you are from and how you became interested in design?

I was born in Chicago, Illinois. In the Mid-West United States. When I was young I had a great interest in art and took painting classes outside of the regular school curriculum. I really enjoyed it and took oil classes starting as a kindergartner. As I grew older I became interested in architecture and technology. I discovered that I really was passionate about architecture through a natural process. I think it comes out slowly from within. You don’t decide to be an architect it is just something you find out about yourself.

Were your parents supportive and was the decision that you should study architecture yours?

That was something that I decided myself. I don’t think my family knew exactly what it meant to be an architect. Architects designed buildings, that was the basic understanding. What I found out through my studies and practice was much more complex and interesting. When I started my architectural journey both my family and I were educated about what an architect really was and did. It lived up to my expectations and more.

I did not have a role model as a child but I think once a child gets interested in something like the arts and has a real interest in it they take it on their own initiative to get involved and excel finding inspiration to help their own style. As early as the 2nd grade I remember writing in my school journal that I wanted to be an architect. I guess I already knew at that point. I continued with drafting classes and art. I completed an undergraduate degree and then a masters of architecture and Urban Design with Colin Rowe at Cornell University in New York in 1987. My education was eclectic with both a classical base and modernist theory. All good design has the same basic principles and it is good to learn design influences. A good history and understanding of principles is also important. The students at my university were also very motivating to me and I think I learned just as much from my classmates as from the professors or course material.

In my last semester I was recruited from Cornell to work for SOM, a large architecture firm from Chicago. That was the firm that I wanted to work and a good post graduate experience. I started working in Chicago in the fall 1986.

3How did you get to Germany?

I moved to Berlin in 1993 as a result of a job offer from German architect Josef P. Kleihues for whom I had worked on the design of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. I was going to stay for three months in Berlin to work for him on a competition but after 10 years I was still here. At that time the city just started to expand and creatively explode. Four years after the wall came down between East and West there was plenty of opportunity for a young designer here and the building boom was in it’s infancy. The first architectural competition winner was just being completed: an office building by German architect Jurgen Sawade on Unter den Linden in Mitte. It marked he beginning of the biggest building boom Central Europe had seen since the end of World War Two. All the buildings were competitions in that period. It was a great way for a client to get the best designers making proposals on projects and also good opportunities for younger firms to get a commission.

The Sawade building was truly a catalyst in the East. There was nothing on Pariser Platz and Friedrichstraße was a near empty street at the time. One of my favourite early memories is that on Pariser Platz next to the Brandenburg Gate there was a grassy field. On fourth of July 1993 I watched the “The Wizard of Oz” in the open air theatre there. I had just arrived in a strange new land and was just as much out of place as Dorothy but was helped and befriended by many wonderful people. That was something so eye opening and unique at seeing Pariser Platz void of all buildings. Now the whole place is built up. Such an unbelievable change has taken place but even after all the new construction in and around Pariser Platz and Potsdamer Platz there is still so much to do in Berlin. Unfortunately like many cities they are over built and with the economy in a downturn it may be years before the city has any further development. Regardless, I still believe in the future of Berlin. It is just beginning it’s renaissance and we will witness great things for many years to come.

So you can say, that, when you came here, there was the atmosphere of creating and building something new?

Yes, it was very exciting.

You didn’t regret this decision to come here?

No, not at all. I was one of many young architects from around the world being given the opportunity and the privilege to work on large scale buildings of very high quality and with great expectations. Much has been built over the past ten years in Berlin. Critics are sometimes negative about the rebuilding of the city but I think that it is easier to be negative than positive and it is even harder yet to give constructive criticism. I think many designers have done justice to Berlin and have fulfilled expectations. A lot about what has been built is functional and in that sense a positive statement. Lets wait twenty years to give another review to see if what has been built was truly innovative or successful. When a new building gets in a magazine it may be titled the new “ trend” but only time will tell if something is good and elevates itself above the rest. This is true of the art world as well. Contemporary art is what is fresh, edgy and happening right now. Modern art is classified over a longer period of time. I think I prefer modern art. A filtering process sometimes brings pieces to the top. Naturally some things just hit you right away as spectacular is true in Architecture as well but maybe more so in art because art is often more empirical. People see buildings completed, but it takes years to design, build and many more years to appreciate them.

I think we are in a great progression forward at the beginning of the 21st century not only of design but in technology. Technology should and is more and more being integrated into a structure and part of the thought process when developing a building. Today, architects try to integrate as much of the systems as possible. Not trying to fight against the architecture but integrate into it. In my opinion much of technology is becoming a design aspect i.e. lighting or mechanical systems. We have much to do and look forward to in this area of design in the future.

Isn’t it difficult for an architect, who hasn’t a name yet to be part of a team, to be forced to realise the ideas of their bosses?

Of course there is compromise. To make a building the architect must work with an entire team including other architects owners, developers, contractors, as well as the is the user. It would be great if an architect could just design something void of all outside factors and then present his built idea to the world but most of the time this is impossible. Some architects do build their own houses but are also faced with many restrictions and guidelines on other levels. Architecture is also solving problems and solving problems creatively with fixed budgets. That is reality. I am working on a project where cost is very important but while the building is trying to be very cost-efficient it still has to have design integrity. In these times I believe that is how we as responsible designers have to work.

While working for a well known architect, how do you keep your own individualism and creativity?

Of course working for a name architect is different from working for a partnership because the principal idea typically comes from one hand. My job is to realise the intentions in the built form. I realized quite early that the main concept is only a small part of the entire architectural design process. It is constant on many levels throughout the building process and takes on many different forms. Concept may be most important but it takes time, effort and a long process to realise that concept well. That’s fascinating. In a building design process there are decisions on how every corner is articulated and how connections are made, detailed and organised. It is always a collaborative and the idea will come from the collaboration. How you realise that glass wall or a light fixture within a total concept is every much important as the initial sketch of a project. Sometimes it is all your design, sometimes it is collaborative. What is an architect? Some people, some architects, maybe most architects don’t have anything to do with the conceptual design. They are on the construction site, doing the cost estimating or budgeting. I think that I am lucky because I have a hand in the design and I wouldn’t want to knock anyone on the construction site because I’ve done that as well and learned much about design. There are a thousand design decisions that have to be made on there. Sometimes you can learn a lot from the tradesmen because they actually know the limitations and possibilities of the materials.

I also respect architects who know how to work well with materials, Renzo Piano’s exhibition of his works at in the Neue National Galerie a couple years ago was one of the best architectural exhibitions put together. Not only the way it was designed and displayed but the explanation and how they showed the process of architecture and the materials was great; I have great respect for Norman Foster as well, because beauty is in his details and that carries through his entire buildings. The collaborative process of architecture must mix all the program complexities and systems into a building. To do it well and beautifully is the art.

Every architect would like to have their name associated with a great structure. Different people have different ways of getting there. Some people can do this early in their careers while others must wait. My advise is don’t get frustrated or quit your dream.

How much of a collaborative process is it with Helmut Jahn?

He is involved in every project in the office and wants to be kept informed about all decisions. He travels to Berlin every month and is very interested in how the work is done. Very hands on. He discusses every detail of his projects with his project architects. I think I know enough about the man to know what he wants and how he would expect something to be done. I respect him very much and impressed that he keeps on reinventing himself. He also has limitless energy. This is one of the reasons for his success.

Do you think that the way architects think and develop buildings and cities is the same with the way people want?

You mean the architects are forcing them to live where they would want personally?

I can imagine a similar situation with painters for example. They don’t ask people how they should paint their pictures but certainly must adhere to certain conventions and tastes.

When people view art the meaning is always individual. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. There are many different people who enjoy many different art forms. You look at a certain building and think that is good but the next person will say the opposite. I did a paper at university about architectural stereotypes. It was a survey about housing styles. Where people would like to live. Participants in a survey were shown sketches of five different building styles which was basically the same house with different details drawn on. One door, four windows, two flours, two levels but of all different style twists. One building was done in Italianate style, one in an American federal style, Adobe, South-Western American style, one the last in French chateaux. The survey asked people which house they would live prefer to live in. It was demographically done and it was done with different age groups. It was very interesting but revealing that the majority of people prefer the classic structures. - I like all types of styles. It just has to be good design.

We were talking about the architecture of Potsdamer Platz. Do you like this place?

I am glad that it exists. It is necessary and it works. I think what was created at Sony Center has become a microcosm a city. More life and activity than the lesser ventured streets on the Daimler/ Chrysler site which tends to internalise the area with the Arcade. Sony has a exterior central space that has become a great activity area like a covered urban arcade in Italy. At Potsdamer Platz two different ideas are represented and both well used and developing into another city center. This place is a big tourist attraction and still several years after it’s completion you see people visiting the site, walking around and taking pictures. It is the collection of buildings, with both new technology and hints of the past incorporated with the subway and intercity rail connections. I think it is really good for the city as a business, entertainment as well as residential centre and compliments other focal points including the Kurfuerstendamm, Unter den Linden, Prenzlauerberg or Mitte.

You worked in the United States before and now you work in Germany. How can you compare this?

I spent the first five years at of my architectural career working in the United States. I have worked the ten last years in Germany. I think I know more now about my profession now but that comes from experience. I have worked in the design and construction phases on several buildings in Berlin so I see at as very hands on. When I was young and working in the United States I was mostly doing design. As you get older you learn, you are a lot more valuable knowing how things are put together and you can design much better with this knowledge. When you draw a line you realize the implications of that line. How it connects, cost implications. That’s why most architects only come into their own later rather than earlier. They spend the first part of their career developing their skills and when their work is recognized they are more experienced.

Do you draw a lot designing things or do you use more computer programs?

Ideas sketches are done by hand but 90 percent the contractual process is done with the computer. Most renderings are all on computer now. I actually love to draw freehand but have started learning 3-D modelling with a VIS-4 program that is AutoCAD compatible. This is the future and I am very interested in it as an art form and tool in my professional development.

How do you feel in Berlin?

Friends in the USA always say Berlin must be a strange, fantastic place for me. After ten years here I find it very similar to Chicago. Chicago and Berlin are really only two different neighbourhoods in one city, the world city. Since I travel a lot between the two places I feel like this is my second home. Having such good experiences and good friends I tend to think about both places as home. Chicago is a city of great architecture. The development of the skyscraper was in Chicago and people there are very conscious of their environment. Berlin is the same. I don’t know many cities around the world where it is so important to many inhabitants. Both are also very international within a non so multi-cultural area. This they have in common.

How important is the knowledge of German for you. Do you speak English or German in the office?

Very important. We are a bilingual office. The office is a German office and staff. Most of the job correspondents is in German and we speak a mix to both an international client and consultant base. Communication to our main office in Chicago is done in English.

Do you like travelling? Is it a kind of inspiration for you?

I travelled to a foreign country to live. I have been all around Central Europe but prefer a little warmer climate if I want to take a holiday. I think I will always love to travel. Egypt is really a fabulous country and inspires me to be better both professionally and spiritually. It evokes a peacefulness and the calm atmosphere within. I think I have actually travelled more in Europe than I had in the United States. I would like to travel a lot more but time constraints don’t allow it. I would like to spend more time in Italy if given the chance.

You name sounds a bit Italian. Are your parents from there?

I am a Italian and Austrian American. I always thought my last name De Salvo was a purely Italian name but found out a couple of years ago it was originally Portuguese. Nevertheless, my father’s parents were from Sicily. My mother’s parents from Austrian countryside. We are all a product of the melting pot in the USA.

Have you ever been to Poland?

I have been to Warsaw. I was pleasantly surprised both with the arts and architecture there. I experienced great art galleries, clubs, gentrification there and saw a great regeneration of existing city structures, something that I didn’t think was so far along in the Eastern cities especially in a city that had been so extensively destroyed during the Second World War. Things are happening. Warsaw was a great city to visit. I very much liked the 19th Century promenades and the rebuilt old city centre. As a contrast and every bit as fascinating was the Russian architecture from the 40’s through 60s. These huge mega-complexes surrounded by plazas. The modernist idea once again reinterpreted in the East and even more scale less than what we have at Alexander Platz in Berlin or any where in the States. I was fascinated by the gesture and the sheer grander but disappointed in the details. It surely evoked emotions of past grandeur.

When I have visitors to Berlin I always make the pilgrimage to Alexander Platz. Not because of it’s beauty but because of the statement it makes. Typical of the 50’s planning philosophy is the object buildings in the landscape. The tall modern structures sit around a plaza that was to be the focal point for the cities activities. Unfortunately there is something wrong. The scale of the buildings in relation to the plaza has created a vast wasteland, less human and more inhuman and intimidating. I think the gesture was too grandiose, trying to say too much about the time, politics, the nation as a whole without addressing basic need of a population. We have learned from these planning ideas of that time. It is great to have good ideas and a lot of money to complete them, but as in many Eastern cities of the communist eras there were ambitious ideas being realized without the proper economic base to support them. The design came from the object outside form to inside function. Sometimes designers build as objects in a landscape and other structures come from the inside to the outside. Good design should do both, both ideas coming together.

Your own apartment is very eclectic but defiantly minimalist and modern. Tell me something about your art?

I hang very few things I have painted myself. I give a lot as gifts and rotate it on my walls. I have painting in my apartment I find very soothing and grounding. The large scale atmospheric landscape that was done by a friend of mine and local artist who lives in Berlin. His art is really for me – it is simple, beautiful composition and a bit impressionistic. His technique is flawless and is impressionistic, a style I fell in love with being from Chicago, and visiting the impressionist collection at the Art Institute of Chicago. I am also into nature in art and other pieces are original pastels and water colors of landscapes by several American artists.