Ask the Architect – Tiago Pereira

Tiago Pereira, partner at top five Danish practice Schmidt Hammer Lassen answers ADF’s questions; including on making the move to Copenhagen, and balancing a host of tasks in a busy design office

Why did you become an architect?

That’s a question that I have often asked myself. When I think back I realise I have always been moved by drawings. My father was a mechanical engineer and I remember being seven or eight years old and contemplating these large A0 blueprints and technical drawings of silos and machinery. That appealed to me as something bigger than myself, and it made me realise that I could contribute to the ‘creation of things.’

What made you move to Copenhagen and join SHL?

When I finished my studies in Portugal, I moved to Amsterdam. That was the hippest (architectural) place to be in the late 90s. After a short time, I relocated to Barcelona, as the architectural styles as well as the liveability of the city have always appealed greatly to me. There I met my wife, who is Danish, and after six years in Barcelona, we decided to move to Denmark, and try the city of Copenhagen with a fresh take on the world’s architecture setting. At that time Copenhagen was still slightly hidden away from the international spotlight, and only a few studios could cope with the demands of recruiting international staff due to the language barrier. Schmidt Hammer Lassen was one of the so-called ‘big five’ firms, and had a remarkable track record of designing cultural buildings and large scale mixed-use developments. That to me was quite an interesting mixture of scale and programme. As the firm slowly expanded into international markets, they wanted to diversify their staff with young, ambitious foreigners – an ideal opening for me.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

As leader of the creative department in the Copenhagen studio, I work with new competitions and new assignments. The job is dynamic and ever changing, with circumstances that evolve frequently. Motivating and mentoring teams of young creatives keeps me sharp and current – their new inputs lead to discussions of architectural qualities that evolve throughout time.

What is the hardest part of your job?

The diversity of daily tasks. For me these span from management to creative leadership on multiple on-going assignments. The work can be very demanding, and it is a constant challenge to maintain a balance between achieving the highest quality output while prioritising employee satisfaction.

What is your proudest achievement so far in practice and why?

One of my proudest achievements was being nominated for the ‘Chief Happiness Officer Award’ by our staff. It was a signal to me that my colleagues recognise and appreciate the daily effort of making sure that everyone feels part of something bigger. It was also an honour to be appointed partner last year. And in terms of projects, it was a major accomplishment to win the competition to design the new headquarters for chemical company Solvay, and to complete the seven-year-long journey of our Malmö Live project in Sweden.

Can you summarise your approach to working on concepts with clients – are you more proactive than reactive?

It is difficult to summarise, as the core point is that we are working with and for people, and people are different. So a balance has to be found, and a common ground for the design to thrive is when we listen to a client’s wishes and ambitions, and we process that through our own understanding of the task ahead. I am a very proactive person, but I don’t feed my ego by pushing solo ideas forward, hoping to indoctrinate an audience. I do like to challenge clients with ideas that might sound progressive or alternative, mostly to ‘take the temperature’ of their real ambition behind generic high expectations for a ‘great project.’

Do you particularly enjoy working on large-scale, complex projects, and why?

Yes and no. Large-scale, complex projects are a challenge in so many ways. The scale certainly appeals to me as it brings so many questions forward ­– everything from a humanistic perspective, to sheer size, to the financial feasibility of the project, the complexity of the functional program, and the technical challenges. On the other hand, working with large-scale projects, especially in their early stages, keeps the detailing and refinement of the final product as a mirage, in the hope that it will ‘all end well,’ and in the process from inception to completion, so many things can go wrong. Small scale – through single family houses, exhibition pavilions, small custom-tailored solutions, the tangible result of our creations – are also super-interesting.

What’s your biggest challenge currently as an architect?

Authenticity, for sure. The banalisation of imagery and the infinite amount of digital architectural platforms has opened a creative Pandora’s box, and globalisation has become the status quo. All architects look at the same references, all architects love the same solutions, and all architects are starting to think alike. I have always been fascinated by the authenticity of the different architectural movements, and today the architectural world is spinning so fast that we don’t really have time to innovate, be thought through in our own statements, question what makes a solution special, and hopefully the right one. We produce relentlessly to respond to deadlines and budget restrictions, and in very few occasions are architects actually original.

Do you think that the urge to create statement buildings can be a danger?

Yes, definitely. There is an urge to create ‘iconic’ buildings. That is not what motivates me. I like good architecture that is moving and plays with the senses. If a building is later described as iconic, I hope it is because of its sensorial qualities and the experience it offers, and not because of its size or shape.

What single change/innovation would make an architect’s job easier?

I think one of the biggest challenges that today’s architects face is a lack of trust from clients. We play in an arena filled with client consultants that in most cases are not there for the project, but rather for the honorarium. The architect lost the role of being a client’s best consultant, the trusted partner that will adequately manage their investment into a realised final product. To that purpose, we fight everyday, through a good collaborative process, to engage clients in satisfactory partnerships, hoping that with time, our services are engaged in a broader sense.

What’s your current favourite material?

I don’t have a favourite material. I like wood as much as concrete, metal as much as polycarbonate. Each material appeals to a specific tactile experience, and the use of these must be calibrated to each project, each solution. I am more interested in the refinement of its use, its patterns, reliefs, motifs, etc. Recently we have been working with triple glazed terracotta, which ages very well and reacts to sunlight in beautiful ways, but I couldn’t use it in just any project. It has to make sense.

Do you see the architect’s role changing in the near future?

Not so much. There is a common fear that automation and artificial intelligence will take over some of today’s routine tasks, but I think the architects’ role as a blend of creative, innovative, solution-oriented professional and craftsman, will be difficult to ever replace. People like authenticity and unique solutions as much as generic designs in the form of IKEA-type off-the-shelf products. But no one lives the same way, and despite cities’ tendency to look alike, I think that there is still room for great design with high architectural qualities.

What is your opinion on Brexit?

I think that Brexit is a result of a common European frustration towards globalisation in a broader sense, combined with the anxiety of losing identity as a nation. It is also the result of a ‘never-experienced’ public consultation that spins-off a large number of political, social, and economic questions. I presume, the majority of the voters and the abstention could not totally foresee the outcome. From a professional standpoint, and looking at it from the distance of the Danish setting, Brexit means the closing of opportunities in one specific market, while opening opportunities in other (European) markets.