In this two-part interview we will be talking about XCOOP with co-founders Cristina Cassandra Murphy and Andrea Bertassi. In Part 1, we discuss patterns, globalization, and the advantages of an informal business. To learn more about their practice visit xcoop.org.
ARC: I’d like to start out pretty broad and ask first off, what is XCOOP?
AB: Well, before being an architectural practice it was actually a lifestyle. One of our objectives is to keep working to define our views on the role of XCOOP. It is not primarily a business; the main function is to share a view of the world, further define that view, and brainstorm how to make this world a little bit better. XCOOP stands for an ‘x’ amount of people ‘cooperating.’ We deliberately decided to leave architecture out of the name of the company because we don’t feel that architecture as a we know it is broad enough for us to be comfortable with. We want to brainstorm and cross boundaries between architecture and many other functions, although we express our work and view on the world through architecture.
CCM: What we do is a continuous brainstorm, therefore we don’t have a business plan. We react as things happen around us and adjust accordingly. That is why it is probably not a business, per se. Additionally, when we work on projects we tend to create new teams as a project requires it. So Andrea and I are the core of XCOOP, and when we have projects going on we contact people we know that have the skillsets necessary to function within the group. We don’t have employees on payroll; we collaborate with people and freelance. It is risky of course, but because this has been going on since 2009, we have created a network that, in a sense, is very loyal. For instance right now we have a large project in the Netherlands and we are working with somebody on location. It is a huge project, but we simply trust this person because he knows how we work and how we think.
AB: We actually think that not having a formal business plan is keeping us more free and prompt to jump on new opportunities as they come. When we see an opportunity, we need to be very flexible and the strongest at that particular field at that particular time.
ARC: On your website you bring up the notion of “re-thinking situations and confronting prevailing realities.” I’m sure there is a lot of ground to cover within that statement, but what would you say are the most prominent of these prevailing realities that XCOOP seeks to address?
CCM: Depending on the subject... for instance right now we are designing the ground floor of a company in the Netherlands. We got the opportunity to redesign their facade and we decided not to focus on the facade itself as an object, but we focus on the circumstances around the facade. The facade faces a dead square- not because it is a dead end, but because it is not attracting anybody. Now we have the opportunity of activating that square through the design of the facade. So it is not an object-oriented study but it is more about the situation and dynamics of people in that square. Another example is that we understand as architects it is hard to dictate what defines the style of architecture in a particular area. We therefore observe how people are moving and thinking about their space and we adapt our design. So in many ways the egocentric part of architecture is deconstructed because we prefer building up architecture by observing what is happening around it and how people interact with it.
AB: And that applies to all scales. Often there is conversation of the world in general and then we try to go from the macro scale to the micro scale of the project. We try to think about the implications of things happening around the world and how they relate to the micro scale of our project.
ARC: I also remember the heading: “traditional patterns, in a globalized world.” Could you explain a bit further what that means to you and how it applies to your practice?
AB: That is linked to the method we’re building up- basically getting a universal method for a local design design. We are thirsty for learning about new things and new cultures; we are aware of the fact that you can’t land in a place and design contextually if you don’t know the place. So we like to learn a lot. What we noticed in doing this exercise is that there are things you can learn from different places that can be transformed and applied in a totally different context. The good thing about globalization is that we can finally share knowledge in a way that allows us to go past the model that traditionally defines leading countries and developing countries. We can now cross-pollinate many different ideas, therefore developing a global approach within a local design.
CCM: Practically speaking, you can imagine two situations. One is pragmatic and one is abstract. For the pragmatic situation, we are working in Haiti and observing construction. One thing we noticed is that they are not limited to the practices of the western part of the world. We can start thinking of how we can build our buildings with the same material. The idea that is a bit abstract is when we lived in Mumbai. We had the opportunity to work with the local architectural office and this office presented us with the possibility of designing housing for the middle class. So you think, “Ok, I’m part of the middle class. How difficult can it be to design for the middle class?” First off, we’re talking about India- one of the highest population densities in the world. It is very difficult and very different, so you have to start studying the social circumstances. On the other hand, however, we know how to design houses; we know it because it is also a western world topic. Housing is being discussed. How do people live in houses? The family is changing, people are investing more in their social lives and work, so the house pays the consequences. You don’t need a mansion anymore so you’re looking at smaller footprints. These are global issues that can easily be applied in India, although middle class India is not like the middle class western world. So we study local but apply rules that are universal.
ARC: XCOOP seems to have a broad spectrum of work including not only built projects, but installations, and an even an educational book. Because you are not working in just a single area, how do you decide what projects to take on?
CCM: I’m sure that Andrea and I have two very different answers to this. [Laughs] When we started XCOOP, we were deciding what projects to take on. We started working in China and the middle east because it was profitable. We were doing what we knew; we had a strong architectural background in design and we applied it in those projects. So that was a big reason for us to embrace the eastern and middle eastern projects. Of course, at heart we had another passion which was to really understand people and build toward the people. That was always in the back of our mind. The large-scale projects you see on our website were due to our need to bring in resources necessary to study people. In terms of installations, we did two installations in Italy because we wanted to tackle that market and put our name on the map there. In the Netherlands, it was an obvious choice. We needed to operate in the Netherlands so any project that arrived, we were taking it. In competitions, it was mostly dependant on the subject at hand. If it was a subject related to crisis, people, or environment- we would embrace it.
AB: I would actually agree. I would only add that we are more and more aware that work is about the quality of time you spend on something. We really try to take advantage of the fact that we don’t have a business plan. We try to get projects we are happy with. We’re interested in projects that we think would be nice working on for the next few months because they are stimulating or helping us grow. I guess in that sense, we are lacking from the business point of view. So there is no quality check from the business point of view, but we check the quality of our time.