2016-2017, New protégé in architecture

New protégé in architecture

Sir David Chipperfield has selected the 34 year-old Swiss designer and academic, Simon Kretz, as his protégé in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative for 2016–2017.

The announcement was made at the 15th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice.
Kretz will observe and work at Sir David’s practice at several points over the year.

Kretz is not exactly a novice, in an architectural or intellectual sense. In 2010, he co-founded his first practice in Zurich with Christina Nater, which specializes in one-off houses and interventions in historic buildings; in 2014, Kretz and Christian Salewski established a studio that concentrates largely on urban design. Kretz is also a Senior Lecturer in Urban and Spatial Design at ETH Zurich, and in Design Thinking at the University of Zurich.

It is no surprise, then, that his favourite project by Chipperfield is the restoration and transformation of Berlin’s magnificent 19th-century Neues Museum, which reopened in 2009 after languishing as a bomb-ruined hulk for 60 years. “It’s like going back to school,” says Kretz of the new and old parts of the building. “It’s a museum, but it’s also an encyclopaedia of architecture, and this I truly love.”

He was travelling on a packed train when he learned that Sir David had selected him as his protégé. “I was overjoyed,” he says, “but I couldn’t share the moment. Being next to complete strangers was not the ideal setting for receiving such great news.”

His selection followed interviews of shortlisted Rolex protégé finalists at Sir David’s London studio, followed by dinner – “which was really fun. He’s very humorous, and we didn’t really talk about architecture. The subjects ranged from Brexit [the possibility of Britain leaving the European Union], to Berlusconi, to what we did in our free time.”

Before setting up his two practices, Simon worked as an intern at the studio of eminent architect Rem Koolhaas, who is arguably the profession’s most provocative and high-profile thinker. Kretz has been particularly inspired by the ideas of the 19th-century Prussian city planner Karl Friedrich Schinkel, and the Spanish architect and urban designer Manuel de Solà-Morales. The Austrian architect, Hermann Czech, one of his teachers at ETH Zurich, and the university’s head of urban design, Kees Christiaanse, have also influenced him.

“I like people who don’t think of architecture as the
last thing, and then it’s finished,” he explains. “I think of architecture as the first thing – the beginning of something.”

Kretz’s sense of architecture as being special had its own “beginning of something” moment. At about the age of 17, he realized his home town, Fribourg, was having a profound effect on him. John Ruskin, the great English art and architectural historian, visited the town in the 1850s, painting and sketching views. “Hills, bridges, medieval sandstone. Living in these surroundings had a huge emotional and atmospheric impact,” he says.

In the 21st century, architectural design and urban change have become an often tense struggle between historic settings and commercial, social and ethical forces. Kretz recalls a remark by Sir David: “Architects can’t just put the icing on the cake if the cake is wrong.” But he emphasizes “this doesn’t mean I like concepts rather than physical things.” And his current projects are proof of this; they include the replanning of a century-old part of the Swiss city of Thun, a redevelopment in Grenzach-Wyhlen, Germany, and the design of an ecologically sensitive nature and boating site at the confluence of the Rhine and Töss rivers near Zurich.

Kretz plans to use the period as a Rolex protégé to do research at David Chipperfield Architects on how design ideas arise and evolve, and how they relate to critical thinking. “I’m interested in how ideas change in our minds,” he says. “The moment you project an idea of the town or city that’s different to what it is now, you are experimenting with reality. And more ideas come from these experiments – even drawing or making cardboard architectural models can make new ideas appear.”

He believes architectural ideas should promote urban civility, diverse activities and social connections – “qualities that are the basis of really open cities”. Architects, he adds, should also design buildings or urban transformations with a full understanding of the economic and commercial forces involved. And in Sir David Chipperfield, Kretz knows he will be learning from an architect whose designs have confronted these issues for decades.