Thinking about cities
Simon Kretz, the Swiss architect, urbanist and researcher, has a practice which combines work at every scale – from the urban plan to the domestic intervention. His experience embraces the old and the new, conservation and planning for the future of both the rural and urban environments, and the theoretical and academic with the profoundly practical, being as interested in the physical act of making as he is in the intellectual world of dwelling in the city.
Kretz studied architecture at the revered ETH Zurich’s Department of Architecture where he received a master’s degree in 2008. In 2010, he co-founded the architectural firm Christina Nater und Simon Kretz Architekten GmbH, and in 2014 was a founding partner of Christian Salewski & Simon Kretz Architekten GmbH.
Before setting up his own practice, Kretz had gained extensive experience at architectural firms in Zurich and at internationally recognized practices, including OMA Rotterdam. He has returned to teach at ETH, where, since 2013, he has also held the posts of Senior Lecturer in Urban Design and Senior Lecturer at the Department of Engineering. He is also Lecturer for Design Thinking at the University of Zurich’s Centre for Urban and Real Estate Management (CUREM). Kretz was keen to work with his Rolex mentor Sir David Chipperfield in order to clarify his thinking about cities and to better understand the British approach to the methodologies of architecture and planning. Architecture critic and writer Edwin Heathcote asks Kretz about the early days of his mentorship with Sir David.
How did your early encounters with Sir David Chipperfield go? Was he how you expected he would be?
I didn’t know much about him on a personal level, though of course I knew the work. I have to say, it went more or less as I expected. He is very thoughtful – not radical but with a synoptic view – and always very professional, in a British way, friendly and kind.
How about the office? How did you find it as a place to work and think? Did it match your expectations?
I’d say it has a similar “mental structure” to other offices. But if we compare it with OMA [the practice founded in Rotterdam by Rem Koolhaas], Chipperfield’s office is much calmer. One thing impressive about Chipperfield’s office is the clustering around huge architectural models. There isn’t much information on the walls but there is much more conversation around the models, the buildings, which makes it easier to discuss and to focus.
The way you have chosen to use this mentorship is quite personal; you’re working alone with Sir David. Has that way of approaching the mentor programme worked well?
Yes, it’s been very good. To work with and integrate into a team would have been difficult and taken a long time.
The project you’ve chosen together is theoretical: an urban plan for the contentious Bishopsgate Goods Yard site on the border between the City of London and the East End. It is a site with a heavily contested history in the city and one which outlines many of the key problems London faces. Has that theoretical approach to a real place been more useful than perhaps working on an actual, physical building?
A building takes a long time, perhaps seven to eight years. This project has allowed us a way to talk and think about the city as a whole and its issues.
How has working on this plan and living in the city while you are here helped your understanding of the differences between the Swiss and British approaches? After all, Switzerland is generally recognized to have some of the best architecture in the world. What are you learning from London?
I’ve tried to stay in a different borough of London every time I come. The most interesting thing for me has been the way in which completely different social milieux co-exist in a way that wouldn’t happen in Zurich. There is social housing next to Georgian streets and so on. The city is a mental map made in brick of how the society works and the radical differences in a single area have an almost museum quality. I always thought that Berlin and Rome could be seen as archipelagos in which different, built ideologies exist. But now I can add London also.