An Interview with Renowned Architect and Pioneer of the Digital Revolution, Hani Rashid

Digital architecture pioneer Hani Rashid discusses how the technological revolution of the past two decades is now breathing new life into construction industries while profit-driven thinking is preventing architecture from elevating and contributing to a higher quality of life.

Above: Miami’s famous MacArthur Causeway designed by Asymptote Architecture NYC Hani Rashid + Lise Anne Couture

With the dawn of digital technologies, we could quite literally hear the door to our futures creak open.

Just when it felt like architecture would be the last of the arts to fully embrace the digital, architect Hani Rashid set out to prove otherwise. Hani Rashid’s career began in the late 80’s. Inspired by Jacques Derrida’s postmodernism Rashid and his architectural bureau, Asymptote Architecture, made substantial early forays into the use of the digital medium and undoubtedly influenced many of his contemporaries at the time,  who was a at least a generation than Rashid and his partner at Asymptote, Lise Anne Couture.  At the time, the likes of Peter Eisenman, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, and Frank Gehry – all started using computer technologies to re-examine and turn on its head modern architecture. Many of the new concepts of space such as creating an impression of fluid asymmetry, tectonic fragmentation, and an absence of harmony were evident in Asymptote’s early seminal projects such as the Guggenheim Virtual Museum, The Berlin and Paris Optigraph experiments, and the Virtual New York Stock Exchange.

Hani Rashid, along with his partner, Lise Anne Couture, established their New York-based studio Asymptote in 1993 and it quickly became a leading practice in the field of breakthrough digital design projects.  The Guggenheim Virtual Museum for example that was launched more than 20 years ago was substantially ahead of its time as but one example of their visionary works.

Sejong Center for Performing Arts in South Korea by Asymptote Architecture

How did you become a world-famous architect?

I was interested in art and architecture since childhood because my father was an accomplished abstractionist sculptor and painter.  From the day I began to study architecture I learned as much as I could about the discipline and did eight straight years of non-stop training in schools and offices in both Canada and the United States. To this day I keep a very close eye on everything to do with architecture and I take my work both very seriously and to a certain extent playfully also.  For me, architecture is absolutely a complete way of life, not a job or career. Also as with everything I suppose luck played its part, too. When I was 27, we won our first International competition in Los Angeles for the Steel Cloud, which helped us gain some traction in both Los Angeles and New York City. However, we were very aware that even if one can win a competition or two early on that moment and ‘fame’ can quickly fade away.  So we decided that we didn’t want to let it get to our egos, we immediately started working many even harder projects and competitions pushing ourselves to not become complacent, we felt a deep desire to prove that we were worthy of winning that first major project, and to this day we still work like this, pushing ourselves to the limit.

Is it more important to learn from people or from the working process?

Both. I have undoubtedly learned a great deal from the great masters and from the past. I also find it very important that when, for example, I’m working in a place like Russia or anywhere, to learn as much as possible about the history, the architecture, and the wider cultural context in which we are working, that’s very important for us.

I very much believe that Architecture isn’t simply an art form, tor a  business or even a scientific discipline, rather it’s a confluence of these three, which is why it’s very important to learn from many sources and many peoples careers trajectories and how one might navigate such a multivalent discipline that architecture really is.

You were born in Cairo and have Arabic roots, yet you’ve lived in the West for the majority of your life. Do you think of yourself as a Western person?

We left Egypt when I was only three years old, so I don’t really have many vivid memories of my life there. My father was a prodigy artist in Egypt as a young man so he left to study in modern art and specifically painting in Paris in the 1950s, all the while extremely attached to his roots and Arabic art and culture. Growing up I was exposed through my father to the power and beauty manifest in ancient Egyptian art, as well as the works of the Assyrians and Islamic art also.  However, as I don’t speak Arabic, having grown up in London and then in Canada. I cannot consider myself an Egyptian architect, however, I do consider myself influenced by that remarkable culture and part of the world, essentially through my father’s influence.

What are the most important qualities an architect should have?

A healthy mix of self-criticality, relentless inquisitiveness, infinite curiosity, and an eagerness to always be learning. It’s very important to be continuously exploring the places, things, and objects one admires and to keep one’s eyes as wide open as possible. Architecture is a very interesting discipline given that one has to be a sort of expert in so many things. For example, when  we design a museum or music hall or even a residential tower, we have to understand deeply  these very different cultures and fields and have a hunger to do so.

What is the most difficult thing about your profession?

Essentially rules and regulations, and the various financial and economic factors that are driving most building design processes. Architects, unlike artists, unfortunately, have to deal with a plethora of complex business and technology issues and I have to say its quite a  balancing act at times! On the one hand, we have to stick by a creative vision, while on the other hand, we need to stay very attentive to so many aspects that are there to simply work against us in the name of efficiency and so-called ‘sound business decisions’. Often I think how one might romanticize being simply an artist working hermetically behind closed doors, but then again I honestly see that the ‘problem’s and confrontations we face constantly especially with stubborn clients is an essential part of the challenge of being an architect, and if one can ‘win’ in this then great things can come about.

That’s what makes architecture what it is. It’s really a discipline that is about longevity and permanence. We do have a very important social contract to produce things that will elevate in some way humanity, be that by being eco-conscious or simply to help people feel dignified and proud of their cities and buildings and places. Sometimes, clients see things this way, but sometimes they don’t. It’s really a big part of our job to help clients, politicians, policymakers, and so on start thinking in this way.

Hermitage Modern Contemporary Museum, Moscow by Asymptote Architecture

You have an impressive list of clients. Who would you call your favourite?

To name two here in Russia I would say Dr. Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, and the great  Valery Gergiev, the general director and artistic director of the Mariinsky Theatre, are both favorites, both as people and as clients. They both have a real passion for greatness and they very much believe in the making of a better world.   I’ve also enjoyed working with our clients in Abu Dhabi as it was refreshing to hear the ruling Sheiks explain to us that  “we don’t want you to be nostalgic and to resurrect history, that’s what too many western architects do here, rather we want you and your team to bring us and our city into the future.” This served as an inspiration for us and a great opportunity to make a significant project for Abudhabi and UAE that was not only spectacular but also meaningful and respected. The Yas Marina Hotel and its environs were met with great success there. I do feel lucky to have met so many interesting clients across the world, and I am especially appreciative of those that really understand why they need an architect and what an architect brings to the table.

So why do we need an architect?

I believe that Architects help bring real and important vitality to a city. Our job is to be the experts, or one could say. The engineers of new spatiality. Ultimately We create spaces forms and circumstances for where people will live, work, and play. And that’s something only architects are really trained to do.

Essentially we have to understand and convey how to make our cities more functional, more inviting and more beautiful, we are the discipline that can bring more oxygen, more vitality, and more dignity to the urban metropolis, and show ways as to how people can live in healthier cleaner and more inspired environments.

Can you name a city that you feel is perfect, from an architectural point of view?

Well to name one I have to say New York City. It’s such a diverse and multilayered place and in many ways    the perfect place to be if one considers that cities need to be complex powerful entities full of enigma, order, disorder, and beauty.

I also must admit in the same way I simply love St. Petersburg, I’m always amazed by the (sometimes-crazy) power of the aesthetics of the architecture, its colours, complex forms, and uncanny beauty.

And Vienna, where I teach, is also quite an amazing place. Vienna is like an architectural and art encyclopedia – for me, it sometimes feels like I’m walking in the pages of an immense book where everywhere one looks, there’s another fascinating story and history.

Mallet Table by Asymptote, Hani Rashid & Lise Anne Couture

What is more important for modern architecture – functionality or aesthetics?

Aesthetic beauty and powerful complexity always comes from functionality.

In classic architecture, we see details that exist solely for decoration, without any functionality. Yet, we still consider it beautiful.

That’s true however I’m really in my heart a hardcore modernist. Then again, I will say that the pendulum may have swung a little too far: in late modernity, functionality was everything and aesthetics were often of little value except for very minimal and esoteric mathematical aesthetics. Today there is a fine line, a sort of middle ground that we need to strive for: I believe it’s a matter of celebrating functionality through the aesthetics it generates. Therefore one ends up with truly beautiful things that are the result of sheer elegance and their working well.

Any modern architects that inspire you?

I have always admired and been a student of the works of Oscar Niemeyer  Having said that its important to know that It takes a long time for architecture to be really understood; From my home in New York I can look out of my window and see Frank Gehry’s latest Tower across the Hudson River and there next to it is the famous Singer Building and Woolworth Tower, and somehow the older buildings seem to gain new meaning when juxtaposed against modern works.  I’m fascinated by looking at buildings here on the  Manhattan skyline in juxtaposition with each other. Even the once considered ‘eyesores’ that were built in the 40s and 50s are now very interesting and quite inspired when seen with the patina of time – in some ways looking at these buildings all together is a similar experience as listening to classical or even abstract jazz ensembles. Time is key to appreciating great architecture and I suppose modern architecture is now history and can be finally appreciated.

Do you like classical architecture?

I’ve always been fascinated by the early Renaissance, especially in Italy. I consider it to be the first of modern architecture.

Recently, I became fascinated with the Alhambra and Islamic architecture, because everything we do with computers they did without. I’m amazed by their parametric architectures, the algorithms, the fractals, the sheer delight of math in a physical form.

Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture

For a while, you were close to the prominent deconstructivist architect Zaha Hadid. Can you tell us about this experience?

Zaha was a very close friend and she was always very supportive of our work. I never worked for her but rather she treated me a little bit like a younger brother. I really admired her tenacity and her unique genius as an architect. And I was really impressed by her ability to handle difficult so many clients and unfair situations especially in London and British society.

In many ways, I think she wasn’t overly pleased with her work becoming so  ‘fashionable’, although she did enjoy the limelight, what she really relished was being respected as a human being and an architect, and not being typecast by race of by gender. She’s put up with a lot of closed-mindedness, but she persevered and was one of the toughest and most creative people that I’ve known. It was a privilege to be close to her while she was with us.

What would you say is the most interesting project you’re currently working on?

I have a great project that I’m working on with my students in Vienna – we’re researching the hospital of the future. We have been studying and researching a wide array of related issues and aspects such as the advent of robotic surgery, the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning in design and construction,  This project started before the pandemic and as we have progressed the work it has become obviously quite relevant and pertinent in our current pandemic.

You represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 2007, with a break-through digital architecture project. Was this a pivotal point in your career?

It was a fantastic experience and one of the high points of my early career. It was also an opportunity to experiment and to produce something powerful. With my students at that time, we were really 20 years ahead of our time experimenting with technologies and methodologies that even today are still considered radical. Thankfully through Columbia University we managed to secure sponsorships from IBM and other tech companies and found ourselves working with state of the art software and equipment in the American Pavilion. Th installations were essentially far-reaching digital environments conceived in software and manifest as real physical environments using digital methods and means. Fortunately, it was Max Hollein who was the curator,(  he is now the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and he had the vision and the courage to invite me to represent the USA with radical digital architecture.

You used digital tools in architecture at quite an early stage in your career. What would you say were the benefits?

I realized that the advent of the digital architecture was the very thing that would separate my generation from the older generations. It was the dividing line between late modern architecture and postmodernity and the beginnings of deconstructivist architecture. When we began using digital tools, it was the moment where one could hear the doors to our future creaking open and we knew while being in our late 20’s that the emergence of digital technologies was our moment to seize. I remember talking to some very reputable and famous architects at the time who really had no idea what the computer would bring to this profession, and that made me quite excited to use these tools while many were not paying close attention. -I also was thrilled to see that digital tools could be the way to produce and materialise our somewhat unorthodox visions and ideas for the future of architecture. Up until then, all one could do was make a sketch and make a model out of cardboard, wood, or plaster. While we were experimenting and discovering digital tools as enhancing creativity and innovation there were ( and still are ) many architects who only understood these tools and possibilities as a way to to make increase revenue and efficiency in the design process.  There is definitely still a conflict between these two sides of the digital and its impact on architecture.

Digital technologies play a key role in helping to preserve cultural heritage. What are your thoughts on the idea of digital avatars for all meaningful art objects?

I think it’s incredibly important. We need to use digital technologies to archive, mirror, and contain valuable assets. We worked on a project many years ago for a virtual museum to be built only using VRML technology ( Virtual Reality Modeling Language) for the Guggenheim Museum. The Guggenheim came to us and asked us if we could help them make a museum where they could project works into virtual rooms and models to produce for an online audience ‘real museum-going experiences’. Our response was – absolutely.

It’s also interesting to see a virtual replica, a sort of virtual archive within a real architectural space. This is very much a part of the history of this technology for me.

Your partner, Lise Anne Couture, is a famous architect and the co-founder of the Asymptote architecture. Is it easy to work with an important woman and a  spouse and to be together 24/7?

This is an interesting question and although we were creative partners for quite a while before we decided to get actually married we have never really thought of ourselves as a ‘married couple’. I feel very privileged that I was lucky enough to meet  Lise Anne who is not only a brilliant architect but someone who is also always inspired by life and all it has to offer both for us as architects and simply as human beings. Architecture is definitely my life as it is hers- so it’s a part of everything we do day in and day out.

Gent Diamond Belgium by Asymptote

Do you quarrel when you have different views?

Who doesn’t? We often have quite different views, and that’s what I think makes our partnership work. I don’t really have a big ego and neither does Lise Anne so we continually are asking questions and being curious and above all staying self-critical. I honestly believe it’s really important to try and not take oneself too seriously.

Were you disappointed when your son decided not to become an architect?

No not at all and in fact quite the contrary, I think It’s a terrible idea to simply become an architect just because your parents are important architects. He understood early on that he would have to always work in our shadow. Instead, our son chose another path, he is very involved in computer science and at the moment Fintech.   Incidentally, my father was similar to me in this way. He once said to me: to do whatever you wanted to do as long as I would be focused,  serious, and disciplined and above all, he implored me to enjoy life.

You have another prominent person in your family. Your brother Karim Rashid is the “most famous industrial designer in all the Americas” and the “Prince of Plastic”. Do you work together?

We have tried to work together on a few occasions, but we would both admit it’s very difficult. His ideas regarding design and architecture are very different from mine.

And for that, I respect his work a great deal, but I think my goals as a designer and architect are quite different in terms of what I really want to produce.

My brother’s life and his work are also very much entangled as is mine, however for him being a celebrity is important — and I appreciate that as that’s what the design world demands of their ‘stars’. When you are designing for manufacturers and brands whose sole interest is the market place there’s a lot riding on the designer’s persona and image., I’m not involved so much in that world where fashion, trend, and public opinion is so important. I honestly don’t know how to do that type of work.

How do you envision the future of architecture?

I think we really have to become a much more responsible profession. We as architects need to have a deeper understanding of what people, cities, and even our planet really needs going forward into the future. Ultimately we have to become again real experts at raising the bar on the quality of our existence.

Wing House Helsinki, Finland by Asymptote

Maria Efimova
Maria Efimova
is an orientalist who speaks Arabic and Hebrew. She spent a decade working with global media, shook hands with Benjamin Netanyahu and other political leaders. She is now taking a break from it all researching arts and philosophy.