Q&A with Floris Smith

DSA Architects' newest director of architecture goes on the record

Smith knew he wanted to be an architect since he was 15 yrs old
Smith knew he wanted to be an architect since he was 15 yrs old
Designs for the Al Qasr Hotel in Dubai's Madinat Jumeirah
Designs for the Al Qasr Hotel in Dubai's Madinat Jumeirah
Johannesburg art gallery
Johannesburg art gallery
Nelson Mandela Square
Nelson Mandela Square
South African Reserve Bank
South African Reserve Bank
Smith's biggest inspirations were Louis Kahn, Aldo van Eyck and Edmund Bacon
Smith's biggest inspirations were Louis Kahn, Aldo van Eyck and Edmund Bacon
In Australia, Smith learned how to design commercial spaces that needed to make money for the clients
In Australia, Smith learned how to design commercial spaces that needed to make money for the clients

Examining the differences between streets and roads & the similarities between a city and a home

Even as a young boy on his grandfather’s Johannesburg farm, DSA Architects’ newest director of architecture, Floris Smith, knew he wanted to be an architect. A fascination with practical pieces of machinery and a talent for freehand drawing combined to show him the architectural light at the tender age of 15. Mentored by people like Aldo van Eyck and Edmund Bacon at the University of Pennsylvania, where he attained his Masters degree, Smith returned to South Africa to become a young partner—and eventual chairman—of the prominent South African firm of Meyer Pienaar & Partners.

That was in the 1980s, when contextualism in architecture was a relatively new discovery for South Africa.

Smith admits to us that that was when he realised buildings were part of a larger urban fabric and that built space and public space required thoughtful integration. The lessons he learned under the careful tutelage of Penn’s architectural greats were invaluable then and continue to serve him in his work today.

He gave Middle East Architect an hour of his time.

Who inspired you?

FS: Louis Kahn. He played a massive role in the development of South African architecture. During the late 1950s and early 1960s a number of South African students did their Masters degrees at the University of Pennsylvania in Louis Kahn’s studio. Two of them happened to be my erstwhile partners: Willie Meyer & Francois Pienaar.

Kahn was a great architect. I really admire his work. He built fantastic buildings. So he was a great inspiration. That was also the reason why I followed in their footsteps and went to Penn. There was a tradition in the firm.

Aldo van Eyck, the Dutch architect, came from a different direction but he espoused similar values in architecture, which had to do not with the form, but with the underlying principles. If I design an office building, it’s not merely an office building; it’s a place of work. The design of any building is simply the final expression of a fundamental realisation about what that building is really about.

When you sit down to design a new project, what are the first issues you consider?

FS: First, it’s to realise what you’re actually working with in an archetypal sense. If you do a school or university, you’ve got to understand, in a spiritual sense, what that’s all about.

Then you’ve got to consider the site. You’ve got to relate the building to where it is on the planet so you’ve got to consider climatic and ecological issues as well. Then, you’ve got to understand the client’s objectives. I see design as a process through which you achieve clearly stated objectives. The objectives may be defined by the client, the architect or the public. All those things have to come together. Really good architecture satisfies all three of those parts of the equation: client needs, public needs and architect needs.

Critics say contemporary Arabian architecture is an exercise in kitsch. Your thoughts on that?

FS: I think its fair criticism and I think it would apply to many projects in the region. We’re involved in a number of private villa projects where the clients want to express them in a sort of Andalusian or Moorish style. We accept that as a directive but before designing anything, we study the principles in that architecture very carefully.

It’s too easy to just take a building and slap a style onto it. That’s like wallpaper architecture. At DSA we go beyond that. Because of our research-based approach, we consider ourselves like a radio: You can put us on any station and we’ll play.

A colleague of mine once told me, ‘There’s no such thing as bad architecture, there’s only bad architects’. In the hands of a good architect, a building can achieve any style. Just by giving it the right proportions, balance and composition, you can elevate it to a much higher level. It all depends on the talent of that particular designer.

What do you see in the architecture of the Middle East?

FS: Well, from an urban design or ‘macro’ level, there seems to be a considerable lack of care for the public realm. I read a good analysis recently that talked about the difference between ‘roads’ and ‘streets’. Dubai is very much a city of roads. The street is the traditional public realm of most cities, with squares and piazzas et cetera, and you simply don’t find that here. There seems to be a lack of concern about what happens at street level at the foot of all these towers.

Very often, it’s almost a standard pattern here where you’ve got a podium enclosing four or five levels of parking and the tower sitting on top of them. The interface of that podium at street level is completely dead; completely blank. It’s a pattern that is being repeated all the time and, unfortunately, the result of that, once all the buildings are finished, is that the street level will remain completely dead. To me, that is an aspect that is neglected here.

In Dubai in particular, I find an incredible lack of walkability. Although, when I bring that up in discussions, people tell me ‘Dubai is an extreme climate. You have to internalize everything’. I don’t agree with that. From October to April, it is very pleasant outside. I think the buildings, particularly at street level, could provide more shaded colonnades, arcades and pedestrian-friendly edges.

Architecture-wise, I’m shocked to see how glass buildings are still being perpetrated all over the place.

First of all, every client wants his building to be an ‘icon’. So you’ve got a place that’s bristling with icons to such an extent that nothing stands out anymore. Now, a building stands out if it’s not an icon.

It’s a bit of a pity. Architects and clients don’t seem to want to learn from the lessons of the region.

The traditional architecture of the region had limited openings on external walls; any glass is inset to keep the sun off of it; the walls are generally thick and well-insulated; courtyard solutions are used extensively.

This emphasis on high-rise buildings in itself is a question I have. I’m not sure why we don’t build more medium-rise courtyard fabric throughout the city. There’s certainly no shortage of land around here.

Everything is pushed upwards. I guess, in a desert landscape, if you build high, it’s seen easier. A tall building makes a visual statement. Personally, I tend to concentrate more on making environments than making objects. To me, it’s more about the space and the experience than the object.

What’s your take on the recent focus on ‘green’ architecture?

FS: I started practicing in 1977, which was shortly after the oil crisis in 1975. In South Africa, energy was very expensive so from the outset I was always forced to limit the amount of glass in the external wall. Early on, we applied early principles of orientation and protecting the glass from direct sunlight.

Sustainability seems to be the flavour of the month in the region. But for me, sustainability is like having good morals. I’ve practiced it for 30 years. It’s not a new thing; it is orientation, aspect, light, ventilation and other basic principles.

There are two parts to sustainability: There’s sustainability in a biological or scientific sense, but also in a psychological sense too. I think sometimes we push one at the expense of the other.

What I mean is, as an architect, I’m interested in what makes people react positively to the environment as well as ecological sustainability. I think the psychological aspect is often neglected.

One of my professors at Penn once said: ‘there are certain things that cost nothing per square foot: light, air, proportion. They’re free. Use them’.

What are some examples of your favourite projects?

FS: One of my favourites was the South African Reserve Bank in Johannesburg. That was almost the pinnacle of my work in South Africa. We were selected from a shortlist of 50 architects and we landed this very prestigious project.

Another one is Nelson Mandela Square. There was a large shopping centre in a particularly affluent part of the city, but it had no heart. So, the local authority appointed us to come up with a heart for the district. It’s almost the size of St. Mark’s Square in Venice.

The square itself is underpinned by 2,000 car park spaces below; it contains a bridge into the shopping centre and a lot of retail and F&B at square level. It has the 5-star Michelangelo Hotel at one end and at the other is the Council Chamber and Library Building. It’s become a very popular meeting place.

In Australia, I was a partner in a smaller firm and worked on several harbour-front mansions, commercial headquarters and industrial buildings. That taught me a lot of very good lessons because the work was much more commercial in nature. I came from the luxury of designing public buildings and had to learn very quickly how to design buildings that could actually make money for clients.

You’ve taught at universities in South Africa and Australia. What lessons can you teach MEA?

FS: When you think about designing cities or smaller scale buildings, you’ve got to remember that a house is a tiny city and a city is a large house. You’ve got to think about what that implies for city and residential planning.

Like a house, a city has to have a clear definition of public/private space. It has to have a living room, which is like a public square; it has to have a kitchen, which is the industrial component; it has to have suburbs, which is like the bedrooms where the kids stay. There is a fascinating relationship between large and small in both types of projects.

What inspires you?

FS: Travel. I’ve got to always be going somewhere. In my spare time, I’m studying for my PhD at the University of Sydney. I’m looking at the philosophical climate around Louis Kahn and Aldo van Eyck and why, at one stage, their buildings were very similar. That’s just a hobby of mine. When I’m not doing all this other stuff, I’m busy with my thesis, which should be completed in another three or four years.

Favourite building?

FS: I’ll give you two—both by Louis Kahn. One is the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. The other is the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. They’re fantastic buildings. They’re new and old at the same time.

My favourite urban space in the world is the Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome, which was designed by Michelangelo. Rockefeller Center is another wonderful example of integrated urban design.

What do you love?

FS: My family.

What do you despise?

FS: Hypocrisy. Double standards. Also, I don’t like any sort of fanaticism.

What three words describe you best as an architect?

FS: Passionate. Committed. Hard-working. And, I think, reasonably humble.

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