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David Fisher: “The only power that can bring change is political power”

, People

David Fisher is both a unique and somewhat controversial figure in the world of architecture. He designed a building that has been talked about for almost ten years, but still hasn’t been realised. Fisher explained to Strelka Magazine why construction should be revolutionized, who needs rotating houses and how we ended up stuck in antiquity.

— How did the idea of dynamic architecture come to you?
— The idea came to me in New York City. At the time, I already understood that a good view really helps sell real estate. The better the view ‒ the more expensive the apartments are. And so one day I was watching the view from the 31st floor of the Olympic Tower, overlooking Manhattan, and my friend, the owner of the apartment, said to me: «Have you noticed that you can see both sides of Manhattan — the East river and the Hudson river? I’m the only one on the entire floor with a view like that!» And I thought to myself: «What if the floor could rotate? So everybody could see the East river and the Hudson river?». That was the moment. After I had returned to Florence a few days later I started thinking about this idea: «If each floor was to rotate separately, changing its direction and speed, what would happen to the building?» Then I made a visualisation on the computer and the results totally amazed me: the building could change its shape completely. So, that’s when the fourth dimension — the dimension of time — was added to architecture.

But the very first glimpses of dynamic architecture came to me when I was 5 years old. My mother used to take me to the Mediterranean sea to see the sunset. And so every evening I would be sitting next to her, a sandwich in my hand, watching this huge sun slowly descend into the water. That’s when I realised that everything is changing, everything is dynamic in our life. And indeed later as a young architect I tried to create flexible designs that would adjust themselves to life and not vice versa.
— But we all know what time does to architecture, it’s ruthless to it. How can this fourth dimension act as friend and not as an enemy?
— Enemies can easily become friends. By changing this aspect ‒ the direction, the speed, the timing ‒ you can design the building at any given moment. It is no longer shaped by the architect — it is shaped by time! But it’s also the functionality that matters. The houses that we inhabit were all designed and built by someone in the past and we have to live in them until the end, unless we decide to move elsewhere. And even if we do move to some other more pleasant place that place still remains the same for years and years. Your life, on the other hand, is constantly changing. Not to mention the moods swinging, families growing, then becoming smaller. So to accommodate all this change the apartment buildings should be more dynamic.
— According to the concept of dynamic architecture, future cities will be more rural than urban. How is it possible to change cities so radically? And what about historical monuments — will they be destroyed or will they survive?
— Historical monuments must remain, no doubt. It doesn’t matter if we like them or dislike them — it’s our heritage. It’s the testimony of history and there is no future without history. So these monuments must be restored and looked after. But one thing future cities could live without, in my opinion is cars on the streets. Buildings should be connected to each other by gardens and not separated by roads. The traffic should move underground.
— Underground?
— Certain cities might still need cars — for example with electric motors, but that’s another idea of transportation. Whereas in some cities you just don’t need a car anymore. If you live in London or New York you hardly use a car — you either walk, or take the tube, or hail a taxi. I believe that in future all cars would be concealed underground, including taxis. The cities would become greener and transportation faster, and maybe even cheaper.
— And how long will this process take?
— That’s a difficult question. Probably in ten-twenty years bigger parts of cities would look like that. But, you know, it’s not so important when or where you start, it’s more important to choose the right direction and start moving.
— And what are the main obstacles in the way of making dynamic architecture today?
— There’s just one obstacle. When you tell people about dynamic architecture they say: «Wow, this is the future! This is a revolution!». But then you start talking to developers and they just don’t like challenges like that. They don’t have much vision and do not think about tomorrow. All they care about is how much money they would be making today. Persuading them is no easy task. It’s much easier when a developer or a political leader is interested in bringing an icon to his city.
— There were rumours that a dynamic tower could appear in Moscow? Is it true?
— We were planning to do it. The developers approaching us had this big vision and they didn’t hesitate — the decision to build was made in just a few minutes! Unfortunately, later on they faced financial difficulties, so the project was put on hold. We have already started the design of an 80-storey building, that could become a new landmark for Moscow, so I hope that we will find another developer who would make it happen.
—The more I read about dynamic architecture the more I get the feeling that it’s a very expensive kind of architecture. Would it be possible to make this technology cheaper in future?
— Actually today in certain cities the cost of a dynamic building is the same or even lower compared to that of an ordinary building. In New York and in London where construction is very expensive, dynamic building costs less. Many people just can’t believe it, it’s so amazing. Dynamic buildings are assembled using special ready-made components. All the floors are exactly the same. All the way up. Nothing could be as simple to build. The most important thing about architecture is not beauty, it’s feasibility — that the cost of building will allow you to sell at a higher price and create profit. So in this case construction costs are the same but you can sell these buildings at a much higher price, around 50% premium.

— But dynamic architecture still seems a bit too futuristic. To your mind, what are the biggest achievements of modern architecture?
— I cannot name any. Apart from some materials that were developed, everything has stayed exactly the same as it was 2000 years ago. You should look at the construction methods of today — nothing has changed in those 2000 years! Same tools, same cranes... I once took pictures of a plumbing system displayed at the British Museum in London. At first I couldn’t understand what was so special about those rusty metal pipes, why were they displayed under glass? Then I noticed the date: 2nd century A.D! And it looked exactly like today’s plumbing! So unfortunately nothing fundamental has happened in architecture and construction since then.
— And, in your opinion, why is that? Why in the past people were constantly inventing new technologies while today we prefer to improve the old ones?
— Because people are lazy. Developers and builders are still using a trowel — a symbol that has existed since Adam! In other sectors, mobile phones, for example — every few months there is a new step ahead. People invest money, technology creates inward motions and hence a lot of money is made. And that’s the motivation. Construction is done by contractors and their main drive is making money and not improving construction and making buildings cheaper or more sustainable.
— What do you think needs to happen to change this situation, to inspire people to create new technologies?
— The only power that can change it is political power. In the Soviet Union we witnessed one of the rare examples of prefabricated buildings. It was based on good social purposes, offering homes to everybody, but not very successful, because they used very heavy concrete: it brought good results at the time, but wasn’t developed at all later on. However the impulse came from political power. Today we can build houses made of steel, just like helicopters, cars or ships. How do we get political powers interested? We cut the costs, cut the time, get better quality and give homes to those in need. It’s possible only in the countries that have strong political power. It’s much more difficult in the US, for example ‒ I am in Miami right now — where there are many timber producers who lobby their interests and barr any other material from entering the market. It seems like democracy but actually it isn’t. Only strong political leadership can change this situation and make a better future for the nation. And maybe Russia could be a good example. You have a very strong President, and I trust he would really appreciate an «industrial revolution» coming to the housing sector.
— And the last question. What message are you planning to communicate to your Moscow audience?
— My main goal when I’m giving a lecture is to pass the message to the young people that they should always think out of the box. Not just copy what has been done already, but think ahead. Especially young architects and engineers. I think the biggest contribution of dynamic architecture would be that people would be looking at buildings exclaiming «A skyscraper in motion! It’s impossible!». And the answer would be «Of course, it’s possible. Everything is possible».
Photos: courtesy of David Fisher