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Zeller & Moye, a Conversation with the Creative Minds Behind Architecture and Design Firm

If Mexico City and Berlin based architecture and design firm Zeller & Moye designed the universe, it would be a much more aesthetically pleasing place. They may not have this level of higher power, but founders Christoph Zeller and Ingrid Moye are leaving an impressive list of design accomplishments in their wake and are certainly revered within the architecture world and creative communities alike. So what makes this design team stand out? Ingrid and Christoph are more than internationally respected artists, they are creative entrepreneurs changing the landscape–or rather the boundaries–of the architecture industry itself. The borders that delineate architecture over other creative domains, mainly art and design, are not clearly drawn out under the guiding ethos of Zeller & Moye. For Ingrid and Christoph, art, architecture and life flow together into a single creative experience.

Ingrid and Christoph were born on opposite sides of the world–in Mexico City and Berlin respectively–and the firm's design vision reflects the creative and cultural values that this wanderlust driven pair have picked up on their travels. Their collaborative career began when they met at architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron where Christoph lead the team that Ingrid was a part of, which was involved in the extension of the Tate Modern in London. While Christoph commuted between London and Basel while he was with Herzog & de Meuron, he worked on equally prestigious projects such as a collaboration between the Serpentine Gallery and artist Ai Weiwei. Finding early influence in Japanese architects, Ingrid's career began with her work at SANAA, a design laboratory based in Tokyo. Like Christoph, Ingrid's creative style was shaped by their shared interest in spaces for art and artists.


"Architecture is a universal language that can be understood everywhere. Designing for other regions through an outsider's perspective can bring unexpected ideas that a local might not have come up with.” Zeller & Moye

Ingrid and Christoph are the ultimate creative entrepreneurs. Even with positions at a highly established firm, they reached higher and decided to form architectural studio Zeller & Moye in order to execute their creative vision; one devoted to not only beauty and functionality, but to incorporating art, culture and sustainability into their precisely executed designs. Zeller & Moye have found influence in cultures and artistic styles from around the world, and have realised cultural projects in Mexico, Germany, the United Kingdom and Kurdistan, Iraq where they were invited to create a memorial to the victim's of a genocide under Saddam Hussein. In keeping with their aesthetic, the memorial is a collaborative effort between space, an art installation and natural setting.

One of their most talked about endeavors to date is Archivo, a six-story twisted "exoskeleton" structure that is to be constructed at the heart of Mexico City as a forum for contemporary design in Latin America. It is the collaborative brain child of Zeller & Moye along with FR-EE, and will house temporary exhibition spaces, galleries, and community and educational facilities to help boost the city's rising arts scene. Slick and modern, the space features six slate-like planes which striate the line between interior and exterior with massive balcony spaces that open up into the trees above the urban setting below. Archivo is a museum–tree house hybrid that will stimulate the art and cultural landscape in both the region and beyond.

Zeller & Moye are redefining the visual and cultural landscape of the architecture world. In the spirit of Creative Mapping, they bring together the creative industries of art, design and architecture under the same roof through a multidisciplinary, collaborative, and international approach. In our conversation with Ingrid and Christoph, we learn everything about the  talented design team from what it takes to succeed at being a creative entrepreneur to what they believe the future of architecture will look like.

WHO ARE YOU

CM: Where are you from?
Christoph: We are from opposite parts of the world, Mexico City and Berlin, but have also lived and worked in Tokyo, London, Madrid and Basel. So far we have practised a very open approach to what one calls ‘home’. The different places influence you and make you more open. We feel like global citizens and are not tied to a specific place.
Ingrid: I am from Mexico City but the times that formed me the most were the years that I spent abroad. The different places have stimulated me with their very different cultural, architectural, and urban qualities. After these international experiences, I have a very positive opinion of the global time that we live in and we try to implement this into Zeller & Moye's working culture.

CM: How did you meet?
Ingrid: We met in Basel while working for Herzog & de Meuron. I was developing an art museum for Mexico and Christoph was leading projects in the UK. We had a good design understanding since we met but it was only until we worked together on the Tate Modern Project when we found out that we would form a very good team.

CM: Where did you study?
Christoph: I studied at the Humboldt University and the University of the Arts in Berlin. I was registered for architecture but the art school gave me also the opportunity to float between different faculties that were all conveniently based in the same building. So I sat in the art history classes of Philip Ursprung and studied with the artist Lothar Baumgarten who saw through my final project, a 1:1 walkable cave made entirely from solid styrofoam.
Ingrid: Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa have been a very important inspiration and guides in the early years of my architectural career. I began working at SANAA straight after university, and I became a member of this wonderful design laboratory. Their very unique sensitivity to design and extensive creative process influenced me a lot.

CM: Where did you work?
Ingrid: After the years at SANAA in Tokyo I moved to Europe where I developed a strong interest in designing spaces for art by working on two important cultural projects during my time at Herzog & de Meuron: The Barranca Museum in Guadalajara, Mexico and the extension of the Tate Modern. While living in London I also established a close relationship with the Architectural Association where I was a regular guest critic. The AA invited me to co-direct the AA Visiting School in Mexico City. This was a very exciting way to analyse and experiment with ideas for the Mexican metropolis.
Christoph: I worked for eight years with Herzog & de Meuron, both in the Basel and the London office and often commuting between the two places. I was responsible for the designs of several projects in the UK. From the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2012 in collaboration with the artist Ai Weiwei to housing projects and the Tate Modern Project, the extension of the Tate Modern, which is currently still under construction. To be the lead designer and project manager for the large Tate Modern Project, a new 25 000 sqm building was a good challenge for me. It started as a team of 2 and grew over the years to 25 architects working full time on this project. Tate asked us for no less than the ultimate art museum for the 21st century. They encouraged us to rethink how art gets communicated and how educational activity can form an integral part of the architecture. Especially the concept phase was an exciting time of extensive experimentation and discussion, it took us three years continuously tweaking and optimising the project until we arrived at the final design that equally responded to all needs. We completed the construction drawings and opened the Tate Tanks as phase one of the realisation in 2012 in time with the Olympics. Ingrid and myself felt that this was the right moment to move on and establish our own firm.

WHAT-WHERE-WHY

CM: Tell us about your new company?
Ingrid: We took the entrepreneurial initiative to form our architectural studio Zeller & Moye with the aim to continue working globally just as we practised it in our previous jobs. We established the office in Mexico City, but have a base in Berlin as well. We formed an international team with networks and partnerships in different countries and are currently developing projects for various locations in Europe, America and Asia.

CM: What ethos do you work by?
Christoph: We treat all our projects with equal importance giving full attention to each of them, no matter how small. We are, for example, currently working on a small but very complex project in Bristol, UK together with the artist Katie Paterson. Although only 50 sqm large this project requires more time than some of the bigger projects that are happening in parallel. Collaborations form a vital part of our working culture. We like to include other disciplines such as artists, curators or scientists to develop something together. We like how different ways of thinking stimulate and challenge the whole team and lead a project in slightly different terrain than originally expected. Especially when it comes to sustainability it is essential to work with the best engineers and scientists on cutting-edge solutions.

CM: Describe your creative style?
Christoph: We try to go into a project without any preconceptions, the field is fully open to experimentation, each time from anew. In that sense there isn't a certain style that we are trying to establish. We believe each project requires specific solutions that will lead you down an unknown path.

CM: Where do you find inspiration?
Christoph: We have strong interests in other fields that are inspiring us. Art, history and film are great sources to understand the world and to find approaches beyond what you as an architect work with every day. I personally find it not very productive to look at other architecture. At the end of the day you need to develop your own points of view and methods of working through time, this will then eventually find its way into your own production of architecture. For the ODEEH concept store in Berlin for example we researched into the history of traditional ateliers, where fashion was created. Paravents as subdividers seemed a common theme. It was a budget-priced way to reconfigure the space, to have models try on clothes behind them, to pin up sketches etc. In the store design we refer to the motif but realised the paravents with industrial cement board in reference to the modernist building that the store is located in.

CM: Tell us about your most recent projects.
Ingrid: Our interest in art and culture has brought us close to the creative and intellectual communities of Mexico and abroad. We are developing projects at various scales and for diverse contexts. When we received commissions for a couple of art spaces in Mexico City we first stepped back to look at the wider context. To design such buildings in a complex social fabric such as Mexico City has raised in us many questions regarding the power of culture and what positive impact art can possibly have on society. We are collaborating with different artists such as Gabriel Orozco and Pedro Reyes on some projects. Collaborations with artists are a very enriching experience to our practice since artists approach things from a more irrational angle most of the times.
Christoph: Another project that we recently developed is for a community of survivors of chemical attacks under Saddam Hussein in Kurdistan, Iraq. We were invited to design a memorial and meeting place in the middle of the desert. The entire memorial is designed around a photographic artwork depicting portraits of the survivors. We introduced the idea of a central green court to balance the mourning with new life. By doing so we achieve an active place that can be used by the local community of survivors in lack of a town square where public life would normally take place.

CM: What sets Zeller & Moye apart from other architectural firms?
Ingrid: The combination of one German and one Mexican partner makes for a very contrasting and therefore rich association. At the same time, we both share architectural experiences and influences, which enabled us to smoothly collaborate from day one and to build up our practice on common ground. Our work method is based on analysis, experimentation and very careful development of every project from the beginning to its completion.

CM: Tell us more about your design team?
Christoph: We have a very enthusiastic team with various nationalities such as English, German and Mexican. It is very enjoyable and refreshing to work with people from different backgrounds and in different languages. We select our collaborators carefully and demand passion and full attention to detail. High quality in architecture is inevitably only achievable through committed and passionate work.

CM: How does Mexico inspire you?
Ingrid: Mexico has a very complex and rich culture with a developing economy that offers opportunities for creatives and entrepreneurs. The cultural background is a great inspiration, as well as the beautiful nature. Compared with other more developed countries with strict regulations, building codes, standardised production and different weather conditions, here in Mexico you don't need to worry about heating or cooling, a window is simply a one layered glass etc. We can concentrate on the essentials in architecture, how to produce a good space.

CM: How do you source suppliers there?
Ingrid: Mexican craftsmanship is a unique and very valuable element of the local architecture. The country offers a vast range of materials and methods and there are very skilled and enthusiastic workers. Some buildings are fully done by hand without any use of machines or prefabrication like it is standard in first world countries. There is a very playful approach to design that we like very much, it seems everything is possible here. Of course there are big companies and suppliers here as well. But we try to work with the local craftsmen as much as possible. In order to find the right ones you need to go with recommendations.

CREATIVE PROCESS

CM: Tell us about your favourite project.
Ingrid: We were invited by an artist to design his private house in Mexico City. This has been a very exiting journey as we collaboratively designed with him some areas of the project whereas in some others we worked on a traditional architect-client basis. The design development of the project became a constantly changing creative process that was often overlapping with the construction process. We generated several impromtu mock-ups in 1:1 on site that then led to the realisation of a certain design straight after.

CM: What made those projects amazing?
Ingrid: The project for this artist is a transformation of an existing brutalist concrete residence from the 1980's. By working with such a powerful existing space full of eclectic and bourgeois details and additions we took design directions that we wouldn´t have taken with a new built project. We had to strip down most of the unattractive detailing that accumulated over time in order to expose the structure. The result is a very lively and wild environment that oscillates between original and contemporary elements.

CM: What were the biggest challenges you face?
Christoph: Finding the right balance between what to preserve of the existing structure and what to introduce as contemporary additions was the biggest challenge. With some details it was very easy, pseudo-elegant materials and tacky ornaments had to go, that was clear. On the other hand we wanted to lay open the brutalist character but many parts were badly planned or poorly built, so that interventions had to take place to strengthen the existing look. Those additions you will not notice as something new, but we had to introduce them to state the original brutalist intention more precisely.

CM: Who are your competitors?
Christoph: Since we work internationally I guess we compete with architects from various places. But we don't look much at who is around us, but rather try to refine our own work. Every day we challenge ourselves by trying out new paths in order to find solutions.

CM: How do you market yourself?
Christoph: During the first year of our practice we focussed primarily on creating our own identity. We are now about to launch our website www.zellermoye.com. Besides showing our projects and latest news we had the idea of an active front page. Very much like our work table in the studio where we place books and sketches, keep models or a business card we will 'curate' our website like an ever-changing open work board displaying various models that we are currently working on or the latest photographs of a recently finished project. It will change frequently, so that you can always explore something new when visiting our website regularly.

We'd like to think that our work also simply speaks by itself.

CM: What is the future of architecture?
Christoph: In a way we architects live in very exciting times. Modernism stripped off the corsett of rules and styles that one had to follow in previous times, we can now freely experiment and come forward with unconventional creations. On the other hand buildings turn more and more into highly technical structures, especially in the Nordic hemisphere where energy and cost efficiency are often the dominating categories to judge good from bad architecture. This results often in wrapping buildings in foam and cheap plastic window frames - a very poor form of progress, because reduced to function, with devastating aesthetical consequences for our cities. Sometimes the better solution is to go basic instead of overloading a building with technology.

CM: What are the advantages and challenges of working on international projects?
Ingrid: Architecture is a universal language that can be understood everywhere. It can talk about a particular culture, a specific location, an event, or a moment in time. I am curious about other cultures but also respectful when proposing something for a place that I am new to. However, designing for other regions through an outsider's perspective can bring unexpected ideas that a local might not have come up with.

CM: Who would you like to collaborate with?
Christoph: We are always open to new constellations depending on the project. For example we are just now talking to sociologists and artists to contribute to the design of a new urban model for the urban sprawl of Mexico City. We focus on an area at the outskirts of the city, this is literally also the social edge of the society. It is a poor, chaotic and dangerous area that is constantly growing. Together we are developing an analysis of the social behavior and structures before playing with any idea. Otherwise any proposal would be meaningless.

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