Turkish born architect Ali Tayar's designs have been featured in New York's Museum of Modern Art, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and the Denver Art Museum. He is an architect and furniture designer, and founder of Parallel Design Partnership. His most recent work includes the interior and facade of restaurant Pop in New York.
PP: You grew up in Istanbul , studied architecture in Germany , masters in M.I.T. and practice in New York . How have these influenced your approach to architecture?
AT: Obviously growing up in Istanbul did influence my work. The capital of two empires, the Byzantine and later the Ottoman, it boasts some 1500 years of extravagant architecture. My father was a professor of structural engineering and would take me around and show me all the ancient buildings and how they functioned structurally. Basically, the way that these buildings look is defined by the way they function structurally. Structural reasoning is now a very important part of my work – both with furniture and architecture. You don’t look at my work and say “that is Orientalist work” but the underlying principles definitely come from that.
Germany was also a great learning experience. Architecture schools in Germany are decentralized in that the design approach changes within the school or from one institute to another. I fell into the hands of modernist architects so my education was a purest form of modernist education at the height of postmodernism. I had a completely insulated, isolated experience where they taught me to slander postmodernism, so by the time I came out, I didn’t have to make the change by myself. I had almost skipped an entire school of thought, which was good.
PP: Given your background, how is it to live and work in New York?
AT: It’s very difficult as an architect here because people don’t build houses, so you spend a lot of time designing bathrooms. On the other hand, everything you do here takes on another meaning. You’re in a very small world that makes a huge difference, and if you start getting established, it’s much easier than somewhere else. I don’t think I could have done the same thing in Istanbul , though perhaps Istanbul was like New York a few hundred years ago. But even if you did the same thing there, then what? When does anybody get to see all that? Then I think that New York must be like Rome in the first century.
Everything that happens somehow happens here, and if you do it here somehow everybody hears about it or sees it. Even when it was bad and I was suffering, I still enjoyed living here. I could always have gone home but it never even occurred to me. Lots of people are doing interesting things, but it’s like a meat grinder here in that so many people come and very few people end up staying. People burn out or people leave because you can almost live anywhere else better than you can live here. You could be living much better in Connecticut , so there has to be something else that you can have here no matter what.
PP: Was there a particular incident that inspired you to be an architect?
AT: There was one day actually. My father always wanted me to study architecture but I wanted to study medicine, I wanted to do genetic engineering. My mother took me to Copenhagen so I could talk to a couple of her colleagues at a ladies program at the Congress. I went with them to a show of Frei Otto’s work in an outdoor museum and I was so fascinated. My father always put down architects as silly formless creatures but I suddenly saw that I could learn this kind of architecture. I went back to the hotel and decided not to study medicine. My mother said, “it’s good, you always forget to put on the cap of the toothpaste!”
PP: How old were you then?
PP: What would you say have been the basis of you Design Principles?
AT: Actually it all goes back to my education in Germany , which was very much about prefabrication and the idea of architecture that is factory-made. At MIT my work was a little more about the influence of the structural behavior of the developed form. So what I do is essentially a combination of these two things. Sometimes these things contradict – in order to express structural behavior you want to have organic shapes, but mechanical reproduction may require that the cross sections remain the same. So how do you find instances where you can satisfy both? Everything I do is in some way looking at how things are made and how things behave structurally and how can you make these two ideas one.
To read the full interview, please look for our forthcoming issue of SWAY magazine.