C: Can you tell us a little about Grau, how did you guys meet and what made you decide to start the practice together
G: We met the old fashioned way, partly through school and partly through work. Actually, we decided quite naively one day to start up shop. We did not have any commissions or clients yet, just the desire to do some work together. This was in 2009. We also thought that the economic climate of the crisis would be a good time to start an office because in a way you can only move forward. The name of the office, GRAU, which means grey in german, was a way to reflect this position, both optimistic for the future and pragmatic within the present.
C: Gray is also a good analogy for ‘balance’. It feels like so much of what you do is about addressing and tackling the organic chaos of urbanism. In this sense, do you find ‘gray’ a good metaphor for your work? Is much of what you do about trying to bring harmony and balance to an urban environment?
G: Yes, all our work, no matter the scale of intervention, is about trying to find the best possible equilibrium within the environment in which we act. Of course nothing will ever be perfectly balanced but we try to tend towards that balance. As Olle Eksell says, design is a means to transform chaos into organization. It is a means to aim for the fittest possible environment. That is our job. This means that each solution that we implement tries to be specific to its environment. We don’t really believe that there is a generic environment today. Gray is an attitude towards the existing : constantly trying to clarify the existing to make better use of it. In that sense. It is less a position of neutrality than a quest for the best balance. There is a clear esthetic of the urban chaos today within our profession and frankly we find it to be quite annoying and counterproductive. The idea that the urban environment today is beyond our understanding is of course true to some extent, but our job is to make it visible and we need to go beyond that first esthetic look. First of all because what we identify as chaos in the urban environment is not necessary chaos. When working in and with the city you realize that certain situations that seem organized are in fact very chaotic and vice versa. But also because our job is about identifying problems in reality and trying to solve them. We like that you use the word tackle because it suggests an active approach, not only a fixed and final solution. Indeed we don’t always have the solution but at least we try to work out the tools for someone else to solve the problem. And this is all a process of clarification.So the question is how do you go from grey, which represents openness and potential, to a precise attitude and proposal that better defines the environment. That is why the drawing is so important to us, because it becomes a way to clarify the existing in the design process.
C: Yes, drawing is a big part of your work. When working together we always enjoyed the tension between your company name and your visual output! It’s anything but ‘grey’ in the literal sense. Grey as a colour is too often a place for designers to hide, but you fully embrace colour and are not afraid of it. We get a real sense of joy from your drawings – both for the creator and the viewer. Despite often dealing with complex information they cut to the core of the ideas – the information stripped bare. Could you elaborate more on their role in your work?
G: Like Ivan Chermayeff’s logo GREY, in red ! It is really a question of method. Of course we like to draw, but our first goal is to solve problems. Drawings helps us to catch the reality, and abstraction is a way to be clearer. When we deal with the complexity of the urban environment we do not always know how to look, and where to start. The act of drawing then becomes a way to understand the reality and to organize its complexity. We believe that you have to simplify things in order to use them but that this is different from a simplistic vision. So drawing is first and foremost our method, to understand each other within the office. Also, the idea of drawing is that of communication, in the sense that as a universal language drawings speak to everyone. Architects usually use black and white plans and ideal 3D perspectives, because that is what developers ask for. But there are many productive possibilities between these two and by using simple drawings we could actually communicate broader. Because we believe that urbanism and architecture have to be shared and discussed publicly, our drawings are not just aimed at politicians or technocrats. We clearly want to explain the changing visions in our environment to the largest possible group of people. And as we move along we realize that explaining is as much a part of our job as direct problem solving. So for each mission we have to identify the underlying question and we do that by creating living drawings, that we look at more as systems or mechanisms than pictures. Visual aspects always have to be connected to the brain. And color can do wonders for the mind.
C: As well as using simple drawings to explain complex ideas an important part of your process is writing. Do you approach writing in a similar way to drawing or is there something else you are trying to say with the essays you write?
G : Hmmm, it’s difficult to speak about writing because it’s less «universal» than drawing, if only because you have to translate it. We would say that less than writing as a whole entity it’s the words that matter and in that sense we do approach it the same way as drawing, meaning that it is part of the process, finding the right words to describe the situation. But drawing and words very much go together. Children’s books are interesting because there is a often a balance between text and image, where they form a whole together, and that’s what we aim to produce most of the time. That is also what fascinates us with graphic design, the merge between the two. For example in your work, what is your relation to text?
C : I guess we have two very distinct relationships with text. We deal with text very much like imagery in one sense – creating image with type. A wordmark, a layout, a poster. We find typography beautiful and it often has as much power as image even without literal meaning of the word. Some of Robert Brownjohn’s typographic experiments are a wonderful example of that. It can add clarity, feel basic, create tension. It can be densely displayed, confusing, chaotic. It’s endless. In another sense text is a tool to us. Writing is a big part of our own process; creating briefs for ourselves, articulating work, arguing points. The work is nothing without it. Children’s books are a great source for inspiration for us. We especially love the work of Bill Martin Jr & Eric Carle. In this field the designer has to satisfy so many things. To intrigue, to teach, to entertain. And as objects too, they have to be thoroughly thought through. A book for a child has to be a fascinating, interactive object, but robust and hardy. Because of these demands children’s books often push far more print boundaries than any books for adults. We have a great collection of vintage Children’s magazines from France called Pomme D’Api. They are beautiful pieces of print. So thoughtfully designed, but with utter graphic freedom. They’ve served us well down the years as reference. With your work, do you have room during the creative process to be inspired by anything outside of your immediate field or are you more concerned with problem at hand? If so, what are your more abstract points of reference?
G: We are quite open with references in the office. We have many, some that we share and some that are personal. And it constantly evolves. But weather they are architectural, or relating to other fields such as art, what interests us in a reference is it’s capacity to act as a tool. Architecture that produces devices rather than objects is what inspires us and in that sense a reference can come from many places. For example, right now we are working in a low density area of Bordeaux and we are looking at possibilities to live more densely in low rise environments. We are very interested in Al Beadle, an American architect who mainly built in Phoenix, Arizona. He designed a project that is called Three Fountains, which are several apartments groups together on two floors around collective spaces. Beadle’s work is part of the modernist caste study development but what we look at is not the project representative of a specific architectural style or constructive system but rather its capacity to become a horizontal living device, helping us to understand how we can increase density in horizontal developments. So we could say we are open with references but very selective in how we use them. Plus they are more than just inspiration tools within the office but also communication of our ideas to the outside, much like drawings. We try not to keep them to ourselves, good design is meant to be shared.
C : Where would you like to see Grau in the next few years? Is there any type of work you’re not doing now, but would like to be doing? Or are there any different directions you would like to take the practice in? How do you see the practice evolving?
G : Well, as much as we have «made» architecture since we started we have not built anything per se yet. Construction on our first building (offices and datacenter in Dijon) starts in september so we are quite excited to see it coming out of the ground. And of course we hope that there will be a few more in the coming years…But really what we look forward to is to have the opportunity to work on subjects as stimulating as we do today. Architecture is clearly a profession in crisis, and it’s a daily challenge, but we’ve had wonderful opportunities so far and we will try to keep that up. We strongly believe that this is partly related to the size of the office (quite small) which allows us to be much more flexible in the work that we take on and precise in the ideas that we communicate.
Interview conducted by COMMISSION Studio, David McFarline and Christopher Moorby.
Published in 2014 in FROG magazine (issue 14)