in Conversation with

»When you create spaces for art, you are
actually creating spaces for people«
– Annabelle Selldorf

»When you create
spaces for art, you are actually creating spaces for people«
– Annabelle Selldorf

Architect Annabelle Selldorf makes what she modestly calls »functional spaces for art.« In the podcast »Was mit Kunst« (What about Art) Johann König talks to her about her journey from Cologne to New York, the ideal conditions under which she can design, and why a recycling facility became a personal milestone.

© Image Annemarieke van Drimmelen

Johann König: You are originally from Cologne but have been working and living in New York for decades now. How did that come about?

Annabelle Selldorf: To be honest, no technical university in Germany would accept me because of my graduation grades, so I applied in New York, without really having high hopes of being accepted. But the Pratt Institute accepted me, so I hastily packed my bags, thinking I was going to stay in New York for a year or two. When the time finally came and I got offered a place at a university in Germany, the idea of leaving New York then seemed almost impossible. I felt freer there than in Germany.

JK: Do you think your way into interior architecture and architecture had been predestined because of your parents?

AS: My father, who was an architect, strongly advised me not to study interior architecture, and I accepted his advice. I’m still glad I did. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but when I started studying architecture, I realized that it was going to be my path, and that it would be very different than my parents’ because I was studying in New York and learning about the architectural history there, paving my own way. Nevertheless, the older I got, the clearer I saw how my family background had influenced me.

JK: Do you think it was a good thing that these influences came together – your parents, German architectural history, and the architectural history of North America that influenced your studies?

AS: In many ways, it was extremely positive that I was able to be in New York. The city is fascinating in a way that’s hard to describe. Its energy and my environment there were also influenced by the many acquaintances from Germany – artists and art dealers who were in New York. At first, I worked at a company called Stelle Gluckman, founded by Richard Gluckman and Fred Stelle, who had built and prepared some art installations in New York for Heiner Friedrich’s Dia Art Foundation. And through Heiner Friedrich, whom I knew from Cologne, I met them and ended up working there for quite a while during my studies. That was a stroke of luck. Then I did my Masters degree in Italy and lived in Florence for a year. When I returned, I didn’t want to work for others anymore, so I did some smaller projects until, at one point – by great coincidence – I got to build a gallery for Michael Werner on 67th street. I was on my own in my office back then, and you couldn’t really call it an office. But this first gallery, which was very small, concise and beautiful, earned me a certain reputation – and then one project came after the other. I did David Zwirner’s first gallery when he became independent. One day, Ronald Lauder invited me to do the Neue Galerie, the museum for Austrian and German art on 68th Street and 5th Avenue.

JK: So, you mainly create spaces for art. You built a new building for David Zwirner, for example, and also did a fantastic gallery room for Schönewald in Düsseldorf. What is it like to create spaces for art? What’s the most important thing to consider?

AS: It’s about how people want to look at art. If we were to work together, I’d find out how you do exhibitions, how you view art and present it, and how you envisage the existing or non-existing space to be, and then I would create such a space. Creating spaces for art really is about creating spaces for people.

JK: So that means that building a museum or gallery room to showcase art depends on the conditions and on whom you work with?

AS: Of course, the client is a crucial factor. That’s where rationality and intuition come together. But many things are simply rational, such as the size of the doors, the planned proportions, or my idea of how people are supposed to walk through the room. I contribute my ideas and my experience, but clients have specific ideas, too, which doesn’t mean that one or the other is right, but rather that some ideas suit one’s temperament and way of holding exhibitions best. When a client shares their visions, I can imagine what it will look like, and there may be things that simply don’t work or are impossible.

JK: The first impression is important: Do you want a front desk, or do you want people to immediately enter the exhibition? One characteristic that, for me, always sticks out are staircases: Sometimes, they become part of the exhibition, as in David Zwirner’s gallery. What are staircases, as such, all about?

AS: David Zwirner’s gallery was obviously something very special – it was one of the first newly built galleries. It gave us the chance to figure out how the gallery should be discovered. Zwirner is totally engaged and extremely critical, so we had quite a robust dialogue over time. We wanted to create this specific concrete façade, maybe also in reference to his own story. To me, a façade is not just the front of a building, but rather one perspective of a building. It was important to bring the structure of the façade within the building, while at the same time creating beautiful, clean rooms that offer the opportunity to move through the building. Maybe that staircase expresses a purism that doesn’t refer to art, but is deliberately architectural.

JK: One could call you a star architect. You are a woman who managed to build up a reputation with a delicate, precise and subdued type of architecture. Compared to many of your colleagues who have a very loud language of forms, your signature or identification elements are much more subtle.

AS: My signature is not massively visible, and that’s a real problem. When you participate in competitions, nobody knows that this was something you’ve created. My team of fantastic colleagues and I develop architecture by examining how people move inside a room and how connections arise, not from a formula, but from the complexity of circumstances. I used to be ashamed because I thought what I did was boring. But I don’t know what else to do. For me, there is something very decided about it: You establish rules, but ultimately, the less I do, the better it is. However, if I don’t do enough, nothing will happen, and that’s a fine line to tow.

JK: In the end, architecture is a form of art.

AS: Functionality is always an interesting aspect for me, because it can be defined in so many different ways. Finding the shortest path and creating clarity to make it feel like there wasn’t another option is something I consider highly relevant. It’s about creating resonance and about believing that there is a center of gravity that informs everything.

JK: Your portfolio contains many projects, so you must have a routine. Does that make working with your clients easier, or do you often have to convince people? Because in my perception, you are an outstanding figure, yet your work has much quieter and subtler gestures.

AS: That’s all highly individual – nothing just happens, your mind always has to be present. I don’t believe in granting someone total freedom, because it makes things less interesting. What’s really interesting is when I can truly go into detail instead of just working inside a vacuum. Collaboration is extremely important to me. Things get better once you, as my client, react to ideas and get involved. Of course, things can go too far if someone tries to impose this or that on the project. It’s a balancing act.

JK: Do you feel like you get more precise from one room to the next, from one exhibition space to the next?

AS: I do think that you get to define things better. Thinking back to my first gallery, Michael Werner, I still consider
it one of my most beautiful galleries. That means that you might not get better, but you get closer to who you are because it’s not the first time you have to enter that dialogue.

JK You didn’t just build galleries, museums and art spaces, but also a recycling center. Can you tell us a bit more about it?

AS: That was one of my greatest experiences. Mainly, it made me realize that my love for art and the joy I find in working on rooms full of art is a basis for thinking for and about rooms. The recycling facility consists of three industrial halls, but the whole facility is designed to fit the needs of the people working there. It’s about how people get there and how they find their way around on the property; so it’s a kind of architecture that works to make a very loud and hectic environment a bit calmer. This kind of restraint is supposed to facilitate the perception of light and nature. The building is a huge facility on a technically high level that sends recycled materials from A to B, sorts them out and crushes them. But, at the same time, these are still spaces that people work in. The focus was on generating safety for the workers and including education. It’s really very simple principles.

JK: It’s interesting that the recycling facility looks more like an open educational center or a museum.

AS: I recall that after winning that competition, we first had to build models because we had to get an impression of the size of these halls. When choosing materials, we picked a rolled aluminum profile. The simplicity of the materials allowed us to visualize the volumes much better, and it improved the effects of the light. It is beautiful to see the expectation you have of a building manifest itself.

JK: Does that mean that the results sometime surprise you?

AS: Definitely, because a lot happens inside your head, and on paper you can depict everything, but the final piece exists like a vision, which makes it so special. I imagine the processes to be similar to those involved in making a film: You have an idea of the plot, the actors and settings. Producing a good film as well as good architecture must first exist in your head, or otherwise it would just be a succession of terse decisions.

JK: Architecture is a holistic spatial experience that you can only make physically. I’m thinking of this strong physical experience – which can also be problematic – for example, when architecture has a type of representational aspect that makes one feel smaller. That thought was relevant for us when we converted the St. Agnes church, too. We couldn’t imagine what it would be like after putting in the additional level. We only had an idea of what the room was going to look like in our minds.

AS: That’s interesting, because my professional life has taught me that neither hand drawings nor three-dimensional representation or augmented reality can replace the authentic experience of a room: you have to have a feeling for that – everything else is simulacrum.

JK: You are now a third-generation architect and designer. How important is that legacy or family practice, if at all?
AS My father died ten years ago, and there are moments when I’d like to know what he’d think about something and how we could talk about it. I do imagine that it gives you a certain kind of sensitivity; but whether or not you inherit it – I’d like to pass that question on to you.

JK: What I inherited is the attitude that artists contribute something special. I see my role as a gallerist or art communicator mainly in creating spaces to be provided to artists – whether these spaces are in media, in a podcast, a gallery room or a magazine: I want to create spaces and rooms for people creating art. The most important thing I learned from my father is to treat artists on equal terms, not like geniuses fallen from heaven.

AS: Do you sometimes criticize your artists?

JK: I force myself to, and the more successful the artists get, the more I have to force myself to criticize because the less criticism they get from others.

AS: This is fascinating to me. I look for critique; well, maybe not criticism but debate, and I keep asking myself if artists are like that, too. Some are, some aren’t.

JK: A special challenge in architecture is that there’s not just the client but also the building regulations that must be complied with. Thinking about your buildings, I can’t really recall a lot of signs, emergency buttons or the like.

AS: That’s right, because we spend a lot of time organizing to make sure these things are not in your way. Architecture works on a different level than most art, where you have to comply with laws and tectonics. I feel that we’re at a turning point where we have to talk about how we want to behave in a renewing, more open, and politically changing society. This brings up other questions, such as the role of architectural vocabulary and what we want to convey.

JK: Do you find it more interesting to reuse spaces or create new ones?

AS: It really depends. In general, I’m in favor of taking the chance if you can reuse something. And anyway, every new building must be well justified considering rising sea levels, devastating storms and the changing climate.

JK: In that context, reuse has gotten a different meaning, not just in terms of content, but also from an ecological and political viewpoint. Do you have a dream project you would like to build, maybe a church? Or what would be a pure space for you?

AS: That’s a great question, because I would love to build a church. There is no such thing as a pure space, per se.
I would like to work on things that will substantially move us forward – and there are so many ways to achieve that.