Spaces that Resonate

On the occasion of David Zwirner Gallery opening in Hong Kong, an exclusive interview with Annabelle Selldorf, architect to the arts world

Design Anthology: A significant amount of your architectural portfolio is devoted to art-related projects. Is that a happy coincidence or was it an intentional move in your career?

Annabelle Selldorf: I feel very lucky. And luck is where preparation meets opportunity, I was once told. And that’s how I feel about that.

I love designing spaces for art. In some ways because it allows you to make a pure space — something that is precise but also essentially beautiful. And beautiful is such a difficult word, right? That’s why I added ‘essential’. It’s reductive rather than additive. I often say that the thing that I think about in architecture is how to make very simply things where nothing should be added but anything less would produce something that’s not enough. And that’s a hard balance to find. In some ways, it creates a kind of tension. And it’s always that thin line that you try to walk.

In some ways, what I like about making spaces for art is that they allow you to make resonant spaces that don’t in the first instance require a lot of attention. And by that I mean, if you make spaces for art, you have to make spaces for art — it’s about the art, it’s not about the architecture. But it’s also always about the architecture.

It’s one approach. There are architects who make spaces for art that are very much about the architecture.

Yes, most of them.

They try to steal the show a bit.

Yes, I think that is probably true and that’s what a lot of people want. I think that the spaces we make are very tranquil and very … focused.

Very conducive to reflection, maybe?

Yeah — that’s it. I think it’s the focus that I’m interested in, that it’s not about noise, it’s about when the dust settles and it’s quiet. It has a very peaceful quality to it.

Peaceful, and sometimes provocative. It’s hard to be in silent spaces. I saw an installation at the Guggenheim in New York by Doug Wheeler and he obviously does spaces that are about infinity — very interesting and very challenging special installations. So he did this installation at the Guggenheim that was about silence. People would go, be there for ten minutes or twenty minutes and afterwards they would talk about how challenging they felt that it was. If there are no words, if you hear nothing, you all of the sudden start hearing something.

That internal voice.

I like that as an analogy very much because in some ways I like the idea that you are invited and perhaps provoked to go there. It’s not the first thing you think about because at first you think it’s all about balance, it’s all about beauty — and it is about those things, too. It’s about precision. It’s about all sorts of rational reasons to organise circulation, organise proportion, to make sure that the light is in accord. But I think ultimately, it’s reflective on the audience, on the observer, on the visitor. My sort of private pleasure is that our spaces are in dialogue with the art.

And that’s why you create spaces with these qualities?

It is, but at first glance. At minimum, they just have to be very good spaces.

And is that hard to achieve? That baseline of what makes for a ‘good space’?

Yes, it’s a lot of work because it means that you have to pay attention to everything and you have to remember what works and what doesn’t work. And it’s never the same thing. Every space is different, and the rules of the game always change. But once you establish the rules, those are the rules and then you have to push the rules. So, it’s all a system of layering.

This isn’t your first project with Mr Zwirner. Do you share certain values in space and in art that has brought you back together time and again on multiple projects?

Yes, very much so. David is a very good old friend. We’re from the same home town. I knew his sister, but never talked to him — he was three years younger than me and at that age…

But we met very early on in New York and I sometime think that we grew up together, which is nice. Mind you that David has a thundering career. But when you grow up together you learn to understand what the other means when they say this or that.

We used to have this routine that every time he opened a new gallery we would take a day and spend time walking around other galleries, to see if someone had done something that was noteworthy or impressive. That was of course our routine, but in some ways, having had these experiences together is very meaningful. It’s like you have to keep looking. You have to keep thinking.

And that never stops, though our way of thinking about art changes. David’s galleries are different only in as much as perhaps they’re a little bit larger than they used to be. And they serve a more diverse group of artists. Opening up a new gallery allows you to have that much more reach.

There’s a lot more consideration that goes into how a commercial gallery operates — how you serve your clients and so on and so forth. But it’s still great fun to start a project together and get excited — David’s excitement is something that’s inspiring. I love that about him. He’s a hard-charging, very visual person and is challenging in that. But I think challenging clients are good clients.

As told to / Jessica Vahrenkamp