For this year's Core77 Design Awards, we're conducting in-depth interviews with each of our jury captains to get in a glimpse into their creative minds and to hear more about what they'll be looking for in this year's awards submissions.
Our first interview is with 2018 Built Environment Jury Captain Dror Benshetrit. Founder of New York based Studio Dror, Benshetrit does not allow the conventions of the present to interfere with his ambitious goals for the future of design. He chatted with us about his upcoming Lookback project that simulates a walk on the moon, his vision for the future of architecture, and a designer's responsibility to think sustainably.
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We'll start with an easy question—can explain to me what Studio Dror is all about and what it is you do?
Great, so, that's actually not the easy one. That's actually the most difficult one!
I'm not joking, actually. I think that there's nothing more difficult than to explain what is it that we do, but I like to say that we are an idea-driven design practice that looks at design comprehensively and doesn't differentiate by design disciplines, meaning we don't have boundaries between product design, art installation, architecture, and planning.
We have clients ranging from product brands to companies that ask us to create temporary and permanent installations, interiors, architecture, and organizations that we are doing master planning for.
Can tell me a little bit more about the projects that you've been working on recently?
Yes! So we actually recently won a competition to design the first self-driving-car neighborhood in Canada. We are doing three residential towers in Brazil. We're doing a couple of interior projects and working on a couple of kitchen appliances and the future of cooking. We're working on a very interesting, confidential project that is in the area of hygienic products. We're working on a new light-bulb concept. We're working on an art installation that mimics the feeling of what it's like being on the moon. What else? We're working on new, innovative systems in the area of 3D printing steel. What else is going on now…
I can't imagine you ever get bored!
Never bored. That's definitely not in the vocabulary of my life right now. Last month, we debuted an installation in New Zealand for a wine brand. It had a couple of delays with the earthquake in New Zealand, but it's just been debuted and completed last month. Prior to that, we debuted our construction for Galataport in Istanbul, which is an ongoing project that is by far our largest project to date. It's 1.2 kilometers on the Bosphorus Strait, and we basically did the master plan and design of the cruise-ship terminal, the boardwalk, and the 18 buildings on the site.
Considering your practice is so interdisciplinary, I'm curious about what your educational background is and how you arrived at this point.
I studied design in the Design Academy in Eindhoven, and prior to that, really considered myself more of an artist and studied art. When I finished school, I was of course trying to think, in what area of design do I want to master and specialize? And I very quickly realized that I'm too curious to choose one particular area and actually like the idea of collaborating with specialists and specializing in my own way of looking at design and creativity.
"I strongly believe in this cross-organization between disciplines. One of the most interesting things for me is how to break those boundaries that actually often create more limitations than strengths."
So that was the initial direction for the practice, not knowing that actually beyond design, there's architecture. Beyond that, there's planning and landscaping and all of those things that are under the title of "design" as a whole, but I initially couldn't even comprehend thinking of those kinds of scales. I think after we did our first interior project, it was very clear to me the relationship between product, design, and interior. We then pushed it to the next scale when working on our first architectural project.
I'm not formally trained as an architect myself. We have a lot of architects on the team and we are always working in collaboration with structural engineers, architects of records, and more, but I strongly believe in this cross-organization between disciplines. One of the most interesting things for me is how to break those boundaries that actually often create more limitations than strengths.
I've heard a little bit about the moon project that you're working on, which sounds totally immersive and powerful. Do you think experiences like this have the power to create change in the world?
There are many things that can change the world. I think, in general, that creativity has tremendous power of solving the world's biggest problems, and that a lot of time we're looking more at data and analyzing data and studying a certain pattern; sometimes those are not necessarily the only places to look at. Really thinking about experiences, in particular, is the essence of art in my opinion. Art has always been about trying to provoke human behaviors and provoke new feelings by doing things differently, whether you're standing in front of a canvas, a sculpture or you've immersed yourself within something sculptural like a building.
One of the things that excites me specifically with this lunar installation is that many of us have never been in a dark space that is extremely bright at the same time. That kind of relationship doesn't exist currently because everywhere that you go, we are still within the atmospheric air particles that are here on earth, so if you've been to the middle of the desert where there were some strong, bright projection, you could gauge the distance from you to the particles in the air and be able to get this kind of depth, or if you've been to a big stadium that is dark outside and bright.
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What this installation tries to do is to create an indoor space that deprives you of the ability to gauge how far the structure itself is. We're using this new nanotechnology material called Vantablack, which essentially is the closest thing to the black of the infinity. They call it the blackest black material there is, which has 99.97% non-omitting light, so you can brighten the surface pretty intensively and then stand literally a couple feet from the wall and not know that it's there. The idea [behind the installation] is to basically see if that can provoke a new feeling in us, to see if that could change something in how we feel towards that relationship.
I think that, of course, coupled with the idea of standing on the lunar terrain, looking back at planet Earth, just has a huge power in terms of helping us understand how magical this one and only planet we have is.
Is there anything within the realm of design and technology you're particularly excited about right now? Is there an issue you feel strongly about that you think architects and designers need to be paying attention to in order to be progressive and future-facing?
I think that we live in the most exciting time to be a designer and a creator ever, period. If we're not paying attention right now to how we are going to utilize artificial intelligence, how we're going to utilize parametric softwares, how we're going to utilize 3D printing, we are missing the boat. Each one of these of course cannot be viewed in silo. They're all interconnected, but 3D printing alone is changing our world as we speak, and robotic manufacturing is going to take over pretty much everything in the next two decades. They're going to construct buildings, they're going to pretty much replace manual labor, and the complexity of the vocabulary of forms that we're going to see as a result of 3D printing robotic manufacturing is insane, which is crazy exciting.
I think that the machine-learning approach we are already seeing now is going to, at first, make a lot of boring designs, but eventually it's going to show us how we could use that as a tool and add to our own human creativity—then we're going to get, in my opinion, to a very, very, very exciting path of creating what I call "superstructure supernature."
I just debuted two weeks ago the initial direction that we are going to open another practice in January called SUPERNATURE Lab, and our intention is to work on creating structures that are in collaboration with nature. They're basically encompassing nature in a new way. So one of the biggest problems that I see in architecture today is the fact that it's either urban or natural. We are basically taking a piece of land, demolishing what was there, getting rid of the trees and soil and vegetation, pouring concrete foundation, and that's it.
Studio Dror's 2012 "HavvAda" project
What we set to do with this practice is to work on new ways architectural systems can incorporate soil and nature within them and allow for people and vegetation. By doing that, we hope we can change the way the ugly sprawl of metropolis around the world looks. Population growth cannot be avoided. We are growing very fast, and our city as a need will grow accordingly, so hopefully we're not going to just build more and more ugly mid-rise and high-rise buildings everywhere.
This architecture that you're hoping to do in the lab, is it speaking to the idea that nature inspires the aesthetic of the building or is it also speaking to the idea of sustainability?
It's both. It's absolutely both. First of all, when you're talking about being inspired by nature and natural forms, that's a big aspect of that, because nature builds much more efficiently than we do today. Nature builds much more beautifully, and the one thing that nature definitely doesn't do is build boxes like we do for everything.
The other aspect is building from nature, meaning how do we incorporate and utilize the benefits that soil has in construction? How do we use benefits of vegetation, whether it's the purification of air, the production of O2, and of course the beauty, which I think that we are now finding more and more ways to link a physical relationship of our health to our emotional health, and I think that beauty is a part of that. We just don't know how to measure it yet.
What are some considerations designers often overlook when creating built environments? Would you say that's the answer, is kind of incorporating the natural?
Absolutely. For one, I dream that every architect will consider themselves an artist and would realize that they are working on the most valuable canvas we have, which is our planet. I think that it's a huge problem in the design and architectural profession that sometimes what we do is considered planning or just pure logic and problem-solving. I think that what architecture and design is more about is creating the right emotion with what we do. When you talk about how productive your office is, in terms of the well-being, it's not necessarily measured in just pragmatic and logical charts. It's much more than that, and as designers and architects, we need to make sure that we are feeling those things, not just thinking of them, and reasoning them more with the heart than necessarily with the logic of the brief that we are getting.
I totally agree. So to connect back to the Core77 Design Awards, you're acting as this year's Built Environment Jury Captain! When judging the awards, what do you hope to see in all of the submissions, and what you hope to see designers considering in this area?
When you ask somebody, "What do you want to do?" it's very similar to "What are you dreaming about?" And I think that in every design phase, there is a moment of kind of leaving the knowledge aside or leaving the pragmatic decisions aside that relate to manufacturing capabilities or cost or whatever it is and just kind of letting your imagination go wild for a moment. Because it is really necessary and I think that in general, it's something that we've lost recently in design. It's something that I'm hoping to see: a little bit more personality, a little bit more unique dreaming.
On a final note, what are some of your predictions for the future of architecture and built environment?
Well, that's an easy one. My prediction is the name of the lab that we are setting up: SUPERNATURE. I really think that we are going to see products and structures that mimic nature more and are inspired by nature, not taking away from the natural terrain but enhancing it, making it even more beautiful.
It's interesting. If you look from the angle of product design, like a chair or a vase or a coffee mug, unless you're designing a new typology that you don't even have a name for, you are essentially redesigning something that has been designed before. In this case, your motivation is always to make the best, most beautiful, most logical version ... like, if you have a chart of different reasons, you're trying to basically score better than anything you know on each aspect of the chart.
But when we are taking a piece of nature and we're saying, "Well, this is an undeveloped rural area. Let's build 70 mid-rise building here," how come we're not applying the same questions of, "Am I going to make this area look better than what it looks like right now?" It's almost always uglier. It's almost always worse. I just hope that even if we just let that question sit somewhere in the back of our mind, we are going to make a better project, and I just hope that designers and architects have that kind of mindset to strive and do better with all of those kinds of decisions that relate to what it's going to be and what it is today.