Unique and narrative

An interview with Jeffrey Kovel of Skylab Architecture in Portland, Oregon, about changing lifestyles in the U.S. and the balance between mass production and individuality

Mr. Kovel, you compare your design philosophy to storytelling. Could you explain that a bit?
The goal of each project is to develop something unique and aligned with the client. We start with a research process, looking at the history, the place, the entity. We look for metaphors, for details and material influences and really try to compose a narrative out of what we refer to as the DNA of the project. We think about how people might come into contact with our project, how we are 'entertaining' them along the way, looking for some moment of epiphany, and what they walk away with. A good project should be able to carry that kind of story arc. This is not meant literal but referential. We hope that each person might experience the project in their own way because they are bringing their own culture to it.

How have lifestyles and residential architecture in the U.S. changed over the last decades?
In the '90s there was a sort of return to modernism. People were looking for open spaces and a minimal aesthetic. Now we are seeing two big influences. One, people are looking to return to the craft of residential living. They prepare their own clothes, raise their own chickens, have vegetable gardens. Two, this is also related to the dominance of technology. Especially the creative classes try to create almost a refuge from technology. They cook, make things, spend time with their families. Residential spaces are really starting to counteract the 24/7 aspect of e-mail and media.

You also design stores, restaurants and hotels. How important is a continuity between construction, interior design and furniture?
We are primarily focused on projects where we integrate all three, and even go beyond, into landscape architecture and graphic content. Born out of a strong experience in retail, exhibition and hospitality design, we have developed a skill around precisely conceived interior design spaces. Yet we are also very much focused on extending our architecture portfolio. We are able to integrate that kind of thinking from a large concept level all the way down to the smallest detail. We are art-directing everything that is in the boundary of the project and are trying to weave it into a singular story.

You developed a prefab system for houses, which is quite unusual. How do you establish a balance between mass production and individuality?
We created a company called HOMB, with the aim to deliver custom architecture to a broader audience. In the U.S., in many places it is extremely expensive and time consuming to build a custom home. We asked ourselves how we can redesign the whole process, including the sales, marketing and design. Our idea was to build a structural system, and we landed on a triangular frame which is now patented in the U.S. It is essentially a modular building block with which you can create an infinite amount of combinations, horizontally, multi-storey, with cantilevers... This allows a great efficiency and yet each project can still be unique, reacting to the site and program. So far we have completed a house in Portland and a ski lodge in Utah, we are developing a hotel in Alaska and some residential concepts. There is quite a variety of uses.

What other projects are you working on right now?
Several, like the W Hotel in San Francisco, a 21-storey housing project in Portland, as well as stand-alone stores for a Californian sock manufacturer. And we have been selected as one of two architects for the corporate campus extension for Nike, here in Portland. That is surely the most exciting project right now.


Jeffrey Kovel is principal architect of Skylab Architecture, which he founded in Portland, Oregon, in 1999. The practice's work merges all fields from architecture and landscape design to interior design and graphics. Kovel studied architecture in Rome, Italy, and graduated from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, in 1995. In addition to Skylab Architecture, he is co-owner of Doug Fir Restaurant and Lounge in Portland, of KBP, a real estate development company, as well as HOMB, a company specialized in modular design.


Source: Koelnmesse, reprint free of charge.