Women of Architecture : An interview with Annabelle Selldorf

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Women of Architecture: Annabelle Selldorf. © Selldorf Architects

In celebration of Women’s History Month in 2011, the National Building Museum hosted the annual Women of Architecture lecture, “Annabelle Selldorf: Architecture and Context.” National Building Museum Online spoke to Annabelle Selldorf about her background, design process, and role as a female architect in a male-dominated profession.

National Building Museum (NBM) Online: You were born and raised in Germany, and you got your Bachelor of Architecture at Pratt in New York City and a graduate degree in architecture in Italy, and now practice in the United States. How has this background shaped your work? What elements of your European background inform your work here in the U.S.?

Annabelle Selldorf: I really think that architecture today is international in most aspects.  We have worked on projects not only in the United States, but Europe and Asia as well. My personal history, which allowed me to travel within Europe and study in the United States at a relatively young age, has given me a very broad perspective on the world. That being said though, I do think that there are things that one could characterize in my work as being perhaps more European than American. My work is firmly rooted within the Modernist tradition, a tradition that developed in Europe in the 1920s. It has a certain rigor and clarity to it that is influenced somewhat by Neoclassicism as well. And I am very interested in quality craftsmanship, but that is not specifically a European characteristic. I try hard not to come to projects with any preconceived solution of what it should be, but rather let the specifics of the site, program, and context unfold to the right solution. I think one could see this non-dogmatic approach as actually being more “international” than European or American.

Stainless steel and terra cotta create 200 Eleventh Avenue’s unique exterior. © Selldorf Architects

NBM Online: Regarding your work designing fine art institutions such as the Neue Galerie New York: Museum of German and Austrian Art, what is it about this building typology that challenges you? If one imagines there are basic elements essential to designing spaces for art–such as ample space for paintings, sculpture, appropriate lighting, etc.–how do you work with these basics to create unique and interesting spaces?

Selldorf: I developed a deep interest, and one could even say passion, for art as a student growing up in Cologne, Germany. My interests span all types of art and are not confined to any one period. Subsequently, I have thought quite a lot about what makes the best environment for viewing a particular work of art. The goal is to provide an architecture defined by clear, well-proportioned spaces with the deliberate rendering of both natural and artificial light. And it is precisely those elements that interest me in my architectural practice in general: proportion, volume, the shaping of space, how light enters a space, and so forth. With the design of spaces for art, one is afforded the opportunity to think about these things with a kind of purity of focus. Starting out as a young architect practicing in New York, I had the opportunity to work on several spaces for art—from artists’ studios to their personal residence to art galleries and collectors’ homes and eventually museums.  This early experience of working directly with artists greatly informed my understanding of the type of spaces best suited for contemplating art, from old masters to the contemporary.

NBM Online: Historic preservation has been a part of your practice for some time. Describe some of the challenges and rewards this type of work has offered. 

Selldorf: One of the things that I like about working in buildings from different time periods is that it really allows you to get into the mind of the original architect and find the inherent logic in each decision. And “historic” can mean a building from the turn of the century, as was the case with the Neue Galerie, or a Brutalist building from the 1970s, which is what we are working with at the Manton Research Center for the Clark [Art Institute] in Williamstown. We normally start with an assessment of the spaces to create a type of hierarchy which will determine which spaces must be kept intact and restored, versus those that will need to be recreated to flawlessly match the old, and finally those spaces that will identify themselves as new and distinct but always complementing the existing structure.

NBM Online: In addition to your firm Selldorf Architects you have a separate company called Vica, which designs fine-crafted furnishings. Can you tell us how the two businesses relate and what is appealing to you about the Vica work? 

Selldorf: Vica grew quite naturally out of the architecture practice. We were designing a lot of custom furniture and lighting for our architecture interiors and after a certain period of time you sort of realize, well maybe there is enough material now to have a “collection.” While integrated with the firm, I wanted to keep Vica separate so that the work could be purchased by other architects and designers without the burden of association with another particular architect. It has been quite gratifying to me to see things used in a variety of interior spaces. I also enjoy the opportunity to move from the at times very large scale of building, to the details of hardware or furniture. They are related disciplines, of course, but the switch in scale keeps one focused and nimble.

NBM Online: Your lecture is presented during Women’s History Month. Who are some of the women that have had the greatest influence on you and your work?

Selldorf: I would say that I have found a role model in every woman who has accomplished something in a patriarchal society. Women need to succeed in all fields because they can and because it is their right.  They need to be championed until there is a more balanced society.

NBM Online: As your lecture is presented within the Museum’s Women of Architecture series, what, if any, are the advantages of leading a woman-owned firm? 

Selldorf: That is hard to say because of course I have never led a non-woman-run firm. While gender is a critical definer, it is just one of the many things that come together to make one an individual. Being that architecture in such a traditionally male-dominated profession, though, I think it is even more important to always operate in a manner that feels true to one’s self. Without that, I don’t think there can be true success however it is defined.

“Annabelle Selldorf Architecture and Context,” part of the Women of Architecture series, is a collaboration between the National Building Museum and the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation to celebrate Women’s History Month.