uncube magazine 16 / 2013
In the photo booth with… Philippe Rahm
By Rob Wilson


When architect Philippe Rahm was in Berlin for his current exhibition at the Architektur Galerie, uncubes Rob Wilson took the chance to wiks him away to our photo booth and pepper him with questions.

You’ve talked about renewing the language of architecture through 
climate. Could you elaborate on this?

Well, every architect says the most important thing in architecture is the space. Yet when they come to design the space, they actually design the solid around it, not the space itself. But what about starting the other way round? If you think that way, then you immediately think of the space as a climate, which goes back to the cradle of architecture: the need to create a cool place when it’s too warm or vice versa – a pocket climate with different qualities from the climate outside. Climate and space itself, rather than form and structure, are good tools to re-arrange the language of architecture in the age of climate change.

Much of your practice tends towards minimising enclosure or dematerialising boundaries. As well as conceptually thinking about space more than structure, are you trying to break down definite borders in your architecture?

I’m interested in the way the borders of a space are defined by its chemical and biological qualities rather than its physical ones. Once it was only the wall, say, stone, that created the limit between inside and outside. The stone was a physical limit, and at the same time a heat, rain and noise limit. But when you are building today, you need to use different materials to achieve these limits. You no longer use only stone to provide the thermal limit, because the coefficient of transmission is not good enough; you need rock wool or something similar in the wall to create this thermal border, elastomere bitumen for creating the waterproof membrane – and so on. So now there is a series of layers between inside and outside, each with a distinctive function. I am interested in the definition of the building as a layering of limits. This is not to blur or dissipate the limit; more to analyse what types of limits or boundaries we look for.
On an urban scale, I’m interested how the exterior façades of buildings could also be seen as the inside façades of the street. Perhaps using different materials or textures for the walls; the façade could absorb sunlight, and transfer this heat, warming the street in winter or cooling it in summer, whilst absorbing noise and air pollution, transforming streets into more comfortable urban spaces.

In some ways your architecture seems to be about the process of materalising the air. Do you see yourself coming from that Swiss tradition of interest in materials?

I studied in Switzerland under Miroslav Šik, who already spoke of the smell and feel of material. Yes, I am in the tradition of Swiss architecture of the last thirty years with its interest in materiality. I do the same but rather than concrete and copper I focus on the air: it’s just a change of target. Not the solid but the emptiness. So in my projects I focus on convection or evaporation in a similar way to how Herzog & de Meuron focus on wood, steel, or concrete.
Your ideas are often tested on an urban scale before you apply them at the scale of a building. Can you tell be a bit about the Taichung Gateway Park in Taiwan, for instance?

In 2011 when we won the competition for this 69-hectare park in Taichung, the main element of a whole new district, our other main job at the time was for a 70 square-metre apartment for a 22-year-old doctor in Lyon. This discrepancy in scale tests our ideas in different ways.

The design for the park came from the idea that maybe we are no longer in a natural world: now it is the whole planet we are warming, not just the house. Perhaps everything is artificial; the natural world does not exist. So the park has trees but uses other – artificial – climatic devices, run from photovoltaic panels, to adjust the climate, primarily cooling it, for its users. There are devices that blow cold air over the skin, dry clouds which blow de-humidified air, others that clean air with catalytic and plasma filters, and showers that produce artificial rain. It starts on site in January and is due for completion in July 2015.