As part of his sophomore project, Kristóf Földényi, our sophomore student and the student of ELTE Radnóti Miklós Elementary School and Gymnasium, had the opportunity to interview the renowned architect, Thomas Vonier, one of the most influential experts in the modern architectural world. You can read the interview below:
Why did you choose to become an architect? If you were young today, would you still choose this profession?

As a young boy in the mid-1950s, I met Frank Lloyd Wright, who was a great US architect. My father was making a film about rebuilding Wright’s architecture school after a fire. I was amazed by Taliesin East, the place he lived, worked, and taught in Wisconsin. The man himself was an imposing figure. I remember him talking to me. I never saw him again, but I’ve visited many of his buildings. There was a period when his work was just disdained, regarded as marginal and rather odd and out of the mainstream. But over time his ideas have proved their value and their worth. Yes, I would encourage anyone today who loves buildings and cities to study architecture.

How has architecture and the building industry changed over your life?

When I began, it was done all by hand instruments—pens, pencils, triangles, slide rules, tons of paper, and many, many types of stencils. And typewriters. All of that is gone. The technology of producing designs and documents has changed radically. Buildings are more complicated and more expensive to build, but not necessarily better. On-site crafts—especially masonry and millwork—have disappeared for most projects. Large projects require a much larger array of outside engineers, specialists, and consultants: fire-protection, security, façades, energy systems, acoustics, and on and on.

In the last century cities have become overcrowded. One of the reasons is because people are moving from the countryside into the city. Many of these people cannot afford housing, so they are forced to move into slums. The question arises whether we should make the countryside more appealing or to make cost efficient housing in cities? What do you think, how would you solve this problem?

People follow opportunities for work and a way to improve their circumstances. They especially want better lives for their children. Agrarian cultures are disappearing, with industrialized agriculture making inroads everywhere. An approach that seems to work in Mexico is to locate major manufacturing plants in smaller towns, near skilled workers who already have good housing. Another issue is the fact that the land in central cities has become too valuable for use as worker housing, so the subsidized, low-cost housing is pushed to the periphery. This makes transit too difficult, and most of these places have little public transit infrastructure. Some people spend two-plus hours each way, getting to and from low-paid jobs nightmarish traffic jams and horribly polluted air. We need to find approaches that allow the poorest people to live closer the places where they can find decent work.

The ex-Mayor of Bogota, Enrique Peñalosa Londoño, spent years reforming the public transportation to connect the slums into the urban center. He felt this was a way of dismounting economic divides. What do you think of his model?

Bogotá is very similar to patterns that you find in Rio de Janeiro in São Paulo or in any major urban center, where the poorest populations have been moved from the center out to the periphery, whether it’s public housing or squatter settlements or whatever it might be, but the job opportunities are in the center. So that creates the difficulty of getting from place of residence to place of work. And in many countries of the developing world, especially in Africa also in Central and South America, there are horrendous transit problems. There’s no real public infrastructure so its buses and jitneys and automobiles highly congested, terrible traffic jams that pollute the air and all the rest. So, anything that can be done to try and improve the connections between where people live and where they work and to make that less burdensome on human beings and on the environment, I think is very positive.

You talk of the many issues plaguing cities. As you might know Bjark Ingels and BIG are collaborating with Toyota to design the city of the future in Japan. The aim of the project is to make the city more efficient by using all the modern technologies, and AI. Do you think this can work? Is this truly the direction of the future?

It’s exciting. You know, I think Bjark Ingels has a remarkable ability to capture the imagination of people who are outside of architecture. Look at the work he did for Manhattan in New York City after Hurricane Sandy and the power of his ability to create images of how things could be. I think it’s very exciting. I am a great believer in the potential of artificial intelligence and the power of digital technologies to improve things. But I am also a firm believer in what I would describe as the fundamentals of urban living. That has to do with being able to walk to different places, access to green spaces, the ease of children going to school and coming home, the ease of finding places of recreation, the ease of shopping. All these principles and features of cities can be found in designs that were produced in the late 19th century. And if you look at urban plans for Vienna, Austria, –or for that matter possibly for Budapest—and Paris, parts of London and other places at that time really got it right. They were thinking about how far a mother with two children should be expected to walk to go to a park, how many flights of stairs should people be expected to climb. The basic ideas about urban environments I don’t think have changed or will change in a fundamental way. And so even though these digital technologies and new modes of transport are very exciting and very promising, if they’re not applied to a setting that addresses basic needs and ideas, I don’t think they’ll reach their full potential.

Some cities have entertained converting the somewhat vacated office buildings into alternative living quarters, entities. What do you think about that?

I take the example of Paris, where many, many residences were converted into office spaces or commercial spaces at a time when the demand for that kind of space was very high. Now, partly because of the pandemic, but also, I think as a sort of natural course of things, there isn’t as much demand for office space and commercial space, so there’s a movement to try and turn it back to residential space in the city itself. That’s a very beneficial positive development, even in a place like La Défense, which is outside of Paris. It was kind of developed as the French version of Manhattan with high-rise office buildings, and originally the idea was to have people living there, but that never really materialized in a substantial way. But now there’s more and more effort being made trying to populate it with residential properties converted from office space.

Alternative building solutions: climate change can also be fought, in part by using alternative building materials-. Say wood instead of concrete for structures. What solutions do you see in the building industry that can viably influence sustainable architecture?

COP26 in Glasgow, for example, had a very substantial presence from the people involved in the bamboo industry and the use of bamboo in large-scale construction. There is a movement to use wood, which is in most cases a renewable resource, for larger and higher structures. That is a very positive development. Quite a few of them are going up around the outskirts of Paris now, 7, 8, 9, 11-12 stories, and the structure is made of wood. Regarding concrete, there is a technology for so-called carbon capture, which could extract from the process of producing concrete the carbon byproducts and either reuse them for some purpose or isolate or store them in underground storage facilities. I’m not sure the evidence is in on how safe or economically viable an approach that is, but it is being explored. The concrete industry is a big industry, with a lot of financial resources, so it’s in their interest to try and find ways to reduce the burden of producing concrete. It’s a very flexible and good building material, used widely all over the world, so its use will diminish with difficulty. Competing materials don’t really have the same infrastructure or advantages that concrete offers.

Also, regarding the COP26, the building industry, including many others, agreed to reach a net-zero by a given year. Do you think this is a good, sustainable, and realistic aim?

I think the commitments people have made are genuine and I think there are certain elements of the design professions that will work very hard to meet those commitments, especially in Europe, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and parts of China. However, I do think that life goes on and to some degree of the marketplace determines what will ultimately be adopted. If it’s much more expensive to achieve net zero objectives, which doesn’t have to be, then it seems to me that commercial developers and others will resist those measures, and that’s a challenge that architects must be able to address. Also, the idea of net zero doesn’t really in a sense offer the potential that I think exists to regenerate environments and to actually produce energy resources from buildings, whether it’s through photovoltaics and other forms of solar collection, or simply kind of investing in green environments that process carbon in the environment and return oxygen. So, net zero is kind of a shorthand for something that I think has greater potential than the term really reveals. I think we could convert buildings and cities into places that regenerate and improve the environment, not simply reduce damage to the environment.

Please list three things that concern you most in the issues facing urbanism and architecture.

I think conditions of overcrowding and lack of sanitation in the largest megacities are an issue for global concern for several reasons. One, I think is illustrated by the pandemic and that is the potential for the spread, rapid spread, of disease and particularly communicable diseases that are spread from person to person either by air or other means. So, I think these large settlements that have many poor people crowded into less-than-ideal situation are of great concern. Second, I would say there are also a concern from the standpoint of pressures for migration. Certainly, that’s something Europe is going through, now very close to where you live along the Polish border, but not only there. These waves and waves of people are fleeing dire circumstances in Africa, the Middle East, and other places, trying to find better circumstances, and it’s concerning that these displaced populations are creating pressures for well-established populations while also exposing the people who are moving to terrible risk and dangers. Third, I would say that the social fabric and the civil order is threatened when you have climate conditions become extreme and create waves of people trying to leave circumstances that are extreme: very high temperatures, terrible rains and flooding of the kind seen especially on the Indian subcontinent and other parts of the world where the encroachment of water has made life very difficult. You see you an erosion of the civil order and a deterioration of the social fabric that’s produced by these conditions, and they’re all very concerning.

Please list three things that fill you with optimism about issues developing in architecture and urbanism

COP 26 revealed this to me that we do face a global challenge that must be addressed. I think even the corporate giants, the automotive industry, the product manufacturers, the people who produce materials and goods understand that they must find better ways, less harmful ways to do these things. There’s a lot of creative potential that can be applied so I’m very positive about that. I also am positive about people like Carlos Moreno a Colombian who is at the Sorbonne in Paris now and is promoting the idea of the “15-minute city,” the idea that people should be within 15 minutes whether by bicycle or walking, of the essentials: stores, schools, places of worship, libraries, and so on. Also, there’s kind of an intellectual movement now to reframe the way we think of cities and try to curb indiscriminate development, which even occurs around Budapest. I remember visiting and seeing these suburban developments that if you didn’t know you were in Hungary, you might imagine you were in the United States. Those are just not the right models for the world to be following. We need to be focused on public transit and on trying to reduce the footprint and the impact on valuable agricultural land or natural land. A third thing perhaps is that people are gravitating to architecture and design as a field of study not because it’s glamorous or somehow a way of life that assures them of a life of ease and luxury, they’re doing it because it’s a way to make a difference in the world and to improve conditions of living for people—and that’s the right motivation.

Lastly, what is your recommendation for the next generation?

Well, don’t listen too much to the old generation, that would be that would be one hahaha. I’m going to give a talk tomorrow to a group of university students, and their faculty member asked me to talk about working in the world and outside of your own national borders. I had two ideas, one is to be cognizant, which means not just to be aware but to understand and act upon a knowledge of your environment. That really means trying to understand the global conditions our humanity faces, being cognizant of the forces that are at work. We’ve talked about extreme climates, we’ve talked about poverty, we’ve talked about the need for better hygiene and so forth. The second is empathy, and being empathetic, which means understanding the conditions other people face and trying to put yourself in their place and share their ideas. I think something as simple as understanding another person’s name from a culture that is other than your own, and respecting the way that name is pronounced and spelled and written is a form of empathy that’s very basic. If I were to say anything to young people, it would be to try and absorb as much as you can about other cultures, other ethnic groups, other religious groups, other sets of values than your own and try to overcome whatever biases are inherent in your own culture so that you can be more empathetic and cognizant of the world around you.