Architectural Talks | Manni Group meets Yama Karim of Studio Libeskind

Dry construction, YACademy & competitions

Architectural Talks | Manni Group meets Yama Karim of Studio Libeskind

7 Dec, 2021

Today’s protagonist in the cycle of interviews conducted by Manni Group for the new edition of YACademy, is architect Yama Karim, partner of Studio Libeskind, the architecture and design firm founded by starchitect Daniel Libeskind, known for being polyhedral and his optimistic vision of architecture, future-oriented but with an eye on the past.

In addition to the interview, in this priceless content you will find:

“Architecture is not based on concrete, steel and the elements of the soil. It is based on wonder.”

These few words convey the essence of the entire mindset of  Daniel Libeskind and his New York architecture and urban design firm, that Yama Karim has been part of since 2003 in the dual role of principal architect and partner.

The architecture of Studio Libeskind can be compared to a sculptural art form. Their architectural works are deconstructed, devoid of rigid geometries that bring out the asymmetry, the uncomposed floors and the plasticity of the volumes.

This concept translates into constructions with complex shapes with broken lines and surfaces, and with signature cuts in the volumes and material, that let light in, giving the buildings movement.

However, behind this complexity there is the desire to create practical and sustainable structures, combining innovative and traditional construction technologies that also take into account the urban context that they are inserted in.

Over the years the work of Daniel Libeskind has been decorated with prestigious awards, of which we would like to mention:

  • Leone di Pietra at the Biennale di Venezia for the Palmanova project (1985);
  • Hiroshima Art Prize, for the work carried out to promote international understanding and peace (2001);
  • Urban Visionary Award for Architecture awarded by The Cooper Union, New York (2004);
  • RIBA International Award for the Imperial War Museum North in Salford Quays and the London Metropolitan University Graduate Centre (2004);
  • RIBA International Award for the Wohl Centre at the Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv (2006).

The portfolio of projects created by the firm is highly assorted and includes a vast range of buildings and urban masterplans around the world: museums, concert halls, convention centres, hotels, shopping malls and universities.

The most renowned and appreciated works are:

  1. The Jewish Museum of Berlin;
  2. The Masterplan of Ground Zero in New York;
  3. The complex of Kö-Bogen offices and shops in Dusseldorf;
  4. The Libeskind Tower or Pwc Tower in Milan, also known as “il Curvo”;
  5. The Masterplan of Citylife in Milan.

The Jewish Museum of Berlin and the reconstruction of Ground Zero in New York are two projects of very high value, not only architectural but also symbolic.

Though very different, these are two works charged with meaning and memories: they share the idea that architecture is a language that is able to convey the story of a place and the heart of the community that it represents, through shapes, spaces, light.

As with every project at the firm, the underlying concept is always the constant pursuit of innovation and an approach towards sustainability, that also translates into respect for the cities where the works are built.  

A concept that was reiterated several times by Yama Karim during our interview, when the architect - who also designed the Downtown Tower of Vilnius and the Corals residential complex in Keppel Bay (Singapore) -, also spoke to us about the management of the masterplan and re-zoning of the former Trade Fair district of Milan and of the other residential projects built in this Lombard city.

Now let’s look into all of the details of Manni Group’s interview with Yama Karim

Manni Group: Libeskind architecture is reminiscent of a work of art such as sculpture. Behind the complexity what is the firm’s role concerning sustainability?

Yama Karim: I believe that the thing we need to consider is this: design and sustainability are not two separate things. When shaping and giving form to architecture it is necessary to be aware of what the intention is in the context and in the site.

Many of our shapes are effectively based on light, circulation and air. And I don’t say this with the aim of appearing mysterious.

I mean it in a very literal way, because sometimes due to the way we talk about our work, that can be centred on the history and on the type of poetics, we lose sight of the incredible amount of practical questions that come into play when creating the shape.

More times than not, I would say that our shapes concern sustainability specifically.


The example of the Warsaw tower.

We built a tower in the centre of Warsaw in Poland - says Karim - the first iconic construction after the Stalinist era, which is in front of the Stalin Cultural Palace. The basic concept of the tower was "the eagle’s wing rises again".

Let’s say that when some people see the tower they exclaim: “Oh! They built a building in the shape of an eagle’s wing, isn’t it too artistic or too much like a sculpture?!”.

The reality is that there are always two aspects to every story.

That shape actually comes from a very exact calculation of the tracking of the sun through the spaces. Because in Warsaw every new building, especially in the urban context, must allow surrounding residential buildings a minimum of 90 minutes of daylight.

In front of our project there was a five-storey cement communist residential block, and we had to calculate and prove that each window, including the bathrooms, would have had at least 90 minutes of daylight. 

The reflection of the sun from those windows creates an additional surface and therefore the practical aspect of that shape is maximising of the building’s envelope, the centre of the arch is in fact the narrowest part of the building.

And since the sun moves along its trajectory, the building is able to extend on both its bottom and top part, effectively gaining space at the top and bottom.


Light and air, essential elements for sustainability

For us this means responding to the environment: it means using light and air, which are essential components of sustainability, to shape our buildings.

The Warsaw tower also features an additional element connected to air: we worked with our engineers to ensure the correct recirculation of air also above a certain height where it is not allowed to have opening windows. 

We therefore implemented dedicated air vents directly in the facade system.

These air vents were connected to sensors, so that when the temperature drops below a given threshold or the wind exceeds a given speed, they automatically close.

We strongly believe that sustainability concerns humanism and not just the creation of a mechanical space, but the creation of a space that effectively has fresh air and natural daylight.

Therefore we approach sustainability from several angles. I don’t believe that it is only technology but also shape, light and air.

Manni Group: Truly impressive. Studio Libeskind pushes for extreme solutions and perfection in shapes. At what point do you decide what type of technology is the most suitable for a project? And when do you choose, for example, a steel structure?

Yama Karim: There are two aspects to consider. We believe that “extreme shapes” or “radical shapes”, to use your words, help us innovate. Pushing us and our engineers to be more creative. 

This approach helps us overcome limits, not only as a kind of cliché, but because it helps us challenge what the industry knows.


The choice of technology depends on the context

The choice of technology obviously has a lot to do with what makes sense for the shape we need to create. 

For example, if you have a large overhanging structure, we probably will not use bricks, right? That would require a steel structure or a composite structure.

The other thing that we do and that we want to understand, and we take this very seriously, is what is available in that specific market. It is truly important to choose the material and the technique suitable for that country, or that region, or that city.

An example, sometimes we build complex grid-like structures, that intersect with each other. And in general we do this with steel, because it simply makes more sense to do so with a steel structure.

In Dresda we used steel. The Glass Courtyard in Berlin was built with steel.

We then followed a project in San Paolo in Brazil and, obviously we designed it with steel. Because those were the default requirements and the client came back to us saying: “We do not feel comfortable with steel, we will do it with cement”.

And we replied: “Are you crazy? Why would you use cement? That seems very difficult!”. But for them it wasn’t, it was actually a well-known element. They had the labour, the techniques and they did an excellent job using cement.

Therefore the selection is not just the selection of preferences, but also understanding the market or the context, and this helps a lot.


One material, multiple uses and contexts.

Another example was the use of our slab developed with Casalgrande. We had two projects, both of the same scale, both residential, to be built in two large cities: Milan and Berlin. 

Generally when we build a structure with slabs or a cladding structure, since we have a kind of German background, because the firm began in Germany, we have a Swiss-German and now also Italian mentality, where we strongly believe in details and precision, because the more complex the shapes, the more precise we have to be.

We believed that we would have used a slab for the Milan project that would be used as a ventilated facade, with open joint, with the air passing through. It does not close the envelope.

And therefore we thought that this would be a suitable solution, and then, again, we realised that finding suitable labour or the right contractor who felt comfortable doing it in that way turned out to be an uphill climb, an unnecessary challenge basically.

Accepting and choosing to use the closed, plastered joint system was the best decision we could make because they did it perfectly. 

It went smoothly, the result was gorgeous and they did it with maximum precision.

Later on, however, we used the same identical slab for a different version of our design in Berlin. There the builders did not want to do it closed, they insisted on a ventilated facade and we were happy with that choice, because they executed it perfectly.

Therefore, the same material, two different contexts, two very different techniques as solutions.

Manni Group: Your answer also seems to imply that a certain type of solution can only be achieved thanks to an extremely precise and extensive control of the execution stages as well. 

Therefore we would like to know, in your experience, what the most complex challenge has been for you since being at Studio Libeskind?

Yama Karim: That is actually a very tough question because there have been so many. 

It is interesting that you mentioned earlier that you are available to help with the tricky parts. That aspect is actually not tricky for us. 

We believe that part of the creative process is the technical solution. We tend to place importance on this part. 

And we even surprise our customers when we insist on being involved to the very end, regardless of the percentage of our scope. 


Total involvement in the development of the project

If we have 50% of the architectural scope, we do not want to apply it only to the design stages or to the first 50% of the project development. We want to apply that 50% to every stage and we want to offer a uniform collaboration during the execution stage.

Our desire to remain involved is not only to get more work, but because for us it makes no sense to ask a designer to create something unique and work with the geometries that we have mastered and developed over 30 years, to then deliver that project to a local office without the same experience.

They may be completely professional, highly competent, but not have the same type of experience with these complexities.

Therefore, with every project, we have to persuade our client that having us involved in the details is actually a way for them to save money. 

Because they could try to save a few thousand dollars on the design commissions, thinking that they will get a better price by involving only local architects. 

But they will get a harsh taste of reality when the contractor hikes up their costs because they are looking into something that is unusual for them. And so their prices increase by 50% or 100%. 

Therefore we say: “You need us to speak with the contractor because we can show and prove that what they are looking at might seem different but it is based on the techniques that they already know and can be carried out using the same materials that they have always used and are capable for using”.

Therefore, the client could spend a few hundred thousand dollars more in commissions, but the project could save a few million on construction and execution.


The role of local partners

This does not mean in any way that local partners are not necessary. We really enjoy working and collaborating with them. 

But the way we want to do it, to perform these very complex projects, is that we want them involved from the start, and we want them involved to the end.

So that there is a property from both sides. Because we want our local architects to feel part of the creative process, who own this project just as much as we do. 

If they feel the property of the design, they will take greater care and understand how to defend it.


The most intense project: Citylife the Libeskind tower in Milan

Now, with that I did not answer the question specifically. If I can ask a question, which project was the most intense architecturally or design-wise?

Manni Group: The one in Milan could be a good example.

Yama Karim: Milan challenged us in the use of technology in a truly unique way, and we ended up using GPS.

The contractors had used GPS to track and point the various angles of the balconies, for example. When you see the complexity of the shapes of the balconies, it was done using GPS coupled with ropes pulled from one point to another. 

Being able to combine techniques of the past and techniques of the new world was the success of the project. Therefore we do not assume that only computers know how to do things, to be advanced.

Involvement is crucial. And this allowed us to create these incredibly complex geometries using very common techniques. 

And it allowed us to create these sculpture-like shapes without making the buildings complex in terms of services or costs. Therefore the sculpture-like element in Milan is not the envelope of the building, the envelope is behind the balconies and is a straight wall. 

It is actually a very practical building. If you remove the balconies, it is a very normal, understandable and economic structure. And in fact this sculpture-like shape makes it possible to build standard windows and doors behind it. Therefore this was a challenge that I believe we overcame. 

The curvature of the facade in Milan and obviously in that structure, you probably only thought it was a structural challenge.

This is how it works in Italy, if we build a tower in New York it will be steel or cement, probably a combination. In England probably more steel and in San Francisco due to earthquakes, it is better to use steel. 

In Milan, however it would be a composite. Therefore the cement columns at the bottom, which are at quite an oblique angle, are steel-cladded. 

Therefore it is a composite structure of a steel envelope filled with cement and you are not required to choose one or the other, you can also create a hybrid system.



And that is what we did in Milan: people forget how flexible glass really is, and we used it specifically for the curvature of the facade thereby avoiding the use of custom-curved glass. 

Also the curvature at the bottom part of the height flattened out at one point, and then became gradual, and thus that challenge began as a technical challenge, which has to do with reflection. 

Because of the curvature, engineers were worried that those reflections could end up on the square and scald people. If you recall, when we were setting out the details for this project, it was when the Walkie-Talkie building was being built in London. 

The building by Rafael Viñoly had a curvature that created reflections on cars and had melted some of their parts. It was considered quite dangerous and therefore our client and our engineers would not have approved it. 

We could have reacted by saying: “No, we insist! We are the authors, the artists and our sculptures cannot be altered”. Instead we took on that technical challenge as an opportunity to create a new design.

A new type of language for the facade and to distinguish the front from the back. And we could not be more satisfied with the results.


The optimistic architect sees challenges as opportunities

Therefore we do not consider adjustments caused by technical components as compromises, we see them as opportunities to be creative and find unique solutions.

I believe this helped the Milan project, that it makes the tower even more unique regarding the shape that it once had. 

If you put together a group of people and you surround yourself with optimists, and this also includes engineers. We do not consider our engineers as boring people who churn out numbers, we consider them to be an extension of the creative team.

It is not necessary to have the solution at the beginning of the design, it is important to allow the design to evolve with the technology. 

Therefore we never embark on a project thinking that it is impossible. We apply ourselves to the project knowing that the solution might be unexpected. The solution is not always something you can think of before diving into the process.

The Military Museum of Dresda was not a huge challenge. We had learned from the Jewish Museum of Berlin, where the window and cladding system was very complex.

After the initial resistance and fear in figuring out how we would have built these geometries, and how we would have built these windows, we discovered that the labour workers felt much more involved and worked with much more care. 

It became a reason for them to feel proud in building it and doing it magnificently well. 

It became a sort of opportunity to include them in the challenge, they felt as much a part of the architecture as the lowly architect who only creates fun shapes and then expects others to deal with the complexity.

They were truly involved and I believe that this could be said of anything in life. If you don’t do it, if you are not put to the test, you are like a sleep-walker with the presumption of knowing what to do and you don’t even need to be standing up to do it, you can do it lying down. 

Therefore I believe that complex geometries produce precision and create innovation.


Yama Karim’s advice for young architects

Manni Group: And here we are with the last question. You provided us with a very broad overview of the role of the architect, the engineers, and actually all of the actors involved in a project. 

We are seeking your advice for young architects and designers out there and who are attending this course.

Yama Karim: It’s interesting. I think there are two elements to consider. 

I am able to call Daniel Libeskind my partner, but he was actually my mentor and someone I learned a lot from and who not only gave me many opportunities, but also instilled the belief that I could allow myself to be completely involved in the design that I create. 

I believe that as a young architect there are a couple of things I would like to paraphrase. The first: architecture or any practice regarding construction is intrinsically an optimistic practice

This means that in so many fields, such as writing or directing, you could have a pessimistic or cynical approach. You could have a cynical or dark novel, but in architecture you cannot! Because from the very beginning you believe in the future. 

From the moment you start drawing you are thinking about the future. As soon as you start drawing for construction, you believe that the future is bright and that is why we build. 

Therefore I think that being optimistic and having an open mind are very important elements. The other thing that I find extremely useful, that affects me personally, as you go forward, through school and the profession, it is more important to be bold than to have an objective

I think that a lot of people imagine that in order to be successful you have to have an objective, that you set that objective and try to attain it.

But the issue is often that when you feel like you have a well-defined objective, your mind and your eyes might not be open along the road to new opportunities and new results, that could be better than your first objective.

Therefore, bold and optimism. I think that is the only real advice I can offer because the rest does not have a formula.

It is partly luck, partly being in the right place at the right time, partly making yourself available and not being too rigid about what you think the ideal situation is for you.

Therefore open mind, optimism and determination. I think this is my advice for young architects and engineers.

Manni Group: Very, very thought provoking. Thank you.


Written by

Raffaele Bulgarelli - Digital Marketing Expert at Manni Group
Raffaele Bulgarelli - Digital Marketing Expert at Manni Group

Raffaele, Digital Marketing Expert of Manni Group, works in synergy with Isopan, gaining insight into the technical world of sandwich panels and keeping pace with the latest trends in the building industry. Thanks to his training in Architecture, he has a keen eye for online topics and activities involving designers and architects.

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