Architecture and Resilience: Leo Cavalli talks to Ukraine's Commercial Property magazine
15th May 2020
The interview by Lucia Bondar recently published in the Ukrainian retail magazine “Commercial Property".
Leonardo Cavalli, the architect with 35+ years of experience, founded his own studio together with the partner Giulio De Carli back in 2007. In 13 years, the practice developed into 8 offices in Europe and Asia, gathered about 150 professionals, and received a number of international awards – Rethinking the Future is the latest one. Leonardo Cavalli, Founder & Managing Partner of One Works, gives insight into the studio’s development and principles.
What were your first steps as an architect? Do you remember your first project?
I do remember it. My first job was actually when I was a student at the Politecnico di Milano. I was a part of the team for the reconstruction of the Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa in Italy. I worked together with other students under the leadership of three highly professional and experienced architects, Aldo Rossi was one of them. This was back in 1983.
After graduation in 1986, I moved to London where I worked for 2 years. And on return, I worked with a young architect Cino Zucchi. In 2000, I joined Giulio De Carli, who was my schoolmate in University and now we are business partners, as in 2007 we set up One Works. Our studio is relatively young, just 13 years old, but comes from a much longer background. So, this is 35+ years of experience in a few words.
What goals did you state for your company, for your business?
I think goals grow in time. Of course, you must have a direction. With Giulio we’ve always shared the same ideas and not just in 2007 when we founded One Works. They were actually a part of our discussions when we were students together. And we’ve always had two ideas. The first is the idea that the world is one place, so we always try not to focus just on the local market, but think of a wider opportunity. To do so, i.e. to focus on a larger environment, you need to have a big organization, to employ multiple strong minds to tackle new markets. The second idea is that we have always seen our projects as part of new human environments. It's not just about a separate product or a building, but how these new things interact with wider environments.
What was the most challenging for you personally in your career? Can you remember the most significant lesson that you received as an architect?
There is one big lesson you learn in every single project – this is a relationship with a client. Usually, it starts up very well. But when a project gets permits and the construction phase starts – the architect becomes a problem, because he tends to focus on architecture, tends to control and protect the design, and the client becomes more conscious about money, about the cost of construction. So, you are the guy who is looking after your ‘little baby’, I mean the design, trying to protect it. But what everyone else is trying to make is business, which is fine. At the end of the day, if things stick together and you're able to stay on board when the project is finished, then again you become friends with the client. So, it’s a curving relationship – up, down, and hopefully up again. This is the lesson you learn very early, but it’s also the lesson that is repeated to you again and again.
How do you organize work with construction companies? Very often there are contradictions or even conflicts between architects and construction companies.
It depends very much on the area of the project, on the country where it will be built and the region’s traditions, etc.
We work in two main areas – real estate (retail, workplace, hospitality, etc.) and transport infrastructure (airports, metros, etc.) The relationship with contractors differs. In most cases in real estate, contractors are coming as the third party and they are just one of many other companies around the table when it is time to build. This way is less typical for the infrastructure sector, where architects and engineers team up with construction companies to carry out together first the design and then the construction itself.
Contractors are focused on staying within the budget and possibly save some money. Architects have a different approach. They tend to be more conscious about the final product and care about the final result. And this is where contrasts begin. Having different goals generates a sort of tension. Sometimes it is fine, sometimes contractors are able to bring in some better solutions, technical solutions. Sometimes it is just a matter of money. I think, as in any business, there are good contractors and bad contractors, as much as there are good architects and bad architects, good clients and bad clients. I don’t think you can write a single rule working for everyone.
What are the main markets that your bureau works on right now?
Italy had been our main market until 2013. And then we developed our capacities in the Gulf Area, which became our main and the bigger market. What is happening today is that this region is decreasing slightly, investments are reducing. And vice versa – we are growing in Italy again, particularly in Milan, which is a brilliant market for us right now. Besides, we are expanding in Europe; particularly we are working today in the Baltic region – in Riga in Latvia, and also in Malta, Belgium, Switzerland, etc. Also, we are entering the Southeast Asian market. We see lots of opportunities for us in these two regions, but keep working in the Gulf Area as well.
You are One Works’ expert in infrastructure and real estate. Please tell us what projects you are working on now.
If we speak about infrastructure projects, we are working in Venice and Riga where we develop the projects on airports’ extension. We are doing airport projects in other markets as well and also take part in architecture competitions. Particularly we are looking at opportunities in the Southeast Asian markets. Besides, we carried out a number of metro station projects in the Gulf Area, particularly in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and we are working on a railway station in Riga.
In retail real estate, we design shopping centres and other retail destinations. At the moment, the retail property sector is the main co-business in Europe for us. We are currently working in Malta and Italy on a number of shopping malls extensions.
We also extended our expertise in other areas of real estate like offices and hospitality, and we are doing a few projects in Europe, mainly in Italy, and in this field. But also one more area of interest for us is public spaces, CityLife in Milan is the one to mention. We are doing a lot of them, and sometimes they are a part of the projects I’ve mentioned or new ones. A boulevard leading to the Kaaba in Mecca in Saudi Arabia is one of the current projects.
Do you have your personal favorite project?
It changes with time. As you ask me now, my personal favorite project as of today is the one we have concluded recently – CityLife in Milan. And the reason is that it's not just about a building or a construction, but it is a project about creating a place, which is now working very well, where the people are happy to go.
What is your approach to architecture and project design?
Around 150 people are working in our studio in different offices worldwide. That's why it would be very difficult to establish one single architecture “language” for all of us. Of course, in our sphere, we as architects need to speak some “language”, for example in terms of forms, and this is the part of the discussion we are having every day among us. I would say that our projects are more of a collective approach than a personal statement.
To your mind, what factors will change the architecture in the near future? What are the disruptive factors influencing architecture?
This is something that is being discussed a lot these days. I am not totally sure whether anybody has a clear idea of what all these disruptive factors, which are not necessarily bad, are all about. In my view, we have a big challenge when discussing technology and architecture. Because architecture has always had a technological side, as it needs to be designed and built, and in different periods different technologies were applied. But today we are also thinking about the big challenge how we can incorporate these technologies into architecture, understanding that technology grows at a much faster pace than architecture. So, the availability of technology in the next ten years will be totally different from today. But when you build something, it will stay for centuries. So, how these two different paces stay together, I think, is our main challenge.
Resilience is another word people use a lot these days. Look at this place – at our office, a former car repair shop. This building has been here for sixty years. Not very long, but still. We are still using this building, I think it’s a beautiful place and in a way that shows the degree of resilience that architecture should have. Buildings and technologies develop at a totally different speed – this is a difficult balance we have to tackle. And this is what I think architects should focus on.
Society and professionals are talking much about social responsibility, ecological issues, the greenhouse effect, etc. How much attention do your clients pay to these kinds of issues?
These trends are growing very much, and there are many reasons for that. There is a real need for ecological sustainability. And it's definitely good. But there is also another side – that is the financial market, which looks at sustainability as a method. Sustainability is now the main goal for most of our clients in the public sector and other sectors as well. But we can speak about it in the sense of making buildings more sustainable, and also in the sense of wellbeing of people. So, these two elements are now coming more and more often into projects and are somehow driving them.
Your company took part in MIPIM in 2018 and 2019. How do you personally understand the MIPIM 2020 theme – Future is Human?
I don’t think architecture would exist without human beings. There is no need for architecture without us – humans.
What advice you could give to Ukrainian architects and developers?
I have not been to Ukraine yet, so I don’t want to look like the one who is giving opinions on things he does not know. I truly believe that every one of us is using all the capacities and skills to learn his own market. And our approach when we work outside the country is that we tend to work with local architects, engineers, and partners because they understand their country and their environment. I don’t think we have a simple formula to be best in Ukraine or to be the best in another country. We work on different markets, and we take it as an opportunity to learn and not an opportunity to tell somebody what to do. Ukraine is a country with a long history, and you have the expertise to put on the table. So, I don’t think we have any relevant suggestions. You are good enough to work on your own suggestions, and if we will ever have to opportunity to work in Ukraine, we are the ones who will learn from them.