Known for designing the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the blocky, knobby exterior of MIT’s Stata Center in Cambridge, Mass., as well as hundreds of significant projects around the world, the acclaimed Los Angeles architect has now lent his signature style to some of the world’s most famous fortified wine. He’s not much of a drinker, though. Go figure. Here he reveals his passion for helping ease the world’s intractable issues through beautiful design.
You’ve gone from buildings to bottles. What about bottle design appeals to you?
The Hennessy X.O Cognac commemorates their 150th anniversary. The limited-edition is coated in bronze. I’m usually working with surfaces on a much larger scale. It’s so much easier to work on a small scale and cast that.
If drinking isn’t your thing, what drew you in?
The folklore of the Cognac region, the intensity of the Hennessy family’s commitment to quality. We connected. Their dedication felt like my own commitments to stuff. It was seductive, really, how they sat in a room and tasted hundreds of samples to create one special blend.
How did you come up with the crumpled shape of the limited-edition version?
At the time, I was working with cracked glass on a larger scale, two-feet square, for a desk I was making for a building in Chicago. With glass, you can’t predict how it’s going to crack. I love that not-knowing. There was a synchronicity between that thinking and the perfection of the Cognac. A yin and yang. Absolute perfection and something totally unexpected to put it in. That made sense to me.
Do you have a creative ethos?
I’ve been working on a jazz opera with saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Jazz musicians explore the unknown on the fly. He says, “You can’t rehearse something you haven’t invented yet.” Creativity is like that.
Your first home is now a landmark in Santa Monica, Calif. What do you love about the house you live in now?
That my son designed it. He’s been watching me for a long time. Picked up my love for big chunks of wood. I also love my collection of artwork made by friends. I have a painting by Ken Price. He mostly did sculpture, but I have one of his rare paintings.
What problems can design solve?
A commitment to making beauty. There’s stuff going on that’s beyond our capability to fix, like homelessness. But beauty can have an impact. Our society isn’t set up to work that way, though. I’ve worked with the VA hospital in LA to design some housing for the homeless that would matter to them, become a place they’d want to live. I learned it would need lots of open space for the homeless to come live there.
It costs the same amount of money to build it ugly as it does to build it beautiful. When I built my first home in Santa Monica for $50,000, it wasn’t expensive. It doesn’t have to be expensive to create beauty. Nature does it for free. If you let it.
We are living on the planet with people who are suffering, and we can help them.