The floating city, as Venice is often known, is a space defined by its dichotomies. Water and land. Science and superstition. Heritage and innovation.
In May, the city hosted the 16th Biennale Architettura, which brought a showcase of work – built and unbuilt – that pushed forward the dialogue between opposing ideas. This time around, the theme of “freespace” led countries around the world to consider how space is born, what it represents and how it’s used in public and private spheres as a democratic meeting point of people and ideas.
It was also an opportunity for Swiss watchmaker Rolex to engage an audience captivated by architecture in its own cultural conversation: the brand’s Mentor & Protégé Arts Initiative. Architecture has its own space carved in the Rolex programme, which seeks to pair an established name with an up-and-coming talent in the field for a (recently extended) two-year-long mentorship.
As Venice holds contrasts at its heart, so too does Rolex, building a house that weaves stories from history to ignite modern artistry and technical brilliance. The Arts Initiative inspires similar principles; it asks for a cross-pollination of ideas between – not to put too fine a point on it – the old and the young. The key is in exchange, offering two individuals the opportunity to begin a conversation, to explore new perspectives beyond the borders of a traditional professional environment.
The 2016-2017 arc paired illustrious British architect David Chipperfield with Swiss-born Simon Kretz, while the award-winning Sir David Adjaye selected Mariam Kamara from Niger as his counterpart for the 2018-2020 partnership. We spoke to each of them to understand the value of this intellectual exchange, as well as its relevance to communities beyond their own and how creative connection is just one way to learn (and unlearn) from each other.
David Chipperfield and Simon Kretz
Rather than beginning the arduous task of building a physical space, Chipperfield and Kretz decided that a conceptual project would allow a better opportunity to share ideas and nurture a dialogue, not just between people, but between countries. At the culmination of their mentorship, they’ve presented a book to pull together their year-long discussions: On Planning: A Thought Experiment.
So, why agree to such a commitment of time and energy in the first instance? “It was an attractive proposition to work with a younger professional who could look at something from a different point of view,” Chipperfield says. “It gave one the justification to step out of the normal process of one’s daily professional duties, and to reflect. Among the creative disciplines, architecture sits a little bit differently to the rest; it’s a very prolonged process.
“If someone said to me, ‘I want to come and sit in your office for the afternoon,’ it’d be the most boring thing you could possibly witness – not like being on a stage or a film set. This was an opportunity to step back, to consider something practical and, from Simon’s point of view, to step forward and to allow us both to see whether we could formulate and give precision to concerns that we both shared about the development of planning.”
Kretz agrees, citing the work they’ve done on the planning process in their field as evidence of the value in the mentor-protégé relationship: “The relation between the public and the private domain, it was always something that was meant to give society meaning. I knew that I could contribute to this relationship, as a shared idea.”
Both Chipperfield and Kretz are adamant they’re not on a crusade to blame or expose others in the industry, simply to illuminate. Shining a light on issues through mutual learning and sharing is precisely what the Mentor & Protégé Arts Initiative seeks to achieve. To make an entire industry sit up and take notice through such a programme would be an exceptional feat – so, has that happened?
“Well, in Switzerland we had a lot of reaction – people are saying, ‘Oh yes, we agree,’” Chipperfield says, laughing, “But in London, we’ve had so little reaction. In a way, the Swiss are already there, whereas the English are more hesitant.” Kretz sums it up as diplomatically as only a Swiss could: “[The book] is an exercise to be ready when times are a bit more stable.”
Sir David Adjaye and Mariam Kamara
From a duo that has reached the end of its prescribed mentoring journey, to a pair that has only begun. Sir David Adjaye, a Ghanaian-British architect, selected Mariam Kamara as his protégé, and their work together is in its initial stages.
Kamara’s delight at being involved in the Rolex Mentor & Protégé Initiative alongside Adjaye is palpable. “To get this email asking if I was interested in applying, and then, by the way, it’s going to be David Adjaye, I mean – jaw drop,” Kamara says. “He’s just the absolute perfect person for me to speak to. As a younger architect, but also as an African architect, I’ve been looking very closely at his work for years. You hear about the programme but it’s almost mythical.”
To be a mentor is not something that Adjaye takes lightly. “I was very fortunate to have mentors, and so I recognise the power of mentorship and how important it is. I felt obligated,” he explains. “There was a focus of Mariam’s work that was very compelling to me, it felt about the now. She seemed to be searching for a way to make a new future. It felt as if there was a sympathetic moment here.”
Kamara agrees that they’re closely matched in terms of focus areas in their discipline. “There’s a certain relevance in terms of conceptual approach, always wanting to make projects that are more. Empowering communities, how to better serve them; he is absolutely the perfect mentor for me.”
A look at the works that Kamara and Adjaye have undertaken to this point offer a unique demonstration of how, while the scale of the projects may differ, they share a common thread: to work in favour of the communities where they reside. Beyond the buildings themselves, Adjaye and Kamara agree that it’s a universal responsibility to support other architects, and especially those in the minority.
“The lack of gender parity is a very relevant and profound discussion,” acknowledges Adjaye. “There isn’t really much of a profession on the [African] continent, there’s an opportunity not to make the same mistakes as have been made elsewhere. It’s a critical issue right now. All voices should be part of that discussion.”
It’s a conversation we look forward to hearing more of in the coming months.