In an interview, Ar. Alejandro Stochetti talks about his design career, major projects, the latest trends in façade and fenestration designs and materials, and much more.

Could you tell us about your educational background, career and architectural experience?

I would start with noting the obvious. Our family, society and immediate context, as well as our life circumstances and our responses to these conditions, are our premier educators. I grew up in a poor country, in a large family, where making the right decisions on the use of resources was always critical. We needed to be efficient with the use of materials, energy and time. That required a lot of ingenuity and curiosity. I needed to find better ways to do things, achieving more with fewer resources. This was “CREATIVITY” at its most meaningful expression and purpose.

By the time I had to decide on a professional career, I was interested in many fields. Till today, I follow advancements in a broad field of knowledge such as biology, chemistry and engineering, and all that involves technology and scientific advancement. I was also interested in arts, music, painting and writing.

Hotel Hilton Astana and Congress Center
Hotel Hilton Astana and Congress Center (Image Credits: AS+GG)

I see our design profession as opportunity to understand the most current advancements and integrate them in design solutions to enhance our fragile environment and our human experience as part of this ecosystem. Our appreciation of space and our interactions go beyond material experiences.

At the highest level, design touches our emotions reaching spiritual experiences. We can engage with natural light, open views and textures in a way that is unique to that environment. Like walking on a trail in a forest one specific time of the year.

Unique experiences stay with us. I take nature as the most powerful source of inspiration. We – humans – are part of a very young family that has inhabited our 4.5-billion year-old “pale blue dot” for just 100k years. “Design for Life” is my design motto. We cannot afford to disturb our environment beyond its capacity to afford us.

Expo 2017 Astana Science Museum
Expo 2017 Astana Science Museum (Image Credit: AS+GG)

What inspired you to pursue a career in Architecture?

I believe in the power of design to positively protect, enhance and when necessary, transform our context to enhance individual, and community use of the space at all scales and typologies. Human survival and progress clearly depend on our capacity to use our available resources at their maximum Hotel Hilton Astana and Congress Center capacity to make this planet our best possible home, for a long time. Some 300,000 years ago, our ancestors understood and domesticated fire and started a process that continued with an amazing series of discoveries. Our capacity to embrace and use discoveries to envision and maximise our next stage of development is part of what design is about.

Tell us about some turning points in your design career.

I see my design career as a continuum process – always looking to maximise the impact of the design process to benefit end users, the community, and our environment. I don’t feel I had turning points. I can acknowledge, however, that some projects accelerated my experience and understanding of some scales and typologies. A few years after arriving in America, I was a senior designer working with Adrian Smith at SOM on the tallest building in the world, Burj Khalifa. I then joined AS+GG as a director of design working on the next tallest tower in the world, the Jeddah Tower.

In the same firm, I was the director of design for two large expo projects—one in Kazakhstan for Expo 2017 and the other in the UAE for Expo 2020 Dubai. These projects did not change or turn the direction of my career but accelerated my learning process. From the mega-tall to very extensive, and from extremely high temperatures in the Middle East to long, very cold winters in Kazakhstan. In the Expo 2017 projects, I lead a team of 80 architects and many other consultants around the world to design and execute about 20 diverse buildings with a total of 2.4 million Sq m in just over a year. Diversity, scale and speed where continuous challenges.

Al Wasl Office from Garden
Al Wasl Office from Garden (Image Credit: AS+GG)

Another very interesting learning experience includes working on “world events” such as expos with a defined, unmovable opening day. These fixed schedules require a tremendous, focused effort to deliver significant visions in a short and limited period of time. Design, approvals, documentation, coordination and work on the ground need to advance at the most efficient rate our profession can deliver. it’s challenging and good. At Cannon Design, I am Senior Design Leader for our Chicago office. I accepted this great opportunity to integrate my design experience and vision into a new set of typologies, scales and clients in a great and growing multidisciplinary firm whose ambition and interest perfectly align with mine. It seems that I always need to be challenged by ambitus goals. I always need to be able to add to the process, to the story, and to the larger vision.

What type of projects does CannonDesign specialise in? What type of services do you offer to your clients?

I’ve been intrigued by Cannon Design for years largely because of its Living Centered Design ethos. Like me, the firm is focused on using design to have a broad impact not only on people but on communities, society and the environment. It practices at the intersection of multiple disciplines— architecture, engineering, strategy, experience design and social impact— to address some of the world’s biggest challenges.

Hotel Hilton Astana - Atrium Space
Hotel Hilton Astana – Atrium Space (Image Credit: AS+GG)

I’m continually inspired by how the firm not only considers how projects will perform for clients but how their impacts will ripple outwards. It’s been an exciting transition for me because I’m working on new project types that are pushing me creatively, specifically healthcare—which is one of the firm’s specialties. It’s giving me a chance to learn about the intricacies of the healthcare system while applying my design philosophy to an industry that is truly in need of design intervention. The firm’s other core sectors include education, science & technology, commercial, sports and community. I am already engaged in the design of projects across many of these areas.

What is your take on sustainable practice in architecture today?

It’s no longer an option. It’s our responsibility. We do not have another planet to go. Not yet. As a society, as a technological and economic force, we have moved so far and so fast that we have obliterated the same delicate environment we depend on to thrive. No other species on our planet has been able to deteriorate its own environment so— sadly—effectively. As a design discipline engaged with the use of natural and man-made resources, we are at the central stage of a needed environmental revolution. And there’s no going back. There is no nostalgia of older, better times for a design discipline where things were purer and easier to understand and transform.

We live in an epoch of almost unlimited intellectual capacity. Human-inspired and computer-enhanced design processes can clearly take on current challenges and foresee ultimate opportunities as we have never done before. Architecture and all design disciplines have a clear responsibility to envision our future places, objects, technologies and processes not only to protect our environment but adapt to our new climatic conditions and restore it to its best potential state.

How would you define your design process for façades and fenestrations in your projects?

Expo 2017 Astana International Pavilions
Expo 2017 Astana International Pavilions (Image Credit: AS+GG)

The façades and fenestrations of any project are to be considered like the organic skin or membrane of living organisms. They protect and provide for a healthy life in their interior space. The first step is always to provide the building with its best overall form. This will provide the best context for this organic skin to do its most effective work. Our eyes can react to strong direct solar radiation; eyebrows close and the pupil constricts but is always better to look away from the sun or protect our eyes first.

Architectural forms, come from a design process we called “form follows performance”. This takes into account site conditions and provides the best starting point for the significant demands of the building skin. Its important to make sure building enclosures respond to their very specific context and function. There is clearly no “best” system than can work in all cases. Solar, thermal, wind and noise impact are conditions that have to be taken into account holistically for every particular condition. Views, natural light and ventilation are of critical importance for human comfort and interaction.

Most importantly, the membrane of this living organism -the building- needs to adapt and adjust when necessary to respond to specific conditions. It requires distinct considerations on its distinct exposed surfaces. Parametric modeling significantly helps in fine- tuning the optimal geometry, detail and materiality. Please talk about some most preferred façade materials.

An interesting façade concept
An interesting façade concept (Image Credit: AS+GG)

I don’t think we should have any pre-determined material to be used when starting. We need to be open to understand what the best façade system is for every unique project and part of each project. The façade material will be part of a system that should do its best part to perform its function. That said, our current understanding of embodied carbon, environmental impact and human impact of materials should be considered and guide our material’s selection.

At CannonDesign, we count with a great team of experts to support our efforts towards the highest sustainability standards. From material to systems selection. There are continuous advancements in materials and systems development. As designers, we can add to this process by challenging and requesting advancements to this industry. We design in the age of information. Decisions should be informed, not predetermined.

Could you please brief us on the trends in façade and fenestration designs and technologies?

I believe that the industry is starting to lead towards a more holistic approach when it comes to façade systems. But we need to move faster. A façade and fenestration system should be more integrated with the overall building, its materials, its mechanical and information systems and its users. Again, as the membrane or the skin of a living organism, a façade system needs to respond to the building needs and to its context more dynamically.

Burj Vista - two towers and the view from the top
Burj Vista – two towers and the view from the top (Image Credit: AS+GG)

It should be able to communicate and interact with the main building components and its users to maximise its performance enhancing comfort levels and protect its environment. I imagine a façade and fenestration system that uses sensors, passive and dynamic components, and materials that adjust and adapt to different needs in different areas at different times, and even ages in a way that provides feedback to the main building system so they can be adjusted, replaced or enhanced when required.

Ultimately, and going back to the reference to a living organism, I imagine a system that learns from its interaction with users and its environment and “evolves”. I would suggest that in an advanced stage of development, every building could be coded with a sort of engineered RNA and DNA that is able to adjust its components over time to serve its purpose better, and where its learning and responsive-ability can be coded in a way to reproduce its most effective mechanism as the base of its next-generation building. It could be “evolution applied to design and architecture” as it has never been seen before.

I saw some interesting advancements from Schüco, the brand, in a conference in Dubai in March this year.

Please throw some light on a few of your most favorite projects.

Hotel Hilton Astana towards Sphere
Hotel Hilton Astana towards Sphere (Image Credit: AS+GG)

I have worked to make all of my projects the best of their kind. I hope I have accomplished this in some way or another. For example, my design work on Burj Vista, during my tenure at AS+GG, creates a theatrical experience for Burj Khalifa. The geometry of its tilted glass reduces cooling load and glare, and its use of materials opens up views and reduces direct solar radiation—all of these create a very rich architectural experience and expression within the residential typology.

At the same firm, as design director, I led the design of Al Wasl, designed as an open public garden protected with a shade structure during the day, that transforms at night into an expansive immersive experience space. This created a new typology – a new type of public space that we called “urban room”. Within the mega-tall typologies, my work as senior designer at SOM on Burj Khalifa and as design director at AS+GG on Jeddah tower gave me the opportunity to explore and design taking into account the dynamic forces of extreme height. Planning and coordination of all disciplines in a building of that height are of ultimate importance. It is almost like designing a spacecraft. Ultimate efficiency in the use of space and materials.

Expo 2017 Astana aerial views
Expo 2017 Astana aerial views (Image Credit: AS+GG)

At CannonDesign, I am working with institutional clients with very well established and high goals. These are institutions with a clear social responsibility. Our projects are to elevate their legacy and invigorate their integration with their communities and very often with their regions and overall country.

Institutional architecture provides the incentives to advance design for the long term, well beyond markets and temporary interests. Just take into account that advancements in Hospital, Education, and Science & Technology typologies have a direct impact in human health, the transfer and advancement of knowledge and its translation into new discoveries and technologies for the advancement of human kind. As a designer, I am so proud to be part of this process at CannonDesign supporting so elevated society goals.

Tell us about some of your most challenging projects.

Astana Congress Center
Astana Congress Center (Image Credit: AS+GG)

All projects should be challenging. We can always do better; we should always do better. The mega-tall were clearly technical structural and planning challenges from day one. However, a project like Al Wasl, at the heart of the Expo 2020 Dubai, did not need to be a significant challenge. We made it challenging, because we wanted to maximise the impact of this project for its users, its owners, and the overall community. We envisioned an open public garden protected with a fabric shade structure, and we amplified its use by designing it as an immersive experience space after dusk. The integration of nature and state-of-the-art technology was not an owner’s request. The enhancement of thermal comfort in an open garden in Dubai was not present in any design brief. But we thought the city and its community would benefit from it, and its owner in the process. It became a very challenging project, because it could serve a much higher purpose. And it did.

What is the future of architecture post-COVID? Has the pandemic affected the design and architecture business?

I don’t think it has affected the business of design and architecture. It has, however, affected, or better put, informed, the design process or its components, but I think in a good way. Most of the needs that seem to have been discovered during the pandemic have been in the minds of designers for a long time. We designed a terrace for every unit of the Burj Vista in 2007. We designed Al Wasl as a public open garden in 2016. We added a sky terrace in Jeddah tower in 2009 as an open observation platform. All of these before the pandemic showed us the urgent need for open spaces at private and community scales.

Nomad City Hall, Astana
Nomad City Hall, Astana (Image Credit: AS+GG)

It is too early to say, but I hope some of the needs that were found during these times stay in place and are not forgotten. Natural ventilation, access to open spaces, working spaces integrated into living spaces — these are all good programmatic needs that I hope we integrate into our design briefs for generations to come. The obvious note to this question is that the working/ office typology has been placed in the review board. How much office space do companies need? What is the nature of this working environment?

Ultimately, I believe as a social species we will still be working together—imagining our next best products, our next best services, inspiring our next leaders and growing talent is best done in a shared physical space. Its scale, physical configuration, materiality and overall nature is being crafted project after project, emerging out of the Pandemic. It is great to be a designer in this context, accompanying clients, leaders and overall society in envisioning our next level of development. It is not about the demise of the office but “the evolution of our shared working space”.

What is your signature on your projects?

My goal as a designer is to optimise the impact of my projects for its users and their communities protecting and enhancing its natural environment. It is NOT creating a recognisable style or buildings form. There are no preconceived forms. In my design process, I consider all that the site and context offers, its opportunities, and take into account its challenges. In this process or as a result of this process, a form emerges, specific use of materials are determined and nature is integrated and taken into account to enhance the user experience. We call this process Living-Centered Design at CannonDesign.

As a more direct answer to your question, I intend my own work and my team’s work to have a significant positive impact on its users, its community and its environment. I hope this is the signature in all my projects. It is not about a particular identifiable form.

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