Sophie Nguyen has had quite a journey since graduating from the School of Architecture, Paris La Seine in 1987. Born in the capital to a French mother and a Vietnamese father, as a child she quickly developed the creative and mathematical skills that – along with inspiration from school art projects and a design-savvy uncle – would eventually lead her into architecture.
After completing her studies, Nguyen enjoyed a highly successful stint at the design studio of French architectural stars Jean-Marc Ibos and Myrto Vitart, the pinnacle of her career came in the mid-1990s, when she took the lead on the innovative façade of an expansion project at the Musée des Beaux-Arts. The imaginative façade of the project’s new building, built between 1990 and 1996, provided a pointillist reflection – and celebration – of the original museum building on the other side of the street. The project was a major early success for Nguyen as well as Ibos et Vitart, which snagged the prestigious l'Équerre d'Argent architecture prize for the project in 1997.
Nguyen then relocated to the UK to take up a position at the Richard Rogers Partnership – now Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners – before establishing her own Kensington-based studio, Sophie Nguyen Architects, in 2003. Since then, she has pursued smaller-scale domestic projects – from Art de Vivre, an airy remodelling of a large family home in North Kensington, to redesigning her own west London home, which is now dubbed the ‘hover house’ for its glass-clad basement space, which lends the building an illusion of weightlessness when viewed from the outside.
Nguyen has also, through consultation work with professional services powerhouse Arup, contributed to design proposals for a number of major cultural projects, including a ‘park in the sky’ tower concept for London’s Olympic Park, on the site that was eventually filled by Sir Anish Kapoor’s Orbit Tower. In projects large and small she has retained a bold sense of colour and light. We caught up with the architect to discuss her career and distinct style.
Chris Lo: Could you tell me about your early upbringing and education in Paris, and what inspired you to move into architecture in the first place?
Sophie Nguyen: A combination of things. I think like most architects it’s a combination of liking drawing and being artistic, but also being quite good at scientific subjects like maths. Being an artist is quite a difficult life, whereas being an architect is seen as being more grounded.
The first inspiration for me that was important in architecture was actually my uncle’s house, that he had built in the early 70s in a southern suburb of Paris where all the houses were very classic, except his. His was this radically modern house and I believe that the architect, a friend of his, was very much inspired by Louis Kahn, the American architect, where every material is very important. What really inspired me about the house was the fact that you had the bright space and the walls didn’t touch the roof so you had a constant vision and a perception of the whole house, and not just a series of rooms. The master bedroom for example overlooked the main room so you could be up in the air and be in the main space, but removed at the same time. That’s what really inspired me, this circulation which is not just from room to room but also up in the air.
CL: How important was your time with Ibos et Vitart to your career and the development of your perspective as an architect?
SN: It was absolutely marvellous because it was very intense and I was asked immediately to be in charge of those [Musée des Beaux Arts] façades, which was a real collaboration with the structural engineer. For me it was fabulous because I had this possibility to develop the architecture in parallel with the engineering input. [Ibos et Vitart] had very high standards in terms of design and they were very demanding; there were no limits. ‘Impossible’ was just a starting point for them.
The other thing that was interesting to me was how important it is to have a very strong idea at the beginning of the project. At school you think, ‘Of course that’s important,’ but you don’t realise that the design process lasts for a long time. This project we started in 1990 and it was finished in 1997 and we went through different elections, where things slowed down and then stopped, then you come back to normal speed and you need to have a really strong idea to start with so that after seven years it’s still good. It can’t just be a reflection of the trend; it has got to be more than that.
CL: Since starting your own firm you’ve done a lot of work to renovate and improve homes – do you think the ‘don’t move, improve’ philosophy is essential in a city as densely populated as London?
SN: Yes. It’s not really that they are small homes; it’s more that it’s the typical London Victorian house, which is quite limited – five metres wide and 12 metres deep if it’s a Victorian area, or a little bit less. But it is trying to effectively bring a sense of space, and real space as well – because everyone’s doing extensions at the moment – but also a a feeling of spaciousness.
And this is something you can apply, actually, to big homes as well. The Art de Vivre [house renovation], that’s the project that was commended for the Sunday Times British Home Awards last year. It is a massive home; it’s 400m², so it is very big. But all the doors were small; it was very dark inside because there weren’t a lot of openings. Every room was closed off, and although it was a very big house, you never actually perceived it. The main staircase had an extra landing at the top to access the small bedroom. So it was basically a series of enclosed rooms. And if you go back to my uncle’s house, where you perceived the whole house even if you were in your room – in this big house, you didn’t really perceive it.
So the first thing that we did was to bring the light in from both sides, east and west. Because that’s another thing that I think enhances a space, when you can have the light in the morning, but you’ve also got the soft red light in the evening. And suddenly, it makes one room shine at one time of the day and another room shine at another time of day. So it’s a change of your perception of the house – you perceive it differently because the light changes.
CL: Can colour be used to reimagine living spaces where space is limited?
SN: Absolutely. It also helps to identify a function. So for example, and this is actually going back to the 19th-century architect Adolf Cluss, who basically took away all decoration but used the colour of the material as the decoration element. And for me, it’s the same way.
For the Hover House we had the staircase going into the basement. I think we might have spent a year trying to design this handrail and staircase, going through glass, metal, suspended, lots of complex things. And then I thought I would like it to be like a sculptural element, so the handrail is not just functional, it creates an object with the section of the basement. When you look at the rear of this basement you see the staircase and the shape – for me it’s a reference to the American artist Ellsworth Kelly. It floats but it’s actually structural because it holds the staircase completely. Everything that is red on this staircase is actually the structural elements! Drawing attention to the structural elements rather than trying to hide them shows a bit of Richard Rogers influence as well.
CL: Of the large-scale concepts you’ve worked on, do you have a particular favourite?
SN: I was asked to be an architectural consultant for Arup, and what I thought was very exciting to be working on these large-scale projects is that you do feel that you are contributing to the improvement of the future, and therefore to the lives of everyone. The [Olympic Park] viewing tower is one of my favourite projects. Providing a park in the air at 150m above the floor, I thought that could be absolutely marvellous, particularly in that area, where it’s quite dense and urban.
I felt it was a transcendence of what engineering can bring to a city and to architecture. The engineering behind this tower is basically all that we’ve learnt from the Millennium footbridge. So we could achieve a tower that is 150m high by 6m diameter. It’s slimmer than a cigarette. We had this sketch that we drew, which was like a flying saucer, stuck on a stick. The top of the stick actually disappears because of the technology used – the column was going to be cantilevered, anchored at the bottom – and therefore we could actually open the structure and make it like a mesh, rather than solid. So as you go up and as you reach the platform, the structure disappears and becomes thin. It would have been magic. And the inside we had the lift, and as you go up, gradually, because the structure has openings, you discover the city.