Meet David Kohn, DK Architects

with Jemima Burrill, curator and cultural consultant to NOW Gallery

Having previously designed galleries, colleges, art installations, private residences and exhibitions, David Kohn Architects can now add two Design District buildings to its list of projects — one of which will bear the district’s landmark sign. Founding Director David Kohn spoke with Jemima Burrill about the research that informs his practice, working with artists and the limits of ‘hedgehoggy’ thinking.

In one of his most popular essays, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin made use of a line of ancient Greek poetry to characterise two opposing attitudes: ‘A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one big thing.’ For David Kohn, this is applicable to architecture, with the hedgehog representing Modernism and its continuing legacy, and the fox a more expansive way of thinking about the subject. What interests him, he told Burrill, is ‘borrowing from many sources and being open to what's already there: the city, complexity, context.’ Find out when our next talks take place.

Among the architecture that informed Kohn’s buildings for Design District are James Stirling's Tate Liverpool and Maison de Verre in Paris, designed by Pierre Chareau. It’s easy to spot references to the former's columns — with their bulk and colour providing an ‘oversized invitation to come in’ — as well as to the indeterminate sense of scale created by the gridded glass facade of the latter.

Historical research plays a fundamental role in Kohn's practice, enabling him to draw connections across time that help form his ideas. The concept of a creative district, he suggested, has precedence in the guilds of Venice, like the 15th century Scuola Grande di San Marco. Here, the occupations of its members were represented literally by sculptures incorporated into the architecture, along with statues of patron saints and carved symbols. Kohn drew a comparison between this and the architecture of Las Vegas, describing a direct line connecting the two that inspired him to include spaces in the exterior of his Design District buildings for sculptural objects, as well as the scaffold-mounted and illuminated Design District sign that spans the length of one building’s rooftop. Neither would’ve happened were Kohn a subscriber to ‘hedgehoggy thinking’ — that, he argued, ‘was about excluding a lot of strategies [such as] collaborations with artists.'  ’

Kohn spoke about some of his studio’s other projects, including the V&A Photography Centre and his work with artist Fiona Banner. The pair are best known for collaborating on A Room for London — the boat-shaped structure that crowned Queen Elizabeth Hall for several years — although they in fact first worked together on Banner's installation Harrier and Jaguar — two military planes that occupied Tate Britain's Duveen Galleries. As the project’s architect, Kohn was charged with figuring out the logistics involved in suspending a decommissioned fighter jet from the ceiling, nose down. It was far from a purely technical exercise however — as Kohn said of the experience: ‘What was really eerie and affecting was the realisation that the neo-classical architecture and the geometries of this death machine had so much in common.’

Kohn has also worked with gallerist Stuart Shave, designing one of his spaces and a (surprisingly art-free) Norfolk retreat, where he built aedicules for displaying objects into the walls. A similar feature occurs again in one of his Design District buildings, where the rear windows are inset to create niches which the architect hopes will be used by the occupants to display their work, adding to the building’s facade (he confesses to a radical interest in surface over structure).

Speaking of the Design District as an ‘urban strategy,’ Kohn expressed that one of the most exciting things about it for him was that many different architects could work together and achieve the kind of variety conducive to a successful public realm. ‘Variety and pluralism,’ he said, ‘will be a large part of what will make this a very exciting place to be.’ 

The next Meet the Design District Architects will be with Barozzi Veiga on Friday, 11 September. Book now or view our archives here