Meet Oliver Schulze, Schulze + Grassov

with Jemima Burrill, curator and cultural consultant to NOW Gallery

For the latest edition of Design District’s lunchtime series, regular host Jemima Burrill spoke with the project’s urban designer, Oliver Schulze of Copenhagen-based studio Schulze+Grassov. The pair discussed Schulze’s life and influences, ideas around difference and universality, and the importance of generosity in placemaking.

Together with Louise Grassov, his partner at the practice, Schulze is responsible for the spaces between the Design District’s 16 buildings — ‘everything it rains on,’ as he describes it. Schulze+Grassov also played a crucial role in the development of the architectural brief handed to the district’s eight architects, ensuring the integration of buildings, people and open space was considered in each response.

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For Schulze, the city is not static, but ‘an alive thing that’s different every morning when we wake up.’ He is clearly passionate about urban design, and the potential open, inviting spaces have for improving lives. His approach is deeply analytical and takes nothing for granted, starting with the structuring of the Schulze+Grassov office. Although those he and Louise hire each bring a particular expertise — be it landscape architecture or urban research — he believes questions are better answered at the intersection of these disciplines.

Schulze detailed a couple of influential events in his life, including the fall of the Berlin Wall (he grew up in Germany) which led to his realisation as a young man that global changes have local consequences. Similarly formative was the aftermath of the 1996 IRA bombing in Manchester, where Schulze studied architecture. Witnessing the rebuilding of the area sparked his fascination with city planning. He was no longer interested in just buildings, but in the way they come together — the ‘connective tissue’ that allows us to ‘reshape our life.’

Returning to the current moment, Schulze spoke about the confluence of the Covid-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests across the US and around the world, addressing this through the prism of his visiting professorship at Washington University in St. Louis. Teaching virtually, he asked students to self-assess stress levels on the streets of their city. Interestingly, these peaked not where unavoidable proximity to others made social distancing harder, but in the vicinity of boarded-up buildings — spaces that had become closed off. Withdrawal, it would seem, induces stress.

The conversation turned to feminist geography and ways in which cultural differences and lived experience inform perceptions of a place. In seeking to create quality public space, Schulze is however also interested in identifying certain universal factors. These include context, physical framework (for example the ‘active uses’ evident at ground level across the Design District buildings), accessibility, senses, scale and interaction.

An awareness of the role our senses play in navigating and responding to place has led to the selection of signature trees for each of the Design District’s yards — honey locust, sweetgum, Scots pine and ginkgo, all of which change visibly with the seasons. ‘We have developed a calendar,’ Schulze said, ‘to make sure every working day is going to be a little bit different.’

As usual, the conversation ended with questions from the audience. Topics broached included how the Design District’s public realm will deal with huge crowds attending events at its immediate neighbour, The O2 Arena, and the importance of ensuring open space is accessible to disparate groups of people. Following on from earlier comments regarding the role lingering has to play in a flourishing city, Schulze responded by pointing out ‘this is not a space where you have to consume to be there.’ Design District’s open spaces are seen as the glue that holds it together, and as such are generous in their invitation to sit, relax and contemplate.

Ultimately, Schulze is a committed champion of publicly accessible open space, understanding it to be a vital platform for the expression of both positive and negative sentiments. These, he believes, are the places that will ‘help us reshape our democratic societies.’ 

The next Meet the Design District Architects will be with David Kohn, founding director at David Kohn Architects on Friday, 17 July. Book now or view our archives here