Architect Annabelle Selldorf on narrative structures

This year’s Panerai Design Miami/ Visionary Award winner adapts her artistry to each project. Here, she looks back over an acclaimed career. 

Architect Annabelle Selldorf on narrative structures

I grew up with architecture. My parents were designers and architects involved in the local art scene in Cologne. As a child born in the early 1960s, I was surrounded by the cultural ramifications of a postwar Germany re-creating itself: Cologne was full of new buildings under the influence of the Bauhaus. The scale of life then was so different. In the 21st century, everything from houses to airports is bigger, often expanding out of proportion.

In 1980, I moved to New York to study architecture at the Pratt Institute, and hung out with artists and art dealers. Downtown New York was a smaller scene then, with fewer people, an ideal time for falling into something that suited your inclination. The differences between Europe and America were so profound then, but now, in an era of globalization, the edges exist less strongly.

My first big commission, in 2001, was Ronald Lauder’s Neue Galerie in New York, set in a 1914 Carrère and Hastings building that had once been a private home. My firm had only done a few projects at that point, but Ronald had an intuition I’d bring a European sensibility—specifically a German sensibility—to a museum devoted to early- 20th-century Austrian and German art: Gustav Klimt’s famous Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I—or The Woman in Gold—is at the Neue Galerie. I felt reasonably well-prepared for the project, but of course, you never know what you don’t know. Thanks to Ronald, I learned a lot, and it was a successful collaboration.

Historic buildings demand a certain restraint. For Brown University’s John Hay Library, a 1910 Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge building, we brought a new energy to the structure by going back to the original narrative of the space, restoring the proportions of the Reading Room and using replicas of the library’s original pendant lighting. The opportunity to create a brand-new building, such as David Zwirner’s 20th Street gallery in New York, allows for different aesthetic specifics and a more proprietary architectural vocabulary.

As an architect, it’s a pleasure to work on truly needed projects, and pro bono work energizes our firm. We designed the Mwabwindo School in Zambia in collaboration with the 14+ Foundation, and it’s great to see the school—which opens next year—win the 2017 Panerai Design Miami/ Visionary Award. Rashid Johnson has done a mural and Christ & Gantenbein has designed furniture. The school’s courtyards are intended to serve as a gathering place for the local community in southern Zambia. Prototypes of the furniture will be part of the Design Miami/ installation, after which the actual pieces will be fabricated in Zambia from local resources and used at the school. Sustainability is a topic that keeps resonating in the contemporary world and in many of our projects: Windmills and solar panels will provide power at the Mwabwindo School, and rainwater can be collected on the roof.

Working with the photographer Todd Eberle on my book Selldorf Architects: Portfolio and Projects has given me a chance to explore the continuity of my own work, from renovations of older buildings—such as The Clark Art Institute in the Berkshires—to new structures like the Skarstedt Residence in Sagaponack. Todd is a strong character and has a singular way of looking at the world and seeing connections.

Buildings interact on various levels, talk to each other in a way, and they’re like people: You have to allow everyone to be the best they can. Architecture never ends for me; I walk by even the most beautiful buildings, old and new, and think about the little changes I’d make. Most buildings, like most people—especially myself—could be improved with a tweak or two.

Selldorf Architects: Portfolio and Projects, a review of the firm’s work on museums, public buildings and residences in the United States and abroad, is published by Phaidon Press.