The Future Is Now: Beat Huesler and Tom McKeogh of Oppenheim Architecture On How Their Technological Innovation Will Shake Up Architecture

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

McKeogh: Our studio has always been fascinated with ways in which we can make architecture more accessible to a wider audience. In every project, whether it’s a private home or urban development, we aim to find ways in which we can closely connect with our client and the eventual end users of the project.

As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Beat Huesler, along with Tom McKeogh.

A licensed architect with over 28 years of professional experience, Beat Huesler is the European partner of Chad Oppenheim — in 2009, the two founded Oppenheim Architecture + Design Europe, based in Basel, Switzerland.

Huesler heads the European studio, managing a senior architectural team to deliver projects in urban and remote locations around the world. His extensive construction and technical knowledge make the studio highly responsive to the available resources and industry practices in any specific location. An ability to work collaboratively with local architects, builders, and craftspeople leads to buildings that are made for their environments and loved by their communities.

Tom McKeogh is Studio Leader at Oppenheim Architecture + Design Europe, working closely with Beat Huesler on work in Europe and the Middle East.

As Studio Leader, McKeogh is responsible for creative direction, where he initiates and develops designs and documentation for all phases of a project. He is also responsible for creating and refining visual practices such as drawing, visualization and VR as part of the design process.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Beat Huesler: I believe I have an obsession with detail. I have always loved art — even as a child, I’d find myself sketching whenever it was possible to do so. Over the years, I have challenged myself to add more detail, be more creative and turn ordinary ideas into works of art.

In time, I completed a four-year technical drawing apprenticeship in Basel. My original focus on detailing embedded a deep passion for function — the placement, form, and features of a design must reflect its intended use, and the people who use it. I’d reflect on a number of concepts — from design and planning, to materials and construction, to sustainability and energy use. With these ideas circulating in my mind, I looked to study architecture and design at Cornell University.

Tom McKeogh: Architecture initially fascinated me with its potential to overcome crucial issues of our time across different scales of the built, natural and virtual environments. Advances in information, manufacturing, material technologies and visualization have created a whole new way of viewing and creating spaces that are technologically advanced, while also being meaningful, poetic, and deeply rooted in their place.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

McKeogh: Following my graduation from Columbia, I was asked to relocate to Jakarta to collaborate with a local firm — they were developing hospitality projects at a number of beautiful sites in Bali. I recall meeting with Beat on a rocky cliff overlooking the Indian Ocean, which happened to be the site of a potential project. It was my role to ensure that he was educated — but mostly entertained — in the ways of working in Bali. I particularly recall Beat’s laser focus on detail while walking the site — within a few hours under the blazing sun, he had intricately identified the various flora, fauna, rock types and microclimates.

However, one thing was missing. Beat asserted that we had to visit the site at dawn to better feel and understand the spirit of place. The next morning around 4:30 AM, we traversed to the clifftop with the client, and I recall thinking that this dedication to the spirit of a place just may be something worth being a part of — despite the sleep deprivation. I’ve carried this with me throughout my career — 10 years later, I’m still seeking out that particular, unique spirit of every space and site that we find ourselves in.

Can you tell us about the cutting edge technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?

McKeogh: Our studio has always been fascinated with ways in which we can make architecture more accessible to a wider audience. In every project, whether it’s a private home or urban development, we aim to find ways in which we can closely connect with our client and the eventual end users of the project.

We noticed a certain phenomena that was heightened by the global pandemic — many artists and curators made the transition to online platforms with the hope of displaying their artwork to the public when there were very few opportunities to do so in physical space.

Over the last few months, we designed the digital gallery space for the debut exhibition of Minoru Onoda: Through another Lens. Our firm was challenged to develop an immersive, simulated space that could meet the demands of an expanding online art market.

Huesler: While most online viewing rooms have only depicted two-dimensional art, the Anne Mosseri-Marlio Virtual Gallery incorporates a sense of heightened realism, brought to life through virtual reality effects from The Boundary and Oppenheim Architecture’s innovative design capabilities. Engaging architects to develop a virtual space is typically unheard of in the gallery world.

We viewed this project as an opportunity to authentically share amazing art and architecture, while bridging the gap between simulated reality and our physical existence. The purpose behind the virtual gallery goes beyond restrictions brought on by the pandemic — it centers on accessibility for all. When we spoke with the gallery’s director to initiate the design process, we reflected on ways to make the space more meaningful — how can we make this feel as interactive, immersive and inclusive as possible?

How do you think this might change the world?

Huesler: The concept of appointing architects to design virtual, three-dimensional spaces works to achieve two objectives, both of which relate in a number of ways.

In creating a digital space for the Anne Mosseri-Marlio Virtual Gallery, we helped to amplify the dedication to the artist, and the appreciation of the discipline and those that engage with it. Rising above the standard features of an online gallery, we developed the space with meticulous attention to detail and realism — from the floor to the ceiling, the windows to the walls, and the size to scale. Beyond that, the space is able to host different mediums of art, from canvases to sculptures.

The gallery bears an essence of freedom unlike any other, in resemblance to a physical space. Providing comfort and conversation among art and architecture, the online viewing experience encourages visitors to see the three-dimensionality and details of each work — helping to lead the way for expansion to different, multidimensional artistic mediums in the future.

McKeogh: In the same breath, it’s important to note that virtual events enable expanded inclusivity when it comes to participation. The ability to view art and understand its meaning should be a welcoming, accessible experience for enthusiasts and observers. Through the virtual gallery, all visitors have the ability to enter through the door and enjoy the works being presented.

Combining the two objectives, artists and enthusiasts are provided with the opportunity to experience reality through another lens. One cannot doubt that architecture has the power to impact art, as well as other industries, in a meaningful way.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

McKeogh: “Black Mirror” is an eerie, dystopic and captivating take on the potential of our current condition. Technologies such as VR, AR, wearables and the internet of things do seem to be pointing to a world where technology will envelop every aspect of our lives, and we are presented with visions of the future where the physical and virtual realities have merged.

It’s super important that we question the role architecture (and landscape) should play in this world of new priorities. As we all spend more time online, can we elevate virtual spaces to be truly impactful, engaging and thoughtful? How can we somehow reconnect to the beauty of the world around us through virtual spaces?

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?

Huesler: The ongoing pandemic has influenced organizations to transition many events and occurrences that were originally in-person to virtual settings. Virtual events remove geographic and financial barriers to attending an event, but many don’t promote a feeling of contentment or humanity. Around the world, individuals have found fault in the countless online affairs that seldom varied in production, representation and content.

Digital accessibility is important to ensure that all attendees are able to participate and engage effectively, ushering in an unprecedented experience that appears realistic and enhances your perspective.

What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?

McKeogh: We believe that designers have to push the boundaries of what’s expected in architecture. One way to achieve this is through collaboration with people outside, or on the fringes of, architecture. Such fruitful partnerships, such as those with The Boundary and Anne Mosseri-Marlio Virtual Gallery, help us refine and rethink our work. While we may not be experts in art curation or UI design, we are able to channel and translate our interactions with these realms into better design.

Huesler: It’s highly important we look at what has been done in the past, within our own firms and the industry as a whole, so that we may continue to develop spaces that have yet to be seen.

While it is dependent on the complexity, every major project has multiple layers of professionals involved. Teams that work together and creatively problem-solve, despite the differences in discipline, create an environment of inclusiveness and healthy collaboration that makes the project a success for all.

What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?

Huesler: Two disciplines meet at the center of this project — art and architectural design. Our primary efforts have been based around connecting with art and architecture lovers, to bring them the joy of these mediums that they may have missed over the past year.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

McKeogh: Though it may sound saccharine, we are immensely grateful for our team members. Oppenheim Architecture is a collaborative studio — we revel in quality ideas, thoughtful engagement and active contribution. More than that, we hire exceptional people from around the world. Without our team, we wouldn’t be where we are today.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Huesler: Looking at my previous successes, I compile what I know — through education and experience — to produce meaningful moments that are both impactful and contemplative. People all around the globe are calling for balance among society and the natural world. It is through our work that we strive for a peaceful coexistence between built and natural surroundings.

We craft designs by carefully balancing the needs of the individual and the attributes of the location. However, our work is not complete without collaboration — an ability to work collaboratively with local architects, builders, and craftspeople leads to buildings that are made for their environments and loved by their communities.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

McKeogh: While these statements are not things I wish I was told before I became an architect, they have proven to be good personal mottos and ideals:

  1. Employ young people: They keep ideas fresh.
  2. Have non-architect friends: They keep things real.
  3. Read everything: It’s a good habit to grasp — from design thinking to preparing contracts.
  4. Whether it is a project or new business relationship, remember that it’s going to be great.
  5. However, it’s just as important to remember that it’s not going to be great unless we work hard and make it the best it can possibly be.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

McKeogh: Empathy. It sounds crazy, I know.

As architects, it’s imperative that we understand and translate the priorities of stakeholders, clients and collaborators on a day to day basis. However, we are more than that — we are all humans at the end of the day. We are the most connected species that roam the planet, with the ability to instantaneously experience the world beyond our physical limits through handheld devices. Somehow, we are also the most disconnected — alienated from each other and our environment as we become more dependent on our devices.

Designing with empathy is one thing — however, living with empathy is a necessity for our humanity.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

McKeogh: Marcel Duchamp once said, “What art is, in reality, is this missing link, not the links which exist. It’s not what you see that is art; art is the gap.” In many ways, architecture operates in a similar fashion — we seek to find meaning in these spaces in between. It’s a quote we live by, every single day.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Huesler: The belief that virtual spaces are transforming the future has become intensified in the face of the pandemic. Yet, we have the power to alter their significance and need, past the limitations of COVID-19.

Working alongside architects, companies and organizations have the ability to create incredible life-like experiences. However, designers are in need of support for innovative, thought-provoking investigations in our field. Many architects are seeking to continue their studies, while research encourages us to transcend what is ordinary. Considering accessibility and function, naturalistic digital spaces are a gift of the present — what may we expect from the future?

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You may connect with Oppenheim Architecture on our Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest and LinkedIn pages.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

The Future Is Now: Beat Huesler and Tom McKeogh of Oppenheim Architecture On How Their… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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