In head-to-toe black, John Beckmann stands near the window of his Midtown design studio and exhales a thick cloud of smoke from his Marlboro Light. “I feel really comfortable in black,” he says. “I like color, but I don’t like wearing color. I think it started in the ’80s with Comme des Garçons, and that became the standard, smart, avant-garde architect look.”
Beckmann’s unconventional-yet-charismatic creations seem to run in direct opposition to New York City’s architectural establishment. In recent years, he and his team of mavericks at Axis Mundi have challenged high-profile projects by renowned architects like Jean Nouvel and Renzo Piano by unveiling far more imaginative designs.
Despite the fact that none of his buildings have been constructed, his presence on the scene is influential and his ideas are gearing discussions in new directions. His counter-proposal to the Renzo Piano-designed downtown Whitney was named one of the top 10 by Architizer and Curbed, and his works have garnered critical attention in a number of publications that include Archiworld, Designboom, and the New York Times.
Known for his rouge initiatives and contrarian inclinations, Beckmann’s intriguing work refuses to be defined by a brand or movement. “I think movements fail, so why put a name on it? I like Francis Picabia’s approach,” he says. “He believes an artist should change their style as often as they change their shirt. I try to approach these things in a really fresh way and not get pigeonholed. I like that feeling when you have a pit in your stomach when something starts because you don’t know what to do.”
Scott Newman: So how does the founder of a successful interior design firm become what some might call an “architectural hacker?”
John Beckmann: Getting more into architecture is something I’ve always wanted to do and I think it was a natural outgrowth of doing design, interiors and furniture. Over the last six years I started designing projects that were in my head. First they were residential projects, and then larger scale conceptual projects like the MoMA Tower and the Whitney Museum proposal. I began doing this because the technology became available. You can put together a convincing proposal and renderings quickly, and that has put a lot of power in people’s hands. To quote William S. Burroughs, “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” If it can be imagined then maybe it’s real. When that thinking intersects with the vitality of the Internet, normal channels are subverted and that creates new ways of navigating the entrenched establishment. With all that, I realize I can do a project, get it out there and create some tension. “Architectural hacking” promotes people participating, and I would like to open things up in a field that is very rigid and predictable.
SN: You received a lot of attention for your comment about Jean Nouvel’s MoMA Tower designs. Did you say he was “driving a stake through the heart of Manhattan?”
JB: Yes. The tower he proposed for MoMA was something like 1,250 feet tall. It’s this very thin, tapered spike that he said is the missing piece of the Manhattan skyline. I didn’t know that the missing piece was that large—the size of the Chrysler Building. Honestly, it just seemed really pretentious to even say something like that.
SN: So what was your idea for the missing piece of the Manhattan skyline?
JB: The piece we did called “Vertical Neighborhood” was inspired by looking at the favelas in Brazil. There is a classic book from the ’60s called “Architecture Without Architects” that has great photographs of Italian hill towns and things that are sort of randomly piled and grow over a long period of time. They weren’t designed by one brilliant mind. They just sort of happened, and I think in that way the favelas are fascinating. We took cues from that, and instead of making them out of brick and stucco, we took different modernist icons or signature styles and assembled those in a random way. In a way it was a snide putdown to how architecture is designed. It usually comes out of one great mind, the genius, and has a fountainhead sort of approach. Really it takes a 150-person team to design a skyscraper, but it’s the genius behind the whole thing that gets the recognition.
SN: Can there be avant-garde architecture in New York City?
JB: I think it’s difficult. If you look at the stuff going on in other places in the world, like China, developers in New York don’t seem to take too many chances or do enough to encourage contemporary architecture.
SN: What about the new downtown Whitney?
JB: Renzo Piano is building the Whitney, and he’s a great architect, but I was surprised when I saw the first renderings because it seemed like it could be anywhere. It looked out of context. I could imagine him scribbling something on a napkin over a $40 hamburger and a nice bottle of wine at Cipriani, and people shook hands and that was it. That was a project where I said, ‘Well that doesn’t really make sense.’ So I imagined it as a matrix, a kind of cage where all of the different spaces were inserted. The idea is that the spaces are literally bridges that go from one side of the building to the other, floating within this matrix. The Renzo Piano thing is more of a warehouse. As much as I like his work, I think that not everybody does interesting things all of the time.