On neutral Ground

Will Jones talks to Neutral, a spatial design research lab that just can’t keep away from architecture

‘Neutral is as our name says, neutral,’ announces Tapio Snellman, one half of the duo that makes up the international ideas and research laboratory specialising in spatial design. ‘We are devoid of style, not driven by aesthetics or fashion. We are about conceptuality and inclusion. We rally against the architectural obsession with creating built gems, isolated icons that are devoid of any real interaction with their surrounding environment.’

It may seem strange then that Snellman and his partner Christian Grou are both trained architects. And, it would seem more than a tad ironic that Neutral is currently working with Swiss architect Herzog & de Meuron.

After meeting in Stuttgart in the early 1990s, Snellman and Grou realised that they had the same yearning to break from the constrictions of architecture and take complete control of their work. Neutral was formed in Tokyo in 1998 and the duo went on to hone their audiovisual skills by shooting their first film Seek.01. They also picked up commercial work in the form of screen, Web design and 3D graphics for the Toyota Motor Corporation.

The pair both believe that any environment, whether real or virtual, can not be captured as a static snapshot. It is a fluid element, always shifting and changing – hence their aversion to exhibitionist architecture. All things should interact, and Seek.01, a frenetic race through the urban landscape of Tokyo, forces the viewer to experience the pace of life in the world’s only true megatropolis while perfectly illustrating Neutral’s intentions of creating interplay with the environment around us.

The film was aired at the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki and at the Hayward and 291 galleries in London in 1999 as part of the travelling Cities on the Move exhibition. At the same time, Neutral moved its offices from Tokyo to London. It continued to work for Toyota while winning Web and screen identity contracts for management consulting and technology services giant Accenture and R&D work for German airline Lufthansa’s new digital in-flight entertainment system.

After only a few months in London, Snellman went to a lecture by architect Zaha Hadid. Although a fan of her style, he was disappointed with the lecture and especially the quality of the computer-generated visual aids. On being introduced and asked to comment, Snellman couldn’t resist a jibe at the presentation material. Hadid took it on the chin and challenged him to do better.

And so Neutral began on the road back into architecture. But Snellman and Grou were not swallowed into Hadid’s practice. Instead, the duo have retained a distance.

Neutral’s work for Hadid, for other organisations and for itself has since been exhibited in places as far afield as New York, Sydney, Venice and Helsinki. Its 3D animations and video work for the architect has attracted other big names in the profession, including David Chipperfield Architects.

While Hadid and Chipperfield collaborated with Neutral to use its visualisation skills and techniques, Herzog & de Meuron went a step further, employing the duo as an integral part of the design team. The architect brought them in at the initial stages of its Munich stadium proposal to visualise the concept design and it has since been influenced by Neutral’s ideas of interaction with the environment.

With the stadium’s eventual completion will come the rash of publicity that always surrounds Herzog & de Meuron’s work. Little mention will be made of the conceptual animation and computer visualisation techniques that won the brief and then went on to play a big part in the successful design and completion of the project. Neutral isn’t shouting about that though.

Snellman and Grou have now completed Seek.02, the second in what they hope will be a series of films. This installment is an experiment to morph two cities, London and Mumbai, to create an entirely new city. Seek.02 has already been shown at the Super Deluxe event space in Tokyo and Neutral is now investigating spaces to air it in London. This sort of work is Neutral’s first love. But it doesn’t stop the duo working on two confidential projects for Lufthansa, as well as a new collaboration with architect David Adjaye.

Perhaps, as the saying sort of goes, ‘irony really is the best policy’.

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