Architect Rita El Kouhen on Adapting Cities for the Future


Last Updated on March 16, 2021

In architecture, there’s a great deal of room for discussing the technical details of each project. After all, safety and longevity are primary concerns during the construction or renovation of any structure. 

But there are so many other factors that affect countless decisions even during the planning stages. 

Take, for example, the challenge of planning and designing a new building that will be constructed in an existing city that has been developing and expanding for dozens, if not hundreds, of years.

Contemporary architecture often seems to push and pull between the past and the future. Landmark buildings of the past need to be preserved and respected, but brand new buildings are being created as well, and they need to be well-suited to tenants’ needs both in the present and many years into the future.  

Architect Rita El Kouhen considers all of this and much, much more while working. El Kouhen, over her 10+ years in architecture, went from working for one of the top ten architecture firms in Paris to working for one of the top award-winning firms in New York, which operates in 34 states across the US. 

El Kouhen has led a number of multi-million dollar projects with these firms for major national and international developers. 

Having a longtime fascination with American architecture, El Kouhen has been thrilled to continue working in the US and taking on the many unique challenges that come from managing so many varied projects in very different cities and settings. 

We were fortunate to interview El Kouhen recently about her personal history with architecture, her all-time favorite architects and designers, and some of the major differences between architecture and city planning between Europe and the United States. 

InspirationFeed (IF): First up, we’d like to ask about any major differences you’ve noticed between contemporary architecture in Europe and the US. 

Rita El Kouhen (RK): I have always been fascinated by American architecture, maybe because of the difference between what I grew up seeing versus the American architecture I read about in books, media, and even studied back in school. 

Contemporary architecture is a combination of different influences from different times of the history of the architecture. The use of advanced technology and different approaches combined with demand and context makes every country and city different. Therefore, living in France, I noticed that the importance and focus on sustainability and certified green buildings is a growing trend. As an example, Paris is a city that was completely redesigned by Haussmann, known for long large boulevards, the symmetry of her buildings, wide avenues, new parks, and squares. 

The very distinctive appearance of the center of Paris is largely the result of Haussman’s renovation, in addition to very strict zoning policies. 

Nowadays, we can see a lot of contemporary glass or aluminum facades emerging with high-tech architecture in historic neighborhoods. In Germany, Switzerland, and Northern countries, it’s been a mix between great legacies and sleek contemporary structures with gleaming glass walls, unusually shaped walls, and audacity.

Both old and new buildings combine together in one skyline. While museums and institutional buildings in Europe have been a symbol of history, arhitects in America were covering a larger area of work. 

A lot of buildings late in the 50s were noticed as being a great achievement and quickly became iconic. The Seagram Building in New York City, the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., and many others, for example. 

Europe is focused on historical significance, even though they are now very advanced when it comes to technology and building sustainability. In Europe, different styles and phases came across and helped shaped the history and future. Gothic, Roccoco, Postmodern, Baroque– there were a lot of trends. 

The modern style emerged late in the 30s from architects like Frank Lloyd Wright. I would say that the first time I set foot in the US, I Was very impressed by how grand the buildings were. Everything felt so big and large compared to the European scale. Of course, NYC, where I live now, is unique and a very dense city, but in general the city is very rich when it comes to architecture. It feels like a large laboratory of design and ideas. 

Having worked in both countries, I can say that sustainability and green trends are catching up in the US. While it has been a major subject for decades in almost every new building in Europe, it is not as prominent when it comes to buildings in the US. Perhaps that will change with time.

IF: The history of American architecture has included many multicultural influences. Do you feel that you can continue to bring a unique, multicultural perspective to the US today? 

RK: Absolutely. I myself come from a multicultural background. I studied in France and graduated from one of the most prestigious schools in Europe. I traveled and still travel a lot and like to explore different cultures. This allows me to meet a lot of national and internationally-recognized figures in the field. 

Being eager and curious, I like to explore the culture and design of each area. American architecture and history were one of the main courses I had back in college. I was always fascinated by it. 

I like to think that the process of design is not limited to a style but can be richer when being inspired by a different culture. I like to think of myself as being an open-minded architect seeking to embrace context and use my experience to provide a unique result. 

Design is a continuous process that never stops. There is always an opportunity to bring new ideas to the table. The beauty of architecture is when you do not limit yourself to one thing but explore instead. 

The intellectual challenge offers complete freedom and initiative to produce projects that are never written in advance. It’s about continuing the process, not just referencing the past.

IF: Can you tell us about some of your biggest architectural influences?

RK: Frank Lloyd Wright, Rem Koolhas, Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, Richard Rogers, Philippe Johnson, Alvaro Siza, as well as more recent ones like SANAA or Peter Zumthor. 

I have several books from each of those amazing architects and always loved spending time analyzing their architecture. It’s fascinating how certain buildings have remained iconic for so long. 

As a matter of fact, I recently visited Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home and school from 1937 until his death in 1959. The use of natural light, the orientation of each specific room based on the sunlight, the use of masonry walls and ceilings due to the hot weather, and the different openings depending on what amount of light is desired or how the light hits the interior is just brilliant. 

I support the idea of thinking that a building is always related to its context and natural surroundings.

IF: Have you been able to visit different architectural landmarks here in the US since your move? 

RK: Every time I get to travel, I search for iconic landmark buildings I can visit. I have been in several states in the US and it is always exciting to see buildings that I had read about or studied when I was younger. 

Seven years ago when landed in NYC, I spent my first 6 months discovering the city and all its famous buildings. I love to take lots of photos and try to capture a unique moment depending on the sunlight. 

While I was more impressed by the exterior of some buildings like the Glass House in New Canaan, the Guggenheim, or the Empire State Building, some other buildings were more enchanting from the inside, like Fallingwater Mill Run or the George Peabody Library in Baltimore. 

I always loved the Chrysler Building, perhaps because of all the movies I saw. Being part of a great firm, our offices were located at the top of this amazing landmark building on the 70th floor.

IF: What do you think is the biggest challenge for architects working today? 

RK: Being able to understand the market and demand. It is one thing to be a great architect, but it is another thing to understand your clients and finding the right materials that suit the specific design and concept. 

Also, staying ahead of trends and being able to be innovative and smart. Definitely, innovation is key to being different from the rest and staying competitive. 

Also, sustaining projects and being able to have loyal clients is not an easy task. Having contacts and a strong social network is also helpful when it comes to spreading your work and building a portfolio. 

With all the new technology and software, architects tend to deviate from hand sketching. Almost every renowned architect has eventually developed the right talent by sketching ideas and bringing designs to life. 

The process is time-consuming but at the same time, it’s so fruitful. Sometimes it’s good to slow down the process and think about the design carefully. 

I also think it’s important to take inspiration from other art forms, not just architecture. 

IF: Both Paris and New York are cities that saw major growth hundreds of years ago. Is it possible to update the planning of these (relatively) old cities for modern needs?

RK: Absolutely. Never say never. People change. Laws change and adapt to the times we live in. It’s interesting to compare Paris to New York because Paris has been always a very tough city to work in and incorporate change and new buildings. 

Having worked in Paris for several years, I know by experience that obtaining a permit for a building can be a very exhausting process that can easily take years to achieve.

Sometimes projects can be dropped because of zoning laws that don’t allow for change. As for New York, the zoning is also very meticulous and challenges every project. However, New York is a very dense city and it has a limited amount of land. 

Developers are looking for different ways to expand. The process here is different and led to new thinking. But how far can it go? 

Although, change is not particularly a goal when it comes to cities like Paris. It is more about adapting to the future. I would say that change is possible and probably slow for both cities.

IF: Which of your past projects has been a great example of the type of work you love to do as an architect? 

RK: Each project is unique, different, and challenging. I like the process and history behind each project. I would say that one of the main projects that I’m proud of was the renovation of a mall on the west coast. 

Being part of one of the top firms in NYC, I get to work on very exciting projects. Everyone tends to think that malls are not operating anymore, which is incorrect. Reinventing the space and creating a new chapter for this mall was very rewarding. 

Seeing the same space being transformed into something unique, modern, and contemporary is a great achievement. 

I think it goes along with the idea of sustainability and how we can reuse the buildings we have instead of starting from scratch. There is so much we can do to create a great experience around the building. 

The before and after photos are always impressive to see. You wouldn’t think it’s the same space. Smart use of materials, innovative techniques, lighting, landscaping, and all other aspects involved in the construction can lead to amazing modern design. 

It’s definitely more challenging to work with existing conditions, but I found it even more rewarding to see the final result.

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