Ask the Architect: Elif Tinaztepe of Schmidt Hammer Lassen


Elif Tinaztepe of Schmidt Hammer Lassen – now part of global firm Perkins+Will – and known for her library designs, answers ADF’s questions

What makes you happiest about being an architect?
Working in a multidisciplinary field with such range and richness – inspired by art, humanities, science, technology, and more. Creating environments that people develop an inexplicable emotional connection to, and are transformed by. Helping to move ideas, people, seemingly established norms, in a positive direction through the framework of dialogue and design. Architecture is about transformation to me – creating opportunity and meaning for people for the future.

Where have you enjoyed working as an architect the most?
I started practicing in Los Angeles and have been in Denmark for the last 15 years. I love working in Denmark, a country where architecture is a discussion in everyday life, and where we share the understanding of its importance. With my base in Denmark at Schmidt Hammer Lassen, I have been fortunate to work on projects and with clients in diverse parts of the world. What makes it special is the engagement, immersing myself in the local culture and context and learning something new wherever I go. The golden light of southern California versus the cool platinum rays of Scandinavia all have a way of influencing the way we think and feel. The social code, the history, the social context, and local building cultures all provide a richness that continue to challenge and inspire the way I work. I will always look forward with fresh eyes to the next adventure – it might just be outside my door.

Has balancing work and family become much harder in the current situation?
My answer will probably not be significantly different from any other person/parent in a similar professional and social setup. It goes up and down, and I am not sure balance is a high priority item when everything around us is anything but. It’s about patience, inevitable frustration alternating with acceptance, and on good days, a lot of joy. Not travelling as much has certainly allowed more time at home which has been a real eye-opener for me personally. Working from home as opposed to in the studio has its benefits and challenges. You adjust, you find ways to make it work. I am hoping to take what I learned with me moving forward, and I am looking very much forward to being able to travel again.

Did you decide to specialise in library typologies early on or did this happen organically?
It was really an organic development which started with Dokk1 in Aarhus, Denmark which represents a new generation of modern hybrid libraries. I still try to remain the generalist I was educated to be, with deep knowledge in certain areas that really interest me. Library typology is not a singular thing – neither spatially nor programmatically which is perhaps why I enjoy exploring it so much. There is an explicit human-centric agenda that looks to the future with optimism. They are value- and vision driven projects. Libraries keep questioning their relevance constantly – this allows them to be critical, to evolve and address the tough questions our societies face in an open and inclusive way – this is a major driver for architecture. Working with visionary clients who carry that torch, with the goal of creating the right framework for their brand of evolution is deeply meaningful to me. It’s about that generosity, the tenacity, and of course, the fun.

What’s your favourite building of your own currently?
Among Schmidt Hammer Lassen’s buildings, I still learn from Dokk1 almost six years after its opening. And my favourite building is the one I am currently working on, wherever that is.

Do you have a favourite building globally?
Many. Architecture is a self-referential field so it would be hard not to appreciate other architects’ ideas and works. Spending time in Jørn Utzon’s Can Lis on Mallorca was a transformative experience for me. I wish I could do that again one day.

How important is the quality of a client brief?
In my view, it’s almost impossible to create a visionary project without a visionary client. Establishing respectful dialogue based on trust and the understanding that everyone has something important to bring to the table – experience, knowledge, creativity, intuition, etc – and joining forces around a shared set of values and visions is essential and simply enriching.

We move forward together and reach places none of us could have imagined reaching on our own. Getting quality, not only today, but 10, 20 years from now has to do with that shared ownership, otherwise it will be short-term and not sustainable. I am interested in the long game, that’s why I love visiting projects five to 10 years after opening. I find that in projects where we had that shared vision, quality is still cherished and owned by all. I believe that is a trademark of sustainability.

How do you feel about BIM?
I am interested in all tools that help us work smarter and release more time to think, collaborate and create – in the special way that the human mind can.

Do you think that we need a move away from overtly ‘glass buildings’?
It’s obvious that we must build more sustainably and in a way that’s climate and geography appropriate. Not only because it is urgent and the right thing to do, but because we share this life that is so interconnected, and it is deeply humbling to contribute to the sustained existence of it in a meaningful way. I have never subscribed to a certain material aesthetic, and have always been interested in exploring the potential of an appropriate, local response – it’s much more interesting and inspiring that way. Working in different parts of the world, these contrasting considerations come into sharp focus.

Have things changed for you at all since SHL was bought by Perkins and Will?
Yes and no. Certain operational mechanics have been streamlined and tailored to suit our organisational structure and focus markets. We are now connected to over 2000 colleagues from different parts of the world – this in itself represents a huge knowledge base we have access to and regularly engage with. Our focus at SHL, as always, is the evolution of our design process – being strategic about the future while not losing the curious, adventurous spirit that we all love. As with any change, this merger has encouraged us to deeply reflect on our heritage, our values, our architectural codex, and be very clear about the way we want to practice design and contribute as we move forward.

What’s your biggest challenge in 2021?
My focus is on winning the right kind of projects so that we maintain that sense of purpose which is so important in a creative environment. Life can throw you many curveballs – like this pandemic – but if you can see your purpose clearly, you can keep pushing forward with resilience and joy. After all, architecture is an optimistic profession like no other.

Since our projects are major vehicles of growth, learning, and engagement at the studio, what we work on and how we do it matters.

Elif Tinaztepe is principal at Schmidt Hammer Lassen (Denmark)