When Martin Rein-Cano founded TOPOTEK 1 twenty-one years ago he was seeking artistic and entrepreneurial independence. Now, as an internationally important multidisciplinary team with roots still firmly planted in landscape architecture, TOPOTEK 1 remains one of the most exciting firms to watch for its breadth of scale, its technical precision, and its sense of humour. Through their elegant and exacting execution of unconventional projects, Rein-Cano and his team have the rare ability to reflect upon and utilise natural, artistic, design, and engineering processes in equal measure.
Sasha Amaya visited Martin Rein-Cano at the TOPOTEK 1 Berlin headquarters to learn more about the firm, its history, and its ethos.
Sasha Amaya: Let’s start by looking at some of your projects. I am particularly interested in your installations because we cover the place where art, architecture, and landscape meet. Which projects of yours embody that space for you?
Martin Rein-Cano: One thing we always love to do is be transgressive — to create certain typologies or experiences in the "wrong" spaces — and then the broader question of what is public space today concerns us, too. What is common space? Where do we gather? Where do we meet? The borders are dissolving. Are we in a private space, being watched? Or a commercial area, a place that seems public but really isn’t?
On the other hand, it is interesting to see how public institutions are becoming more accessible: new concert halls and libraries are more open to the public and are more open to multiple uses. There are very few things left that are single and clear mono use, but this public-private division isn’t so clear anymore. So all of these shifts in the way we live have resonances in the space we work.
SA: Speaking about the way you work, when I was reading about COLDWAR it said it was a piece reflecting on the tactics of how TOPOTEK 1 works. Can you tell me more about how you work?
MRC: We love to test borders, question, provoke common sense. For example, are we allowed to have plants in the metro? We take so many things for granted the way they are. So it is good to create ambiguity, uncertainty, even insecurity. In our northern societies, where everything works, people only start to talk to one another when the train is late, when things are not functioning. So our generation of planners has to work more around creating dysfunctionality than functionality. So we have to create cool dysfunctionalities, cool conflicts, cool aesthetic conflicts, let’s say.
SA: But how do you do that? How do you create a conflict that is productive rather than one that might not be?
MRC: Well, it depends on the situation. For example, a project in Copenhagen in a neighbourhood where violence is quite an issue. There are two ways one of dealing with this: one way is to say, let’s try to hide it, let’s push it out of that space — but the violence is still there — or you can say, no, let’s embrace it, let’s canalize the violence into something more tolerable.
You can now come to visit — before you would be scared. It’s a very fine line between what is sensual and interesting and what is tense. If you don’t [have tensions] you get these gentrified boring rich people places, but sometimes the borders between what is acceptable [and not] are very close. Use the force you have in that neighbourhood to show it off. This is our neighbourhood: we have reasons to be violent. Reframing it gives it another significance.
SA: Have you got feedback on how it has developed?
MRC: It is the tenth most visited site in Denmark. There are different levels of acceptance, by the media, by visitors, by the people who live there. It doesn’t solve all the problems of the world, but as far as a public space can contribute to social discussion, I think it is one of the best projects we’ve done.
SA: There’s an interesting quote in your book from [Finnish architect and designer] Alvar Aalto: "Form is a mystery which eludes definition but makes man feel good in a way quite unlike social aid." How does this quote relate to how TOPOTEK 1 work with form and aesthetics?
MRC: We are kids of the 80s. We grew up in this revival of design. Good things inform through form. Good form really gives you a sense of joy — if you are receptive to it.
Form is also a little bit of a shortcut. If you do the right form for the right purpose, you don’t need to talk about it. Why talk about music? Why talk about the object? It is another level of communication. A good building communicates how to move through it; a good square tells you how to play with it, without subtitles or guides to show you how to enjoy it.
SA: So when you create something do you have an intention for ultimate use?
MRC: Mostly yes actually, mostly yes. That doesn’t mean in the end it works. Often the users, especially in public space, are very creative and it evolves into something totally different.
We have some projects where we leave it totally open, which can also be the case. In Spandau, a Berlin neighbourhood, we created a space that was supposed to be temporary: foundations of factories we wanted to seal, two plats of concrete, of asphalt, and very little budget. We painted them, and placed metal objects in the space, thinking it would be used for skating, but instead it turned into the most important gathering place for electric cars! What people see in forms sometimes is not what [the designers] meant. So intention doesn’t need to be carried through: often second uses of places in architecture are better than first uses. But is wrong to do spaces without a purpose, even though the nature of landscape architecture means that the programme (or intention) is usually looser than in a building project.
SA: Do you find your projects tend to be oriented around new spaces or undeveloped spaces or if they mostly fit into existing built infrastructure?
MRC: In our case, working mainly in Europe, there are few untouched places. Context is helpful, but context doesn’t need to be the built context. Sometimes it is the social context that is more important, or cultural context; sometimes it is a story.
SA: There are two projects I wanted to talk about which take place outside Europe. The first is the Shenzhen-Hong Kong Biennale.
MRC: The Shenzhen-Hong Kong project started when we were asked to do an installation for the Biennale. One of the requirements was to use material elements from the area. [Conceptually,] one of the issues in China has to do with the question of mass and individual. There’s a big conflict about that very different from the conflict we have in the West. We believe in the individual just like that. But in China you have a sense of masses and communism and ideas of social sculpture, and on the other side this capitalistic rise. So we developed this plexi that looked like a housing block with tiny compartment, with the idea to work with notions of sameness and difference.
With composer Rebecca Saunders, who made 2000 music boxes across a 20 metre wall, we had beautiful melodies. And it was really interesting how people were searching for melodies, going to specific music boxes and seeing if they recognised the melody. Sometimes you would hear melodies fading as people leave, or growing in cacophony with more action: overlaps of sound in this searching for a specific melody.
SA: The Métis Garden Festival, a project located in Canada, can you tell me more about this? When I saw this it struck me very much as being about colonialism and First Nations struggles in Canada, and about the history of the Métis people. How integral was Canadian and Métis history in this project?
MRC: A new interpretation, maybe better! [Our initial ideas came from images of] the First World War, in which Canada also played a part, here creating a seating area in a trench, in the middle of a war zone. We think of peace when we think of Canada, and how close can we bring things that are mean or bad to this beautiful landscape?
SA: So you studied art history before going into landscape architecture. What compelled you to switch fields?
MRC: To tell you the truth, when I finished school I would have wished to become an artist, but I was never good with my hands, and the idea of an artist then was painting or sculpture; the idea that concepts could be artful and create the same sensations wasn’t there for me. So the compromise was to go into art history. But then art history was a totally academic field — it was interesting to me to study but I wasn’t totally in love with it. And then I had a professor teaching the history of landscape architecture, the history of gardens. Really interesting! Really rich. I went with this professor to Italy and England — and then I changed disciplines!
SA: I was watching a video interview with you some days ago, and you said that when one is playing one must be even more serious than when one is being silly. Can you tell me more about that, expand on that?
MRC: If you are proposing stupid things that are unlikely or uncommon, then obviously you have to do it very seriously so people believe you’re capable of doing it, and that it’s meant seriously. So the more silly you’re being, the more seriously you have to try to get them to implement it. You have to be very professional about it. People misunderstand that I think in a lot of cases. Play is a serious issue.
SA: You started TOPOTEK about 21 years ago. Why did you start it and what has surprised you most about what the firm has done?
MRC: I am surprised that it worked at all! Hahaha! I was lucky with my partner —and with my new partners, as well — I always had good partners. I had good karma. I was lucky to find the right people in the right situations.
Why I founded TOPOTEK? I always wanted to have my own firm: for economic reasons, because I wanted to work for myself; for ego reasons, for narcissistic reasons — so I just tried.
I don’t know what surprises me most. I guess that it works. And sometimes I am surprised at myself: we have 60 people now.
SA: I wanted to ask you about one more project, the Inflatables, Wanderinstallation. This project to me is one of the ones that is most ostensibly bringing together art, architecture, and landscape. It’s a very sweet project, and a very approachable project, but also has a sense of criticality and even cynicism.
MRC: The background of it, as is often the case, is a situation in which you are asked to do something, and then learn something: the object teaches you something. Also with the installation in Canada. There are things that you did not on purpose. If the objects are good, they can [absorb] significance. If they have the force, if they are independent almost -- that’s what you were asking me about earlier, that quote from Aalto. The form, if it is something interesting, sometimes things get to it. It’s like a magnet to meaning, it draws tension and significance to it.
In this case, [the brief was] to build a big park and a playground, but the conservation people didn’t want an installed playground, so the task was to create a temporary playground. That’s how it started. I can’t remember how we came up with inflatables. We had pink as a colour, and the idea of the inflatables, and a bit of an accident, let’s say. But we also have a problem with the aesthetics of playgrounds. Sometimes adults think they have to be infantile when they are doing things for children, but children prefer to play with adult stuff than with children stuff. Or, in the best of cases, it can be both. An aesthetic experience for an adult, even with sexual connotation if you want, and a play object for a child. So things have different significances if you are young or old, if you know or don’t know. In this contradiction, this ambiguity, good objects actually have this ambiguity. They are capable of taking in a lot of influences.
SA: Are art and design the same for you?
MRC: Well, really they are not, they’re actually not, but I don’t care! Let’s put it like that. I don’t care to differentiate. I like to change my angle of how I look at things, from art to engineering.
To learn more about the work of TOPOTEK 1, click here.