Q&A with Massimo Mercurio, Mercurio Design Lab: We strive to create a unique design language to call our own
When looking at your portfolio, one word that comes to mind is “iconic”. Why is this important to you?
We aren’t actually conscious about wanting to be iconic in our design work. What we do is to be unique, to experiment with design and the media we have at our disposal to build. Our approach has always been to traverse uncharted roads and you can see this in some of our early, smaller scale projects – especially the villas like Mistral, Alba and Lambda – where we crafted a distinctive and normally unseen language. I can safely say there was nothing in the world that resembled what we did then; we went beyond what anybody could conceive. We were also lucky that we had clients that were willing to experiment with us. I remember how after each of these projects got publicised, I would receive messages from all over the world telling me what we do is amazing. Some people even questioned if the projects were real. We have continued to keep up with this spirit and in doing so, strive to create a unique design language to call our own.
How did you develop this creative direction?
A lot has to do with the fact that I was not originally trained in architecture. My first degree was in mechanical engineering, where I was designing machines that are dynamic and constantly in motion, such as turbines, engines, cars and even aeroplanes. When I started studying architecture, I realised that the approach was very regimented. The curriculum tends to put students in certain boxes, leading them to think they need to design buildings in a certain way, which limits the way they see architecture. Essentially, they are taught the grammar of the language and end up not speaking in any other manner because they have a set of rules to live by. The fact that I look at architecture as moving objects coming to a halt, rather than static buildings, contributes to the fact that our projects have a very dynamic approach – they tend to resemble machines.
At the same time, I am obsessed with the limitation of concrete. I constantly think about how we can go beyond its rigidity and make it look like a much more elastic media – something that can be almost molded or flow. Even as we do bigger, more commercial projects today, and despite the myriad of regulations and client needs to meet, we still try to infuse this direction in our work. We don’t always take the easy way out; we want to take the right way, which is something that has character and a unique proposition. This is what we are doing.
Which three designers, from the past or present, do you most admire?
- Zaha Hadid, for changing the perception of what contemporary architecture can achieve. She was able to turn a material as rigid as concrete into something that became very elastic, dynamic and fluid. In doing so, she broke the barrier of the rigidity of architecture as a very stiff discipline, where everything had to be dictated by the law of gravity and structural limitations.
- Frank Lloyd Wright, for contributing to the evolution of architectural design by giving contemporary architecture a definition. When you try to understand how architecture has progressed from Ancient History to the Renaissance, then Neo-Classical and what it has become today, his work and style is definitely one fundamental cornerstone of that development.
- Thomas Heatherwick, for presenting us with a different perspective of architecture. Having studied first three-dimensional design and later furniture design, his projects have, as a result, not been defined by its prescribed, academic forms. He clearly looks at architecture using a different paradigm, resulting in interesting concepts and shapes that buck the norm.
- As an Italian, I feel obliged to mention a designer from my home country, so I am adding a fourth: Renzo Piano, for having created a lot of very unconventional and unique buildings. As a contemporary designer, he has a very balanced approach in terms of composition and design. This makes his projects less challenging from a construction point of view. I like that he also pays a lot of attention to the craft and engineering aspect of architecture.
What are your three favourite buildings in SE Asia?
It is easier for me to extend my answer beyond Southeast Asia because what is happening in the northern part of Asia is a bit more exciting. When we look at the architectural scene in Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, Shanghai and even the rest of China, there are a lot of interesting projects that are experimental, ground-breaking and even audacious. For example, I’m a fan of the Shanghai Tower, the CCTV Headquarters and Beijing National Stadium in mainland China. I really admire the charm of the Hong Kong skyline, from the Lippo Centre and Bank of China Tower, to Frank Gehry’s Opus Hong Kong, the Jockey Club Innovation Tower and many others – it is like an open air biennale of architecture!
Within Southeast Asia, it is the classical or even ancient architecture that has captured my imagination. Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the temples of Bagan in Myanmar are some examples. When I look at them, I find them quite impressive and even radical, especially in the way they were built. They definitely marked a moment in the history of architecture. From a cultural point of view, they are also very peculiar to Southeast Asia, each with a very strong character.
In the last three years, you’ve built up a prolific portfolio through working in Vietnam. Can you share more about the country’s architectural development?
The building scene in Vietnam has become extremely dynamic in the last few years. We were particularly lucky because we concentrated our business development efforts there right before the pandemic hit. When it closed its borders, we could continue working, and even had to increase our capacity quite dramatically. Our office in Manilla, for example, grew three fold.
We were also fortunate to find clients that were inclined to be a little bit more experimental. They gave us the opportunity to come up with the design work that is unique and some have, in fact, become quite well known in the country, raising our profile significantly. For example, there is Doji Group’s Crown in Haiphong that has been much celebrated. The authorities themselves have been so happy they have offered Doji more land, with the intention to develop similar kinds of design.
At the top of my wish list for Vietnam is for it to be more receptive to the subject of sustainability. Within the vertical landscape, this issue is still pretty much in its infancy. The perception by the developers is that it is too expensive and burdensome, with too little returns. They don’t see the advantages of creating an overall environment that is much more beneficial for the patronage in general. I hope the authorities will do more in this area, especially because the country is developing very fast. Some of the master planning projects that we are doing are even bigger than what we have done in China.
Given our commitment to Vietnam, we have built quite a massive portfolio. Using it, we have been able to diversify and move into other new markets. We recently opened an office in Dubai and hope to do more in the Middle East, where we see a lot of exciting development going on. We believe that our style of architecture can fit well in that context.
Massimo Mercurio is the CEO and Managing Director of Mercurio Design Lab.