James Law – architect, visionary, and creator of ‘Cybertecture’ has come to be known internationally for his innovative approach to all his projects. With an aim to create ‘Architecture with purpose’, he is on a mission to eradicate homelessness all over the world.
VA: Can you tell us where your interest in architecture first came from?
JL: I became very interested in architecture when I was seven years old after watching ‘Fountainhead’, a movie about an architect who changed the world. I was very struck by the notion of how you can have a job that can actually change the world, and from that moment onwards I was passionate about becoming an architect. I found that I was lucky to be gifted with some talent in drawing, spatial understanding, and the love for design, and I think with God’s help and will, I managed to follow my calling.
VA: You introduced the term, “Cybertecture” when you created your startup in 2001. Can you elaborate on this term, and how and why this philosophy formed the base for your practice so early on?
JL: When I first started out, I had worked as an architect for about 10 years in many companies. I had enough experience to know that architecture in the conventional sense was starting to become outdated. I felt that architecture had become a boring commodity we were just building around us, much of it driven for commercial reasons. When I decided to start my practice, I felt that the word “Architect” was starting to become irrelevant and that I needed to be brave, and try to discover a new meaning to the word ‘Architecture’. So instead of calling my company James Law Architecture, I came up with the word “Cybertecture”. It was an idea-driven about everything around us, that where there is concrete, stone, steel, or glass, could be a new architecture, and the architecture could be made of data, of ones and zeros, could be made out of all the other materials of modern life that architecture has not considered.
VA: Would you then say that technology is at the heart of this philosophy of Cybertecture?
JL: When we talk about technology, we often narrowly assume that technology is what we call digital technology, but in fact, technology is everything around us. Nature is perhaps the most powerful technology – something that we haven’t fathomed yet. The environment, our thinking and ideas, our relationships, and our culture are all kinds of technology. JLC is building the applications to solutions that try to tap into these technologies. So, technology interpreted in that way is very much the key to my philosophy.
VA: Have you experienced that people assumed that you focused solely on digital technology in Architecture, due to your firm’s name “Cybertecture”?
JL: I think so. There have been many people who assume that the only thing I’m interested in is to make something very high-tech in the conventional sense. There is an assumption of the words Cyber and Technology becoming a style. But a philosophy takes time to be communicated and to mature. People are starting to witness that in our latest projects – which are not very cyber in that sense, but they all represent new kinds of innovations, which are alternatives to conventional architecture.
VA: Do you have a single project that encapsulates the entire philosophy behind your firm and the work that you do?
JL: I think every architect wants to have that one project that completely distills their philosophy. But to make it happen, you need the stars to align and the timing to be perfect. I, humbly, have been on a journey where I have done different things over time to explore the potentials of Cybertecture, but have not totally encapsulated it. The reason behind that is that I don’t see Cybertecture as a style or signature. I do not mind that in 10 years, I’ll be doing something totally different from what I’m doing today, which, I am already doing. I see Cybertecture as an evolution and an experiment, and that is more valuable in its metamorphosis than in it’s necessarily defined creations.
VA: Your OPod Tube House has received massive acclaim worldwide – it innovatively addresses the issues of the housing shortage and affordable housing afflicting countries all over the world. Why are these issues important to you, and what do you hope to accomplish with this project?
JL: I am very concerned about the world as a whole. As an architect, and someone living in an expensive city like Hong Kong, the issue of affordable housing is very close to my heart. It affects everyone around me and is a problem that isn’t going away. I believe: that as architects we have a role to play in how we can try to contribute solutions to this issue. If we can come up with ideas, prototypes, and designs proven to work that make buildings less expensive, quicker to build, more modular, available, and democratic, then the society around us – the builders and the governments could use these tools to rewrite the books around this issue. This way we could try to even out the disparity that has created the affordable housing problems.
VA: How has the process of working on a project with the government been like?
JL: It has been vastly different as compared to working with regular clients, because this project had no profits for any particular stakeholder. Although we had designed and built the prototype, we needed to explain to the Government and the whole community – the OPod’s purpose and value to society, the financial structure, and strategic planning. It takes a lot of effort to get through to people, and often it falls on deaf ears. Luckily, we have a supportive government, which knows that affordable housing is a major issue. They have even launched a transitional housing policy that allows NGOs and charities to build housing with the support of funding from the government, on land that is temporarily made available by the government. However, persuading the communities was hard – how will a poor man that sleeps under a flyover see this? How will he actually get to live in one of the modules?
VA: You have worked on projects in India for a long time now. What has your experience been working here, and how has it been different compared to other parts of the world?
JL: When I got my first opportunity to come to India, I was busy in other parts of the world, particularly Dubai. It has been a decade of amazing experiences of learning about a whole new country, the culture, and the dynamics behind the society. I arrived in 2008, which was an exciting time of massive growth, but subsequently downs as well, which were quite terrible and affected the creation of architecture for the cities. Along the way, I’ve been very lucky to have met several wonderful clients who are now great friends. The thing that touches my heart is that I’ve become so comfortable with being in India. The architecture that I did initially were amazing opportunities, and they were driven not only by an economy that could afford it, but also by the big ambitions of a number of my clients who wanted to create something that was world-class and could make a statement. They wanted the Indian real estate market to have products on par with Hong Kong, Singapore, London, and Tokyo, and that provided great opportunities for international architects like myself to try and bring what we know to India. What was very interesting for me was that I learned to evolve in my work in India as well, especially the residential work, which was modern in terms of planning, but became very infused with local culture, and especially the notion of Vastu. And so through many projects, working with different clients and different Vastu Partners, we learned to try to fuse modernity with Vastu, and I think that’s almost one of the origins of modern Indian architecture, which would be different from what you build in China or Hong Kong.
VA: Your Cybertecture Academy aims to educate the younger generations about design, architecture, and technology. What led you to start the Academy, and can you elaborate on its purpose? How have your students and the other youngsters responded to it?
JL: Education is one of the great passions of my life. I’ve been very lucky to have a great education. My parents came from humble backgrounds, and in my family, I’m the first to be afforded the chance of tertiary education. My mother is a retired primary school teacher, and I witnessed her being a wonderful teacher her whole life, and she’s nurtured thousands of great students who have gone on to become successful adults. In all that, I saw this very important part of life, which is that we need to nurture the next generations. We need to try our best to guide them and give them opportunities. I was lucky that when I was seven years old I found my passion and it informed me very early on in life so that I knew what I wanted to do.
I felt that for the creative industry, it is important to unleash the passion and talents of young children much before they go to university. A lot of times we start creative education too late as it is not part of the school curriculum usually. If you want to be an Architect in high school, you are told that you need to get good grades in Maths and Physics and that you need to get an Architecture degree. But apart from that, you never even get a chance to understand what architecture is. What is your passion for design? How do you want to see the world of the future? What is your view upon your impact of what you would do in your life? So, I decided to try and integrate all of this into an Academy that allows children much younger than 18 years old, to try and learn architecture.
VA: Looking towards the future, what ideas or topics do you think should be in the front and center of the minds of Architects?
JL: I don’t want to preach to the other architects, because I can’t tell a whole profession what is important and what is not. I can only tell you what I feel as an architect, which is that Architecture is dangerously obsolete. Architecture has shown itself to be very selfish, and it’s become something that we make not because we treasure life, but because we can commoditize life. It has come to have a level of control over society and how people live. We have been brainwashed into thinking that a certain type of life is a good life – when you work your whole life to buy a tiny apartment at the unknown floor of a high-rise. It’s not. You can see all the problems around us – climate change, the lack of resources, lack of affordable housing, the pollution of our environment, and that must stop. It has to start with architecture – the big A must change into what I call an Architectural purpose. When we build something, it must have a purpose. It should not just be blindly about more money or ego.
VA: As a parting note to our readers, what advice do you have for the upcoming generation of Architects of today?
JL: No worthwhile journey is easy. But a journey in pursuit of worthwhile dreams and purpose is a journey well worth it. Being an architect is certainly about that. If you truly want to be satisfied as an architect, then you must be willing to travel that journey. When you are a young architect, you are at the beginning of that journey and it’s for you to keep steering the wheel and keep running, pursuing, and overcoming those difficulties and challenges. But the journey is worthwhile, and it will define you in a way that perhaps only we Architects know and define oneself through one’s architecture. My advice is to cherish it, be grateful for it, and know that whatever you do will be what defines you.