Summer Talk #1: Timur Ersen
an interview by MATHIAS SCHWARTZ-CLAUSS
Timur Ersen is a French / Turkish architect. He studied at the School of Architecture in Lyon as well as at the EPFL (Federal Polytechnical School of Lausanne). After graduating, he worked for eight months for the visionary rammed-earth craftsman Martin Rauch, and was part of the team that built the Ricola Herb Center designed by Herzog & De Meuron near Basel. It is now the biggest contemporary rammed-earth building in Europe. After having collaborated as an architect with Anna Heringer 6 months in Germany, he went to Mexico to design and build his first project in the tropical forest of Oaxaca. This small permaculture workspace won the Blue Award 2014 and has been shortlisted in the European Price of Architecture Philippe Rotthier.
For the past 2 years, Timur Ersen has been running his own practice as an architect and craftsman in Turkey, proposing constructions that are based on local resources, material, craftsmanship and energy.
In 2016 Timur Ersen conducted a workshop entitled Layer by Layer at the Domaine de Boisbuchet. Together with the participants, he designed and built a ‘rammed-earth’ wall/installation. During his stay, he was interviewed by Mathias Schwartz-Clauss, director of the Domaine de Boisbuchet.
Why did you become an architect?
''I had some experience as a builder through the French side of my family. However, I wanted something more creative although I could not imagine myself as an artist. Architecture finally seemed to unite both. After visiting the school of Architecture in Lyon, I was so mesmerized by the building that I thought: 'This is where I want to study.''
What interests you most in today's architecture discussion?
''Architects nowadays tend to question ethics, sustainability and resources. I find that kind of research very interesting, especially in regard to the building process, using resources of craftsmanship, for example, things we are all concerned about. To me this is more interesting than any kind of shape or style.''
How do you describe the identity of your own architecture?
''My designs are very much inspired by experiments. I mostly try the material first, then design, and depending on what is possible, I go further. During that process, the design really changes a lot. In the project Chai Viticole Argos in Turkey, for instance, we built arches in stone that were inspired by a traditional method. The only architectural craftsmanship left in the area of Gülsehir actually concerned those stone arches, and without discovering this competence I would have never thought of that particular design.''
"It is really about engagement and sustainability, some things we are all concerned about."
A couple of your projects feature a circular opening in the wall. Is that related to local craftsmanship or is it more an iconic image?
"Well, it's not iconic. In the Ricola Herb Center project, designed by Herzog and De Meuron, there are already round windows, and just after that project, I started La Apoteka. So there probably was that influence when I designed a large, round opening in my wall in order to bring a lot of light and save bricks. As for Chai Viticole Argos, there is the roof with a round opening. That was fitting with most of the arches and that’s the reason I made it. So for sure there is nothing iconic.''
Which are the main obstacles in realising your very labor intensive architecture?
''Earth technique is very labour intensive, indeed. In Turkey, for example, we didn’t have much time. I knew that building with stones would be much faster than building with earth, so I balanced the quantity of both earth and stones. I always try to adapt. Whenever they don’t make sense, because we would run late or it would be too expensive, I try to reduce the amount of labor intensive techniques. Sometimes it might make more sense to have only one or two earth walls for a project, especially when workers are expensive. This is actually one of the big responsibilities of an architect, which we don't learn at school: we do have power over the resources. After we have been given the money, we are in control over who gets what, either the big industries or the craftsman. This is actually where we can make a difference in society, I think.''
"After we have been given the money, we are in control over who gets what, either the big industries or the craftsman."
Are there other recurring obstacles?
''When building with earth, people and even companies are usually suspicious. For the Ricola Herb Center, for example, Martin Rauch had to be very firm when facing the main construction company on the building site. It is very difficult to continue something when everyone around you is doubting. Maybe 20 years from now, if rammed-earth is more developed, I'll be able to let a professional company take care of these things so that I can focus more on the details.''
How do specialisation and diversification relate in your skills and work?
''Rammed-earth is the main technique with which I know how to build. But I don't want to force one technique on any design. If a place is full of stones, I will still design with stones. However, rammed-earth is a technique that is adaptable in many places. In France, at Boisbuchet for instance, this was never a tradition and yet we could find all the necessary materials in that area. All in all I don't want to be specialised. It might seem so because I am focused on rammed-earth. But I can somehow separate the fact that I know and like to do rammed-earth on the one hand, and my practice as an architect on the other. Specialisation, I think, does not fit the role of an architect.''
Being often part of the working team and always on the site yourself is another one of your skills.
''Yes, that's usually possible in small scale projects. But it’s also because the moment you are working on site it is easier to gain the trust of the workers and of the client as well. On the construction site, you can't create a hierarchy between manual work and intellectual work, and this helps a lot. In Mexico for example, there was a mason who sometimes was working for me and sometimes it was the other way around. For me that was a nice proof of how knowledge can be combined in a very purposeful way.''
"Specialisation, I think, does not fit the role of an architect."
Please describe in more detail how you organise your work process. Do you start with a sketch?
''During my projects in Mexico and Turkey I had no other project on the side. Very often, architects have several projects at the same time. But when you are on site you have to be fully committed to the project. In Turkey I really lived on site, which enabled me to investigate closely the techniques, the materials and the craftsmanship. I started with sketches only afterwards - but they also depend on the client's wishes and that’s always changing. And in the end, everything happens at the same time.''
Are you working with employees or your own assistants?
''No, I don't, mostly because it is hard to survive financially. But partnerships are great. The only time I had a partner was in Turkey, and it was fantastic because of the possibilities that arose. If you are alone, a 1:1 scale model means many hours of work which you don't spend developing the project. If you are two, one can draw while the other experiments. Generally speaking I much prefer the idea of partners rather than employees.''
What do you wish the participants of your workshop to take back home?
''I would like them to build a small block of render to take it home, but that might be too heavy! [Laugh] But I really hope to inspire them to using earth in their future projects. And in case they are students and have their final projects, that then they present their professors the use of earth. For the professionals I hope we could give them the confidence to start with experiments. At least now they are able to go somewhere, take the earth, mix it, ram it, and make a form that works!''
Is there a superordinate message in your architecture? What do you believe in?
''I believe that we – as designers, artists, architects, urbanists, and builders – have got great power in terms of how we want society to be shaped. And as I said before, every project is like a vision of our society. Personally, I believe in a fair architecture. Like in fair trade, no material should be based on any kind of slavery or colonisation. Today, we are still relying on resources from outside our own countries, and I don't think that’s right. Once I asked Martin [Rauch] about the deepest meaning he could find behind the idea of building with earth. He said that for him it is building for peace. If you reduce energy, you can reduce conflict. When you don't need anything from one another you are living in peace. We have got the ability to build without taking away, without abusing each other. If we approach architecture in that way, I think we can create a more peaceful environment.''