Interview: Architect Mans Tham

Mans Tham is a Swedish, Stockholm based architect. We discussed his approach to design, the role of the architect, globo homogeneity in design, echo chambers, parenting, and other topics.

Interview: Architect Mans Tham

Mans, thanks so much for just meeting with me. I've been following your work for so many years. Maybe you can just give us a one or two-minute bio on where you are and what you're doing professionally to introduce readers to your work.

Okay. I'm an architect, and I have a small architectural office in Stockholm. We do urban planning and strategies; we also do small, experimental homes. It's a wide variation of scale.

Thanks are you also you're still doing some academic work as well on the side or not.

No, not right now. I lecture, but I don't teach.

Maybe we can just start there on the word scale. Maybe we can use the scale of time. Mans, when did you first decide to become an architect? Was that as a child or adulthood? What first made you want to become an architect?

I think I was a teenager. I had an uncle who worked with urban planning. He showed me a model of how he planned part of a new city. I was, at the time, really wanting to move into central Stockholm, and it was, as it is now, expensive and hard to find an apartment. I had this fantasy about ... Poor fantasy. I had this wish to reorganize suburban Stockholm so that it would look more like a real city. Yeah. That was my starting point, actually, that interest in reorganizing the city so that it would look like a city I wanted to live in.

What is a real city?

A city is a glomeration of people, and workplaces, and everything that's part of life, somewhat concentrated to one spot. But it can, of course, look very ... This is something that I more and more realize, that it can look very different and it will continue to look different in different places. City life can take on many shapes or forms, but then there are, of course, cities that are more attractive and wonderful than others.

What was Stockholm missing when you were a teenager that wasn't a real city, in your view?

Well I didn't have an education or anything... At that point, I just wanted to live in the inner city where there are streets, and bars, and restaurants, and shops, and everything mixed instead of living in a suburban landscape where everything is separated and there are a lot of big roads everywhere. I just wanted to be where the action was, basically. Stockholm, compared to everything around it, it has a rather small city core. I just wanted to be in that core..

How did you then balance your interest more in what almost sounds more like an interest in urban planning, versus architecture.

Yeah that was the starting point. Then, when I started architecture school, I also found a lot of joy in making a house in more shape and space-related things, but I still always had that big interest in urban planning. Then, of course, making a house, a dwelling for somebody with a ... The plan drawing is quite often also something that's not too unlike an urban plan, because you work with the same element, like how you move, what you see at the end of a street or of a sight line. How you plan things and how you can make the same amount of space feel crammed, or open, or free, or enclosed, or protected, or ...

It's just a matter of scale, a little bit. There's more politics to a city design than to a private house, of course, but it's the same approach looking at scale.

How do you define or approach that scale question then? Where do you start, then, on a new project?

If you design a house... One of my main things with when you design a house ... There are so many things. It's the surrounding. It's the terrain, and how you go in and out of the building, and how you move around. I think the organization of the plan of a house is extremely crucial for it to be a good space. The plan drawing, basically, and how you move around and what happens on the way, and how you make something very, in a sense, simple and normal, a house for a family, into something exciting and fun to be in. The plan is really key.

Of all the projects you've done, which has given you the most satisfaction in terms of, maybe, enjoyment, not just to design, but to be in?

Entrance view
[A Frame House -]

I think many of the private homes that I've done lately that are now being realized and built are really nice to be in. I got the opportunity to stay quite a few nights in the A-frame ski lodge house. It's a really nice one to be in. I also took my family there so I could see how the kids interacted with the space. In general, I think, all architects should have a contract so that they could always stay for a week in any house they design once it done just because it's such a good learning process.

Talking about learning, Mans, now that you're a father, how has that affected your practice or design philosophy?

It's just a little bit easier, maybe, to imagine yourself in somebody else's position, somebody that is, for example, one meter shorter than you. Yeah. Also seeing the value in really small, strange spaces that not necessarily something you think about normally as, "This could be something of high quality."

Hernell web 1
Nooks & Niches Apartment

Yeah. I saw that with your Nooks and Niches Apartment... You had that little nook you made for the kids.

Yeah, exactly, with the dinosaur egg space underneath the stair. That was real fun to see. That of course became their absolute favorite of the whole apartment we renovated.

That also has to do with using space. It's not hard to make a huge, sweeping house that costs tons of money, but then if, really, you have some pressing limits, it's always fun to find those qualities. Or like, "This could actually also work like this," instead of just adding an extra room. To find double meaning, or, in that case, a closet underneath a stair could be the most fantastic space in the apartment.

Mans, do you think there is a globalized approach to architecture currently, or not?

Absolutely. It's also that you have all these magazines, and websites, and Instagram accounts that just hunt for images of stuff, and then architecture becomes part of that. You have all these interior magazines or things that look cool. These images of things spread very fast. That can be almost sickening, I think, when you design, because there's so much. Everybody's trying to be unique, and there's so much stuff, just, that you can scroll by, and then, in the end ...

Therefore, it's nice to work. The important thing is to make a really nice piece of work for whomever you're working for, and making it be good on the site because it's, in a way, the actual product, the house that you design, not the image of the house that you then are happy to publish, is ... The house is a very local thing. It's personal because there's somebody living there, and it's extremely local because it sits in the site, and it's nowhere else. It's both very local and very global in a schizophrenia way sometimes, I think.

Do you ever find that that global ... I'm going to call it the Instagram, homogeneous aesthetic of architecture. Does that influence your clients and how they want things?

No. For them I don't know if Instagram, but I think, for example, Pinterest does it in a very negative way. Because my clients quite often have a Pinterest folder with stuff they like, but what I tell them is that, once they click one thing, then they just get sent to more things that look like the first thing they clicked on. They never get a wide set of references, or, "It could be this, or that, or that," or, "An alternative to this could be that." That's what they ask for when they ...

At least, in the best of worlds, when a new client asked me, "What can we do here? We were thinking something like this," then, of course, the reason they pay me money is because I can give them another view on the same, something they hadn't thought about themselves. That's when it becomes a value to them. The Pinterest collection of things is the opposite, in a way. It just reinforces your first. It's like a political bubble where you just get confirmation of what you already thought.

A design echo.

Yeah. A design echo chamber. Exactly.

How do you resist that, then? Do you stay off those kind of platforms, or do you still use them, or ...

I post my stuff on Instagram, and I cherish when a lot of people like it, for sure, so it's not like I'm outside of that. I never use Pinterest unless I really search for something specific and it pops up there, but I ...

No. Yeah, It's just very interesting to me.

But it's fun. At the same time, though, I would say that I get a lot of inspiration from things that people post on Instagram, because if I select a few people that I follow, and I ... But that can also be more like people that are actually actively curating things and show them. They maybe make an historical parallel, or, "I've designed this, and I've always loved this piece of art," or, "this house, and this is my interpretation of that." That becomes a story, and then it's more interesting and maybe stimulating for me. It's both a resource and a curse, in a way, because there's just so much. At one point you just have to sit and focus by yourself.

Yeah. To me, more and more it feels oppressive, the design echo, because it becomes almost like the Brooklyn aesthetic. There's a certain aesthetic that's from a first-world place and view.

Yeah. No, totally. I agree. It becomes oppressive. Yeah.

I have a friend who works at Dwell Magazine, and I was talking about your A-frame house. I was like, "It's so great." Then I was talking to her about some very strange houses in Bolivia that these new rich people were building in La Paz, and they just looked like alien things I've never seen. I was so intrigued by these houses in Bolivia. They're just multicolored, just totally outside the global, homogeneous aesthetic. Of course she didn't like them, but I was like, "Look at this. This is this Galapagos effect." I was just curious, are you searching for those kind of ... Maybe I'm just searching always for something new that I don't see, so maybe that's my own bias.

Yeah. The best comfort, I think, is to look back, also- Back in history, or back in-

Then you quite often can find the most extraordinary things that were done or being tested even here, right around the corner from where I am now.

I really also like to do ... The best thing is, of course, to make real study trips to visit places and be there for many hours to understand them. The qualities of them is so much more worth than just seeing many things or scrolling through a thousand things. It's more worth to be in one good place than ...

That can almost ... Depending on where you live, of course, but being in Stockholm is no limit at all to see good stuff and be inspired by spatial qualities, really nice rooms, places that were eccentric or made with love and craft. Then it's just up to me to translate that or interpret work on it, because you're always working with things that are already being done. You can never invent the wheel, you just ... You get things passed on, and then you just keep working on it. Then somebody else will see it and keep working on it.

Talking about work trips and field trips, I know you love Los Angeles. Maybe you can just tell us about your relationship with California and American urban planning and design. I'm just curious how that fits into your Scandinavian practice, if it does or if it doesn't.

No, it absolutely does. It became, for me, coming from this very ... Almost compared to anything, it's a neat and organized city, Stockholm. Planned, and it's also rather homogenic society. In a way the California city, especially LA, it's almost like the polar opposite in that it's almost defined by endless space. There's all these cultures that have been there and crashed with each other, and things have emerged that are ... The center is not really the center, also, of the city. There are all these other centers. There are all these urban ways that urban life appear. Talking about defining a city that we started talking about, LA has so many great examples of, just like many Asian cities have great examples of, how urbanity can take on new shapes or forms unlike the traditional European city. That's one thing.

Then also the whole art scene, and the experimentation, and the happy-go-lucky attitude to architecture. Then also what I think is very contradictory with Los Angeles is that I've spent some time there, and I've also noticed that many architects in Los Angeles are very proud about their architectural heritage, which is they have a great modern architectural heritage. They're very proud of it, and they want others not to understand. They want to be different, and they can also be very protective against ... Almost like, "Yeah, usually people don't really understand." There's a strange ... I think it's a very small community, actually, in Los Angeles, the design community, even though it's such a big city. They've been very successful in getting their work around and influencing the world.

Who are some of the architects you like most there? Are these across things like Schindler and Neutra, or someone else?

Yeah. I've been inspired by ... I think the building that had touched me the most or made the strongest impression on me that I've been to there is the private house of Frank Gehry, because the whole playfulness thing, and it's just such a personal expression, even though I wouldn't design anything like that. But, for me, it's a very moving house, and it's really about the joy of making architecture. Also the place where it is, and ... That's great.
Private Home of Frank Gehry 

Also some of the classic ... I think the Eames House is probably my second favorite. There are so many houses like that. But we'll see. I've been very interested in some of the more contemporary people in LA too, but I don't know. I still think that some of those classics that define the California modernism are very, very impressive, even though they're not modern at all anymore. They're 80, 90 years old.

Mans, talking about residents, I know you remodeled your apartment, right? How was that as an experience?

That was a great experience. That was all about, within a very limited ... It's an apartment in an apartment building that's really nice, an old modernist apartment building from the '30s or '40s that we really changed the plan fundamentally, me and my wife, and then we also ... Basically, what we did, we made all these new sight lines and connections within a very limited ... It's 80 square meters. It's 800 square feet or 900 square feet. We made all these new ... We also reused a lot of stuff from the apartment, so we took it down and then placed doors and openings, and pulled the cabinetry out of things, and we liked it. We added windows. We tried to be really playful and add and mix the old stuff.

Also, that's something that we talk about a lot now, is reuse of old building material since it's also a matter of how to not make a bigger climate impact than necessary when you build something. The building industry is an awful industry when it comes to CO2 emissions and how to use material that has already been processed. I didn't think about it so much when we did it, because it was mostly a playful way of saving money and also getting the ambience of the old apartment to still be in the apartment.

I think, now at least, here in Sweden there is much more talk about this than five, ten years ago. It's not as cool to just tear out a kitchen and put in a new one. Also, historically it was never like that. In an old, historic apartment here in Stockholm, for example, you often had a piece of the kitchen was from, maybe, the 1890s, and a piece was from 1910. Then there was an electric stove, and then there was some other modern things from the '60s. Even within the apartment, you can have many eras present at the same time.

Then when I worked with a container house, there was also some ... We reused containers, which is, in a way, smart, because they're already built in steel, and steel is a very CO2-intense building material, but if it's already there, then it's not that bad. That family that commissioned me to make the container house, they also were really into old American cars, like reconfiguring or ... What do you say? Customizing old American cars. That totally made sense then.

Container House

Also, the guy in that family is a truck driver. He worked for a demolition company, so he started to scavenge things on building sites. Then he called me, and he's like, "Mans, I found this really nice oak stair in an old restaurant in central Stockholm. I want to use it in the living room." I'm like, "Okay." Then he measured it and then I drew it up in AutoCAD, and then I told him, "Maybe you have to cut away the lowest step." Then we choose a color palette, and then made a railing that fit with it. Then they kept doing that. The whole house is now filled with stairs, and sheets of metal, and appliances, and the furnace. Parts of the whole garden is made out of found objects. That was also something that, more and more working into the project, came to be the essence of the project, that whole reuse and alteration.

The patchwork.

The patchwork. But then the role for me, the architect, is not to think out a perfect scheme that then will be built from scratch. My role is to keep the scheme together, because doing a patchwork or using old stuff is maybe good from some environmental stance, but it's not necessarily beautiful or great. Because it has to be assembled in a great way to be great and look good as a whole, and become a new whole when it becomes something that you can't really tell, is it old? Is it new? What's it made of? It just feels great.

That becomes the role for me in that particular project, or the architect, too, to be the director of assembling all these things, new, old, and tell them, "Here you have to add this. Here you have to take away that. This thing should go somewhere else." It was really fun, and the result becomes very personalized. It actually became very cheap, their house, even though they've had to spend endless hours of making it happen.

Nice. Mans, I don't want to take more of your time, but now that you're in your middle point of your career, what advice would you have to younger architects exploring architecture now? Or, maybe, what do you wish you knew when you were younger as an architect?

Yeah. One advice is maybe to really embrace the role of being the person in a building process that look after the entirety, or the full picture. That's the role of the architect. There's no need in being frustrated or angry with people not understanding, or focusing on that, because that's not their role. Their role is maybe to save money or to get done before Christmas, or something like that. Your role as an architect is to look after the architectural values, beauty, functionality, that the thing sustains itself and is built in a sustainable ... But, all those things, the role of the architect is to be this person who knows a little bit about a lot of things. I think a lot of people are frustrated that other people don't understand the importance of something, but that's not necessarily necessary that the architect should be that. That's your responsibility. Make it beautiful and great.

Is there anything you're excited about the future? Any new projects, Mans, that you're working on?

Yeah. We're doing a high-rise building, it's blue and has a nicely curved roof, with student housing. That's a whole other scale when it comes to buildings than what we've done so far. It also sits in a very interesting urban context. I really hope that we can continue work on that soon, and make it happen.

Is there anything else you'd like to share - architecture, anything.

What architecture is about, that thing, then, beauty, function, and sustainability. In Swedish, sustainability means also structure, so it's a double meaning there. If you take those, structure, function, and beauty, it's been about that for hundreds of years. I think it will continue to be about that, even though how things are assembled will change. The goal will still be to be that, to find the balance between those three.

Thank you, Mans. Beautiful projects. Thanks again for your time.

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