Annabelle Selldorf’s design style — ambitious yet controlled, grand yet utterly precise — has made her one of the most sought after working architects in the world today. She is currently designing an expansion of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, but is probably most known for creating Neue Galerie New York, housed in the William Starr Miller House on Manhattan’s upper east side. Selldorf takes on a diverse range of projects, but she’s probably at her best when working on spaces that serve as arenas for the arts. Most recently, she collaborated with Gagosian’s Madison Avenue Gallery in presenting “Francis Bacon: Late Paintings”, an exhibition that it up this week and will remain on view until December 12th. Earlier this year, Selldorf contributed to the inaugural print publication of NeueJournal, revealing some of what drives her decision-making when she encounters a new challenge.
My father was an architect and my mother was a designer, but when I started thinking about what I wanted to pursue professionally, architecture was the last thing that came to mind. I knew there would be many obstacles to surmount. But I think it was always in my blood and I’ve never regretted the decision. In fact, I’ve always felt extremely lucky that I found my passion at a young age.
I am not motivated by making big gestures just for the sake of making big gestures. That doesn’t mean that I don’t want my buildings to make powerful impacts on the urban condition or other landscapes, but that impact has to grow from something that is meaningful and specific. If a project doesn’t work at the human scale then it’s going to fail—there is much more to the success of a building than what you can see. I’m not suggesting that gestural architecture is always superficial, but solid reasoning has its place.
I start my design process from the inside out, whether it’s an art gallery or a private residence. By being attuned to the uniqueness of each client and location, I’m able to distill the essence of the place. I begin by taking stock of all of the key elements of the client’s needs and site context.
Many times I grapple with the question of what to build new versus what to renovate, how to navigate these two options. It always needs to be fully studied. For instance, when David Zwirner first purchased the property on West 20th Street where the new gallery now sits, there was an existing three-story garage. My initial instinct was to work with it. I don’t believe in tearing down good buildings that can be intelligently repurposed. But when we fully evaluated all of the gallery’s needs and the site conditions, it became clear that keeping the garage would be impractical and would never properly satisfy the requirements. In the Neue Galerie for German and Austrian Art, we refurbished as much historic detail as we could, but not in an arbitrary way. The second floor maintains much of the original character and detail, with subtle modern insertions, such as the lay light in the main painting gallery. The third floor, where all of the historic details were already removed, we completed in a more contemporary language, giving the museum greater flexibility for installing temporary exhibitions.
I hope that the legacy of my work is the contribution it has made to the quality of life in the public realm. I strive to create buildings and spaces that inspire and elevate.
Photography: Brigitte Lacombe for NeueJournal
Guest Photo Editor: Janet Johnson