In this edition of ‘The Glass Word”, IGS Magazine’s Lewis Wilson talks candidly with Dr. Hossein Rezai, the first and only engineer to receive the coveted title of “Designer of the Year” from the President of Singapore. He is the Founding Principal and Director of design engineering consultancy Web Structures; an international multi-disciplinary firm with a unique ‘fusion Engineering ‘approach, blurring the traditional separation between architectural design aesthetics and structures.
His latest venture as the inaugural Global Design Director in Ramboll has the ambition to scale the pioneering design-oriented engineering ethos that he developed in Web Structures into Ramboll to help steer the company towards Purposeful Design and Environmental Congruency. We delve into his thoughts on collaboration, leveraging digital technologies and glass as a building material both now, and in time still to come.
Lewis: Your company WEB STRUCTURES is a pioneer in ‘fusion engineering’. Can you outline the fundamental ideas behind this concept and discuss how this approach contributes to the final architectural product?
Hossein: Flawed and out-of-date perception of a linear and over-simplified understanding of the Quality spectrum, tends to place cost efficiency and design richness at the two opposing ends. There is this outdated perception that objects and buildings that we design are either cheap or good; that they can’t be both. At the quality end you “leave your wallet” with the designer who spends freely to get you a good design. In contrast, at the cheap end, you inevitably get things that are aesthetically poor, non-responsive, or both. “fusion engineering”, a term we coined a few years ago, challenges this simplistic perception, and in fact shows that high quality and high cost do not have to come together. One can indeed have quality at a lower cost through the value of design. fusion engineering is the circular quality wheel, if you like … in our work over the past 25 years or so we have demonstrated this numerically on many occasions for different scale and genre of projects. We have shown how highly bespoke design leads to economy. And how, in contrast, “standardisation” is always analogous with waste, higher cost and larger carbon footprint.
Lewis: The work of Web Structures requires substantial collaboration with architects, designers, engineers and consultants. As a firm, how challenging is it to extract the best from all the parties involved, while still holding on to your own ideologies and design intent?
Hossein: Our ideologies are in our areas of core competence. Our creative energy draws on this core competence to innovate in the areas where we overlap with other competencies. Collaborative innovation happens when practitioners from different core competencies learn and speak the common language of design. Beautiful things happen in the areas where engineers overlap with architects and other designers. We all need to be “bi-lingual”; engineers must be able to recite the most amazing poetry in engineering, yet be able to communicate the same in the language of design so that others appreciate the romance and articulation of their contribution. Likewise, architects and others must be able to communicate in the common language of design. Or no meaningful conversation and interaction will happen, and everyone will feel frustrated, not understood, nor appreciated, leading to input from each discipline piled up on top of each other rather than being integrated into one congruent whole.
Lewis: Collaboration is not limited to human beings; digital technology has become a fundamental design partner. What are the benefits of collaborating with and leveraging digital technologies from the design phase through to the completion of a building?
Hossein: Value of collaboration has been undeniable in the ascent of our species to where we are as the undisputed leading species on top of the food chain. It is primarily by collaborating with one another that we have carved this position for ourselves. The key to our apparent success has been the fact that we collaborate not only with people and colleagues we know, but with those we do not even know exist. The test is when you open up any of the gadgets we own. Once the cover is removed you see myriad of components each of which is manufactured by different people and factories from across the globe. The individual workers or companies whose products feature in the whole system would probably not know where their components would end up and next to whose components. But they sure are “collaborating” with one another. The relationship we are formulating with machines now is a key determinant in our progress into the future. Machines are empowering us not only to do the things that we have always done better, but also to do things we were not able to do only a few short years ago. I would go further to say that through augmentation with modern machines we have been emancipated to think and imagine designs that we would be inhibited to imagine a few years ago. Machines have broadened our horizons. And THAT is the future…
Lewis: There are undoubtedly numerous advantages to the digital revolution – From BIM to Artificial Intelligence and BIG Data, we can now design more complex, efficient and responsive buildings. But do you think anything has been lost because of it?
Hossein: The process of technology development and adoption is not binary. We should not see progress as “gain of new, but loss of old”. I do not look at the journey in a sentimental and nostalgic way. We are on a journey in which we learn from the past and move into the future. The whole of the past is in the whole of the future. Nothing is really ever lost. For those who are fearful of the advent of digital technology and the role that machines will play in our future, they need to ask themselves 3 simple questions: who am i? where do I come from? What’s my ethos? Those of us who can have meaningful answers to these questions will never be replaced by machines because no machine in the foreseeable future will be genuinely able to answer these 3 questions. I recall the newspaper headlines when Watson (IBM’s artificially intelligent machine) beat the chess world champion a few years ago. In amongst the jubilation of the programmers and machinists who made and operated Watson, the headlines read “Watson does not know he has won!”. And this is the difference between us and the machines. This is a super long way of answering your question. I could just have said “NO”. haha …
Lewis: This may sound silly but we live in a funny old world; In a dystopian future ruled by machines, can you see the day when artificially intelligent automated technology can conceptualize, design, engineer and build a project, making the job of architects and structural engineers obsolete?
Hossein: “There are no such things as silly questions. Only silly answers.” I not only can see that day, but am actually looking forward to it! Everything that any of us are doing right now can technically be done by a machine. We are already effectively and technically obsolete. That’s why we need to reinvent ourselves and move onto the next curve rather than live in the fear that machines are going to take over and leave nothing for us to do. Can you imagine if a leader in an organization thought like that about his/her up and coming staff?! And saw them as threats rather than opportunities to relinquish more and more of what he/she is doing to others to be empowered to learn and do other things.
Lewis: WEB STRUCTURES is renowned for its “out-of-the-box” concepts, innovative thinking and structured creativity. How do you maintain your creativity and continue innovating in an architectural climate where many projects reproduce existing tried and tested ideas?
Hossein: It is not easy, especially when there is the pressure of short-term financial performance. I know a lot of other people and practitioners who are on the same trajectory. They will tell you also that it is not easy. You see, creativity is hard work, it is an attitude. It is an intent that one decides to explore new paths and ideas rather than fall back on the previously done and tried and tested solutions and answers. It gives one a sense of constant anxiety. But the creative anxiety is good anxiety. The test is in fact to be in touch with one’s inner feeling and listen to yourself. Are you anxious? Are you in doubt if the idea you are exploring may or may not work? If yes, then you are in a creative space. You are in a new space. Where you have not been before. If not, then you are regurgitating something from the past. You may be doing this inadvertently and subconsciously. If you have no doubt, then you are not in a creative space. I feel very uncomfortable when I am totally comfortable! That’s my secret. I suppose everyone has his/her own litmus test.
Lewis: COVID-19 has, to say the least, been highly disruptive to the world and AEC industry in 2020/21. In your view, what effects has the pandemic had on design thinking? Has it affected structural engineering and your key considerations in the design phase of a project?
Hossein: The pandemic, like other events in our recent history, has accelerated the rate of change which we were undergoing before the pandemic. It has really not changed the path or the trajectory our industry has been on. We have been asking ourselves questions on the validity of our processes, our practices and our relationship with our work and with the natural environment. Our industry thinkers have been raising issues of climate change, social and inter-species equity, carbon footprint, etc etc for many decades now. Environmental sustainability, the things that we build, materials we use, the way our cities operate and the like have been questions we have been asking ourselves constantly over many years. This pandemic has made more of us ask these questions and take these questions and possible answers to them more seriously, as the virus has left its indelible mark in our lives and livelihoods. The upshot of all these frictions between the built environment and the natural environment is that we must change. The mantra of “Business-as-usual is not sustainable” is now a clear reality for most of us. The AEC industry is no exception to this tsunami of change. We are not only changing the manner in which we work, with work from home and more remote collaboration, but also are questioning the merits of some of our design and material selection processes by introducing circularity into our work and by squeezing waste and carbon out of them.
Lewis: Over the past decade we have seen a heightened sense of urgency surrounding climate change and sustainability in architecture. Do you believe glass has a place in the sustainable, energy efficient, high-performance buildings of the future?
Hossein: Glass definitely has a very important role to play in the future of our built environment. Structural properties of glass have always fascinated me. Recent advances in glass technology leading to more resilience and redundancy in these properties are encouraging. Integration of technology into glass as a material and in the process of making glass have also enhanced environmental properties of the material with better heat and light insulation. What I would like to see happening moving forward is glass that can breathe; one that can allow air movement and natural ventilation while providing protection against water ingress. Not sure how far we are from achieving this, but I sure look forward to that.
Lewis: And finally, can you introduce us to some of the projects that you are currently working on, and perhaps give us a heads up on some projects in the pipeline that look set to gain traction and change the game in 2021 and beyond?
Hossein: We have two expo pavilions about to be completed in Dubai for the upcoming expo, one for Singapore with WOHA architects and the other for Malaysia with Hijjas architects. I am very excited to see the finished work soon. In Singapore we are doing a stadium in downtown by the marina, a competition-winning scheme with WOHA architects, partly in land and partly on water. Another competition-winning scheme we are working on in Singapore is the new science center which we won with Zaha Hadid Architects and Architects 61. Over in Kuala Lumpur, we are building a mixed development near the Petronas Towers. The development has 3 towers; one at 72 storeys and a twin towers at around 62 and 58 storeys. The interesting thing about the twin towers is that they twist away from one another as they go up; this creates a beautiful dynamic form which makes the development pretty bespoke. The reason the towers twist as they go up is to avoid a situation where the residents of one tower overlook into those in the other tower. It is a highly purposeful twist that adds to the quality and value of the design and the property. We are doing quite a few other projects in around 15 countries as we speak. They all are unique, and I can tell you a lot about them: like a university in Dhaka and one in Singapore, both with WOHA, a highprofile development off the coast of Penang in Malaysia with the team from BIG out of New York, a breathtaking residential tower with RSHP in Taipei and a, as yet, confidential shop somewhere in the world with Foster and Partners.
This interview was originally published in IGS Magazine’s Summer 2021 Issue: Read the full Magazine here for more thought-leadership from those spearheading the industry.
Dr. Rezai is an engineer, a design visionary and an educator. One of the initiators of the concept of “fusion engineering”, he is the first and only engineer to receive the coveted title of “Designer of the Year” from the President of Singapore. He is very passionate about the process of advanced computational design, and a holistic approach to architecture + structure + environment, and circularity in the construction process. Dr Rezai’s high-profile contributions to industry discourse include his involvement on the 13th cycle Aga Khan Award for Architecture’s Master of Jury in 2016, as a jury member for the Singapore President’s Design Award (2017 – 2018) and as Vice-Chair (2019-2020). Dr Rezai is the Global Design Director of Ramboll and founding Director of Web Structures and Web Earth. His latest initiative, on Advanced Computational Design aims to redefine the collaborative nature of designers working with machines to overcome the compound challenges faced by the building industries and the environments within which they are deployed.
Dr. Rezai lectures extensively and has covered ongoing crit and consultation in various architectural schools including those at the National University of Singapore (NUS), the Singapore University of technology and Design, Politecnico Di Milano and more recently at the University of Southern California. His research and academic career goes all the way back to when he was a research fellow at the University of Westminster. He conducted a number of research initiatives and supervised projects including a PhD on punching shear reinforcement in flat slabs. This work led to various publications in international magazines including the Structural Engineer and the American Concrete Institute. His academic career continues today with involvement with the National University of Singapore (NUS) and more recently the Singapore University of Technology and Design.
Dr. Rezai was awarded a Ph.D. in 1985 for his work on reinforced and prestressed concrete structures. He further pursued his research interests on a post-doctorate research programme on the assessment and upgrading of existing structures before joining the industry in January 1987. He has been involved with the design and development of a number of fairly high-profile structures in the UK, South East Asia and elsewhere across the globe.
Dr Rezai is a proponent of high-rise and dense urban development, with emphasis on innovative structural systems for tall, supertall and mega tall buildings.