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Eran Chen: Embracing History, Creating the Future

Written by  Ying Zhu and Jorja Hudson
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Eran Chen is the creative director of ODA, a prominent architecture firm based in New York City. ODA's mission of improving people's lives is attracting more clients and bigger projects. 

Israeli-born Eran Chen and his team of international architects work with a cognizance of historical context, while embracing new and innovative designs. Some of their current projects include elegant residences in Union Square, Fifth Avenue and Worth Street, as well as receiving notable recognition in international competition work for the The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo, Norway and the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem.

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15 Union Square West, Exterior.

Ying Zhu: ODA’s ethos is to use design to change the way people live in the city. Can you tell us about that?

Eran Chen: It is my belief that architecture has the ability to impact people’s lives on an emotional level. It can make people’s lives better and improve their feelings about themselves, their environment and others around them. There is an immense quality and vitality to living in the city.

Our work is grounded in this viewpoint regardless of a particular style. In part, through meaningful analysis of materials and the cultural aspects to neighborhood and surroundings - what we call the DNA of every project that we’re undertaking – we accumulate this chain of information which grows organically. I think if done correctly, whatever the end result, it will feel appropriate - people will understand and embrace it.

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15 Union Square West, Interior.

What is it about this company that sets it apart from all the others?

I think people are passionate and share our mission, our goal. Private clients and developers feel that our buildings and our designs communicate and connect to people in a way that they want: people want to live in the buildings we design. It’s very personal and conveys a lifestyle. People look for what expresses them, who they are, or who they want to be. The other thing is that we’re a holistic design office. We design the architecture, the interior, the furniture - it’s a complete relationship, a synergy.

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8 Union Square South

Your design team is quite international and you grew up in Israel. How does the connection with so many different cultures and histories influence your firm?

I love this about our firm. I love the fact that our team is international. It wasn’t necessarily intentional but it came about this way and we love it -- different people bring different backgrounds and cultures. The emotional influence of people through architecture shares an international connection. It has nothing to do with style or country, social or economic situations. I think architects feel this about our work and it attracts them to come here. At the end of the day, I think New York is one of the only places in the world where you can achieve full collaboration in an environment that supports an international team.

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241 5th Avenue, Exterior and Interior.

Do you think different spaces lend themselves to specific cultural influences?

The global and cultural element that I relate to is two-fold. Every building designed in an historical context is very attractive to me. I like the idea of embracing history in order to create the future. The other aspect is the global and social environment - the essence that it’s not necessarily a Parisian style or a London style but rather, something that could parallel almost any place.

What challenges do you think well established cities face versus cities that are just emerging?

The challenges are relative within the existing framework. I think the most successful cities in the world are those embracing the history of their architecture but still creating renewable frameworks all the time. Take Paris for instance, a beautiful city, yet the amount of renewal within the urban fabric is minimal, it’s almost like a finished product. That, to me, is less exciting than cities that are in development , but at the same time, cities that are burgeoning lack something deep-rooted that’s inherent in the older cities. In this sense, detaching from an historical context is a bit more challenging in terms of where a city is headed and what may be shaping its future.

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National Library of Israel in Jerusalem.

Do you have a preference to build from scratch or do you like to renovate what’s already there?

Interesting. I don’t think that you ever build from scratch. I think whatever you’re building, as an architect, you build within a context that pre-exists. The question is how much exists within the parameters of the project. But even if you build something from scratch, you inherit everything that surrounds it. To some degree having the structure or not having the structure is very similar to me.

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100 Norfolk Street, exterior and interior.

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What made you decide to become an architect?

My mom always tells the story of when I was five years old and I sat down and drew perspective views of our living room. She still has the drawings to prove it, which means that I was always intrigued by the three dimensional environments that surround us and I tried to document them one way or another. Later in life I had different ideas, I thought of being a physician and a surgeon, many things. In Israel, after high school you go to the army for a few years, and it gives you a buffer of time to decide what works for you. For some reason in my twenties I came back to architecture and thought this is really for me.

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ODA Chandelier

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Private Residence, New York.

What was the very first project that you were hired to do and what was that experience like?

Oh! Well, every architect has their first project and their first client who’ll they love forever! When I was at school in Jerusalem, during my third year, friends of mine asked me to design their home. I was a pretty ambitious young student and I took on that mission. Of course we had to involve an engineer to sign on the drawings and the client’s husband was a contractor so he was confident enough that he could read my working drawings - which were far from being perfect. But I designed their home some twenty years ago and they still live in it so I guess it was successful.

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Renwick, interior and exterior.

Can you talk about your design process? When does collaboration begin? Do you prefer to present ideas and get input or do you start with a collaborative effort right away?

We address three circles through the process of design. The outer circle is the “what” – what is it that we are doing? Inside there’s the “how” and then the basis of it is “why.” The “what” relates to if we’re doing black and white, big or small? The “how” is the process of collaboration and the “why” is the motivator, it motivates us to accomplish anything. What I do is guide the process through the questions I ask and not necessarily through the answers that I’m giving.

I set the stage for projects to ask the question “why are we doing what we’re doing?” Why does the building want to be that way and not a different way? Then I let the collaboration process emerge from the answer. Sometimes I answer the questions myself and sometimes others do, but I set a goal in asking the right questions and finding the parameters for the discussion.

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93 Worth Street.

What are the most challenging aspects of embarking on a new project?

The process of design has a lot to do with convincing large groups of interested parties that your vision is the right one. To sit down and do a sketch of something is one thing but it’s a small part of the world of architecture. In order to build together you need clients, investors, engineers - numerous teams collaborating together toward a common goal.

Most challenging is to really believe in what you’re doing and the story that you’re telling, then convincing the rest of the team that this is the right thing to do. Convincing is not just political discourse, but more philosophical and technical. The more a person is equipped with the ability to technically communicate with the team, the more you can support philosophical ideas. To finish a project with the your original ideas, now, that’s the most challenging.

How has computer technology changed architecture? Do you still draw on paper?

I prefer to draw on paper. I know the general consensus is that computers have totally changed and revolutionized the world of architecture. I think it’s just another tool architects use in order to communicate purpose and achieve goals. A lot of people take this tool and make it the purpose, but if they understand that these capabilities or automations are only partly contributing towards the goal, which is to enrich people’s lives with architecture, then they’re great tools to have.

Do you use computers to present ideas?

We use them in the office: we present ideas; we do computerized modeling; we do everything via computer… eventually. But we have to be very careful that it doesn’t take over and there is that personalization, some of each of us in the work instead.

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"The ODA Room"

How do the tools and creative processes of designing buildings and designing furniture intersect?

They intersect but are slightly different. Design is design. I could design a piece of furniture or do urban planning for a city. In a way for me they’re all really similar. But I can’t design in a void. If there are no parameters that define the concept of what this design must address, or the problem it must solve, then there isn’t much I can do.

When it comes to furniture I think, again, the DNA -- the chain of information and the elements that influence the design -- are less extensive than in a building. This allows me to experiment on what I call “basic design” – just ideas of materiality: shapes, movement and interaction on a personal level between people and things. But at the end of the day for me they’re very similar. It’s about problems and solutions.

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"Oscillate" Project

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The Mosaic Folding Chair

When you design furniture do you think about where it will end up being used?

Yes, it’s funny because sometimes I will design furniture for a specific purpose and then it ends up being used for something else, but that’s okay. The growth of every product needs to be within a set of parameters. After completion it has a life of its own. Sometimes I like to create these circumstances. Let’s say I want to use a table in environment A and the client is B and the use is C. What would I do? After I create these circumstances there’s a product that will be unique for its time. But it has a life of its own and sometimes ends up being used for something completely different.

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"The Traveler"

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ODA Children's Furniture Collection

Do your children ever inspire any kind of design?

My children? (Smiles) We have a country home and this weekend we built reindeer from logs of wood and I encourage that with my kids all the time. I think with my time off, I like to do things and make things and build things and fix things and my children are along side of me. I assume these experiences will eventually influence and inspire them.

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Which city do you think has the most exciting architecture?

Wow its like saying “which wife do you like the most?” (laughs) I try not to force myself to choose. I’m not sure if there is a fair answer. There are a few cities that I recently fell in love with. I think that Barcelona is a great, vibrant city that I really love. Mostly because of that balance of history and renewal; it's ever-changing. Tel Aviv where I come from is very similar. It has the biggest collection of Bauhaus buildings and yet it’s not a city that is frozen in time. It’s ever-changing and dynamic. I think that really influences the type of people it attracts, the type of people that gravitate toward these cities.

At the end of the day it’s not about the buildings. It’s about an environment, the people who occupy these buildings and their interactions. Barcelona really struck me as the kind of place you just want to be - you want to sit right down on the street and have a sangria and take it all in. Whether you walk through the buildings of Gaudi or go to the beach, there’s a sense of livelihood. Combined with the public spaces, the people, the food, the wine, the whole culture, I think that makes it a very successful city.

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The James New York. Exterior and Interior

When you have friends from out of town visiting New York and they ask you which buildings to check out, what do you recommend?

I have my own tours! I have a little map of New York and five basic tours. I say these are the five paths that you really have to take. I change them from time to time as I walk around the city with my family or in my free time. New York is about a sequence of neighborhoods and traveling through them and understanding the energy that the different neighborhoods possess. On each point on the map there are highlights that one should stop and see. I think the experience and emotion is much greater than just a single building.

Do you wish you had received any other guidance as a student or a young architect?

I’m embarrassed to say when I went to school, it was after the army so I was a little older than most people and I didn’t attend school that much (laughs). I feel differently about that now. I enjoyed school, but at the same time, I was working and involved in other things. Now, I would love to just spend a few years and study. You know, it’s always like that: now that I can’t – that’s what I want!

In regards to young people studying architecture and design, what do you think are the most important things they should study or focus on? Do you teach as well?

I try to teach, but not on a continuous basis. I visit universities when invited to speak and I enjoy doing that. I think architecture is about engaging an idea and making it happen through the process of compelling people. This is something not embraced enough in the typical curriculum. At school you receive assignments, you complete them by yourself, you present them to the professor, receive a grade and it’s done. If I would do anything differently, it would be to assemble students into teams to experience the importance of group dynamics. It’s like going to a psychologist - when you say what you feel, you understand it better. So this is something I would add to the curriculum. Architecture takes time. There are some successful young architects who are admired, but at the same time it’s important to understand that creating great architecture takes a lot of time.

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555 Sixth Avenue

What are some of the most important qualities people should possess if they want to become successful architects?

An individual must be passionate about architecture but also about solving problems in a creative way. If you possess the urge to solve problems in a creative way then architecture is one discipline you might like. It’s about looking beyond basic design to understanding the dynamics between people, the interrelationships. Architecture is not about just creating objects; it’s about creating for people and embracing the passions people possess.

What is the best moment of your day?

My days are pretty intense. I constantly shift between meetings with clients, engineers, vendors, other consultants, and working with my staff. Sometimes it’ll just be for a few minutes but I try to see every team in the office once a day. Sometimes at the end of the day I’ll look back and think yes, that was a really great day. When I’m effective, I’m happy.

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Marron Glace

Can you tell us about your last name?

(laughs) It’s not as exotic as it sounds! First I’ll tell you the version I told my clients: I had two major projects in China; with an important client there, a large group of people. They never asked me about my last name, which obviously can appear Chinese. One night during dinner, the owner of the company stood up and said “now Mr. Chen, I want you to explain to us why your name is Chen!” At that moment, I couldn’t say anything that would disappoint him! I was sure that he really wanted to hear some connection to China. I said, “Chairman, my grandfather was Chinese and he married my grandmother who was Russian and that’s how I got my name.” But - it’s not the truth (laughs). Since then we’ve shared this sort of connection and this client still calls me today, continuing to want to work with me. The truth is that my last name is “Hen” and in Hebrew it means “charm.” It’s two letters but you can’t really spell it in English -- when my father was a pilot in the Israeli army, he trained here in America, and for some reason he spelled it Chen. And I embrace it.

Wonderful, thank you so much!

You can see more of Eran Chen's work on ODA's website.

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