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James Biber


‘Being better at architecture means doing more than architecture’


James Biber has practiced architecture in a multidisciplinary environment for more than 25 years. Trained at Cornell University first as a biologist, then as an architect, his work centres on a belief that architecture as an expression of identity is inseparable from its language of form and tectonics.

The result is an architecture tied closely to its context, whether physical, cultural or metaphorical.

Biber’s projects include the USA Pavilion at Expo Milano 2015, the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, private oceanfront home in the Hamptons, CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College, the nation’s Millennium Time Capsule, galleries at the Koch Institute, MIT, public spaces at the NYC Department of Probation and Best Made Company’s retail shop.

In the digital and global society, how would you define your work and tell your approach to design/architecture?

“Architecture is essentially an analog result created by a largely digital process. Even the most digitally advanced building exists in a three dimensional world that is, in some ways, unchanged for centuries. Older cities like Milan work so well in our global, digital, instantaneous and connected world because people have changed less than we are willing to admit. 

For me architecture is a constant that mediates the physical world, shapes social interaction and creates a context for all human activity”.

Today we use the word “design” too much. Where do you look for your references and what you watch?

“Fine art is a constant source of inspiration and ideas that are conveniently detached from the world of function and cost. And history is a research tool, a virtual catalog of lessons. The online world allows us to use both with an immediacy never before possible”.

Today we live in a world where culture, creativity, innovation work in synergy. What does really matters in the creative process?

“For us, identity is at the center of all design. Our creative process is shaped by the search for the core identity of the client, the user or the institution. Synergy is how identity is realized, with culture, art, 2 and 3D, image, metaphor and narrative combining to create a legible identity”.

How do you live your relationship with companies/clients?

“A partner of mine once said “don’t look for clients, look for friends” and while this seems almost childish in its simplicity it is essentially true. We rely on the people we work with to make great projects. We love working with the smartest people on the planet. Smart clients in a relationship of trust are the best assurance of producing our best work.

I once thought that, in order of importance, the priorities were WORK, PEOPLE, MONEY, etc. I now know that the priority is PEOPLE, and after that everything takes care of itself!”

How do you think the lifestyles habits are changing? And how much is it important to know the needs of the individual as a person?

“For residential work we have a very intimate picture of an individual life and lifestyle. For more public projects we are looking at societal (or sub-group) habits and lifestyle. Recently our work for the least privileged classes in New York has led us to lifestyles and priorities well outside our norm. It is instructive and reorienting in a remarkable way”.

If you had to imagine yourself in 10 years: in which house, in which work, in which city/environment?

“In 10 years I hope to have lives in a few places: New York City, rural Upstate New York, Milan and possibly Los Angeles. Or at least three out of four of these! We have, until recently had homes in the first three and it is a life that touches nearly all the special places we love. Both cities and the countryside have an enormous attraction for us (and our dog!) but the suburban world, where I grew up, has the worst of both. Neither city nor country, neither private nor public, the suburb is the one place I hope never to land”.

Which is your relationship with house/home? And which is your favourite room?

“I have a relationship as one who lives in homes, and as an architect who creates homes for others, and these are entirely different relationships. As a resident I love the patina of age; the idiosyncrasy of rooms that are too small or too large; of imperfect views and spaces in between. As an architect I crave clarity, intention and simplicity disguising complexity.

My favourite rooms are those in between the inside and outside; courtyards, sunrooms, porches, and the layers that mediate the internal and external”.