Q&A with Carlos Zapata, World Renowned Architectural Designer
Carlos Zapata is an architectural designer who grew up in Ecuador, received his Bachelor and Master of Architecture degrees in New York, and has designed innovative buildings all over the world. He recently won one of the 50 most innovative skyscrapers award from the Council on Tall Buildings for his work on the Bitexco Financial tower in Ho Chi Minh City, also named one of the 50 most iconic skyscrapers in the world by CNN Go. I spent years with Carlos working on getting Landmarks approval for what will one day be one of New York’s most iconic penthouses. In that time I grew to know a man who at first comes across as quiet and maybe even a bit shy, only to open up with a passion true to his designs and desire to make an impact on this world. I was excited that he took time out of his busy schedule to talk to me about his background, what he is still learning, and his plans for the future.
BP: When did you know architecture was what you wanted to pursue?
CZ: It was an immediate decision for me once I sat down to decide what to study in college. I grew up in my family’s art gallery in Quito, Ecuador but I also had an early interest in everything with a motor, which taught me about parts and functionality. Once I put the two together, architecture became my natural choice.
BP: What are you most passionate about in your work?
CZ: I’m passionate about the use of structures to provoke expression in architecture. And I’m also passionate about finding elegant solutions to complex programmatic problems.
BP: How are your clients’ wishes changing in terms of sustainable building design?
CZ: Sustainability has become more accessible to clients and designers because of the development of new technologies, and also because of education. New generations of developers and designers have been raised with keen awareness of the delicate state of our environment and have come to embrace sustainable approaches in new construction. Sustainable design is no longer a wish list item.
BP: As someone who has an incredible amount of experience in design, what do you feel you are still learning?
CZ: Experience teaches you to look for those very simple aspects of a project that can make it exceptional. Each project deserves a tremendous amount of thinking and research. It is not acceptable to simply reuse an old solution that has proven to be successful for you in the past.
BP: Which has been your favorite project?
CZ: I couldn’t pick one. We work in different cities with different cultural expectations and rules, which all contribute to shaping a project. But I have to say that some of my favorites would be the Chicago Bears Stadium, Bitexco Financial Tower in HCMC, Vietnam, and Sculptura, a super luxury condominium tower soon to be finished in Singapore. They are all innovative in their own right and have given us a great deal of satisfaction for the way in which they have been received.
BP: Do you have any solutions in mind for how to make de Blasio’s affordable housing plan a reality?
CZ: I think the proposal could be interesting if it allows for additional development rights, height, or negotiations on such zoning restrictions as the size of units. One relevant aspect that came out of the Bloomberg administration was their interest in micro units. There is one project under construction in NYC today which uses an override of the zoning resolution to allow for units to be built below the 400 sf minimum standard. This would allow developers to offer a percentage of the units at a lower price without compromising the quality of the development, which is essential to maintaining the value of the project as a whole.
BP: Favorite NYC building (that you weren’t involved in)?
CZ: My favorite modern building in NYC is the original Guggenheim, before the addition was built. But I am interested in a couple of buildings that are not completed yet but show a lot of promise.
One is 56 Leonard by Herzog & de Meuron and another one is the MOMA skyscraper, 53 W 53 by Jean Nouvel.
BP: Favorite NYC neighborhood?
CZ: New York has an amazing array of neighborhoods but I live in Soho and my office is in Soho, so I guess that answers that question. In the past five years, I have really enjoyed the development of the Lower East Side, Williamsburg and Greenpoint. I think Brooklyn is a prime location for new development. I would certainly love to participate in its future.
BP: What type of design would you like to see more of in NYC?
CZ: NYC is in need of more innovative projects. I am very happy to see that height limits have been lifted in several parts of the city. That should give designers and developers the ability to make buildings with more integrated open space throughout, essentially making the buildings porous.
BP: Do you have a dream project?
CZ: Yes, a tall building in NYC with a lot more going on than just a bunch of repetitive floor plates.