How does today’s ‘architect that makes everything’ differ from the ‘master builder’ of the past? That was the central question asked in a symposium in Laufen, Switzerland, on 12 June, hosted by sanitary ware manufacturer Laufen and the European branch of the AIA.

Coinciding with Art Basel and Design Miami/ Basel; those representing a breed of artist-architect were asked to take the stage: Snarkitecture’s Daniel Arsham and Alex Mustonen, Marc Fornes & TheVeryMany and HHF Architects’ Simon Frommenwiler. Frame magazine’s editor-in-chief Robert Thiemann provocatively introduced the theme by stating that the role of the architect, once a master builder, has changed to being no more than an aesthetic consultant; a case of choosing the bricks rather than building with them.  

Marc Fornes, however, hasn’t use a single brick in his work to date. The French-born, New York-based architect has adopted computational fabrication to create a portfolio of temporary installations for the likes of Louis Vuitton, Art Basel/Miami and various galleries. In his impressively visual presentation, Fornes explained that he works by trial and error, and that his dream project would be a permanent construction. To achieve his goal he has decided to focus on public works of art.

Chances are that Fornes will be competing with Snarkitecture in this field. The New-York-based studio, consisting of artist Daniel Arsham and architect Alex Mustonen, recently completed its first permanent work in public space: a typographic installation at the Marlins Ballpark in Miami, Florida. Snarkitecture’s other completed projects have a temporary nature, such as a retail installation for Palladium, an entry pavilion for Design Miami/ and an intervention at Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York.

Swiss architect Simon Frommenwiler was the only one on stage with a literally concrete portfolio of permanent buildings. His Basel-based firm HHF has realized an impressive, international body of work that stretches from a lookout point in Mexico to a guest house in New York; as well as many a collaborative project with Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Having witnessed the presentations by Fornes, Arsham and Mustonen, Frommenwiler referred to himself as an ‘almost old-fashioned’ architect, underlining that the role of the contemporary architect is indeed changing.

In the lively panel discussion that followed, Italian designer Roberto Palomba joined the group. The designer of the Kartell by Laufen bathroom collection specializes in sanitary ware, but was quick to point out that he’s also working on electronic consumer goods, a yacht and a shopping mall. Palomba claimed these commissions arose due to his hard-earned reputation and the body of trust he has built with his well-known sanitary designs. The group then concluded that it’s difficult for any architect to get a commission with no experience of the task at hand. Palomba then said, however, that he does collaborate with architects and engineers that have the experience and knowledge that his studio may lack.

The two-hour symposium ended with the common feeling that architects have to earn trust by realizing projects, and need to collaborate with designers from other disciplines to branch out into other types of projects. In doing so, it’s possible that the modern architect might indeed make everything.