Sculpting the void – Michel Mossessian Spiritland Talk

Tuesday 2 October 2018

© Sergo Ustian

Architect Michel Mossessian took an audience of fellow architects and friends on a deep and sometimes philosophical musical journey to demonstrate the connections he feels exist between creating space and music – or what he called ‘sculpting the void’.

Mossessian, who gave a tour of his S2 building at King’s Cross before sitting down with NLA chairman Peter Murray at Spiritland to talk through some of the music that has inspired him, was born to an Armenian father and eastern European mother. He describes himself as French but with ‘a mixed bag of heritage’. 

Repetition, he said, is the essential element of music, something it shares with certain corners of the architectural world, not least in the current discussions around off-site construction. But the way that, for instance, contemporary composer Pierre Boulez classified sounds has helped Mossessian create a building in Doha, where he had to ‘compose’ with 40,000 pieces of Onyx to make a large square. ‘The classification of materials, the density, the attack, the duration, the resonance – that became the stigma of creating a presence’, he said. Is repetition important in architecture? King’s Cross only allows an architect to work once on the King’s Cross site, but with S2 Mossessian said he was proud of introducing some ‘deviations’ such as the concept of the void, which is related to the public realm.  ‘London is repetitive in its modalities of living’ said Mossessian. ‘Repetition is part of our life, but what is different is the little spaces that are either created or appropriated by our public realm. The beauty of a successful city is this fair negotiation between mass – the full – and the void. The void belongs to everybody and the sense of the collective, so you need the repetition to create the void. London is a beautiful example – it’s the most public city that I know. It’s amazing, isn’t it?’.

Mossessian wanted to make movies in his very early years, but was advised to try architecture after winning sandcastle competitions in France. He said he splits his life into three distinct phases – one third as a Parisian, another in the US studying in Harvard, then working at SOM in Chicago (working on Exchange House in Broadgate), and, since 2000, in London. In Paris he lived in the Latin Quarter, coming 10 years after the events of 1968. ‘There was no sex, no drugs, and no rock and roll’, he said. ‘And our professors knew less than us’. Luckily, Pompidou opened in 1977, and that was Mossessian’s main education source, after which the ‘world came back’, with Mossessian finding himself being able to learn from Pierre Boulez himself, the great in classes at the College de France. 

Chicago was, in Mossessian’s experience, an ‘incredibly pragmatic city’ with an ‘amazing vision of delivering purity’, where he discovered blues and Motown from one of his students at the University of Chicago. And his London period began after Mossessian worked on a King’s Cross masterplan alongside Ricky Burdett. ‘The intensity in London was really extreme’, said Mossessian, who also worked alongside Frank Gehry on his fish in Barcelona – ‘the first time he became visible’ – from which Mossessian also went on to work on Bilbao and even witnessing the Fenice burning down in Venice. He won the NATO competition for SOM in Brussels, a project that ‘grounded’ him in London. ‘I had to refuse to go back to work in Chicago and New York.’ Then, he recalled, Mossessian asked Lords Foster and Rogers what he should do, to which Foster replied: ‘you start’. So he did, beginning his own practice in 2004 with projects including 5 Merchant Square in Paddington and later winning a series of schemes in downtown Doha with EDAW alongside other British architects such as John McAslan and Allies and Morrison. Today, Mossessian is also working in Fez after another open competition – the rebuilding of the heart of the Medina. 

By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ


Michel Mossessian’s Spiritland music choices:

Levitation in Space

space + voice = Church
choral 1: BATS MEZ TER – OPEN FOR US Karineh Avetissian

the Apotheosis and Catharsis


La Grande Forme
Pierre Boulez 
- Response 

a-temporal space
Bach well-tempered clavier BWV846 - BWV851 Friedrich Gulda, piano April 1972
GULDA, Bach "THE WELL-TEMPERED CLAVIER" BOOK 1 ( note: Piano NOT piano forte) 

Jazz mind
Motown - The Temptations - My Girl

From `gospel to stage
Say a little prayer - Aretha Franklin 

DJ-in the 3 versions please
- Take me to the river Al Green 
- Take me to the river by Brian Ferry
- Take me to the river Talking Heads 

We lose our temper!
Losing My Religion, REM

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