Design Manifestos

Feature Interviews with Architects & Designers from Around the World

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    Design Manifestos: Talanoa Lesatele of NAGA LLC

    Eli Laipson
    Aug 13, '15 10:53 AM EST

    Talanoa Lesatale, Regional Director of North America for NAGA LLC, took the time to speak with us about his experience as an architect, what makes NAGA unique, and the future of design.

    On the SCAD experience (Savannah College of Art & Design):
    I graduated from SCAD in 1999. It was a great experience going to school there, but if I were to compare SCAD to other schools, I would say that it didn’t have a design direction. If SCAD is the same as it was in my time, I think it’s good for people who are self-starters and know what they want to do. It was good for me because I started at SCAD at an older age, and didn’t go directly from high school. When I started, I had already worked as an artist, so I knew what I wanted to do. At SCAD, I had the freedom to develop my own designs in whatever direction I desired whereas, as far as I know, other architecture schools like Harvard GSD, the design direction is dictated by the chairman of the department, who is typically a famous architect.

    “Self Portrait” (1993)

    On his experience as an artist prior to becoming an architect:
    I had been an artist for four years prior to studying architecture. I worked on numerous portraits in oil and also did some work in Graphic Design. The 2-Tala(2-dollar) bill for Samoa(my country of origin) is probably my most prominent artwork during that time. I also worked on a lot of murals. Most of the work I did then was commissions, but I did have a chance to do some independent work which included wood sculpture and landscape painting in oil and water color.

    On his voice as a designer:
    My voice as a designer is a combination of many things. I think a designer’s voice is mostly intuitive; it’s a product of our education, work experience, memories and life experiences. But to be quite honest with you, I don’t really have a voice per se in the work I do right now because I have to go along with our office’s design principles. If I were to have my own voice, it would probably be a little different from what our office is doing now. I think this is true for most designers who are a part of an architecture firm. There are some bits and pieces that we bring into the designs of the projects we work on, but ultimately it’s our employer’s and/or our collective office’s dream that we’re trying to fulfill.

    Lesatele’s 2-tālā bill design Flickr/loei88

    On his philosophy in architectural design:
    You know, it’s tough when it comes to philosophy. If you ask any architect, they’ll struggle to give you that because it’s a combination of many different things. However, as it pertains to our office, we like modern architecture and we’ve found that modernism has evolved in most places in the West including the US, and Europe, and even in places such as Japan. When you compare these different regions, you would see modernism has matured and it has become unique in each of these regions. For one reason or the other, this hasn’t happened in the Middle East, and since most of our work is in the Middle East, we felt that it is a great opportunity for us to incorporate modernism in our work and mesh it with local/regional ideas and design sensibilities to arrive at a unique architecture style. I think so far this is already evident in some of our built work.

    On recent projects that represent NAGA’s unique approach:
    Probably the most high profile project I have been involved with at NAGA is the Dubai Tourism and Commerce Marketing(DTCM) headquarters in Dubai. Architecture in Dubai is typically characterized by playful and odd forms where essentially everything and anything goes. We try to distance our work from this. With DTCM, the design is a little more pushed than our typical projects, although it is still very restricted. The form is organic and may appear arbitrary but there are some strong guiding/geometric principles behind it. For example, the parti for this form is based on 2 ovals.
    The most complex part of the DTCM is the façade, which is a double skin with the outer layer being a steel structure for a media mesh. The organic form posed a challenge for panelization, ensuring that panels are modularized and economically feasible. This was achieved with careful analysis of the form geometry and the floor heights. A diamond façade module, comprised of 2 equilateral triangles was then incorporated into a Grasshopper script to generate the panels for the entire building façade.

    Dubai Department of Tourism & Commerce Courtesy of NAGA Architects

    On the definition of a successful architecture firm:
    I think success is time-sensitive because a firm that is successful now isn’t necessarily going to be successful in the future. A successful firm is one that perpetuates, which is actually what we’re trying to do in our office now. Most architecture firms become very successful and then when the main guy is 80 years old and ready to retire, then he finally decides to transfer the ownership, knowledge, and vision, but it may be too late.

    We’re hoping we can perpetuate our firm by learning from the big architectural corporations of our day, such as SOM. While the founder of our firm, Dr. Shams Naga, is still young, we have already begun working on strategic planning, which includes ownership transition. Additionally, I think these large firms play it safe by adhering to designs that are mainstream or otherwise referred to as “corporate”. I think this strategy allows these firms’ designs to sustain and be relevant from generation to generation.

    On future disruption or innovation in architecture:
    There was a time when all an architect needed was his education, design capabilities, a pencil and some paper — and that was it. Nowadays to be an architect, you have to know at least 20 different kinds of software. When we look at the last 30 years (a very short time in the big scheme of things) architecture has changed drastically as compared to 100 years before that. This is primarily due to computer software that has allowed architects to design and build beyond our manual capabilities. So, I think we are right in the middle of a period of innovation.

    Additionally, architects are now more environmentally conscious with the development of Green standards such as LEED — contrary to the 60s, where I heard it was a hip thing for architects to fill up ceiling designs with as many lights as possible. When I first learned of sustainability in architecture design at SCAD in the 90s, I realized that this will be the future of architecture. More and more, clients are now requiring buildings to adhere to sustainability standards. And, many architecture design awards now include sustainability components in their review criteria.

    All in all, I think as our technologies evolve, they will transition from high-tech to low-tech. For example, many double skin building facades now have the outer layer function as a shading device to control heat gain through the building envelope. And, most of these outer layers are motorized with the use of electricity. In the future, we should be able to use the properties of the materials to respond to the elements so that these outer layers will respond automatically by the natural processes of expansion and contraction and without the use of electricity.

    On collaboration between designers:
    Architecture (especially dealing with large projects) is a very complex field which requires the involvement of many collaborators. Even at the very initial part of the design process, projects require the input of many designers in order to be truly successful. And good design leaders manage to find a balance between the project’s design direction and the team member’s design input — which is typically not an easy task in a creative field.

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At Modelo we want to know what drives the world’s design and architecture talent. This is why we invite select architects and designers to share their stories, philosophies, visions and favorite works with the public — their manifestos. For more information on how we're working to change the architecture and design world at Modelo please visit us at:

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