Austrian Nicola Beck is not an admirer of titles and labels, which is appropriate because it difficult to place one on her work. Referred to often as a designer or an architect, her work is so diverse and her approach so unique that it supersedes these attempts to easily identify her. Constantly pushing forward the ideas of how we use space, its aesthetics, and how it makes us feel; Beck makes use of real and virtual methods to test and interpret her ideas. Beautiful and groundbreaking design can be found in art, clothing, architecture, and almost every daily interaction we have with our world. The design of our surroundings not only affects our productivity but also our mood and sense of happiness. These unspoken cues can have massive societal impact. An independent and inquisitive young girl in Austria, Nicola’s inherent traits led her to travel and the possession of new insight, cultivating her individual perspective. She comments, “My sense for structures, materials, and precise details were shaped by the traditions of the country I grew up in but I questioned everything I saw and learned. I did not consider one technique to be the only right one. I was interested in art, design, and technology first. At about fifteen, I realized that all of those areas are combined in architecture. It's one of the greatest achievements to actually shape my environment. The creation process is very rewarding but I always describe it as exciting misery. It's one of the hardest things to come up with something completely new that is not a copy of something you have already seen before. During my education in Vienna I was introduced to international contemporary architecture and a critical work process to shape new techniques.”
Trained in Vienna & Los Angeles, Beck has worked in numerous locations across the planet such as: Germany, Shanghai, and others. Her extensive travels and interaction with professionals of different cultures gave her a deeper insight into the psychology of design. Her work with such eclectic clients as; Adidas (for which she designed and created a virtual space based on their “Tubular Sole Technology” to create an online promotional buzz), Doppelmayr Garaventa Group (research and designing a means of using a connection system for European ski resorts based on severe weather conditions and changing seasons), and others has given Nicola vast insight into what separates and connects us as different peoples. She concedes, “By living on several continents I learned a lot about what is behind cultural stereotypes. I realized that the ideas shaped by other countries are not facts but simply the description from a different cultural perspective. To illustrate, before I went to China I thought that I knew what the architecture industry there would be like. Chinese construction has been extensively covered by western news and I accepted this as fact. What I realized later was that, from the news' point of view, this was actually perceived as fact but the reasons for certain differences were never covered. These reasons are crucial to understanding the bigger picture.” In a statement that reveals as much about cultural preconceptions as design perspective, Beck admits, “I started to realize that I was judging their work from a European standpoint. We build to last. Our culture wants buildings to last for decades or even centuries. Constant renovations are proof of bad construction. The old that has never been altered is equivalent with something of high value. We want to pass on our houses to the next generation. Sometimes we are so obsessed with the past that there is no room for change because everything has been put under historic protection. In China it's different. You cannot actually own your land. So why would you build for centuries? On top of that most of historic structures have been destroyed in the cultural revolution. In the last decades the people learned to value the new, the innovative. The focus has been set to building something innovative fast and changing it more often - a kind of trial and error culture. They grow in other ways than we do, by constantly rebuilding and in the process creating the best ground for innovation. If your goal is to test something new often - why would you use techniques that could last decades? From their perspective it's absolutely correct to build fast and cheap.”
The separation of China from most of the West has made it mysterious for decades. It also makes it very intriguing to someone like Nicola who attempts to understand cultures and their interaction with her designs. In a cooperative project that saw the University of Pennsylvania and the Wharton School seeking to enhance connections with China, the Penn Wharton China Center in Beijing presented exhibitions that focused on “Chinese Architecture Practice” and the "Past, Present and Future" of it. CAP (Contemporary Architecture Practice) had procured Nicola to design the installation and oversee the manufacture of its unique elements. CAP’s Ali Rahim and Hina Jamelle profess “The exhibition at the PWCC in Beijing was a high-profile event that showcased today's elite in the Chinese architecture community. The launch of the exhibit went hand in hand with the opening of the center and therefore with a very tight schedule of two months. During this project Nicola was juggling the concept design of the exhibition, the layout of the boards, design development, construction in Shanghai and assembly on site in Beijing. Her ability to work under immense pressure and in a demanding environment while submitting high quality work was incredibly impressive. Nicola is a multi-talent. Her exceptional sense of design and substantial knowledge in technology proved her to be crucial to the completion of the project. CAP as a brand is known for superior detailing and Nicola delivered on that promise."
Another example of Beck’s work in China includes a recursion installation at a villa in Beijing. This recursion extends the minimal design of the existing house with complex wall structures that change scales dependent on the space. The biggest installation is located on the exterior and serves as a climbing support for plants. On the interior the walls are more intricate and constantly change throughout the house. Several of the structures are backlit and transform the spaces' atmosphere. In a truly futuristic and unique look, patterns were generated by using color noises and manipulated to mimic the principles of a 3D fractal. The results were overlaid and mirrored for a sculptural relief. The almost baroque aesthetic peaks in the center and disappears towards the edges or corners in order to blend with the surrounding walls. Describing her personal approach, Nicola comments, “During the first stages of the design I mostly used 3D modeling techniques and hand-sketching. For more complex systems, I create computer algorithms and code to generate the structures and patterns. Animations can be a great tool to visualize many iterations and options for a design. These tools are necessary to create contemporary structures that are slightly more complex in order to be able to fabricate it easily and inexpensively. When moving to drawings the idea is developed from an idea to a real architectural concept. Final renderings are the most important instrument to visualize materials, atmosphere, and lighting concepts. In this case, rendered animations are the next level that add spatial qualities and a sense for how you move through the building. As a final step, physical models are great to visualize spatial qualities and structural connections. The design only becomes feasible once it has been thought through physically. Many errors and problems become visible at this stage.” While a great deal of the vernacular that Nicola Beck uses is “over the head” of the average layperson, the designs she creates are enjoyable to all.
Looking to widen her palate and perspective even further, Beck notes her interest in spending time in the US by both being influenced and contributing to the community there. She points out that the creative soil is ripe for her motivations. She states, “For the type of work that I do, I need the right environment: open minded people who appreciate innovation. I have experienced Europe as a culture that prioritizes the historic and China as a culture that appreciates the effect more than the quality. The US is a younger country with enough history to appreciate high end design and provides the young generation with the right platform to grow. The area of architecture that deals mainly with innovation is actually a fairly small circle of international participants. A lot of the conversation happens in academic environments that are found mainly in the US and Europe. The achievements of the US are great and the potential for the future of this is even greater. Every creative person wants to be in the midst of this type of situation and I am certainly no exception to that desire.”