THOMAS LEESER Architect Interview

August 9, 2016 by Laura Gomez


Thomas Leeser is internationally known for his iconic architectural designs at all scales. As principal of his own firm for the past twenty five years, his passion for the fusion of emerging technologies and architecture has driven many of the firm’s award winning designs. Thomas’s commitment to architecture extends beyond practicing in the field. For the past twenty five years he has been an architecture professor at nine different universities. He is currently teaching at Cornell University and Pratt Institute. In his teaching and professional work, Thomas explores his commitment to innovation and the advancement of the field of architecture. Thomas specializes in museums, theaters, broadcast and educational facilities.

LEESER Architecture is an internationally acclaimed studio, known as a pioneer in design that specializes in the inclusion of new media and digital technologies in architecture.

Art Pavilion Hong Kong – London 2012 Olympic Park – Moscow Polytechnic Museum + Educational Center – Queens Olympic Village


Architect Interview

Name: Thomas Leeser

Age: 63

Birthday: December 12

College: Cooper Union School of Architecture, New York; Technical University Darmstadt, College for Industrial Design, Hanover

Colour: Yves Klein blue

Book: This book was hugely influential for me in my youth: “Italy: The New Domestic Landscape”edited by Emilio Ambasz

Movie: Playtime by Jaques Tati

Food: Chanterelle mushrooms and Maché salad

Quote: maybe this one by Helen Keller: The only thing worse than being blind is having sight and no vision

What does the architects do? Imagine the future

Why are you an artist, and when did you first become one? I never had to decide. My parents were Architects, so I grew up within a design and art culture

Can we talk a bit about your process at the beginning of a project? How do you conceive of it? How do you build it in your mind before you start? I envision the issues, problems and concerns of a given project and then stipulate possible responses to those questions. Sometimes by just looking at the location, reading the brief or just knowing about a given project, I am imagining organizational or formal responses. Then, after immersing myself in the project I am testing these early visions against the reality of the project. If these visions stand up to these reality checks, we develop them further until they are presentable as possible projects for the client

How would you define yourself as an artist? Always on the search for unexpected results os strategies, even if they are incredibly subtle.

What determined your passion for design? Tell us about the moment when you decided this is the way to go. As I mentioned before, I never felt I had to decide. The only decision I made was to frame my work more as an Architect than as an Artist as I felt as an Architect one is more grounded in reality, or in other words one is forced to deal with real world issues and problems every single time.

Were you always interested in design? Yes

Can we talk a bit about your process at the beginning of a project? How do you conceive of it? How do you build it in your mind before you start? I often have an idea rather quickly, and sometimes I have to stop myself from going too far before I know more about the project at hand. I get inspired by little things that a project may trigger in my imagination. It is only through a rigorous testing of this early inspiration that the project will evolve, but very often my intuition holds up against this testing. I love the small things that are easily overlooked, but in reality are very powerful influencers of a projects experience. Often this is where I start digging into the project.

Which colours, textures and techniques do you prefer in furniture design? I love black, I love white. But I love them in combination with strong colors, like Yves Klein blue, hot pink, aqua blue, bright orange and teal. I also love extremely subtle colors, colors that appear different then what they are, as for example the floor in teh Museum of the Moving Image, it is very pale blue. At first people think it is white, but only after a while, looking in areas that are less well lit, it appears to not be that case. These are the kind of surprises I enjoy when people experience them

Describe one of your most enjoyable projects. One project we went all out on was the competition proposal for Eyebeam Atelier, a Museum for Art and Technology in Chelsea in 2001 exactly at the time of September 11, where we developed, possibly the first set of interactive architecture exhibition boards, including a bar code scanner to call up videos of certain areas in the design, a viewer responsive facade sample showing the digital effect the facade would create from virtual or physical participant’s actions and many more early digital exhibits mounted into the presentation boards.

As this was really exciting, it unfortunately also turned out to be incredibly disappointing at the end as Eyebeam later lost those rather complicated and impossible to recreate exhibition panels.

What is your understanding of how interior architecture and exterior architecture complete the project design? Of course i believe that there should not be a conceptual distinction between the two, unfortunately the design industry differs and created that rift.

From your point of view, is design an art or a science? It’s not a science, as there is no proof, no verification and no general consensus about design anywhere like you would expect and find in science. It is an art, but it is also more than that as it requires a certain experience, knowledge and familiarity with all sorts of issues that may not necessarily be required to have as an Artist. This is not to put Artists down, rather the opposite, it means only that Artists are very lucky to have more freedom

You seem to be very aware of the history of works. Where do you see films, photo exhibitions, art perfomances today? I think technology has an ever increasing influence on these, or any, media, or should I say at the same time technology is a rich field for these medias to be explored. At the 3 Legged Dog Performing Arts space in Lower Manhattan I recently saw a dance performance between a robot and a person which was absolutely spectacular. It was as if the robot became more human than the dancer, and the dancer in turn became more robotic. For me, this performance was a perfect example of this question of the role of technology in contemporary media.

How would your life change if you were no longer allowed to create art? Boring

What are your next projects? I was asked to develop a concept for the future of malls. Very exciting to rethink something as boring as shopping.


2015 Building Brooklyn Award for Community Development for BRIC Arts |Media House
2014 Asia Property Award for EM Quartier Retail Complex in Bangkok.
2014 MASterworks Award for Neighborhood Catalyst for BRIC Arts | Media House & UrbanGlass.
2013 Red Dot Design Award for Architecture and Urban Design for the Renovation + Expansion of the Museum of the Moving Image.
2012 Shortlisted International Competition. As a finalist of the competition, LEESER Architecture’s design links the architecture of constructivism with the premise of today’s new technologies and the future development of the Polytechnic Museum and the Moscow Lomonosov University.
2011 2nd Prize Invited International Competition.Moscow Polytechnic Museum. Brooklyn’s Leeser Architecture was awarded second prize in an international competition for the reconstruction and renovation of Moscow’s Polytechnic Museum.
2011 Public Design Commission of the City of New York “Award for Excellence in Design”.
2011 Starnet Design Grand Prize
2010 Public Design Commission of the City of New York “Award for Excellence in Design”
2010 Shortlisted International Competition
2009 1st Prize Invited International Competition
2008 AIA NY Design Award
2007 1st Prize Invited Competition
2005 AIA Small Projects Award
2004 1st Prize + Commission Invited Competition
2004 Selected Project Invited Competition
2003 3x Architectural Record Interior Awards

LEESER Architecture
20 Jay St M03
Brooklyn, New York 11201