Interview with Nicolas Ziesel from KOZ Architects

Get to know KOZ Architects in this interview.

Interview with Nicolas Ziesel from KOZ Architects

"Wood, always in our hearts, and if possible, in our projects!"

Nicolas Ziesel is an architect driven by one ambition: to build with wood. From his beginnings in the 1990s to managing his agency of around thirty collaborators, we had a conversation with him, from his earliest memories of architecture to his vision of the future.

Hello Nicolas ! Are you ready to tell us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth ? 
"Hello, well yes I promise to try !

Let's go back to your early steps in architecture...
With my partner, we met during our studies at the Paris Belleville School of Architecture in the 1990s. We started working together very early on. More than twenty years later, I have to admit something: we were never as well-off as when we were students! (Laughs) Nobody told us we had to pay VAT back then.
At that time, some agencies subcontracted parts of competitions to us, and we were paid in cash. It was wonderful.

KOZ, your agency, was born at that time ?
The desire to come together as an agency, yes, but it was formally established only in 1998. Things happened quite naturally, transitioning from a student workshop to an agency.

KOZ … Why that name ?
Originally, we were three partners, and it corresponded to our initials.

So, you were the Z …
Absolutely, and the K partner left.

And you didn't want to rename the agency OZ!
At first, as is often the case, we didn't have many resources. Proud to have found the name of the agency, we had brochures made for presentations to approach new projects. Just when we received the 500 printed brochures, the third partner announced that he wanted to return to his hometown. The dilemma was complete: whether to use them despite the name KOZ being present on every page or to throw them away.

The founding act of the agency was thus anti-waste...
I guess !

Tell us about the work of the agency.
We started with public competitions, mostly in regional areas. Soon after delivering our first building, the agency turned towards wooden construction. I must admit, the market was not mature at that time. Cities and clients were hesitant, and whenever we won a competition, there was always a good reason not to do it in wood. We lost 30 competitions in a row like that.

You were a pioneer with this material... 20 years later, it is particularly in the spotlight.
Indeed! And there is still much research to be done on the material and the ecology of forests; it's fascinating.

How is the current situation affecting the return to work?
It's very, very... hectic! We didn't experience a stop, and the lockdown was filled with several projects in progress. We are in a somewhat strange situation, with the feeling that everything is moving very fast while facing a severe lack of visibility for the coming months.

What's the verdict on remote work in the agency?
The timing worked in our favor. When the lockdown was announced, part of the agency was packing up to move to the heart of one of our major projects at the time, to facilitate management: the athletes' village for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games. Therefore, we had already deployed all the tools necessary for remote work, with distributed teams. This undoubtedly helped us overcome the obstacle. Nevertheless, it is true that remote work loses the spontaneity of exchanges that drive a project forward. Telecommuting clearly has its limitations.

Has this period changed anything in your organization?
The most significant changes are related to meetings. One thing seems relatively certain: we won't go back to 2-hour meetings in person, on the other side of France, which take up a whole day of work for the employees who have to travel there.
Currently, at the agency, we have at least 2 video conferences every day.

Maybe that's the origin of the acceleration feeling you mentioned at the beginning of the interview...?
Undoubtedly. Meetings come faster, and so do the client requests... Like any novelty, it needs to stabilize. However, the benefits are already visible. Now, justifying the presence of ten people in a room for an hour to work on a project has become challenging.

In a remote setting, do management tools facilitate the process?
They have indeed proved indispensable. With OOTI, we have a very interesting collaborative support that allows us to update the progress status of projects while providing an overview to all agency collaborators. This, combined with a direct exchange solution like Basecamp, offers an excellent management alternative in a remote configuration.

How do you see the future of the architecture industry in the post-pandemic period?
That's a tough question! Naturally, things are destined to evolve, but it seems premature to know how they will do so. We are still in the heart of this period of uncertainty. Agencies' priority is to say, "We must hold on." When we pass this phase, then we can discuss it again.

Transitioning, if you hadn't become an architect, what do you think you might have become?
Before becoming an architect, I wanted to be an archaeologist. The question of people's lives intrigued me. These two professions go in opposite directions but are interested in the same thing: archaeologists are interested in how people lived in the past, and architects question how people will live in the future.

What is your earliest memory of architecture?
I was lucky to spend a year in the United States when I was younger. Among the memories I cherish from that time, the visit to Yale University in New Haven, especially the building housing the Gutenberg Bible, remains a very strong moment. When I discovered that building, it was the first time I was impressed by an architectural creation. In white alabaster, massive, the building exerts its weight that you have to go through to discover a grandiose interior, filled with volumes bathed in amber light, with a staging presenting the Gutenberg Bible.

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven
Droits d'auteur : ©2013 Darren Bradley

Then, you thought, "I want to become an architect."
Not at all! That came to me later, during the year of the baccalaureate. By chance, I attended a "charrette" (design competition). I loved the way they worked, the exchanges, the creative freedom, and the speculation on the project. I liked this intellectual reflection, which focused on a concrete and useful object.

What do you think makes a good architect?
Curiosity, being interested in everything, constantly being on the lookout, being persistent while remaining open, being opportunistic to seize the right opportunities... To that, you must add a large dose of optimism!

What is the most beautiful architectural achievement, according to you?
That's not an easy question either! I don't know if it's the most beautiful, but the architectural realization that had the most powerful effect on me, which allowed me to experience the intensity of a mystical experience without spirituality, is the Teshima Art Museum by architect Ryue Nishizawa in Japan. It is a creation that houses an artwork while being inseparable from it, with an inscription in the site, an emotion... Just talking about it gives me shivers!

Teshima Art museum  in Japan. Ryue Nishizawa Architect

What is your greatest pride in your profession?
As an architect, you always tend to wonder how to do better, differently. So, my greatest pride in my profession is not to be found in a particular achievement but rather in the commitment to wood construction and what we aim to develop around it.
I think, in particular of what we're trying to set up with tropical countries, in order to respond to real habitat and social issues. We're working to develop projects based on the structuring of a local timber industry. The aim is to respond to the need for economic dynamism, while solving the problem of poor housing by updating vernacular architecture. We started in Gabon, and are now also in Cameroon and Martinique. Each time, the road to the successful completion of this kind of project is long, winding and incredibly rich in human resources...

What's your next project?
A sports complex, made of wood of course, to be delivered in Joinville-en-Champagne (52). Wood, always in our hearts, and if possible, in our projects!

To find out more about KOZ projects', go check out their website :

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