Even through a slightly pixelated Skype screen - and after some technical difficulties - Michele Saee’s contemplative, easing presence is immediate. He’s sitting against an intellectual but un-intimidating backdrop, aesthetically fit for a self-confessed ‘traditionalist of some form’. This architect is every bit the humble and dedicated visionary who gives his profession the artistic credibility it deserves.
Once we get both cameras working, Michele tells me: “It’s much better to have a live conversation with a person when I can see them, somewhat face-to-face”. This inherent appetite for connection - to not only people but places, spaces and time - has steered every step of Michele’s creatively compelled journey.
And what a journey it’s been.
Michele Saee Superstudio Florence 1982
Courtesy: Michele Saee
“I’m one of those hardcore architectural groupies,” he laughs when reflecting on what ignited his intrinsic architectural flame. Born in Tehran in 1956, Michele’s father was a policeman and his mother an entrepreneurial spirit, who ‘loved travelling, trying different things and testing her own abilities’.
They were both supportive of whatever he wanted to do, giving Michele “every opportunity, and it allowed (him) to do something very different.”
Perhaps his mother’s yearning for the new, whether inherited or learned, shaped Michele’s perception of and pull to the craft itself. As his bio puts it: ‘Architecture reflects our needs, desires and ability to improve the quality of our relationships with creativity and adventure’. Certainly, it shaped his educational influences, which include a stint of schooling in the UK, a Master of Art in Architecture in Florence and a post-grad degree in Technical Urban Planning in Milan - all before moving to Los Angeles, where he would start his own firm, teach at multiple schools of architecture and become a faculty member at the University of Southern California (USC).
Michele’s where may have changed, but his why remains unwavering. He explains: “All my life I've been trying to find ways to create spaces that respond to the needs of the people.”
The award-winning architect first studied urban planning because he ‘thought it had a greater propensity to impact people’s lives’, but became interested in what would prove to be his calling when he realised architecture’s potential as an instrument of change.
Michele Saee Antique Museum Beijing
Courtesy: Michele Saee
Michele, who operates ‘heart first, the head follows’, is currently working on a conceptual housing project in a bid to provide shelter for some of the 60,000+ homeless people in LA. Harbouring the belief ‘it is one of the most critical role architects can play in the world’, Michele is rallying government and council bodies for support and will be presenting his case to the state of California as an optional project for development.
Splitting his time between his firm - Saee Studios - and lecturing at USC, Michele is passionate about ‘demystifying’ the industry and helping the public to understand its true impact.
“We are unaware of how much architecture influences our lives. It is not about image, but rather our relationship with our environment. The relationship between our bodies, space, and architecture through theevolutionofourspecies,thatislivedspace, isembeddedintoourDNA.
“We are both the vessels and the embodiment of the architecture of our lives, with memories and experiences spanning generations. We come into this world bringing our architecture with us.”
“It’s amazing how much we are shaped by the space we live in; it impacts everything we do. Illnesses are triggered by not having proper air, light or materials. Likewise, a calming and peaceful environment can be so beneficial to our health. The places we surround ourselves in, the places we travel to... It’s all about space and time, and that’s very critical.”
Michele has certainly travelled to a lot of places. Throughout his 34-year-career he has designed, built, exhibited and lectured in many corners of the globe, including the US, France, Italy, Korea, Vietnam and China. One significant project was the design for the Publicis Drugstore on the Champs Elysees in Paris. The international landmark, which features layered curved glass screens wrapping the reshaped building, exemplifies Michele’s signature dedication for connecting his architecture not only to the people but ‘to the context of the area it is in - its history, present and future’.
As for his method, Michele - who calls architecture a ‘slow art’ - says no two projects are the same.
“Every time is different. I work with my emotions. The site, client and project have their own life - and that becomes a dialogue; how it attracts you, how you attract it.”
“Enjoy the ride, enjoy the everyday process of life. Because if you don’t, you have missed the point”
Valuing quality over quantity, Michele chooses a few projects a year to pioneer with his team of four at Saee Studios. Taking a holistic approach and preferring the frontline, Michele designs every project himself and stays involved throughout the whole process from drawing and modelling to material selection and construction.
One trait Michele is certain he got from his mother is perfectionism.
“You inherit qualities, I think. I believe all elements have to be right for a project to work, to be truly great. That’s the hardest thing to do - accept that it’s an imperfect process.”
But the father-of-two doesn’t begrudge the hard parts.
“Challenge is part of life. If you do the kind of architecture that is slightly different from the norm, you have to fight for it. You have to struggle for your ideals.”
As the mastermind behind over 100 industry-shaping projects, recipient of 9 prestigious awards and author of a soon-to-be-published autobiography, one could argue Michele’s struggles have been worthwhile.
What life advice would a humble, dedicated visionary - and self-confessed perfectionist - give his 18-year-old self?
“Enjoy the ride, enjoy the everyday process of life. Because if you don’t, you have missed the point”.