Established by Erla Dögg Ingjaldsdóttir and Tryggvi Thorsteinsson in 1999, Minarc is an award-winning design studio located in Santa Monica, CA, with global reaches but a local mind-frame.
Drawing on their unique background from rural Iceland, in which confrontation with a harsh climate and striking nature requires daily navigation, Erla and Tryggvi are passionate about sustainable practices and architecture that highlights what’s outside while promoting warmth and socializing inside. Equally comfortable working on small renovations or large-scale commercial projects, Minarc is celebrated for dramatic works such as the Ion Hotel in Iceland, a ‘holistic’ design in its deference to surrounding wild nature that nevertheless offers discerning travels a ‘luxury’ hotel experience. Over lunch in Venice, California, Erla and Tryggvi discuss how changing attitudes of travelers and clients have changed not only the hospitality industry, but the way people structure their lives at home.
For all of your different projects, is there a point-of-view they all share?
TRYGGVI: Whether building in the middle of nowhere or in a busy downtown, we always ask the same question: What is the experience and how do you capture it? Is it a piece of architecture that creates our experience, or is it the visual views that create the experience?
ERLA: The Northern Lights Bar at the Ion, for example, is made of glass to give the experience of the beautiful every-changing art of nature. For us, it’s important to give visual square footage with big windows —especially looking out at nature like that. The experience of walking through a space and interacting with it — that’s a story being told. Whether in the design of a home or hotel, we always start by looking for that unique story.
TRYGGVI: I also think people today are really looking for experience more than before. Travel has changed, in part, because of Social Media. Though Social Media has a way of disconnecting us, of course, it also makes everything seem more accessible and closer — especially travel. Social Media encourages it. We’re all social creatures, so we look for ways to mingle when we go to new places. In our work, we are conscious of the fact that people don’t need as much “personal” space as they used to; they prefer communal spaces. They want to be with other people. A certain kind of travel has become more compact, a little smaller, really functional.
For us, going back and forth between residential design and hotel design is interesting — we actually look at both in quite the same way. Staying in a hotel is a residency, after all, even if it’s only for one or two days. The feeling you get from that stay is similar: you want the opportunity for coziness in your private space and you always want a warm social experience in the common areas.
Are you noticing a bigger demand for communal areas these days?
TRYGGVI: Yes, in residential architecture, the emphasis has been rooms where the whole family comes together without separation. A place where they can have intimate conversation without traditional instructions, such as sitting down around the dinner table. Why not at the kitchen table? Why not any time? It’s the same in hotels. Everything in our field is moving in the direction of coming together rather than apart.
Is that a geographic preference — for example, is it something you hear in Los Angeles more than other cities?
TRYGGVI: It isn’t local to a city, but perhaps it’s local to our client group. We work with people who understand and celebrate that concept.
ERLA: We don’t have clients who come to us and say “I want a bathroom in every bedroom.”
TRYGGVI: From our perspective, the trend is toward open spaces that encourage spending time together.
It’s an interesting juxtaposition to the myopic experience of every person staring at his or her personal laptop or phone. Are people craving space in which they can be “alone” but together?
TRYGGVI: Well you see exactly that in office design. New creative offices are very open spaces. No small cubicles, colleagues aren’t closed off from one another anymore. I think it’s a trend. I think the younger crowd doesn’t want to be completely isolated in the places where they work, live, and vacation. They’re isolated enough just looking at their screens the entire day. But when they put the screen away into their pockets, again —they want a real experience.
ERLA: When I was growing up, I never wanted to sit in my room alone to do my homework. I was at the kitchen or dining table — I did my homework surrounded by other people. I think it’s unhealthy to have big private rooms and think that your kids should be sitting in a room doing something alone. Not for me! We like to have smaller bedrooms and bigger communal areas.
TRYGGVI: Let’s say you walk into a European cathedral, for example. It doesn’t matter how many photos of it you take. That’s not the experience. The experience of actually walking into it is the experience. And it cannot be repeated or captured. We want someone to walk through a home or building we design and be inspired by it every time. We want to achieve the reaction of “I feel home.” You don’t get experience in front of the computer. That goes for us as architects, as well. We look for opportunities for travel and new things, which ultimately inform our design.
How does your personal travel inform your design?
TRYGGVI: Well, for one thing, we have our own history, which we bring to every project. Our history is: Iceland, a rural area, hard winters, endless summer nights, and walking the black beaches. All of this is always a jumping point in your minds.
ERLA: Yes, it’s important to use what you have, in every sense of the word. We use what we know, where we come from, and what we understand. But we also look at what every individual site gives us. We do wind studies, sun studies, we get to know the site before we think about where the bedroom or kitchen should be.
TRYGGVI: At the beginning of each project, we have no clue where the inspiration will eventually come from.
ERLA: Our own background from rural Iceland, where the climate was very harsh, leaves us more disgusted with waste in the world — including waste in time or construction. We have a factory downtown for building walls and ceilings out of recycled steel and foam. Wood construction in Los Angeles is not ideal. It molds, rots, catches on fire. And the disgusting thing is that 60 percent of all cut-down trees in the world go into construction. 40 percent of construction waste is that same wood. That’s so sad. But there is always a solution. We have been concerned about the trees — about waste and sustainability — for decades.
TRYGGVI: Without looking for a solution, you get worse architecture. Every client that comes to us is on board with sustainability from day one. That should be the norm.
ERLA: I think a lot of people evolved after the 2008 crisis — strangely, that’s when a lot of doors opened for us and we put to use more of our ideas about sustainably. Now, people are more excited about not paying those energy bills. We have a solution for that.
TRYGGVI: You can have a visual approach to architecture that’s global, but to create real value, you have to do build in a local way. Wherever you build, local community is extremely important.
Book at stay at Minarc’s Nutima House in Iceland here.