Episode 104

Annabelle Selldorf on Architecture as Portraiture

Interview by Spencer Bailey

In another life, the German-born architect Annabelle Selldorf might have been a painter or a profile writer. In this one, she expresses her proclivity for portraiture as the principal of the New York–based firm Selldorf Architects, which she founded in 1988. Renowned for its work in the art world—from galleries such as David Zwirner and Hauser & Wirth to cultural institutions including The Frick Collection in New York, the National Gallery in London, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.—Selldorf’s firm has also designed a variety of residential projects, as well as civic buildings including the Sunset Park Material Recovery Facility in Brooklyn. Many of these designs serve as architectural depictions of their respective clients, revealing each one’s inner nature and underlying ethos.

Selldorf’s breakthrough project was the Neue Galerie (2001) on Fifth Avenue, for which she completely renovated a 1914 Beaux-Arts mansion to house the private collection of Ronald Lauder. Her firm has flourished ever since. At present, Selldorf Architects is at work on twin porcelain-clad skyscrapers on the Brooklyn waterfront, as well as—in partnership with the Indigenous firm Two Row and Diamond Schmitt—a major expansion of the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. Two infrastructure projects along Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal are also currently in the works. In her quiet, rigorous designs, which are often so thought-through and considered as to somehow feel inevitable, the architect’s hand practically disappears, yet you can still identify a Selldorf structure when you see one. She is a true artist’s architect, someone who astutely understands how to create spaces that literally serve the art that is presented and shown within their walls. Resulting from her exacting vision and rather neutral design sensibility, her deeply layered, highly tuned architecture carries a profound sense of subtlety.

On this episode, Selldorf discusses the links she sees between Slow Food and her architecture; the inexplicable, intuitive aspects of form-making; and why she considers architecture “the mother of all arts.”


Selldorf considers the parallels between Slow Food and her architectural practice, including how her designs often act as considered portraits of the clients they’re for.

Selldorf talks about the durational aspects of her practice—particularly her intention to create buildings that go on to live a life of their own through the people that use them and/or reside in them.

Selldorf discusses the three infrastructure projects in Brooklyn she has worked on: a recycling facility in Sunset Park and two combined sewer overflow (CSO) buildings in the borough’s Red Hook and Owls Head neighborhoods.

Selldorf reflects on her designs for various spaces made to showcase art, including the Frick Collection in New York and the National Gallery, London. She also discusses the concept of “designing welcome.”

Selldorf recounts key moments in her life trajectory, from her upbringing in Cologne, Germany, as the daughter of an interior designer mother and an architect father; to how, against certain odds, she ended up going to architecture school; to founding her own firm in 1988; to her design of the Neue Galerie.

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SPENCER BAILEY: Hi, Annabelle. Welcome to Time Sensitive.

ANNABELLE SELLDORF: Hey, Spencer. It’s good to see you again.

SB: I thought we’d start on the subject of Slow Food.

AS: One of my favorite topics.

SB: Not exactly Slow Food, but as you see it. You’ve said, “I’m the equivalent of Slow Food in architecture”—an intriguing statement—and I was hoping maybe you’d share a little bit more about what Slow Food in architecture looks like, as you see it.

AS: Ultimately, it’s about the resonance of the taste, right? Slow Food, the whole idea is that it’s not sensational, it’s not vertical, it’s not a one-liner. I think the equivalent to that in architecture might be that you cannot capture all at once what is going on, but rather the experience of the architecture reveals itself over time and perhaps comes back in memory. That’s the long and short of it.

SB: I think, extending out of that a little bit, your architecture tends to be quiet, methodical, layered. It doesn’t call out for attention, necessarily. Yet when you step into one of your spaces—at least this is how I myself have experienced it—is that you feel the great level of care that has gone into it. It doesn’t show itself to you necessarily. You have to spend time in it. I was hoping you might talk a bit about that—the iterative process of realizing your buildings. What goes into them, so that that feeling…. When I walk into your building for example, where do you think that feeling comes from and how does this iterative process help realize that?

AS: It’s not wrong to say that it’s the care that goes into it, but I sometimes find myself admiring how people come up with these exciting ideas and I feel like I don’t. It makes you sometimes insecure in a world where everything is experienced so fast and you move on to the next thing and then the next thing. When I think about architecture, I probably start with all the constraints, with “You can’t do this, you can’t do that.”

Most of the constraints, if they’re real constraints, leave you with a morsel of food behind. Then there are all the constraints of things where I go, like, No, I definitely can’t do this, or nope, this is not in the cards. Then that leaves even less. 

Then you have to move forward and start thinking about, well, what do you do with the little that is left? And how can you make a full experience for those who are going to experience the building or the space or whatever it may be? Then you subject that to robust and critical thinking, and much of it has to do with: How does it get built? What is it made of? How does it tie in to other things?

Sometimes you find that that’s just not enough, and you have to look in your head about what makes it special, different, resonant? How does it answer a particular question? It’s a slow process to get the entire narrative together. I had a conversation with Ian Wardropper, the director of The Frick [Collection] the other day, and I said, “I feel badly because I present ideas to you with all conviction, and you go, “Okay, I understand. I support.” Then a month later I come back and say, “It’s actually a little different.”

When I think about myself, I think I’m decisive, moving in one direction straight from A to Z, but I know that that’s not true. It’s like going two steps forward, one step backward. I think I drive other people a little crazy in the process. I try not to. Logic propels me, but you have to look at everything from all sides.

SB: There’s also this component of listening—listening to clients, listening to contractors—and on the client front, you’ve described some of your projects as “portraits,” which I find really fascinating. It seems like, the way you work, there’s this really intimate relationship you build with your clients. Could you speak to that?

AS: Not all clients, but most clients know more about their project than you do when you start it—meaning than I do when I start it. So it’s interesting and important to find out what and why they want things or do things or what their need is. The most straightforward way to say is you devise a program and bam, bam, bam, you sort of understand who they are.

But I think especially in the kinds of projects that I do that have to do with art, you have to really understand more about that. The reason why I think about it as portraits is that, still, you are the one drawing it, or making it.

If you, I don’t know, look at the portraits that Lucian Freud did, they’re not necessarily always flattering. I think mine are generally flattering, [laughter] but they express something about the deeper nature of the project and of the client. So portraiture, I think, is not inaccurate, and if I were a writer, I think it would be very interesting to reveal one by one what a person is all about, rather than what they look like. I think maybe that is analogous to what I’m talking about.

SB: It’s not unlike profile writing.

AS: It’s not unlike profile writing—or podcasting for that matter. 


SB: Let’s hope this episode captures some of the real Annabelle. Another element and extending out of, you mentioned you create a lot of spaces for art. These are spaces that quite literally slow people down and, I think, encourage them to linger, to engage in the work that’s on the walls. They’re spaces at the service or in the service of the art. They’re not taking away from the art; they’re enhancing the art, which doesn’t always happen in architecture. Could you talk a bit about this intersection of art and architecture and, just going back to my first question, how that connects back to the Slow Food idea?

AS: This is an interesting question and one that one could answer in multiple ways. I love making spaces for art because it gets you into direct dialogue with the art, with light, with proportion.

I think that, when we look at art, we always also see the space surrounding it, and when you remember art, you remember that part as well. There are people who have this photographic memory and say, “I saw that painting in so-and-so’s house” when they see it then later in an auction house. 

I don’t mean that so much, but the relationship between art and the space that it is exhibited in is very powerful. Moving forward, though, in making spaces for art, so many other things play a role, and it is the role of the viewer or the visitor that I think becomes more and more interesting because in some ways, it’s easy to say, “Oh, I love doing this ’cause I love art, and I’m used to looking at art; I’m used to going to museums. I’ve done that all my life.”

Now, working with institutions, the questions become a little bit different and the questions are more about why does it matter to look at art? What’s the power of art? And naturally the space—the container that it is in—what is the power of that for the people who enter it? How do you address those people who need to get across this threshold? It’s very easy to say, “We want everybody to come.” Right, yeah, sure—absolutely everybody. I wish to share that with everybody, and I mean that sincerely. Having said that, it shouldn’t be coercive. You shouldn’t have to go. I don’t know that you saw in The New York Times yesterday that in, I think, Alabama or some such place, they are in favor of cutting teaching of the humanities at the university because it’s likely that somebody who studies anthropology doesn’t want to stay in Alabama. Actually, I think it was Mississippi.

Rendering of Selldorf Architects’ design for the National Gallery, London. (Courtesy Selldorf Architects)

How do we prepare people to not be one-dimensional? I think looking at art is one of those ways, and being in spaces that inspire you is certainly just as important. I’m not sure that I’m answering your question, but it is on my mind to figure out what comes first. I don’t want beautiful, calm spaces to be my personal obsession because it’s not about that. It’s about, how do you create an environment for somebody who’s never been in a museum or who is acutely sensitive to the elitist, top-down Western art hierarchy that, of course, I’m a part of? How do you think around that? 

How do you detect your own biases when you are making space? Biases, I think, are different from prejudices.

How to be present in the process and not one-dimensional or not narcissistic and selfish is what I’m thinking about these days.

SB: I love this notion of making space, because you literally do that as an architect, but it’s also become a phrase, I think, culturally that we talk about, especially around inclusiveness and thinking about how do we make space for others?

AS: Right. So it’ll come as no surprise to you that I make a lot of right angles. I was at a panel discussion, just as a visitor, at Dia [Beacon], a couple of years ago, and there were artists talking about space and how originally space was curvilinear. I was totally fascinated by that, because the otherness of that kind of space to the spaces that are second nature to me was not only striking, but more than anything, I thought, Well, you’re telling me that my space making is wrong, but what about if we could just say they can coexist? 

It’s not about right or wrong. It’s not about one way of doing things. Now we’re working at the AGO, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and we’re teamed with Two Row, an Indigenous firm, and Diamond Schmitt. That collaboration is so interesting because, again, it goes about, how do people experience space?

The Cartesian grid is clearly something that has left a threat behind. Might as well accept that and might as well just go deeper into that and find a more sensuous way of making things. I don’t find that to be a contradiction to how I think, but it’s actually really interesting to look back, look forward, and things like, where am I going here?

Rendering of the interior of the Dani Reiss Modern and Contemporary Gallery at the AGO in Toronto, Ontario. (Courtesy Art Gallery of Ontario, Diamond Schmitt, Selldorf Architects, and Two Row Architect)

SB: Evolve, yeah. You’ve said that “architecture is the mother of all arts.” What do you mean by that?

AS: Well, you grow up in the womb of your mother, and that’s shelter, right? Shelter is a big part of who we are. The “built environment” is the rational way of talking about it, but at the end of the day, when we’re lucky, we have the choice to surround ourselves with buildings and spaces that we like or that we respond to, but not everybody does. It’s the mother of all arts because you can’t escape the house, the shelter, everything.

Proportion, dealing with light and structure, is instructive in every way and has always been that, no matter how far back you go.

SB: Womb rhymes with room


AS: Ooh, ouch. Yeah, very good. Very good. Let’s leave it at that.


SB: But also back to the rounded architecture—the womb is a rounded space, so it’s definitely connected.

AS: Oh yeah, absolutely. I think that’s definitely true.

SB: Well, just to stay on the subject of time, which this podcast tends to do, there’s also the notion of aging well, and I wanted to ask—

AS: Are you trying to tell me that I need to get a face lift?

SB: There’s the good Annabelle Selldorf humor coming through. Well, I did want to ask, because with both your buildings, there’s this idea of them morphing over time, gaining a patina—the notion of a space settling into itself. Also, as you as a human and architect and someone born on July 5th, 1960, I think this notion of aging well, aging gracefully, slowly across time and the durational sense of time in this conversation, we haven’t fully touched on. I thought I’d ask you about that. How do you think about the durational in your work, in your life?

AS: I can’t remember whom I am quoting here, but somebody smart said that I’m “conservative,” and what that means is that I like to conserve things. And if you like to conserve things, then you have context and references that can go very far back, but don’t have to by necessity. But they are real things, and they are instructive.

I love building new buildings—don’t get me wrong—but I’m interested in how building makes sense in the context of so many things already being built. 

I’m preparing for a talk, myself, on something, and I realized that I grew up in postwar Germany. Cologne, where I am from, was just about completely destroyed in the Second World War. The rebuilding exercise was fast and hectic—for one, because people required shelter, but also [because] so much guilt in that war was associated with, Let’s get that behind us, rather than dwelling on the loss, the horror, and the sadness of it.

In some ways, I think—I’m not a psychologist—but that is something that reverberates with me, appreciating the longevity that buildings, say, can provide, the memories they provide and also the quality and the care with which you deal with these things. Again, I think this has many layers to it, having to do with respect for knowledge and proportion and quality and all of those good things, and not being so hell-bent on reinventing the wheel—almost everything exists already, one way or the other—but instead to find the more subtle realignment and motivations to create things. 

I’m really happy when a space, a building, a project that I’ve worked on looks better ten years in than it did on day one, because it bears testimony to people having used it and lived in it and having left another layer of personality—which is ultimately what happens. If a building is a container, it becomes alive as a result of the people using it.

SB: You teed this up so perfectly. If we’re on this subject, I have to bring up the Sunset Park Material Recovery Facility, which was completed in 2013, so it is celebrating its ten-year anniversary as we speak, basically. Actually, yeah, I think it was Michael Kimmelman’s review of that building that came out November, 2013. So I think—

AS: Oh, is that right?

SB: I think it was exactly ten years ago.

AS: That’s great.

SB: This episode—

AS: Oh, I have to write Michael a note.

SB: This episode will come out December 2023, but how do you think about that project from a time perspective in this decade and the people who have been using it? I know that’s a personal question.

AS: Well, I was just going to say, there are multiple thoughts I have about that. For one, on a completely personal note, lucky, lucky me, that I am still with the person, [Tom Outerbridge], who at the time ran the recycling facility as a general manager, and we live together and have a dog together.

SB: He was your client; you weren’t romantically involved. It was, I guess, through the time on this project, that— [laughter]

AS: Which was a long time because it took a long time, I think it took four years to build this project. But I think, looking back, what’s interesting is that working on the recycling facility and the life that I have had with Tom since then has made me so much more sensitive to environmental issues. 

Now, you’d have to be a near dead person not to be sensitive to environmental issues these days, but I think about them in dialogue with Tom, and we’re not just bemoaning the climate crisis, but because that is his field—thinking about how we can utilize materials differently, how we can make better workplaces for those people who work in recycling facilities. It’s an ongoing learning process, but my values that made Michael Kimmelman happy with this facility haven’t changed at all.

Again, a lot of it has to do with repurposing materials, with having an access to nature. That site is spectacular, of course—it was when we built it, and is even more so now that lots of the greenery has grown in, making spaces for work, providing access and inclusion, quite literally, because kids go there and learn about materials and recycling. I probably, prior to working on this project, didn’t know how much that mattered to me. 

But then once you learn something, you become so much more conscious about it and you learn to articulate and verbalize things that may have been in your head or part of your practice or something, but as a result of verbalizing them, you can also prioritize them. That, I think, is good. We’ve since then engaged in a number of—not recycling projects per se—but infrastructural projects.

SB: Yeah, these “combined sewer overflow” as they’re called, CSO buildings, the CSO Red Hook and the CSO Owls Head. Tell me about these. Are these an outgrowth of that Sunset Park project, or…?

AS: Well, in a way, I think what I realized is that designing those kinds of projects is a little bit different, right? The CSO projects in particular are not so much for a person living there looking out of the window needing, I don’t know, so much daylight. They’re, essentially, big spaces that are not inhabited.

SB: For when the next [Hurricane] Sandy hits, practically, right?

AS: Exactly. No, absolutely. But what’s fascinating about them is they’re nevertheless, civil servants and as such, contributors to the city. In a way, both of these projects are more sculptural than answering strictly to utility. Actually, that’s not really true, because the utility of these buildings essentially dictates the scale, and there are so many requirements of what they have to sustain. Maybe I’m contradicting myself, because they design themselves a little bit until you enter. But I like the abstraction that’s associated with doing those kinds of projects and—

SB: And creating beauty out of a space that, I think, normally we associate with ugliness.

AS: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right. For me, what’s really satisfying—and I can’t maybe speak very eloquently about it—is that there are two facilities that do the same thing that look totally different, one from the other. After the first one was designed and we got the go-ahead on the second one, the team said, “Well, we’re going to use these materials and those materials.”

I thought, like, Wait a minute, it’s a totally different place. Let’s not do that. I am always the one who says, “I’m totally rational. I understand why I am doing this.” I cannot exactly say why I felt that in one version, the concrete façades were so much more appropriate than the terra-cotta façades on the other. If I think about it long and hard enough, I’ll come up with an explanation that sounds good, but that is, of course, always what happens. There is this intuitive aspect of form-making that you can never quite forget and certainly not explain. [Laughs]

Rendering of the Gowanus Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) Facility, Owl's Head. (Courtesy Selldorf Architects and NYC Department of Environmental Protection)

SB: I feel like this is a natural segue into your Frick Institute and—

AS: Frick Collection.

SB: Frick Collection and National Gallery, London projects. I sort of kid. [Laughs] Jumping from waste to high art is quite a jump. But I’m curious to see the connection points you see between these sort of utilitarian projects, and on the opposite side of the spectrum, your work for these institutions, namely the Frick and the National Gallery in this context.

AS: Well, I suspect that I am very lucky that I have the opportunity to have that kind of spectrum. And there’s a lot in between. We’re building these buildings for Two Trees at Domino, done a number of housing projects, do private residences, designed furniture.

The process is never identical, but it is always the same. What I mean by that is that the specific focus on what you want to influence guides the project. Utility is always a big part of it, but utility is also something that you can define. If you rent an apartment, you have to make yourself at home in a space that somebody else designed, whereas if you build your own house, you can say, “I’m going to have the biggest closet the world has ever seen, and I don’t need a kitchen.” I don’t know that that’s even relevant in this thing. But it’s not about high and low, it is about the rigor of getting to answers that you generate yourself, but also that others answer for you.

Bigger subject matters come into play with that. You don’t just think environmentally for the recycling facility, but you think about longevity and utilizing materials that contribute in every project and in these in particular. 

What distinguishes the Frick from the National Gallery, of course, is that nobody has contributed to the Frick in significant ways for about a hundred years, and the last architect was John Russell Pope—not the last architect, there were others who did various smaller things. But you’re encountering Pope and [Thomas] Hastings and have to have the confidence to say “It’s going to be okay.” 

Somebody wrote about this project when renderings were published first and said, “Ms. Selldorf is no John Russell Pope,” at which point I looked in the mirror and I thought, That’s true.

SB: “I don’t look like that.” [Laughter]

AS: I don’t look like that. But, all kidding aside, these kinds of projects matter to a lot of people and for very good reasons. Not everybody’s going to love what we do, but…. I think I’ll speak just about the Frick right now. The amount of thinking and care that has gone into maintaining what people love about the Frick and complementing it in such a way that the experience is better is really what this is about. 

Not everybody likes my shirt, so not everybody’s going to like every choice we’ve made, but I don’t think that anybody could say that we were careless, that we weren’t restrained in the way in which we dealt with the historic—if you can call it that—the historic fabric and a very, very specific attitude to opening the building for more people and making the thresholds less egregious. We talked about that in the beginning. Beaux-Arts buildings are very, very difficult to open up. So what do you do? You somehow try and bring light in. You somehow don’t deny the discipline that was part of the original design, and you build on an idea of welcome.

SB: That belies some of the very foundation of the building. I mean, it’s a Fifth Avenue mansion.

AS: Yeah, it’s a Fifth Avenue mansion, but it was built with the idea of it becoming a museum from the get-go. That’s remarkable. This was 1913 to 1919, when Henry Clay Frick died. His wife, [Adelaide Howard Childs Frick], lived there until she died. In 1935, with the help of some additional work that John Russell Pope did, it became a public institution and has been a very special one ever since. I think about that a lot. It’s like, why did you want to have a museum in the first place? Why did you think that people would care? Sometimes people think about the Frick, that having access to the home of a very wealthy person, there’s nothing wrong with being curious about that. For many people though, it is also the exceptional quality of the works of art, paintings, decorative arts, sculpture, and the really very magnificent spaces.

You work in the vein of that, but welcome is a funny thing, isn’t it? You cannot design “welcome.” You have to mean it. So much of it has to do with the encounter. So much of it has to do with the humanity that you encounter when you go to a place.

You want somebody to rope you in and say, “Come on in.” Is there an architectural expression that does that? I don’t know. I think it begins with intention and then that intention becomes manifest. If you think about contemporary architecture, only because it’s big and transparent doesn’t make it per se more welcoming, I don’t think. I’d like to know what you think about that.

SB: Well, it’s a complicated and also beautiful sentiment to think about how do we structure or design welcome? It makes me think about that Apple Store on Fifth Avenue, which literally was taking a basement space and saying, “Come on in,” and it became one of the most trafficked stores in, probably, history.

AS: Yeah, that’s totally interesting. You’re absolutely right.

SB: It’s a stairwell, and you can’t see what’s inside, but you can still sort of see what’s inside. There’s an elevator, so there’s also the accessibility element, and you can see the elevator from the outside.

AS: Well, I think I.M. Pei did it first, right?

SB: The Louvre.

AS: I think that’s a great example. Both of them very successful, both of them signifying desire or something like that. Yeah, that’s a very good point. Again, intentionality is a big, big part of that, and is what is at the beginning. With a renovation of an existing building, it’s a little bit more difficult. But I think that you’ll see that there are elements that make the building so much more literally accessible, but also visually more accessible and the idea really centered around the garden on 70th Street that so many more people will be able to look at from within and therefore make life in the building more manifest. I’m proud of that. I’m excited about that.

SB: Let’s go back in time to the 1960s and seventies in Cologne. I understand your father was an architect and your mom worked with him as an interior designer. Tell me about this house or houses that you grew up in. I think it’s interesting—for me anyway, but also hopefully for the listeners—to hear about these environments, because I saw a few pictures of them and they seem to be quite formative—maybe in retrospect, less like how you were maybe thinking about it at the time that you were coming up in those spaces. But I’d love to hear what you think about it now, in hindsight.

AS: Well, I talked a little bit about postwar Germany, and my parents, definitely…. That was their generation. They were kids during the Second World War, and they experienced the destruction and the rebuilding of it. My father didn’t go to architecture school, but rather stepped into my grandmother’s business, who started out as an opera singer and eventually became an interior designer, a tastemaker, who had access to French fabrics postwar and made—

SB: Whom you never met, right?

AS: Whom, unfortunately, I never met.

SB: But she sounds absolutely fascinating.

AS: Oh, I think she must have been just an amazing person. The photographs I remember of her were, she was looking very bright and strict and upright, but she also painted. When I was a kid, we had tons of her drawings and paintings that were these lopsided flower paintings. But anyway, my parents worked together after my father separated from the firm that he had inherited from his mother with his brother and his sister. 

His sister died, and my father and his brother didn’t see eye to eye on a variety of things and decided to go their separate ways. But like I said, my father didn’t go to architecture school. He became a licensed architect as a result of having practiced. I don’t know that that’s even possible anymore, but at the time, that was possible.

He knew how to work with materials. He learned how to draw and drew unbelievably well. I just loved watching him draw. Everybody used Rapidographs and he used a Rapidograph like other people use a pencil or something. I think that one of the things that I realize as I get older is that I think objects that you design are material, and therefore [they] have to be constructed.

The intelligence of construction of anything—a building, millwork, furniture—is super interesting, so to know the fine points of dimensions and how to put things together is something that I pay attention to, and that is something that I learned from my father very specifically. And, very specifically, the conversation that you have with people who make things, the attitude that you have to tell somebody what you want, but you have to understand how it can be put together in order to have an elevated conversation with somebody who probably knows more than you do about how to make something. Does that make sense?

SB: Mm-hmm.

AS: Like, I love talking to, I don’t know, a woodworker who knows better how to do something than me, but that conversation becomes meaningless if I don’t start it with an idea about how it’s put together, and why, because that eventually translates into something visual. We have that much less now than we did in a slower, more modest time. That was when I was a kid.

SB: I know we only have so much time, and I do want to touch on some important parts of your early years. You’ve mentioned that between 18 and 20 was an “awful” period for you—quote unquote “awful”—that you were full of doubt and fear. You were rejected from these architecture schools twice. But in 1980, you arrive in New York, you get into Pratt Institute, and it seems like that became quite transformational. I should also say here that—at least earlier in your life growing up—you never thought of becoming an architect despite your dad’s profession. I guess this is a roundabout way of asking how you view that trajectory to New York and through New York and the experiences at Pratt, and maybe ultimately also to Italy, where you got your master’s in Florence through Syracuse University.

AS: I’ll be quick about that. First of all, I wasn’t rejected. The thing is, in Germany, you had to have an average degree in order to be accepted at a university—a university that this central system would deliver to you. Now, this also tells you that I wasn’t a very good high school student, but twice in a row, my degree average was not good enough. I didn’t think of it so much as rejection.

Maybe I did at the time, but also as a really lucky break because I applied to architecture school not knowing whether I really wanted to do this, seeing that my father worked incredibly hard, that he had very eccentric clients who would call at all times of the day and night to complain about one thing or another. I was very suspicious of having to fulfill this service relationship. Because of all of these doubts, I wasn’t so unhappy that I couldn’t go to architecture school, but then I didn’t know what else to do.

Studying law or working in a bank, all things my father suggested to make me not have that service-oriented profession, which of course is…. Anyway, I think it became more interesting to me to go into architecture when I did an internship on a construction site. I really loved working with people. It goes a little bit back to working with tradesmen and craftsmen, but the recognition that everything is made by a person and that there is a humanity to what you do, made me more confident, made me feel less—“I don’t know math” type of thing.

So when, in a roundabout way, by the time that I didn’t get a place at the university the second year, I thought, I really do want to go to architecture school. I had been to New York, and I think I probably more wanted to go to New York than to go to architecture school, but there it is, and the two things coincided.

Looking back, I really needed to leave. I really needed to be in a different environment to become, I suppose, who I am today. But the older you get, the more you remember how you relate to your early upbringing.

But I so enjoy being myself and not embedded in the family business or in the ancestral fight.

SB: Right. There’s such a New York–ness to you now. After your masters, you quite quickly went on to start your own firm, in 1988. Without getting too deep into all the projects, I think it is worth mentioning that the second project you ever did was in the Seagram Building. It was an office for Daimler-Benz, which to me just seems incredible. Also, given the fact that [Ludwig] Mies van der Rohe was one of your tentpole architectural titans, figures, that have continued to influence you in your work. What was that like, to be able to create a structure within the structure of someone you so admired?

AS: It was funny because it was a very lucky thing that an eccentric person who worked at Daimler-Benz thought, Why not ask a young person? I think, in some ways, they thought that it was easy enough and they would just tell me to do this carpet and that’s the thing, and I totally over-intellectualized everything. There is that lucky beginning, and then the seriousness that you bring to the task and the discovery that the Seagram Building is a great and thoughtfully designed building. 

There wasn’t a thing that wasn’t, one way or the other, thought through—and probably not just by the architects, but the Seagram Building represents a building culture that has to do with longevity, with thinking about bigger things from everybody. That is really remarkable. The solidity of the doors…. I’m sure somebody else will say, “No, they cut corners here and there.” I don’t think they did.

But understanding that building and the thought that had gone into decisions that might at first glance not be completely obvious, like the band of light around the façade, that would give the building an appearance of continuity, even though, over the years, people put different-colored fluorescence in those lights. 

It was a learning experience in the sense that the rigor of the design that really permeates everything that Mies did is incredibly rewarding because it doesn’t prevent you from free thinking, but it’s this discipline and freedom. Discipline and freedom. I don’t know that I’m saying this very well, but—

SB: No, it makes sense. I did want to also talk about the mid-nineties, which was such a pivotal time for you. 1996 and ’97 in particular, you had these two major events in your life happen. One was this freak accident where you were injured and, in 1997, you were hired by Ronald Lauder to design the Neue Galerie, this beautiful museum that everyone who knows well now has enjoyed since its opening in 2001. Tell me about that time. How did overcoming your injury and then landing this job that really lit a fuse, I think, in so many ways, for your practice, [impact you]?

AS: Both of those things were very big events. My accident was…. I broke both femurs and was in a hospital for a little while, and the consequences of the accident lasted for well over a year. It was a phenomenal experience in the sense of learning to accept the help of others and appreciating the love and friendship that so many people gave me. That was unbelievably humbling, and I think also really helped to get better and to be motivated to be back in action. Some people, of course, said, “Well, you were working too hard and driving too hard, and you gotta stop.” Maybe that’s true, I don’t know. Maybe karmic moments happen in one’s life.

SB: And accidents happen too.

AS: No, accidents actually don’t happen. Incidents happen.

SB: Sure.

AS: Safety is no accident.

SB: This is true. There’s actually a really good book on it [There Are No Accidents by Jesse Singer].

AS: Well, this is something I talk with Tom about because, in the recycling facility, making sure that there are no incidents is vitally important—vitally important for their business, but obviously for the health of the workers in the first place.

But the ripple effect that carelessness brings about is huge. Anyway, it’s like if you go to Europe, you have to wear steel-toed boots and a helmet for security. Here, if you go to a small construction site, it’s like, “Eh.”

SB: “We’ll look the other way.”

AS: “Careful for the nails on the floor.” Anyway, that’s not what we’re talking about.

SB: Right.

AS: The point was, I learned a huge amount from this accident and the compassionate empathy I encountered, and realized that that was something that you have to cherish. Then fast-forward a year later, I’m all fine, and running around like a—

SB: Physical therapy done.

AS: [Laughs] —and I went to see the Neue Galerie, and I thought, Whoa, this is a real building. To this day, I marvel at the confidence that Ronald Lauder and Renée Price had, for somebody with no experience to do such a project, and the generosity that they brought to every aspect of the design. It took longer than anybody wanted it to take, and it was full of anxiety for all of us not knowing whether anybody would want to see German art.

Interior view of Selldorf's design for the Neue Galerie. (Photo: Todd Eberle. Courtesy Selldorf Architects)

SB: Lo and behold.

AS: Lo and behold, it is really marvelous to see that. Right now, there’s this Max Beckmann show that is fantastic.

But many of the things that we’ve talked about in the last hour are about the thoughtfulness, the quality, the consideration, the longevity, the resonance…. All of it is something that you learn from with others and that you acquire. If you value those things, they become part and parcel of yourself. 

To this day, I am totally grateful that not only did I have the opportunity, but the experience of doing this project and the encounter with the art and the witnessing of how Ronald thinks about design is unbelievably sensitive and incredibly insightful and truly knowledgeable, and somebody who has an appreciation of objects and of haptic things, that’s really remarkable. I feel like I was so lucky to get that, and that’s a part of me now. Do you know?

SB: I thought we’d end this interview on the subject of humor. Maybe it’s an unexpected way to end, but for me who’s known you as long as I have, I’ve always appreciated your sense of humor. Germans, let alone architects, are not known for their humor. We’ve had kind of a serious conversation today, but in one interview I came across, you described your neutral sensibility as an architect as fifty shades of gray.

AS: [Laughs]

SB: I thought that was pretty funny.

AS: Well, you should, say, add to it, when I said that. It was immediately after that book, whatever that was called, Fifty Shades of Grey?

SB: Yeah, the E.L. James.

AS: Yeah.

SB: [Laughs] Where do you think your humor comes from, and how is it that you have found yourself both a rigorous, serious architect, but also someone who doesn’t take herself too seriously?

AS: It’s nice of you to say that. I actually think that you are born with a sense of humor. I am sorry for people who haven’t inherited that gene, the humor gene. And, contrary to common belief, humor, I think, is something that people have or they don’t have, regardless of whether they’re German or Swiss or—

SB: Or an architect.

AS: Or an architect. [Laughter] But I also think that humor is something that you are allowed to develop. I think that my sense of humor became way more freed up, so to speak, once I lived in America, because other people are funny. I won’t say that people in Germany don’t appreciate humor. That’s not true. Like people from Cologne have a very, very dry sense of humor.

Occasionally people don’t know whether I’m joking or whether I’m serious, and that gives me the greatest pleasure when they just can’t tell. But it’s that dryness I think, that I’ve brought from where I’m from.

Maybe, in a way, a sense of humor always kind of brings you back to being humble and like you said, to not take yourself too seriously.

SB: Let’s end there. [Laughs] Thanks, Annabelle.

AS: Thank you. That was very nice of you, but I think it’s true too, no? You have a sense of humor and a good one.


This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on November 7, 2023. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity. The episode was produced by Ramon Broza, Emily Jiang, Mimi Hannon, Hazen Mayo, Emma Leigh Macdonald, and Johnny Simon. Illustration by Diego Mallo based on a photograph by Stephen Kent Johnson.