MOS recently won the Cooper-Hewitt’s National Design Award in the Architectural Design category. The firm’s experimental projects use technology not to produce extreme digital forms, but to create scenarios for different forces to generate new and novel solutions to problems. AN sat down with the principals Michael Meredith and Hilary Sample in their Harlem home-studio to talk about the award, theory, practice, and zombie movies.
The Architect’s Newspaper: How would you characterize your practice in general?
Hilary Sample: Well, I think it is still evolving—it’s not a set thing, it doesn’t run by itself. We don’t have a fixed methodology. It is unconventional and we try to make it that way on purpose. We are working through a set of problems. We have recently evolved from working on the single-family house to art-related projects and installations, artist’s studios at Krabbesholm, and now mixed use as well.
Michael Meredith: One part of running an office is to produce a culture. We’re a small group, we aren’t corporate, and we live above the office, so it’s an intimate thing. Everybody knows us, they know our kids. We interact all the time. They see our dogs. It’s literally Mom and Pop. We set up a culture where we are working on commercial projects, projects for clients that have to meet budgets and stuff, but at the same time we are making stuff for no clients whatsoever. We are a normal office to though—we have deadlines, crises, the usual, you know.
How do your experimental projects, including your academic ones, inform your more normal design projects?
MM: I think they affect each other by some degree, just by proximity. For example, the software work we’ve done has had a pretty direct effect on our way of thinking about composing elements together, or as parts.
HS: I think anyone who teaches would say this, but it forces us to be able to explain or justify in a way what we do. Going to Columbia or Princeton and meeting with students means that you have to meet at the desk and constantly be able to argue for what it is you are doing. How do you create a position? What kind of work are you doing? How does it fit? And what does it even mean to make it fit in something? That is really important question in our global world. Teaching at Columbia, I have seen the shift in the kind of student demographics, with students from all over the world who have seen a lot of buildings.
Your work incorporates a subtle sense of humor in it. How do you reconcile that with a more refined sense of good taste?
MM: It’s not one of these things where if you are one you aren’t the other. It’s more like a mannerism, where you can see the slipped keystone as a kind of sense of humor to some degree. TKTKTK At solo there was a kind of humor in a way it could be tragedy. One of the T shapes has fallen over and becomes the bedroom. That kind of physical humor seems like part of architecture’s history. The buildings have a kind of clunkiness, so it’s kind of childish, but it also works really well, it solves the client’s needs, it stays within budgets, it’s hopefully a place between something beautiful and clunky.
HS: We are interested in refined things that can still be playful too. Lately we have been talking about putting together a body of our work. Now that we have a history of our own, we can start to look at it more seriously and ask what the next steps are now. The facade in Miami relates to our software experiments. You know when you do something, that it will work for multiple projects.
MM: If you look at Alvaro Siza, he is an amazing architect who has had obsessions about single ideas for an entire lifetime, he is still trying to work through it. It’s different, but you can put the pieces together and see the body of work. That is something we would strive toward, rather than the corporate model where everything is unique and different and is driven by its site and client. I get worried about that with some offices, like what is Herzog & de Meuron now? They are the most amazing corporate office in my mind. They can do anything and its fantastic and well-done, well-made, and interesting.
What is your least favorite design style?
MM: As a thing that is my least favorite—even though we probably still deal with it to some extent—is the parametric stuff. I think that there, expressionism and positivism have collapsed into the same thing. So you think you have something really rationalized into mathematical equations, but it’s also a very painterly, sculptural, spectacular thing. The collapse of those two can be seen as very liberating or very horrible. I tend to think it’s not good. We have kind of gone the other way to take a position. I think that’s clear in the work. I have a lot of respect for architects who do that kind of work. It’s still better than most of the world’s architecture.
HS: My least favorite is a disinterest in design, this commercial development that is not at all forward-thinking or supportive in possibilities. I think every endeavor should be a creative act whenever possible, even the simplest task like bookkeeping in an office. I think there is always room for creativity and we try to push for that.
What do you see as the value of architecture in today’s society?
MM: We think that architecture can produce new forms of collectivity, in terms of urbanity ultimately. It defines generations, it defines collectives, it defines people’s interests even, when people like this or that. People find things they like and they can rally around it.
HS: I also think that the opportunity for doing really good things is civic. We really got to see that with the orphanage project in Nepal. That project is still being built, but that has been really important for us with the earthquake.
MM: I think sometimes people want to think of architecture as a low-risk, consumable product, but architecture has this way of entering into a process that is kind of unknown. We’re constantly researching and working to find something better or different then what is currently out there.
How do you approach a new design problem?
MM: We go back to the previous work and then go from there. I think.
HS: I think that’s right. It depends on the project. Houses have house issues, Cultural projects have cultural issues. So we look at our previous work and then we start to research. It’s kind of a typical architectural process: We look at the site, the program, and the environmental issues.
But it’s not just looking at the footprint or the lot line. It’s about the surroundings. We were working on artists’ residences in Seattle and we looked at the housing market and right at that moment they were putting in the new $15 minimum wage. We looked at who could actually live in the building. How much salary do people have to make? What kind of rents would that make? How much per square foot would that be if you follow below-market rate logic?
We are really excited to be included in the upcoming Chicago. It’s a great group. We were in the Ordos 100, which was almost ten years ago. There are starting to be little exhibitions around that now. To be included in Chicago is great. I’m really excited that there is something like this happening in the United States. It’s a really great moment.
MM: We are doing a house at full scale in a room right next to Tatiana Bilbao and Vo Trong Nghia, a Vietnamese architect. There will be three full-scale houses and we are one of them. The Chicago thing should be interesting. It’s like a generation is starting to emerge. It’s one that shares an interest in VSB, and I think that’s a larger thing, and I don’t know what that’s about, but I think we share that with a larger group of people around the globe.
What kind of project would you do if you could do anything?
MM: I would like to do affordable artist housing right next to Viñoly’s 432 Park, but one story taller. And I like that building, so it would look just like it, with the same windows.
HS: With a pool on top. Or any housing really. Something urban. Affordable housing would be really nice, because it’s hard to be a young person in this city today. There has to be a way to make affordable housing interesting for developers. Or luxury housing. It would be great to incorporate new ways of thinking about luxury too, like beyond just making the most expensive things.