Posts tagged with "Syracuse University":

Placeholder Alt Text

LAMAS builds practice through perspectives

The following interview was conducted as part of “Building Practice,” a professional elective course at Syracuse University School of Architecture taught by Molly Hunker and Kyle Miller, and now an AN interview series. On October 31, 2019, Anna Korneeva and Irmak Turanli, students at Syracuse University, interviewed Wei-Han Vivian Lee and James Macgillivray, principals of Toronto-based architecture office LAMAS. The following interview was edited by Kyle Miller and AN for clarity. Anna Korneeva and Irmak Turanli: After studying your projects and observing what you were working on with students while teaching here in Syracuse last year, we see a strong relationship between your practice, research, and teaching. How do you work across these three areas and how do they benefit each other? James Macgillivray: There is an economic relationship between practicing and teaching. I think people who teach and practice are more willing to take risks with competitions and even with private clients. You can present things that are more conceptual because you always know that it's not the only job. It's important to point out that this is a condition from which many of the practices you are interviewing benefit. It also creates opportunities to apply our academic research in our professional work from time to time, effectively allowing us to transcend simply providing a service. We can test design concepts in a client-based situation… if they don't land, they can be offloaded to our academic research. For example, at the beginning of Townships Farmhouse, the client was very interested in agricultural buildings, farmhouses, and barns. So, initially we had an academic response… we looked at the history of those building types and researched how they worked. Whether or not we apply that research is separate from the value the research has for us in an academic context. Wei-Han Vivian Lee: It’s also important to note that these three areas don't always overlap. We’re always doing research, and we try to inject that research into our professional projects as much as is possible. But practice is more often the outlier. There's a clearer alliance between our design research and the work our students produce in classes we teach. James: Beyond practice, research, and teaching exists our hobbies. Sometimes our hobbies inform these other three areas. Regarding hobbies… both of you have different interests and backgrounds. Vivian, we know you have a background in painting, and James, we know you’re interested in film. How are these hobbies and your unique backgrounds folded into your practice? Vivian: I studied Painting as an undergrad. My undergraduate thesis used painting as a medium to explore perspective construction methods in architectural representation. As projects come to us, there's a constellation of maybe four or five things we are interested in and looking to incorporate… whether it’s film, representation, or any number of other interests. To be honest, I'm not sure we even have a game plan when we start working on a project. Sometimes it’s liberating to know that we don’t have to force certain interests or aesthetic ambitions into each project. We let the defining features of each project emerge naturally and over time. James: And it can either be instrumental or a matter of taste. It can just be something that gives a certain style. Regarding my background, I did two theses on film. One was at the undergraduate level at Princeton, where I studied under P. Adams Sitney and Alessandra Ponte. Then I did another film thesis at Harvard with Preston Scott Cohen. Since then I've been writing academic research papers on film… not "operative criticism" but literally film history, film criticism, film technique, etc. I also completed a research and teaching fellowship at the University Michigan that featured film as a primary topic of interest. At that point, after I got it out of my system, we did a bunch of studios that were dealing with optical or "op" art and architecture. Op art was a way to address film as a method of engaging optical aspects of architecture… we were interested in exploring how architecture produces different effects as you walk around it, rather than simply look at it. This particular interest has found its way into more than a few of our projects. So, there are ways that my interest in film comes in, but mostly it's something that occupies my time in the background, something that we do in our spare time. We recently traveled to Greece to go to a film festival in the middle of the Peloponnese… Vivian: James also makes films… weird experimental films that are actually now mostly family films. James: But they don't screen anywhere. This reminds me of a show we’ve been watching recently. In "Terrace House," a Japanese reality TV show, there's a character Shohei who insists that he's going to be equally good at every single thing he does. So, he's a carpenter, an actor, a chef… and it drives the other members of the house crazy. They can't deal with the fact that he wants to do several different things at the same time. Sometimes we're like the character on “Terrace House,” which is not necessarily a good model to follow. To Vivian’s point about an intentional lack of overwhelming coherence across our work… either by circumstance or because of our personalities, the capital P, Project is not something that we were interested in pursuing. We tried, but every time we did a new rendering, we were interested in testing a different rendering style. We’re comfortable with a consistently evolving aesthetic and set of interests. Why did you decide to start your own firm? Was it an ambition, or was it born out of necessity or something else? Vivian: After graduate school we both thought we would work our way up in an office, and maybe become partner at whichever firms we were at. We started working together in 2008, and the recession did impact us. I actually quit my job at SHoP because I started another firm together with two female colleagues of mine. We had a lot of work in Williamsburg. This firm lasted for six or eight months, and then the recession hit… and that was the end of most of our commissioned projects. Around this time, Monica [Ponce de Leon] became Dean at the University of Michigan and she was looking to hire new lecturers at Michigan. Fortunately, I received an eight-month teaching contract at University of Michigan, thinking that I would move back to New York immediately afterwards. James continued working at Peter Gluck and Partners in New York through all of this. But long story short, the eight-month teaching contract gradually evolved into a tenure-track position. What I realized was that when you begin teaching, you can essentially be a graduate student again. You can initiate your own projects and start thinking about architecture from other vantage points that are not solely practice-based. So, the practice was, in part, born out of this realization. You are very experimental with tools of production. For example, the food cart for the Stop Night Market project experiments with a marble texture, where you were mixing liquids to achieve a marbling effect. In other projects, you’ve experimented with hydrographics and thatching. What is the inspiration and idea behind these handcrafted production techniques? How do they help you during the design process? Vivian: We've always been interested in things that are indeterminate or messy, where one can’t quite figure out the exact processes executed to accomplish the overall assembly. Having come from SHoP, I felt pretty versed in digital fabrication and thinking about the assembly of parts. When I started teaching, I was interested in revisiting vernacular oral traditions through the new lens of contemporary technology. I was very interested in materials reacting to control imposed from an external source. James: When we started working with hydrographics it was the first indication to us that the digital could be something that was not smooth and could have something in common with things like marbling and other processes that were indeterminate. Some of this was a reaction against the version of digital that we came up with. When we were in school it was during the first wave of digital technology being applied and mastered in practice. But there was no way into that digital work because it was so smooth. It evaded engagement by being completely worked out and completely seamless. We wanted something that was a little bit broken and appeared to have cracks in it. Vivian: I will add one more dimension to this. There was something really laborious about the way digital output was realized and made physical in the early 2000s… especially at the scale of temporary installations. While working at LTL and SHoP, I contributed to installation designs that were the assembly of many parts. The infinitely unique components in the digital environment simply made for an increasingly complex process of physical assembly. So, expediency is another thing that was interesting in relation to traditional crafts. As much as they're indeterminate, they're messy and fast. There's a relationship to labor that seems more interactive, rather than demanding the human laborer to act like a super precise, fast robot. We have a few questions about Townships Farmhouse. We know that the client for the house is an artist who paints the landscape around the site. How is it different to work with clients who are involved in art and architecture? Did her interests affect the concept and design of the house? Vivian: The client is an artist and her husband studied agriculture and is a farmer. She's also been collecting work produced by emerging Canadian artists. That commission was in part related to their interest in fostering young talent. James: The working relationship with the client was very, very good. It was a very unorthodox sequence of design in relation to how a project would typically develop. We went all-in on 100 percent schematic design for two schemes, which we developed to a significant degree of specification. It's much more than what we would do in schematic design now. Each scheme was represented through many drawings and a quarter-scale model. Through conversation around these two schemes we arrived at the configuration that was eventually built. Vivian: The reason there are two schemes is that she was very interested in a design that related to the context. The brief called for [the] design of either a farmhouse or a barn, two types of buildings that are very common in that area. Each scheme is our take on the barn or the farmhouse, both of which we conceptually reinvented. The barn scheme was built. We uncovered an old courtyard barn typology, and repurposed its form as a landscape and view framing device. Did you face any significant difficulties during the design or construction process of Townships Farmhouse? James:  In Quebec there’s an interesting situation where, in the middle of summer, at the peak of any kind of ability to build, they have a two-week construction holiday where all works seizes on all construction projects. So, in the most productive time they take two weeks off… even most engineering and architectural firms take those two weeks off. So, they found out a way to be more productive in winter and remain unburdened by weather. Vivian: The project had a very unique schedule. Over the course of almost two and a half years, we were doing design work in Revit. When it came time to build, we really understood every aspect of construction in great detail. The house had to be wheelchair accessible, and even the foundation was cast to make sure that all the different depths of finishes were completely flush. Everything was fully resolved prior to construction. The contractors were very helpful throughout the process and we had a very good working relationship with them, in part because we had such a complete drawing set and a long time to discuss everything with them. Nowadays, we're involved with a lot of projects that people want fast-tracked, and they don't want to decide on a contractor until after the bid process. In Townships Farmhouse, collaborating with the contractor early in the process made it easier for us to draw the project exactly as it would be built. What has been the most rewarding aspect of practicing architecture? Vivian: There is satisfaction in the relationship we have with our employees. They bring a lot of ideas to every design decision which really enhances the overall project. It is very rewarding to have the privilege of having employees.
Placeholder Alt Text

FreelandBuck builds practice through descriptive geometry

The following interview was conducted as part of “Building Practice,” a professional elective course at Syracuse University School of Architecture taught by Molly Hunker and Kyle Miller, and now an AN interview series. On September 19, 2019, Biyun Zhang and Hao Zhou, students at Syracuse University, interviewed Brennan Buck and David Freeland, principals of the bicoastal FreelandBuck. The following interview was edited by Kyle Miller and AN for clarity. Biyun Zhang and Hao Zhou: Thank you for joining us today. A few of the practices we are interviewing are led by partners who live in different cities. We know that the two of you are split between Los Angeles and New York. How do the locations of your practice affect your work? David Freeland: My first impulse is to say it doesn't really affect anything, meaning that within the abstract geometric space of the digital model, there isn't an imbued context. Work in a virtual environment is not situated. But at the same time, it would be very short sighted for any architect to say that place or context is not a component of a project. There is a balance between the development of a project in abstract space and the way that context becomes inscribed into a model. We are always working on how to embed a physical context into a design developed in virtual space. With Stack House, for example, the complex topography of the site was incorporated into the digital model early on. We modeled critical contextual parameters that would constrain the project. Brennan Buck: Place or context as an idea has a long history within our discipline. Think of critical regionalism, an idea that Ken Frampton developed about the need for architecture to be specific to its geographic context. That is not an idea that we subscribe to. But cultural context is definitely important in our work. New York and Los Angeles have very different administrative and regulatory contexts for instance. You have to build differently in New York than Los Angeles. We are also a part of very different academic cultures at Yale and SCI-Arc. In that sense, we benefit from the distance between us. You’ve designed and built temporary installations, retail environments, restaurant interiors, and single-family residences. What do you think gives your work coherence? Is your approach to each project unique, or is there something that you bring to a project regardless of program or type? David: We constantly work between mediums. There are gaps that exist between two-dimensional mediums like drawings and images, and three-dimensional mediums like models, objects, and buildings. We’re really interested in interrogating the gaps and developing unique representational techniques that unpack two-dimensional and three-dimensional modes of communication. Artifacts we’ve made called “image-objects” are an example of this. Our critical approach to representation lends itself to multiple layers of engagement. We strive to produce work that can sustain the attention of a group of architects, as well as makes an appeal to a more diverse audience. There's accessibility at different levels and for different groups of people. The ambition to create visual and conceptual openness is something that guides our design strategies regardless of project type. Do you view models as simply representations of buildings during the development of your projects or do the models operate independently? David: In our recent projects, we’re really asking models to do many things for us. Models are sometimes representational and often times built at a particular scale. A model, by definition, points to something other than itself. But more recently, we’ve been creating models, or objects that point only to themselves. They have unique qualities and conceptual ambitions beyond scaled representation. We are intentionally undermining conventional categories of architectural representation to liberate drawings and models from mere reference. Many of our recent projects are conceptualized as built drawings, or three-dimensional drawings. These drawings fall into the category of conventional drawing with regards to the practice of architectural representation, but they are also full-scale constructions. Our ceiling installation, Parallax Gap, within the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian American Art Museum is an example of this. Our work intentionally confounds categories of representation, and, in doing so, hopefully opens up other possibilities for architectural representation. In addition to your built works and the image-objects you just mentioned, you have completed many drawing projects. How does the work that’s constrained to two-dimensions relate to or inform your three-dimensional works? David: In our earlier conceptual projects we were interested in creating drawings that used abstraction to produce effects rather than simply serve as representations of other things. I’m thinking of our Slipstream drawing series. But where these drawing projects operated more autonomously—independent from cultural reference and engagement—our newer drawing projects try to do much more. This is related to my previous answer, where I described our interest in building drawings. In general, we are interested in moving away from complex digital techniques and transformations as a primary focus towards engaging a larger cultural audience. We are invested in geometry and form making as well as creating images, objects, and buildings that have broad appeal. Brennan: Almost all of our recent projects are attempts to do both; to operate through abstraction and elicit engagement through visual association and illusion. This duality is something that we struggle with. People engage architecture in states of distraction; architecture is rarely something the general public stops to think about, and it largely informs their activity through affect, and subtle things like color, temperature, and spatial relationships, rather than through direct attention. That said, there are a couple of reasons that we've looked beyond abstraction to association and reference. First, distraction has become our default state of mind in everyday life; focused attention now feels rare. We have also realized that narrative and association is a way of appealing to a broad audience. In the Renwick Gallery project, all of the elements in the installation reference relatively well-known Victorian-era ceilings. The installation both produces an abstract array of lines and colors and also reproduces familiar architectural elements, such as the ceilings in Cincinnati Union Terminal and the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. We now realize that we can produce work that is abstract and open to interpretation and also engaging for people who stumble into the gallery and are more interested in a narrative about the history of different buildings across the country. This is a powerful thing that some of our earlier work didn't tap into. You both pointed to an ambition to make your work accessible and engaging. Does a desire to be popular factor into this ambition? Brennan: It doesn’t. Popularity may be good for business, but being popular is not our primary motivation. Our goal to realize projects that are accessible and engaging is related to an ambition to have a positive effect on the world and to make spaces that are useful and stimulating. Let me go back to our Renwick Gallery project. The Renwick project was about a very old architectural tradition… about drawing and illusion. But it was also about capturing the visual effects of beloved buildings scattered across the country. There was a direct connection between the content of the installation and familiar architectural references. It wasn't just a narrative that people could read in the wall text. It was more of an optical puzzle. That's one way we talked about it—a visual riddle for people to solve. They might read the wall text and try to find all of the different projection points where the three-dimensional drawings are projected from. We tried to produce a narrative that would pull people into the space and allow them to experience the effects of the installation rather than just read about them. David: The desire to create work that is accessible and engaging is also another way to be inclusive. The disciplinary issues that fuel us are not necessarily accessible to most people. So, we believe we have a responsibility to explore the potential of these disciplinary issues to affect a broader audience and produce broader cultural effects. We have a question about the project we’ve been studying, Second House… and in relation to the idea about positive impact. Do you think that the clients of Second House experience the house as you intended them to?  Do you think that they acknowledge and appreciate the complex formal, spatial, and visual effects that you were pursuing in that project? Brennan: We are suspicious of anything universal or assumptions that anyone will experience something the same way we do. In Second House, we were exploring ideas about alternation and contrast. We had alternating spatial zones—a checkerboard pattern of interior spaces and exterior spaces, and corresponding floor materials. The ceiling heights move up and down to reinforce the idea of contrast or difference. As you move through the house—and it's a very small house—there's a constant alternation of very different conditions. Light, temperature, volume, etc.… there is continuous difference. So, in that sense, our interest in effect is probably more about variety and registering difference rather than prescribing a universal effect. David: Because this project is for private clients, it's more focused. The conversation about broader cultural engagement is curtailed in favor creating spaces tuned to the desire of the two people who will live in the house. Differently from other projects where we pursue particular, legible effects, this project seeks to work on bodies in spaces in a much more subtle manner. Many of the offices we are interviewing are currently completing their first built work… and they have spoken openly about the difficulties of getting things built. What has been your experience with having opportunities to realize your designs? Has it been pretty smooth, or has it been frustrating? David: The frustrations are myriad. I cannot recall who, but someone once said to me… “The happiness that you have as an architect is measured by the degree of grace that you can bring to the work every day.” There's an art to the balancing act, to managing different priorities and issues that come up in a project on a daily basis. Balancing of all these different pressures is the art of practice. One thing that people often think demands the most attention in practice is getting clients, and getting them to believe in whatever your vision is for a project. But that is merely the beginning of a much more delicate balancing act that moves from concept through completion over a great deal of time. What has been the most rewarding aspect of practicing architecture thus far? David: I'm interested to hear what you say, Brennan! You go first. Brennan: Last summer we were in Nashville to present a project proposal to a panel of jurors. I was speaking with one of the competition jurors after they awarded the project to someone else and she said as consolation, “you guys live interesting lives”. That hadn’t really occurred to me – there are a lot of frustrations as David described.  But to interact and collaborate with so many different people and work on very different problems, to think through different ideas through teaching… the variety in terms of daily life that we’ve been able to develop through the practice has been great. David: Architecture is a marathon, not a sprint. There are very high highs balanced by very low lows. Our model of practice puts us in the position of the endurance athlete. We have to pace ourselves. We're cautious about getting too excited about things, and also cautious about getting dragged down by things that don’t fall in our favor. We’re told “no” a lot, and we’ve worked on so many projects that we never completed, for reasons beyond our control. But we have to put these moments behind us and keep pushing forward. The fact that we always have things to keep us moving forward is very rewarding.
Placeholder Alt Text

Independent Architecture builds practice in the suburbs

The following interview was conducted as part of “Building Practice,” a professional elective course at Syracuse University School of Architecture taught by Molly Hunker and Kyle Miller, and now an AN interview series. On September 19, 2019, Tianyi Hang and Yifei Luo, students at Syracuse University, interviewed Paul Andersen, principal of Independent Architecture. The following interview was edited by Kyle Miller and AN for clarity. Tianyi Hang and Yifei Luo: In this interview we’d like to focus on a few recurring themes in your work—repetition and difference, and engagement with the ordinary. Before addressing these issues, we’ll begin with a few questions about your general approach to practice. So, to begin… What does it mean to practice architecture? Paul Andersen: Generally speaking, I think that to practice architecture is to contribute something to the discourse—in the form of models, essays, drawings, gossip, or buildings. The goal is to open up new ways of thinking and designing, which is different than, say, practicing piano, which is more geared toward refinement. What do you think makes your office unique when compared to other emerging offices? The most obvious difference is that we’re in Denver, which is on the fringe of the field, at best. When it comes to buildings, Denver has a lot of corporate schlock. But it also has some pretty good suburban architecture, which influences the office’s culture and work. The suburbs’ pop sensibility is fantastic… it tends to be accessible and unique, so we use it as a model for how we work. Pop practices accept that their work isn’t essential. It acquires value when people like it—and those people might be friends, experts in the field, the general public, or any number of groups. This seems like a good approach for architecture, too. If people don’t absolutely need great design, we can feel free to do strange, irrational projects... and even to fail. We also borrow material from the suburbs. Sometimes we incorporate everyday objects, like giant party balloons, statues, and letterforms. In other cases, we use a familiar material in an unorthodox way, like in the project that we’re doing with wood framing at the US Pavilion this summer with Paul Preissner. And occasionally we look for new design principles in idiosyncratic examples of ordinary suburban buildings. Who commissions your work? Do you have to spend a lot of time finding work or do clients come to you? Some of both. There is a lot of chance involved in finding the type of projects that we enjoy. Some offices have a structured approach to finding work, but I think that sometimes it’s just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. A related issue is the low percentage of projects that we actually finish. Of all of the projects that we've started, only about 10 percent to 20 percent have been built. In the end, I’d say that finding clients who want to do the same kinds of things that you do is what matters most. What types of projects do you hope to work on in the future? More houses and arts projects would be great. Mainly I hope to keep designing, curating, and writing. We’d like to ask some questions about the Motherhouse project, which we understand was commissioned by your mother and recently completed construction in Denver. Congratulations!  On your website, you reference plan diagrams of houses completed by Palladio, Le Corbusier, and Ungers. What is the role of these projects, and of precedent, in the design of Motherhouse? I was looking at the Ungers House in Cologne before we started the Motherhouse project. I often hear other architects describe it as a minimalist project. Even Ungers described it as an experiment in making a totally abstract house… where you can't recognize materials or scale or even tell the top from the bottom. Oddly enough, the minimalist tilt is completely undone when you look at the plan, which has an outrageous number of doors. I think that there are 178 doors… including six in the hedges. So, there's the minimalist exterior in contrast with an interior that's beyond excessive. I like the bizarre combination of rational and irrational design in that house… it turned us on to some aspects of Motherhouse. At the same time that I was looking at Ungers, I was also looking at houses in Englewood, Colorado, that are quirky, very odd 1960s houses. The point of Motherhouse was to merge these two references… to do a suburban American version of the Ungers house. The walls have the same thickness as the Unger's house, but instead of that thickness being used as a set of foyers, it's used for closets, which we needed because we couldn't build a basement on that lot. The water table is a bit too high. So, the first floor of the house ends up being a single room lined with doors—no walls. The second floor is a more or less rotationally symmetrical arrangement of rooms that all have different ceilings. Throughout the house are examples of excessive repetition… in the gables, doors, stairs, and colors, for example. Was the open ground floor plan a requirement set by your mother? My mother will not actually live in the house. As I’m sure you know, there is a tradition of architects early in their careers building houses for their mothers, because it's a moment when your mother is the only one who thinks you can actually do whatever strange thing it is that you want to do. So, Corb designed and built a house for his mother; so did Richard Rodgers, Robert Venturi, Charles Moore, Harry Seidler, Charles Gwathmey…. this list goes on. In my case, my mother didn't want a house for herself, but she wanted to support me by commissioning the design and construction. We're going to sell the house; and as soon as we sell it, we’ll do another one. It'll be an ongoing project. Earlier, you mentioned that you're drawing inspiration from the suburbs. What has been the response to Motherhouse from people living in Denver? Do they see the connection between your unique design and some of the familiar aspects of houses it’s inspired by? So far, most people’s initial response is usually confusion, even dislike. The work that we do in schools gets farther out of the mainstream than we realize sometimes. It could be that there is something unnerving when an architect messes with the familiarity and comfort that people expect in a house—especially in a suburban house. So, for example, the extra flat facade is a problem for a lot of people. They don't know what to make of it. However, when I get a chance to talk to people about the house, to explain the design strategy, they usually come around. They understand that the stripes on the facade and the 12:12 gabled roof are already in the neighborhood, in Victorian bungalow houses that have been there for a century. They can see that this house is just a different version of the typical houses in the neighborhood. Across many of your projects, we see recurring use of strong geometric figures in plan and three-dimensional figuration… as opposed to complex three-dimensional form. Can you talk a bit about your interest in figuration? Are these features intentionally incorporated? It’s a pretty deliberate reaction to things that I learned back in graduate school at UCLA. In my second year, I got a chance to work with Greg Lynn on his Embryological Houses. He had a brilliant argument regarding variation and difference, how the project inverted the Modernist kit-of-parts logic… but I always thought that the argument would have been stronger with more figurative geometry. Working with geometry, and curvature in particular, is an interest that continues to play out in many of our projects. Teaching at the University of Illinois – Chicago, where a focus on figure and shape has been an important part of the discourse during the past decade has definitely helped. For years, we intentionally limited figuration to the plan in our projects. Motherhouse is the first one where we are more aggressively pursuing figuration in elevation and section. You mentioned that only 10 to 20 percent of your projects get built. What happens when a project stops prior to completion? Do ideas find their way into other projects? And what about the temporary installation projects… do those concepts evolve into building projects? Do you reuse the materials? A few years ago, Paul P. and I designed a structure made of two barns for a contemporary arts festival in Denver. The barns were only up for a day… actually more like eight hours. They were made out of an off-the-shelf steel barn panel kit. For years I’ve been trying to build houses made of the same system, just assembled differently. It hasn’t happened yet. In other projects, we’ve gotten all the way through construction documents before cancellation. There are many ideas from those projects that we hope to incorporate into future work. Even with projects that don’t get built, there is research that we do in terms of material or structural systems that will become valuable again someday. There are also some bubblegum projects… I have yet to build a cruciform column out of bubblegum, but I will someday. In another interview, you stated that you're not as interested in creating good architecture as you are in creating interesting architecture. What did you mean by that? What I meant by good was moralizing. There’s a lot of talk these days about what architects should be doing. I got into architecture for the complete opposite reason. I like the idea that if you're a good architect, then you’re figuring out what you shouldn’t do. You go against the grain and attempt to open up new ways for others to see the world. Sometimes, the only way that can happen is by pursuing the unfamiliar and the unexpected, and even the uncomfortable. What has been the most rewarding moment in your professional career, or what’s the most rewarding aspect of practicing architecture? I really enjoy the surprises when I see a project get built. You know… there’s stuff that you drew and modeled and imagined, and then all of a sudden, there it is. But sometimes it isn’t what you expected. It turns out to be weaker or stronger in some way. In the Motherhouse and a few other recent projects, we’ve been trying to see if we can produce qualities through excessive, consistent repetition, rather than variation, or repetition and difference. We don’t really know what kind of sensibility will come out of it until it’s built. So, we do it and we get to find out. I really love that. And also, that in any given day, we might deal with bubblegum, framing plans, and Catholic theology, all with equal seriousness and irreverence.
Placeholder Alt Text

MALL builds practice with pop culture

The following interview was conducted as part of “Building Practice,” a professional elective course at Syracuse University School of Architecture taught by Molly Hunker and Kyle Miller, and now an AN interview series. On October 17, 2019, Isabella Calidonio and Tanvi Rao, students at Syracuse University, interviewed Jennifer Bonner, principal of MALL. The following interview was edited by Kyle Miller and AN for clarity.  Isabella Calidonio and Tanvi Rao: Can you tell us how MALL began, and more generally about your path from graduate school at Harvard to today? Jennifer Bonner: I finished at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design in 2009, almost exactly when the recession started. I had already worked in London for Foster and Partners and David Chipperfield Architects, but I wanted to work for another architect before I started my own practice. Unfortunately, there were no job openings anywhere, so I applied to teach at various schools. Georgia Tech offered me an adjunct position for a semester. The question then became, “How do you start teaching and build a practice at the same time?” I next started wondering what the name of my office should be. Perhaps it would have been more beneficial to first ask myself where I would find clients! I began with Studio Bonner with full intentions of getting licensed and using the word architect in the name of my firm, but that never happened. My work at that time, during the recession, was directly linked to academia and the majority of the projects were speculative ideas installed in galleries or within the institutions where I was teaching. After practicing for five years, I moved to Cambridge to teach at the GSD with an ambition to rethink the identity of my practice. That's when MALL was born. A lot of people use their own name and a lot of people use acronyms… There are two kinds of acronyms: SOM, which is an acronym for Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the founding partners, but if you ask your generation, most do not know their names or what it stands for. The second model would be the acronym OMA, or Office for Metropolitan Architecture, which has nothing to do with Rem Koolhaas’s name. I was more interested in the OMA model, and imagining an acronym that is flexible and might even change from project to project. There have been a few different variations, "Mass Architectural Loopty Loops" and "Maximum Angles, Little Lines." Beyond the name, the practice has been running for about ten years now. The first five years were hard work, figuring out my architectural interests by setting up a series of conceptual projects, while the last five have been really enjoyable and productive, and include building those ideas. What is it like to run an office by yourself? During my first three years in practice, I partnered with Christian Stayner, an architect in Los Angeles. It was a very useful time to gain momentum together, especially in the beginning of our careers. Now we are working independently and developing very different types of projects. That partnership and pursuing public art projects was one way of coping with the recession. Today, MALL is what I call a “one-woman band” and I hire various employees on a project-by-project basis. It is liberating to run an office on my own and to define what that looks like. You are a mother, a sole-practitioner, a curator, a writer, an Associate Professor and Director of the M.Arch II program at Harvard. How do you manage to stay afloat, and how do you bring together all of these different identities? In particular, do you reflect often on your identity as a female architect? Last year I won a Progressive Architecture Honorable Mention Award. Apart from one other firm, eight other winners were male, and it got me thinking about the importance of being a female solo-practitioner. I also asked myself “Why aren't there more women winning these awards?” and whether I should be teaching less and practicing more. At the same time, I wondered how I could devote hours to teaching and administrative roles while also making highly creative work? Part of the magic at MALL is the ability to remain small and to be highly selective about what projects that I take on. Most projects begin with a research question, not an inquiry from a client. In the case of the PA Award, the project began four years ago as a body of conceptual work titled “Best Sandwiches”, later, we pitched it to several developers as a midrise tower, “Office Stack”. To answer your question about how I balance all of these roles, after a decade of being in the thick of it all… I couldn’t imagine it any other way.  We know that you're really interested in pop culture, and encourage your students to look outside of the discipline for ideas about representation. Can you talk a bit about your sources of inspiration and how you incorporate them into practice and teaching? I am inspired by popular culture and tendencies found in art. I often wonder if art can push architecture in new directions today. I believe it's possible. For example, when selecting materials for Haus Gables, I was looking at contemporary art practices and traditions found in the American South, not references from the discipline of architecture. From a geographic standpoint, I'm constantly moving… seemingly every three years over the past two decades and so I'm always in a different city, which creates a persistent curiosity that encourages me to carefully observe the world around me. I also believe that Instagram is very useful for this as well, because now I have access to what others are observing in the world even if I’m sitting in a basement studio space in Cambridge. Regarding teaching, I just started a new course at Harvard called “Representation First (!!!), Then Architecture.” We’re not looking at architectural representation. We’re looking at art practice, popular culture, and material found in the every day, as a way to encourage inspiration from places other than within our own discipline. We’re looking at cake decorating techniques from the 18th century which include intricate piping from French masters, but also methods found in America with the use of marzipan in the 1950s. Other things we obsess over in that course… food photography, 1980s bubble letters, or the origins of clipart. Perhaps these cultural eccentricities can offer architectural design and representation something new, or at least unexpected. When you share your work, have you found that these non-architectural influences and modes of representation resonate with a broader audience? Do you alter your presentations relative to your audience? It’s important to know your audience, but I don’t think we have to make such a strong distinction between academic audiences and the general public. I’m interested in using devices that already have a broad appeal—like the image of a gable or the medium of a guidebook—to draw people in, to educate them by making them feel included in a discussion about architecture. For example, in the interior of Haus Gables, I wanted to select a material palette that linked the house to local cultures in Atlanta. The soft white wood used in the primary structure of the house draws associations to Scandinavian architecture. But I was building a house in Atlanta, in Goodie Mob’s “Dirty South”… it couldn’t have been a Scandinavian house. I put pressure on myself to create environments on the interior that resonate with Atlanta’s aesthetic culture. This is where the faux finishing comes in. There is a tradition of faux finishing, where southerners could not afford precious materials such as Italian marble and instead painted it onto domestic surfaces. To answer your question about audience… is it locals who rent the house out for amateur photoshoots with big ambitions to “fake it until you make it”, or the fan base for Atlanta rapper Mulatto who shot her “Longway” video there, or is it architectural academia all along? Perhaps it’s all of them. Beyond incorporating faux finishes in Haus Gables, we see a very playful array of colors, patterns, shapes, and textures on the interior. How did you select these interior finishes? Is it simply a matter of taste or is there some science behind it? It may be bit of playing out taste… you have to start somewhere. But the design of the interior environments was also very intentional and conceptually oriented. There is an idea about combining expensive materials with inexpensive materials, like rubber vinyl you might see in hospitals or fake wood vinyl from Home Depot. The expensive materials elevate the inexpensive ones. So, there is an economic argument to make here, too. Overall, each room took on a unique identity relative to the material selections. To reinforce difference, transitioning between rooms and around corners became important moments. When I received the final architectural photographs of the house, I saw something that I did not anticipate. All of the colors tend to flatten space. It reminds me of a trend in contemporary fashion—color blocking—where bright yellow, pink, and mint green become a color block. In one 55’ long view through the house, you can see similarities to color blocking in fashion as the bedroom, dining room, and kitchen start to look like a Marni sweater. It's interesting that you've thought so much about the color and the overall visual experience of the interior of Haus Gables. Why is the exterior white? The cross-laminated timber that is exposed on the interior is monochromatic. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a soft white wood. And I knew that the finishes should be kind of daring or bold, to create an environment that the soft white wood could not create alone. The idea for the exterior in white was really because of Domestic Hats, a project that served as the conceptual precursor to Haus Gables. I was drawn to the idea that Haus Gables is a full-scale model, almost a replica of one of the massing models I created for Domestic Hats. So white, as a color, links the built house to the white foam architectural massing model. The exterior of the house also has a unique texture. I was inspired by John Chase’s Glitter Stucco & Dumpster Diving. In that book, Chase writes about how ordinary houses in Los Angeles finished with stucco are often additionally finished by the owner with glitter… to make the house sparkle. A kind of upgrade. The glitter in Haus Gables is a reference to this phenomenon in Los Angeles. I was also inspired by Mary Corse, who painted with glass beads. The same glass beads that are used by the Department of Transportation in road striping. Chase’s Glitter Stucco and Corse’s reflective beads become a “dash finish” in the façade of Haus Gables. Maybe it's a house with way too many ideas, but it was my first building at MALL, I couldn’t help myself! We recently learned that Haus Gables had no client. How did this affect the design, and what was it like to design a house without a client? I have a bunch of family members… aunts, uncles, sister, mom, dad, but none of them have asked me to design a house and it’s fair to say that they don't see the value in architecture. And then there's me… I've invested 20 years of my life in architecture. As you may know, many architects receive their first commissions from a family member. This was not going to happen for me. We, meaning me and my husband, decided we had to do it ourselves. We bought a piece of land in Atlanta when we were teaching at Georgia Tech, and applied for a construction loan. On one hand, there's a lot of freedom. Nobody was presenting demands like where to put the bathroom or how many closets to have. But there's still a budget, and there's tremendous stress associated with taking on the financial risk of such an experimental construction project. For example, the CLT panels were from Austria and required payment in full before they started manufacturing the product. That doesn’t totally align with bank financing. Overall, there were many difficulties as a result of moving forward without a client. Still… it was totally worth it! I believe I was able to achieve several of MALL’s architectural ideas faster than if there was a traditional client involved. We just have one more question. What has been the most rewarding moment in your practice thus far? That’s an easy question for me to answer. Completing Haus Gables has been the most rewarding moment. To build something after talking about it for years and years… it was very liberating and very rewarding. Despite the struggle to get it built, I wouldn't change a thing.
Placeholder Alt Text

WOJR builds practice through cinematic effects

The following interview was conducted as part of “Building Practice,” a professional elective course at Syracuse University School of Architecture taught by Molly Hunker and Kyle Miller, and now an AN interview series. On October 17, 2019, Alise Lamothe and Hanneke van Deursen, students at Syracuse University, interviewed William O’Brien Jr., principal of Cambridge, Massachusetts-based WOJR Organization for Architecture. The following interview was edited by Kyle Miller and AN for clarity. We are both musicians, so it was cool to see that was your undergraduate degree was in music theory. We can see the influence of this in some of your work. Can you tell us about how music and music theory inspire your design work? William [Liam] O'Brien: The relationship between music and architecture is tricky. There are easy and superficial ways to make comparisons. You likely often hear metaphors about music being used to describe architecture… “architecture is frozen music,” for example. Most of the time, those metaphors are not so useful. Where architecture and music can benefit from being thought about concurrently is in thinking about form and formats. When studying music theory, I was looking at Bach to understand rules he followed to organize sound. There's a lot of overlap between the way that compositions are formed in terms of broad stroke forms and repetition. Interestingly, I find a lot of corollaries between spatial composition and music theory, between the ways we think about [the] organization of space and organization of sound. More recently, questions of symmetry and asymmetry have been coming into our architectural designs, which has me thinking about earlier work of mine as a student manipulating classical forms in music. There's another layer to music that is not about form, but it's about the atmosphere. When we're producing visualizations of our designs, we think a lot about trying to conjure atmospheres through referencing music. In each project, when we're doing art direction for the visualizations, there is usually a particular score that we're referencing, or a film that has a unique score that we are inspired by. That's another way that we're thinking about the impact of music on our work. There are qualitative aspects of music we are interested in that can have a direct corollary to the atmosphere of the architecture we create. To give an example… melancholy or mournfulness in some of our visualizations might be attributed to a certain score. Philip Glass is somebody who comes up a lot in our conversations, as someone who produced beautiful ambient work. We attempt to produce visualizations that convey the same quiet, meditative ambiance. Just before this interview, we presented your work to our classmates. We opened with the image of Mask House… the one from the bridge. It's a beautiful image. It’s also very melancholy. What was the score for that image? In visualizations for the Mask House, we weren't talking about a score, but about the film, The Revenant. It's dark, but in a different way. Not so much for the narrative, but more for the tonality. The mournfulness, something about the way that it’s lit… apparently no artificial lights were used in most, if not all of that film. It likely made for a cinematographer’s nightmare, but the lighting effects are really distinct from other films that try to do something similar. We were trying to capture something like that in the Mask House visualizations. There's a backstory to that project and why we were seeking these particular effects. The house is not built, but it's a project that was supposed to be built in Ithaca. The client is a filmmaker and his younger brother died in the lake that the house was to overlook. The project aimed to produce a threshold—a mask between the real world and another world. That other world is connected to the lake. One of the apertures in the house looks in the direction of where his brother was last seen on the lake. The project necessarily took a mournful tone, which is something conveyed in the visualizations. How do you use visualization and language to communicate not only to other architects, but also to the general public? As students, we often change our language and the way we communicate when we explain our work to our friends and parents, who are not architects. How does your communication change when talking to people who aren't as familiar with architectural concepts and terminology? The question of audience is so important. One of the things that any young architect learns quickly is that in order to get what you think is a deserving idea out into the world, there needs to be the ability to talk about it in many different ways. There's a necessary empathy that is required in trying to explain design work. The most difficult situations involve communicating with somebody who's cynical about architecture or sees architecture as a vanity practice. In a case like that, there’s ways of speaking about the concept that has to do with things that make an appeal to logic—things like functionality or contribution to context. Whether it’s functional or contextual issues, or material, social, political, cultural, formal, environmental, etc., there are many registers that an architect needs to hit in order to communicate with the right people at the right time about the most critical aspects of a project. A built thing in the world is inherently a political act. It is a social act. It is an active form. It engages construction systems… you can go through the whole list. We've been interviewing a lot of practices that are comprised of partnerships. The principals often cite the friction between them as a productive part of their practice… debate often spurs new ideas. We're curious how you maintain dialogue and productive friction when there’s only one person leading the practice. Just to undo that a bit… The name WOJR is not a great name for the office for a number of reasons. It is an awkward grouping of four letters and people often think it's a radio station. Also, WOJR, which corresponds to my initials, does not accurately convey the collaborative nature of the office. I am the main Principal, but there are an additional five team members right now, and they are amazing contributors. Any “productive friction” is coming through great discussions with each of them. We're trying to produce a non-hierarchical discussion that enables everyone to contribute equally. John [David Todd], who is the team member who has been here the longest amount of time—over six years now—is somebody who I can have conversations with that produce what you’re calling “productive friction.” I wouldn't even call it friction… maybe synergy, or simply great conversations that push the work forward. There's another answer to the question. We're constantly communicating with other architects and the architectural discipline at large. These conversations and debates are really helpful. We have a question about House of Horns. We understand that it’s being built atop an existing foundation, and that this condition ended up dictating, in part, the shape and size of the house. How did you work with these existing conditions when trying to design and construct the house, and what are other factors ended up informing design and construction? As you mentioned, there was a partially built house on the site. It was a Spanish style mansion, with all of the details that you would expect… like terra cotta tiles, and there was about to be a lot of work on crown moldings, but these things were not reflective of the new client’s values. Despite the size of the house, the client is somebody who is quite interested in the diminutive aspects of the house… trying to make the house as small and humble as possible. I say that while acknowledging that it's a very large house, but their aspirations are in line with ours. One of our challenges was to take the very odd, really bizarre shape of the foundation and imbue it with a different order. To do this, we created a series of different environments that were varied by the way that light might shine or be reflected within each domestic space. The “horns” that you see enable us to modulate daylighting and become the ordering device that negotiates symmetries and asymmetries in plan. Is this your first built work? It is. We're going through an exciting transition right now. We currently have two projects that are under construction and two more that begin construction really soon. In the office we used to talk about a path toward legitimacy. As a young architect, you’re always trying to become more and more legitimate, and there are all kinds of clues that it’s happening. We rented an office space seven years ago. We have health insurance now. We have a payroll. We published a book of our work. There are many things that help us believe that we're becoming a legitimate office. Most recently, the clues are tied to [the] construction of buildings we’ve designed. Some of our more speculative ideas are finally being tested in the built environment and we're learning a lot. Architecture is very humbling in that way. You think you are a smart architect and then you try to build something… and you realize you still have a lot to learn. Now that you're nearing the completion of your first built work, what part of the concept to construction process have you reveled in the most? I love the question, especially given that I was on site last week. There are two major takeaways from my site visit that will help me answer the question. One is the degree to which construction is a messy process. Despite the planning and precision that has gone into a really comprehensive set of drawings, there is an immense amount of in-the-field decision making. You think you have everything worked out and then comes the humbling realization that there are many issues unresolved and questions left unanswered when construction begins. Whether it's a modest house or something more experimental, each act of architecture… each building is a single iteration. Everything is unique, and every aspect of the building is being figured out by a group of people in real time. The reality of building and the distance between a precise drawing set and the messiness of construction is something I quite enjoy. And the second takeaway, or another way to answer the question… in House of Horns we have a very large marble egg that is a column in the project. I don't want to get overly romantic or poetic about it, but simply seeing something that we had imagined for such a long time in the abstract now in the real was incredible. We had the luxury of going to the quarry and picking out the exact marble block that would be carved and put into the house. To be a part of the process and to be able to touch the thing that we had imagined for so long was more impactful than I could have imagined. It was really, really rewarding. You’ve more or less already answered the question that we normally conclude with, which is “What has been the most rewarding moment in your practice?” So, we'll skip that one. But we have one more question. We recently read that you're now collaborating with Airbnb and Samara. Can you tell us more about this new job? Samara is a design startup that is branched off of Airbnb. It’s a company with many team members who are really interested in critiquing the tech world, and who are cultural critics, in general. The way that it started was that WOJR won a competition to be involved with defining the architectural design direction. It began as a consultative role. More recently, I've started in a full-time position with them and have started to build an architecture design team around me. Our current project has the ambition to offer new forms of living through architectural design. And our first offering is an architectural design system that has the capacity to be deployed in a variety of contexts. That’s all I can say at the moment, but it's a project that's really reliant on architecture. It's been fascinating to brush up against engineers, storytellers, filmmakers, industrial designers, interaction designers, and lawyers… all represented in our 45-person group. Samara is an interdisciplinary project and it's getting us to think about architecture from many different approaches, which is thrilling and humbling at the same time. Great. Thank you so much for joining us bright and early from San Francisco. We put you in the early slot thinking you'd be in Cambridge. You’re welcome—I enjoyed it! And I'm a morning person, so the timing was perfect.
Placeholder Alt Text

New Affiliates builds practice through scavenging

The following interview was conducted as part of “Building Practice,” a professional elective course at the Syracuse University School of Architecture taught by Molly Hunker and Kyle Miller, and now an AN interview series. On September 26, 2019, Genevieve Dominiak and Hannah Michaelson, students at Syracuse University, interviewed Ivi Diamantopoulou and Jaffer Kolb of the New York-based New Affiliates. The following interview was edited by Kyle Miller and AN for clarity. Genevieve Dominiak and Hannah Michaelson: Thanks for joining us! We know that you met in graduate school at Princeton. We’re curious to know how you two came together to start an office. Is it something that you had been planning for some time, or did it happen rather quickly? Ivi Diamantopoulou: It was quite organic for us. We started very informally. There was a project we started looking at together while working for other offices. And it made sense: it was fun and interesting and exciting, and we wanted to keep doing it. So, we had a moment of realizing this is what we wanted to do. We convinced ourselves that if the infrastructure was there, everything would work out. We had no clients, but we had insurance! It's been about three years now, and it's somehow worked out. Jaffer Kolb: Part of it was working through an inquiry into the formula of how practice works. For us, it was really about coming together as two people who are very different. Ivi had a much stronger background in practice, and I came more from curating, writing, and working on installations. We wanted to use these differences to test architecture as a variable condition that we could play around with using the small office model to combine teaching, practicing, writing, and research. But instead of trying to do it all at once, we use every opportunity to trial various combinations of our skills. From residential work to installations to warehouse conversions, your portfolio is full of very diverse projects. Do you have a unique approach to each project type? Jaffer: We really like working on different kinds of projects. Within each project, we are less concerned with typology than we are with a general approach to design. We’ve designed a lot of exhibitions and residential spaces. The projects are unique, but it’s not necessarily because they have different programs or are different types, it’s more because we bring different interests at the beginning of each project. We like those strange hybrids, which we seek out regardless of the project. Ivi: But there are differences between the exhibition projects and the residential projects. They each have very different timelines and budgets, and different degrees of openness to experimentation. For example, if we want to test a particular material application, we can do that in an institutional context more easily, because those projects are often fast and temporary. And then we can use that material again in a project that is commercial or residential, where we generally have less room to take risks and experiment. The two different speeds at which projects get developed generate slightly different approaches and opportunities. We know that you both teach. How do you balance your time between teaching and practice? And regarding your identities and the identity of your practice, do you view one of these venues as primary? Who do you consider your primary audience? Jaffer: These are good questions. We're really interested in academia and are grateful for opportunities to teach and be included in academic events such as this interview series. We both teach, but teaching is secondary to our practice. For now, neither of us are looking for full-time jobs at universities. Practice comes before teaching, at least while we’re figuring out how to run the office. Hopefully over time we can refocus our attention back and forth between the two, because we find the dialogue productive. Ivi: We come after a generation of architects that somehow managed to juggle everything at once—not only teaching and practice, but also academic administration, curation, experimental work, writing… It seemed admirable, but also overwhelming to us. We’d like to start with practice… we are invested in making it work, while maintaining a loose relationship to academia. We see it as a space where we can observe, grow, develop expertise. Jaffer: And to answer your question about what audience we're catering to or speaking to… on the one hand, we want to be recognized within our peer group and in academia, but most of our work tends to have an element of public engagement. Right now, we're putting a lot of our energy into communicating with the city and working through formats that have broader audiences. It's very difficult to make something interesting to the discipline of architecture and architects specifically, while also communicating broader principles to a larger audience. When we do our best, we're doing both. Regarding your interest in construction and demolition material waste and reuse, do you think about the second life or the material life cycle of your projects while you're designing them? Ivi: Absolutely. This is something that we have been looking at very closely, especially with exhibition design. It’s only through our ongoing involvement with these types of projects that we’re able to look closely and internalize such issues before we begin to address them through design. We recently did a show on Leonard Cohen for the Jewish Museum in New York, and at the same time were collaborating with the city’s Department of Sanitation to understand museum waste. From the outset, we looked for materials that could be taken apart and reused after the show was over. This changed both the kinds of finishes we were using and how we detailed their installation. We made sure that everything resisted wear and was easily removable. Following the exhibition, most of those materials were donated for new uses all around New York City. I’m super excited about that! Jaffer: Our reuse projects are in this really weird niche, where we're mostly looking at what architects make and how we produce waste—looking at what we produce that’s superfluous, or excessive—and to treat that as inherited material. But this work is less about responsibility and more about methodology—investigations into local economies and material flows. I don't want to pretend that we’re experts in reuse. We use these projects to think about detailing and assembly, but also to think about how architecture operates as a narrative within the city. In this sense, the second life might intersect with things like form or program as a means of perpetual reinvention.  We’d like to ask some questions about the Tunbridge Winter Cabin in Vermont. Did your experience in exhibition design influence the design of this house? Jaffer: To start, we really wanted to avoid the typical modern cabin design and be strategic about how we used framing and aperture. Those motivations come from exhibition design… thinking through perspective as an immediate visual issue. We were interested in how different events would unfold in a contained space, as a time-based medium. We coupled an idea about how one moves in a domestic environment with an idea about how to organize an exhibition relative to framed views and orientation. We were thinking a lot about landscape painting—not just about the content of the image, but about arranging landscape paintings which become interior elevations. We read that the project was designed and constructed very quickly. Did the pace of the project limit your ability to explore different ideas? What was your relationship with the client throughout the process? Jaffer: It was very fast. It was also very collaborative. Sitting together with our client, we would literally project a Rhino model on a wall and rotate around to ensure that there was no room for misinterpretation. Issues could be addressed, and problems could be solved together in real time. We did not follow the typical model of preparing polished presentations, receiving feedback, spending a week making revisions just to present again. How we work is honestly a bit messy and impromptu. We're more interested in what we can learn through collaboration with contractors, clients, and even with living artists in our exhibition projects. We understand working with others as a chance to express something about a collective, even if just for a moment. We're not here to push an agenda. Ivi: Working on the house was very fast, informal, and conversational. We didn't have the luxury to study every design detail or to iterate through thousands of options. We were lucky to work with a contractor who was a great communicator. We often joked that he was like a 3d printer—we would sketch something on site and then a day later it would be built. The process was easygoing and laid back: let's do it this way, let's try this other thing, let’s improvise. It’s a big part of how our practice was formed, in terms of our early experiences. Can you give an example of this? How did collaboration play a role in the development of the cabin? Jaffer: We didn't go in with a 70-page construction document set and ask the contractor to execute our drawings. We knew the form of the cabin and we had an idea about what the interior and exterior elevations would look like. It's not that we came with nothing, but we were trying to draw from his expertise as someone who's been working in Vermont his entire life. We had some ideas of how we wanted the project to look and how interior spaces would relate to one another, but we needed guidance from a local expert, especially when it came to details and environmental issues. One example was with the baseboards. We kept resisting certain tolerances that he insisted on given Vermont’s extreme temperatures, but in the end, we followed his recommendation. He did it as a custom inset baseboard, though. While we listened, we also never wanted to go with an easy default. Ivi: Working with him, we were able to strike a balance between an exquisitely designed house where every detail and material transition and connection is considered and precious, and a house that is durable and casual and provides a sense of comfort. It's kind of funny for us to realize that with the Vermont project, we established a standard for our practice where we leave certain things deliberately incomplete. We have a client right now—a graphic designer—who we leaned on to help lay out a pattern on a large custom millwork element of his home. We had a conversation where we told him… “You know, you do this for a living, you should just do this.” We should do this together. This is not a matter of us knowing better than anyone else. Did your interest in material life cycles, waste, and reuse inform the design of the winter cabin? Ivi: Yes, definitely. There’s a material sensibility in the cabin. For example, the baseboard material is all recycled plastic. That plastic comes in large sheets, so we were compelled to make room in the design to retrofit all off-cuts—you’ll see it pop-up between window sills and panel frames to avoid excess waste. Also, we worked to incorporate passive strategies that will enable the house to climate control itself through the winter, even going back to the windows being smaller framing devices instead of giant picture-planes. It’s a bit introverted, a bit closed. Jaffer: I would say… unfortunately, not as much as it should have. For example, there was nothing on the land when we got there. In order to make a half-mile driveway, we had to cut down a lot of trees… which is not a huge deal because there are a billion trees in Vermont. We also had to blow up a lot of ledge, but that ledge became the front porch and paving. The trees have all been milled and that wood is going to be used on the main house structure. There is a sense that everything that gets destroyed on the land to clear space for the house gets reused in the house. It's almost like a semi-enclosed material economy. But I wouldn't take credit for this phenomenon. That came from the contractors and landscapers. Where do you see yourselves in ten years? Do you hope to continue to work on smaller projects or would you like to evolve into a practice that can take on bigger projects? Ivi: I don't even know if the two of us are on the same page, but I can tell you what I hope for. I imagine that these two worlds, institutional and private; temporary and permanent, might begin to move closer to one another. I’d love to think that our ongoing affiliation with the art world and our increasing expertise in design and construction could enable us to work on projects that are larger and maybe more permanent. Jaffer: Ten years is a long time from now! The easier answer is for the next few years. Originally, I had always imagined that we would keep growing. More recently, I’m resisting the desire to grow. We are still exploring how to create an interesting form of practice. If you'd asked us this question two years ago, I would have said that in ten years, we're going to be 45 people and we're going to have large commissions. After being in this for a couple of years, I actually want to slow down and invest more time and energy into figuring out how we can do better work before we start getting more work. We’ve been concluding the interviews by asking everyone the same question… What's been the most rewarding moment as a practice thus far? Ivi: Not quitting on ourselves! Every single day we decide to not apply to work for a corporate office is very rewarding. Jaffer: I'm going to give an earnest answer: I think this moment is one of the most rewarding. I'm being very sincere. When I woke up this morning, I was thinking about how meaningful it is that our work can sustain the interest of a class, that it can sustain a close read, or prolonged attention. It’s incredibly gratifying!
Placeholder Alt Text

Young & Ayata builds practice through discipline

The following interview was conducted as part of “Building Practice,” a professional elective course at the Syracuse University School of Architecture taught by Molly Hunker and Kyle Miller (and is now an AN interview series). On October 10, 2019, Felix Samo and Tirta Teguh, students at Syracuse University, interviewed Kutan Ayata of the Brooklyn-based Young & Ayata. The following interview was edited by Kyle Miller and AN for clarity. Felix Samo and Tirta Teguh: We’ll start with an easy one… What does it mean to practice architecture? Kutan Ayata: Do we have three hours?! Actually, this is something I recently discussed at length in a lecture titled, “Practicing-Teaching.” These two modes of operation are inseparable for us, as well as for many of our colleagues who established their offices after the recession in 2008. We actually started our office three months before the recession… timed perfectly! We quickly realized that traditional practice was no longer going to be viable for us. So, our practice includes teaching, our teaching includes practice. They’re inseparable. Practicing architecture is pedagogical. It’s about an exchange of ideas. Because we are primarily supported by teaching salaries, we can be very selective when it comes to our practice. Our office is a space where we actively explore our evolving curiosities about architectural potentials without too much compromise. Was starting an office something that you always wanted to do or something that happened unexpectedly or circumstantially? It’s both. I always knew I wanted to have a practice of my own. Michael [Young] would say the same thing. We both worked for about eight years for others before starting our practice. The way we started was incredibly casual. Michael and I lived on 14th Street in Manhattan after we graduated. We met up one night for drinks and had an unplanned discussion about starting a firm. We studied at Princeton at the same time and we worked together at Reiser + Umemoto. We got along, and we enjoyed working together. At that time, forming a partnership was almost more of a social decision than a professional decision. The spirit of that moment is maintained—we enjoy working together which helps us stay motivated. The answer is “yes” to both parts of the question: the practice came about rather unexpectedly, but it was also very intentional. What was your experience of the financial crisis in 2008? How did it affect the way you and your peers practice? That was a defining moment. In hindsight, it was the best thing that could have happened to us. We had real projects, real contracts, projects going into construction… and all that basically disappeared overnight. All of a sudden, no job, no income. It was obviously a moment to freak out. But we found ways to deal with the situation. That’s when I started teaching, which changed the way I look at the world. The crises gave us an opportunity to slow down and contemplate our position in the discourse of Architecture. We began developing self-generated speculative projects, which, to this day, serve as the conceptual basis for much of our work. Concerning success you’ve had as an architect and as an office, do you attribute these moments more to fortunate circumstances or to skill and perseverance? Again, both. Nothing happens without hard work. In this last 10 years, both of us have started families, had kids… our lives got more and more hectic. We have less and less time to work. Additionally, we often teach at multiple schools each year and every day of the week, which is not common, nor easy. Before Michael earned the tenure-track position at Cooper Union, he was jumping around quite a bit—sometimes teaching at three schools in three different states in one semester. We figured out a way to make our work time more efficient amongst all those scheduled pressures. Success doesn’t come without a tremendous amount of hard work, but it also doesn’t happen without luck. We’ve had some luck. But in this country, I still believe you’re rewarded for hard work. That’s what strikes me about living and working in the United States… value is assigned to sustained effort. Persistence is recognized here and that’s quite amazing. What was the experience of starting a firm in a country in which you didn’t grow up? When we started the firm in 2008, I had already been in the US for 14 years. I came right after high school. The US was my home at that point. Now I’m quite removed from the place I come from, in the sense of customs and business… it’s all very unfamiliar. I know my high school lingo in Turkish, but I don’t know how to operate there as an adult. Does where you grew up have an influence on your work, or have you been removed from where you grew up for so long that it does not affect the work? It’s hard to say. I’m sure it does in some deep psychological level. It’s been 25 years, and I’ve lived most of my life in the US now. But let’s unpack this. When I was in Turkey, I was a die-hard skateboarder, and I always wanted to go to California. I didn't quite make it that far, but I found a partner who's from California. I tried to come to the US during high school as well. I ended up in a really small town, which was very depressing. At that moment, I didn’t want to stay, but it was very clear to me that my future would be in the US. But where I come from certainly influences me. Exposure to certain conditions present in Turkey during the time I lived there definitely influence how I look at the world today. Do architects have the responsibility to engage global issues? You can’t escape them. But I don’t think architecture as a discipline is responsible for solving the world’s problems. There are other issues that we are immediately engaged with, that are more disciplinary and, to us, more important, at least from the perspective of an architect. I’d like to draw the line between a citizen and an architect. We have our politics, we have our interests, we know where we stand in terms of the issues. In the last 10 to 15 years, there are always voices within the discipline which claim a broader reach and an urgency to deal with political issues. We’re more interested in central disciplinary questions that operate through aesthetics, which has its own political agency. Your answer reminds me of something you said in your 2014 Architectural League of New York talk, when you claimed that architecture should be separate from politics. You said that “architecture is not contingent, it develops its logic internally and grows from disciplinary concerns.” Can you elaborate on that and share how this belief affects your work? The relationship between architecture and politics is intensifying, but we have remained focused on issues internal to our discipline as a way to ensure its continual evolution. For us, it’s most interesting to talk to other architects about architecture… to have deep discussions and debates about the pertinent and persistent architectural topics. Of course, architecture performs on a broader cultural platform once it’s out in the world, but we believe that we have a responsibility to imagine that we can use our knowledge and tools to create new worlds rather than simply reflect and accommodate the one in which we live. In many of your projects, there is a continuous translation between objects, drawings, and buildings. Where does this interest come from and how does it ultimately affect your work? Michael and I are stuck in-between architectural generations, which is simply a result of what was happening in architecture culture when we graduated from Princeton. We’re close friends and colleagues with the generation of architects above us—let’s call them digital formalists or the affect and sensation generation who focused on digital modeling, digital fabrication, and rendering—and the generation of architects below us, who are interested in things like figure, graphic expediency, and engagement, and who more commonly use physical models and collage. We're interested in the routines and techniques of both cohorts. When we completed graduate school, the digital project was winding down as it pertains to experimentation in an academic environment. Michael and I were never directly a part of the authorship of that project. We never rejected it, but we also weren't looking to dismantle it. We quickly realized that we were interested in engaging multiple contemporary mediums and modes of representation. We were operating through sketching, physical modeling, digital fabrication, lecturing, teaching, writing, etc. Our projects are intellectual pursuits as much as they are design speculations, and they are developed through and across each of those modes of operation. The combination of and translation between drawings, objects, and buildings is a way for us to combine unique mediums through which our aesthetic ideas mature. Can you talk about this approach to design in relation to your most recent project, DL 1310? How does the building embody conceptual studies that may have first appeared in drawings or objects? It’s important to recognize that we evaluate all mediums individually. Throughout the development of DL 1310, drawings did things for us that objects could not, and vice versa. Equally important to note is that a drawing of the project by itself doesn’t necessarily capture the entire idea of a project, nor does a model, nor does the building. Cumulatively, these three outputs are the project. In fact, I would argue that as much as we love to build, the building is a form of representation with the very least amount of freedom in terms of articulating the architectural idea. This is because the building must account for more than a drawing or a model… concern for cost, financing institutions, contractors, subcontractors—these things add more complexity. We don’t think about these complexities in relation to compromise, but we do recognize the addition of necessary forces beyond our control that claim partial authorship over the project. In DL 1310, the building is inspired by a range of drawings and objects we’ve produced over the years in addition to the ones produced for that project. It goes back to an answer I gave earlier. All of our projects, including DL 1310, are part of a body of work with an interconnected and evolving aesthetic sensibility. Regarding clients, who commissioned DL 1310? How did your relationship with the client impact the result? The project is a collaboration between our office and Michan Architecture. Michan Architecture is an office based in Mexico City that is led by a former student of mine, Isaac Michan Daniel. We kept in touch after he graduated and moved back to Mexico, where his father owns a development company and serves as a collaborator. He called us one day a few years ago and asked us if we’d like to collaborate on a small housing project. That's how it all started. It's a relationship that developed through teaching that became a friendship and now a collaboration. How does the office operate now? How many people do you employ? Right now, it’s just me, because Michael is in Rome. Well, today he’s in London, but he is away all year at the American Academy in Rome. What’s interesting is that I've seen him more frequently this fall than I last fall when we were both in New York. Our teaching schedules don't typically align so we're always communicating over the phone and through email. So, it’s actually not different this year with him living in Italy. We’re currently working on a competition and our shared comments are made on the internet. This is the reality of practice today, regardless of whether your office is distributed or operating in one place. That's how we’re managing projects right now. During the winter months, we rarely have anybody else in the office with us. In summer, we try to grow to four or six people for more intense production outside of the academic calendar. With a few exceptions, almost all of our projects have been completed during the summer months. What’s been the most rewarding moment in your practice thus far? The office is a place where I can go and explore ideas freely without the pressure of economic performance. Teaching affords us the opportunity to approach practice in this way. The space academia created for the practice is thrilling. It's an incredible luxury. To have time to think about issues that interest us and to speculate on the way in which they become architectural… that's the biggest reward. It’s incredible for Michael and me to have time to spend working on things that we love. For architecture, that's incredibly important. If you're working on a project that you're not interested in, you’re not likely to do a good job. We really enjoy the day to day activities of the office. Because of the way in which we are able to practice, we remain excited and optimistic about the future and our ability to make meaningful contributions to the world through design.
Placeholder Alt Text

T+E+A+M builds practice through assembly

The following interview was conducted as part of “Building Practice,” a professional elective course at Syracuse University School of Architecture taught by Molly Hunker and Kyle Miller, now an AN interview series. On September 3, 2019, Peter Maffei and Sanat Dangol, students at Syracuse University, interviewed Meredith Miller and Thom Moran, one half of the Ann Arbor-based practice T+E+A+M. The following interview was edited by Kyle Miller and AN. Peter Maffei and Sanat Dangol: We're really interested in how the four of you came together. What is it like for four architects who previously practiced individually to form a collaborative practice? Thom Moran: The answer to how we started working together is pretty prosaic, and also a bit humorous. We started a reading group to learn more about the architect Emilio Ambasz, whose work resonated with each of us, but in different ways. It was during the time of this reading group that the opportunity arose to apply to represent the United States at the 2016 Venice Biennale. We decided to turn our reading group conversations into the basis for our application. Our application was successful, and we exhibited Detroit Reassembly Plant in Venice in 2016, but it still wasn't clear to us whether or not we were going to continue as a practice. Given that we enjoyed working together and acknowledged that we did something together that we never would have done independently, we decided to keep collaborating. Meredith Miller: The Detroit Reassembly Plant threaded so many themes together that we had developed individually. It was very exciting for us to see how the work came together. But regarding the mechanics of how we operate as a four Principal office, there are things about it that are hugely inefficient in terms of time management. We all like to be involved, especially in the conceptual phase of a project. It’s what we enjoy the most and we’re at our best when we're sitting around a table, sketching and talking. With four of us, there's a lot of input. For the sake of efficiency, as a project moves forward, we divide tasks and responsibilities, but most of the work cycles through all four of us. How has your architectural education influenced your work? Meredith: The four of us have different educational and professional backgrounds. Adam, Thom and I studied architecture at the undergraduate level, and Ellie went to NYU and earned a liberal arts degree. For the graduate degrees, Ellie and Adam both studied at UCLA, Thom went to Yale, and I went to Princeton. We benefit from a diverse set of sources of inspiration relative to these different educational backgrounds. Thom: For me, it's also more personal and I think of my education as having started a very long time ago. I grew up in the building trades and was on job sites with my father and uncle since I was five or six years old. These experiences still inform how I think about design. I approach buildings from a material proposition first. All four of us are interested in materiality, but for me it comes from the logics of construction. What is the responsibility of the architect and how do you think that has changed throughout your career? Thom: Responsibility? That's a good one. There are a couple of different ways you could frame responsibility and there are many ways in which this has changed in the last 20 years. There’s the issue of sustainability, but I don't think there's much disagreement that it’s an important part of what we do, and should always be considered. More recently, there’s the responsibility to be inclusive and consider how architecture intersects with social justice. But I have a more romantic view about the architect’s role in society, as a visionary or as a critic or as someone who offers a different worldview compared to dominant ideologies. We have an opportunity and responsibility to offer a critique of the world through buildings we design. Meredith:  I agree and would also add that critique is much more collaborative today. There's an awareness and a willingness to work across different fields, acknowledging that executing a building design isn't the work of a singular author. There are so many people involved, and the responsibilities associated with building are distributed across an ecology of different disciplines. A successful architect can assert a vision while acknowledging the different roles and contributions of many other individuals. Thom: Right, and I’ll put a fine point on that. An architect can positively impact the world through design. You know, there are all kinds of ways an architect can be ethical, but if it doesn't show up in the building, we’re not doing our part. There are lots of different hats you can put on. You can go out be an activist, but we have a responsibility to make our beliefs and provocations manifest in the buildings that we design, in addition to the ways we conduct ourselves as professionals and as citizens. Where does your aesthetic sensibility come from? What are your sources of inspiration? Meredith: It’s a process of discovery. We begin by sorting out shared intuitions and values for a project. Our different approaches often lead us to certain aesthetics that surprise us. Thom: And in some projects, we begin with a particular provocation that directs this process of discovery. For example, in Living Picture, we were really interested in the instantiation of a rendering in physical space. It's a really complicated thing to unpack. We all make renderings to represent buildings. But just making a building that looks like the rendering you made isn't going to deliver the experience of inhabiting a rendering. We were interested in building something that makes legible rendering techniques and rendering as a design tool. Throughout the development of this project, we expanded our understanding of rendering and texture mapping. To that point, the aesthetic result of our work is often dependent upon a critical inquiry into the tools and technologies we use to design and construct buildings. Meredith: Exactly. There's often traces of digital processes in the products. There's a way in which the outcomes that are material or spatial evidence the particular tools we use and the way we use them. We’re compelled by the ability for these specific interests to inform the aesthetic result and the experience of the environments we create. Thom: We also really love early [Frank] Gehry, but we don't want to just do early Gehry. We’re trying to figure out what is early Gehry in another context, using different technologies and responding to different economic forces. We’re interested in architectural authorship that has an affinity for the inexpensive—the cheap, but it’s an authorship that belongs to 2019, and it looks different and it feels different than a Gehry project from the late ’70s or the ’80s. The images you’ve created through these various tools are really compelling, especially to us students and especially on social media. Who do you identify as your audience? Who is your work for? Meredith: To begin, we think of students as a portion of our audience, but also architecture schools and architecture culture, in general. It’s one audience that we're definitely in dialogue with and aware of. But there are other audiences that are important to us as well. Currently, a lot of our work ends in representation, in images. That's not the end game for us. The end game for us is building, where the audience is more varied. Our hope is that our research into digital design procedures and material effects adds up to something that can be experienced by broader audiences and becomes part of architectural backgrounds that augment day to day activities. Thom: We’re really interested in the reality of our digital lives showing up in physical space. We are committed to not just participating in the role of digital media in contemporary culture, but translating that into a spatial experience in a consequential way. So, one might feel a vibration between one’s digital extension into media and one’s physical instantiation in space. We remain committed to the reality of buildings. We will not be satisfied with a fantastically popular Instagram page that circulates digital images everywhere. That would be fun, but we're more committed to what we can achieve through building. And we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the fact that potential clients have not been averse to our admittedly challenging aesthetic predilections yet. We’ve started to believe that if we get something built that is experimental aesthetically, it will be easier to get potential clients on board because they'll see not only what we can achieve, but also the added value of our approach. Meredith: Also, it’s not only important that our work is economically and environmentally conscious, but that we use each opportunity to experiment with off the shelf materials, conventional assembly systems, and familiar construction techniques. Even when operating in these territories, there's a lot of design authorship that's available to us while also being mindful of cost. Again, we want to demonstrate this added value to potential clients through built work. We are pursuing sophisticated material and aesthetic results without compromising affordability. How do you select your source images? We see a lot of rocks and trees. Why rocks and why trees? What other types of images do you start with? Meredith: Something we discuss a lot is how images we create interact with the context in which they are placed. For example, in Living Picture we digitally modeled the historic theater that no longer exists. We also created renderings from that digital model in the context, and those renderings eventually became printed on vinyl in the final, full-scale construction. Living Picture was made of digital trees in dialogue with physical trees. There was a logic there regarding image selection. For us, it was a new kind of contextualism. There are similar ideas being developed in the Northwood ADU project, where the site of the existing house backs up to a wooded park. There is a scheme being developed which includes wrapping the exterior of the building with imagery that would visually merge the house with its context. For the inhabitants, there would be a blending of the real trees and the digital trees, of real sky and the digital sky. On the interior, we are selecting images that would expand the sense of space. It's a very small apartment—750 square feet—and we are working on visually expanding the space through introducing an artificial horizon through imagery. There are ideas about ground and sky acting as interior elements. We’re working on blurring physical boundaries of space. Overall, it's not just about the content of images, but also the qualities that they can lend to the space. It all contributes to our larger interest in being playful and experimental with image production, material manipulation, and a combination of the two. Thom: It’s a great question. And It's something we struggle with. We’re drawn to the fact that there's simply a lot more content in a project when you saturate it with imagery. So, you probably wouldn't be asking us, how do we figure out where to put the bedroom? Those answers are almost evident, and far more objective than image selection. In general, we’re primarily interested in what effects get produced as a result of our decisions, whether it’s a rock or a tree or something else. How does the location of each project affect the design strategy? Thom: It’s different for every project. For Detroit Reassembly Plant, we started with the initial observation that the Packard Plant wasn't really a building anymore. It was a pile of materials. And it was an image that was circulating in the media. It no longer functioned as a building. This describes two ways we look at almost every context. Whether we’re engaging a vacant mall or an abandoned big box or a factory that's falling apart, we often question the material reality of the object and locate the images the object produces that circulate. Meredith: Your question also makes me think of the fact that Michigan is one context for our practice. It’s not just the location for projects we've done, but the location for us—where we work and live, and also the location of the kinds of projects we hope to get to work on in the future. We’re really interested in working locally. We’re actively trying to get work in the area and especially in Detroit where there's an incredible building boom right now. Some of it great and some of it not so great for the city. That’s something that we want to participate in and help shape. What's been the most rewarding moment in your professional careers thus far? Thom: This is a silly one, but I have to say it tickles me. At the 2016 Venice Biennale, MOS made lenticular drawings. Michael [Meredith] was proud of making a drawing that made people move around in order to understand it. We were just sitting there, laughing as people rocked back and forth. With Living Picture, we made a project where people had to traipse around in order to get things to visually align. We were watching people strain their necks and meander around our installation to figure out what we had done. We actually did what we set out to do with the project which was to build a rendering in which people could walk around. Meredith: I had a text exchange with James Wines recently.
Placeholder Alt Text

Only If builds practice through research and context

The following interview was conducted as part of “Building Practice,” a professional elective course at Syracuse University School of Architecture taught by Molly Hunker and Kyle Miller, and now an interview series on AN. On September 26, 2019, Stewart Tillyer and Aditya Jain, students at Syracuse University, interviewed Adam Frampton and Karolina Czeczek of the Brooklyn-based practice Only If. This interview has been edited by Kyle Miller and AN for clarity. Stewart Tillyer and Aditya Jain: Was starting an office something that you always planned to do? Karolina Czeczek: Yes, definitely. I’ve always wanted to run a practice. Adam and I were working together at OMA when we decided to leave and start our own practice. Without the opportunity to have a partner, I don’t know that starting a practice at that moment would have happened. Adam Frampton: I worked for about seven years after school before we started this practice. There was a real advantage to working in one place during that time and having the opportunity to make meaning[ful] contributions to multiple projects. The experience built some confidence in my ability to start and run a practice, but nothing really prepares you for the challenges of having your own office. Does your experience working at OMA influence your work today? Karolina: Definitely. In particular, how we approach projects is something that is inspired by our time at OMA. We try to understand the broader issues of each project. We’re not always able to solve that issue solely through building, but our position is embedded in our design. What was also impactful about spending time at OMA was the opportunity to take on a lot of responsibility really quickly. We were just not executing sketches of more experienced architects. It was an office environment that encouraged the newest and youngest employees to insert themselves from the start. This collaborative, relatively non-hierarchical environment is something we try to maintain in our office today. We’re not simply handing off sketches to our employees, but are promoting a collaborative effort. Who would you consider to be the primary audience for your work? Is it colleagues and other professionals, the general public, or someone else? Karolina: Other architects, no. Of course, they are an audience by default, but we're not designing for architects, we're designing for a much broader audience. It's important to keep that in mind because we have to understand the issues and needs of the general public. We have to understand the economic and political context in which we work to respond more appropriately through design. Adam: An architect’s obligation is to the public. Even with projects for private clients, there is a responsibility to imagine how a project engages society and an audience beyond who commissioned it. And I agree with Karolina. We do not explicitly design for other architects, but we take pleasure in working on disciplinary issues through drawings, collages, and models… everything that precedes the building. How does the location of your practice affect your work? Karolina: We’re based in New York and I think this requires us to focus on New York right now. We’re dealing with the issues that are specific to this context, such as housing, and it takes a lot of time, effort, and expertise to understand and navigate building in New York. We don’t want to pretend we know everything about everywhere, but at the same time, some specific issues we’re working on now in New York could also apply to other areas. Expanding where we practice is on the horizon. Adam: Having an office in New York as young architects almost seems to entail working on local projects in a very hands-on way. It’s very different from what we experienced previously, where large projects or budgets enable global collaboration: everybody in the office was from a different country, traveling constantly, and working on projects scattered around the globe. But starting an office requires commitment to the place where the office exists. Eventually, we’d like to take on much larger projects, and projects outside of New York, but we’re enjoying working on smaller projects in New York right now. We can be on construction sites, work directly with contractors, and watch projects evolve on a daily basis. Is your built work more meaningful to you than your unbuilt work or vice versa, or do they hold equal value? Karolina: We’re definitely interested in building and executing buildings. That being said, we also find tremendous value in working in a more speculative manner on urban-scale projects. We understand that you have to engage projects at a variety of scales and with vastly different objectives in order to execute one project. For example, the Narrow House came out of research on overlooked and irregularly shaped narrow lots in New York City. The research at an urban scale was ultimately realized as the Narrow House, at an architectural scale. Adam: We know there is value in research and in developing masterplans and working the scale of the city and even the region, but these types of projects can take a long time to be implemented. They afford us space to think and design in a more speculative manner, but in the end, often get passed to others to execute or become smaller scale projects only slightly related to the initial conception. We enjoy the smaller scale projects right now because they can be executed and have an impact quickly. Do you approach smaller projects differently than larger projects? Adam: Our approach is different at different scales. Each scale has its own degrees of indeterminacy or looseness. When you put dimensions on the drawing, there are some dimensions you omit because there are always deviations in construction. In small projects, there might be tolerances of an eighth of an inch. In urbanism, there [are] other degrees indeterminacy that need to be built into the project, but the techniques are very different for doing so. Every scale has its own techniques and approaches. We’re also interested in developing ideas for one scale and applying them to another. For example, in a competition for temporary installation, we thought about urbanism playing out within a very small interior. We developed an idea about how a city grid hosts events and activities that unfold over time. The architect or planner cannot choreograph or script everything happening in the space of the city, but they can setup a system or structure in which activities take place. This scenario became the basis for our entry. We like the idea of applying approaches developed for one scale to drastically different scales.  You’ve stated that you view Narrow House as a prototype for confronting unused narrow lots in the city. What are the qualities of Narrow House that transcend its site? Karolina: Of course, we do not imagine this to be a copy-paste prototype, because every narrow lot is slightly different, with different zoning regulations and different existing conditions and contexts. The notion of “prototype” corresponds more to a development approach that challenges existing models of building in the city. We are thinking in terms of strategies young architects can employ to be more proactive when it comes to development and construction. We mapped over 3,400 of these narrow lots scattered throughout the city. 600 of these lots are city-owned and also not suitable for development relative to existing financial models. But they are suitable for development if other priorities take the place of simply earning profit, such as helping to ameliorate the housing crisis or inventing new forms of housing. In that sense, we're thinking about methods and policies that will enable us and others to work in these types of sites. Adam: Working on Narrow House has allowed us to think about a broader approach to designing in other narrow lots. What’s critical for these sites is not the outward expression or form of the building, it's about interior circulation and how to deliver light into a very deep floor plan. The strategies we’ve developed in Narrow House to solve these issues can certainly transfer from lot to lot. We’re also excited to now be working with New York City to help develop 23 of these city-owned lots for affordable housing. What have been the biggest highlights and challenges that you’ve faced during the design and construction of Narrow House? Adam: Those are two different things, right!? Well, the biggest highlight will be getting it done! Karolina: It's going to be our first completed ground-up project as Only If—definitely a highlight on its own. When we conceived of the project, we didn’t even know if it was legally or logistically possible. I'm not going to go into detail, but we had to prove certain things to show that it's possible to build on the site within the existing zoning. Receiving the permit was a highlight! With construction, the biggest challenge is getting out of the ground. The specific conditions of the site constrain the staging area as well as space for construction. Adam: There are hundreds of challenges. The zero-lot condition, where you're building one structure right up against another one requires layers of legal agreements, seismographs for construction, vibration monitoring, surveys for optical deflection of movements, etc. I'll share one specific challenge... in New York City, all of the natural gas comes from the Marcellus Shale. It comes through pipelines in an area where it's becoming more and more challenging to build pipelines. There's actually a pipeline that the utility company is trying to build right now under Rockaway Beach, but they can't build it and there's no more natural gas in Long Island. I was on the phone recently with a gas company asking them where to put the meter when I learned about this. All of a sudden, we have to redesign the building without natural gas, which is a good thing because we’ll be able to transition the building off [of] fossil fuels. It's a challenge that will ultimately have a positive impact in the design. All things considered, it's been a very long and challenging process. What type of projects do you hope to work on in the future? What do you see as the trajectory of your firm going forward? Karolina: Housing is definitely on our mind and we want to work on housing at a variety of scales… single and multi-family, affordable, senior, etc. It's something that we're planning on working on for a long time. But, of course, we have other interests. We understand that housing is not the only component of the city. We've been looking at public amenities and infrastructures that also constitute the city. Adam: Working on public and cultural projects is an ambition. But we’d be happy to do parking garages, too. We’re not thinking of the future of the office solely in terms of typology. We want to work with really enlightened, ambitious clients who see the value of design. How do you allocate resources for research? Does your research generate revenue or are you using revenue from other projects to fund your research? Adam: To be honest, we’re not terribly successful in managing time or money in the office. It's difficult. We both teach and are very fortunate to be supported by academic institutions. We're not an office that has “bread and butter” work that we don't publish and that we're just doing to make money. A lot of offices do that. Our time is very valuable, and we can’t imagine working on something that we’re not invested in simply for financial gain. Karolina: Research also has potential to create other projects for us. We don't see it as research for the sake of research. It's always combined with something that we're teaching or that we're personally interested in. Adam: Maybe not connected to your question, but looking at all the practices that are being interviewed as part of this seminar… everyone is teaching. We have mixed feelings about the role of teaching and academia in our practice. On one hand, teaching and being connected to and supported by an academic environment facilitates and enables research. But on the other hand, teaching takes a lot of time. It's rewarding on many levels, but it sometimes feels difficult to devote enough time to both ends, as a teacher and scholar in the academic world and as architect, striving to make significant contributions to the built environment. What's been the most rewarding moment in your practice thus far? Adam: Architecture is a very difficult profession. We find pleasure in the act of design, as simple or complex as it may be. Having an opportunity to work on projects is incredibly rewarding in and of itself. We are not motivated by the outward accomplishments. It’s simply the ability to work on complex design problems, struggle through them, find a resolution… when everything clicks, it’s very rewarding.
Placeholder Alt Text

AN kicks off its Building Practice interview series

For the next 14 weeks, The Architect’s Newspaper will publish interviews with emerging architects on the matter of building a practice that engages with the culture and politics of architecture through building. “Building Practice” was a course taught by Professors Molly Hunker and Kyle Miller at the Syracuse University School of Architecture in fall 2019. Students enrolled in “Building Practice” studied the work of 14 architecture offices through discussion, presentation, drawing, and model making, and conducted live interviews with the principals of each office. The interviews will be shared here, in series, leading up to an exhibition in Syracuse in April 2020 that will feature drawings and models of 14 projects—one from each practice. The list includes: “Building Practice” is an interview series that encourages emerging architects to share their experiences linking practical and theoretical forms of knowledge during the beginning stages of building a practice. The objective of this series is to study the manner in which the act of beginning initiates the development of a body of work that seeks to produce new forms of architectural knowledge through building. To evidence this production, the academic course and the interview series both highlight one project from each practice that has been either recently completed or is under construction. The projects range in size from small accessory dwelling units to multi-story housing complexes. Through questions related to the formation of the practices and development of the projects, the interviews reveal how these architects claim unique conceptual territory regarding form, space, order, materiality, and aesthetics, and convey urgent necessity for design to acquire meaning and value in relation to cultural, environmental, political, and social concerns. In doing so, these practices collectively partition themselves from previous generations of experimentally minded architects, while individually exemplifying their distinctive and inimitable affinities, techniques, sensibilities, and values. In surveying the ongoing efforts of young architects, “Building Practice” expands the reach of contemporary architectural design by introducing, to a broader audience, designers now more engaged in cultures of building. Pressing questions such as, “What is the responsibility of the architect?” and “What does it mean to practice architecture?” will be posed throughout the interview series. In asking these questions and others, “Building Practice” will uncover how architectural design practices are being constructed today. For a generation of architects more commonly associated with “speculative” or “academic” work, “Building Practice” updates the narrative, repositioning the most talented emerging designers as able and eager to make genuine contributions to the built environment and contemporary culture. “Building Practice” celebrates this new cast of architects actively mending the unnecessary divides between image-making and activism, design and politics, academics and practice.
Placeholder Alt Text

SPORTS activates an alley in downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee

A bright-green installation now snakes through a formerly-dingy and disconnected alley in downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee. Designed by Syracuse, New York–based practice SPORTS, City Thread activates the 6,200-square-foot walk-through with 500 feet of linear steel that doubles as public seating. The project was born out of an international design competition, Passageways 2.0, in which architects were asked to envision a piece of contemporary urban infrastructure that would activate an alleyway in the Southern city’s core. Organized by River City Company, a local nonprofit economic development company, the program was the second iteration of a successful 2016 competition that imagined pop-up pieces in Chattanooga as well.  SPORTS won Passageways 2.0 last summer, and with it, the chance to build City Thread as a permanent installation in the 300-foot-long passage known Cooper’s Alley off 7th Street in downtown Chattanooga. Led by Molly Hunker and Greg Corso, the award-winning, multidisciplinary practice collaborated with NOUS Engineering and Metal Arts Foundry on the project, opening the completed, zig-zagging structure last November. It’s now being marketed as a piece of “art-as-infrastructure” and a series of “urban rooms” that support a range of social activities, formal programming, and casual hangouts. To create City Thread, SPORTS was limited to a small budget of just $100,000 and asked to design around fixed elements within the alleyway such as AC units, grease traps, doors, vehicle access lanes, and fire hose hookups. The firm circumvented these barriers by building an adaptable installation that utilized a “kit of parts system of design and construction.” With only six formal elements—straight pieces of steel and five different corners, SPORTS created a seamless volume that conforms to the specific clearances in the alley. The result of City Thread is a new kind of city block for Chattanooga, one that puts pedestrians first and gives way to informal and planned opportunities for social connection. Hunker and Corso told AN in an email that Chattanooga, a city that’s known as a rising tech hub, is keen on building urban infrastructure that encourages both digital and personal connectivity. The “Gig City” is most famous for having the first publically-owned broadband network, a move that spurred economic development and boosted job creation nearly nine years ago. City Thread almost seems like a visual, tactile model of the ultra-fast, fiber-optic internet. It’s another kind of winding network that physically connects locals to one another.   “There’s unbelievably strong support for creative projects, like this one, that bring people together,” said Hunker and Corso. “It’s been particularly exciting to see this new public space come alive with various different activities, and to see the various interpretations of the space by different people.” SPORTS was recently named AN’s 2018 Best of Design Award winner for Young Architects. Established in 2010, the firm has designed and constructed both large- and small-scale architectural installations around the country. Both Hunker and Corso currently teach architecture at Syracuse University.

LECTURE: OPEN Questions: Li Hu and Huang Wenjing

The ever-changing realities of contemporary urban life, and the challenges they pose for humanity and the environment, call for an urgent rethinking of architectural precedent. To create spaces suited to the kind of architectural complexity and urbanity present in cities today, particularly those in China, architecture must explore and embrace new opportunities for spatial reinvention.

Architects Li Hu and Huang Wenjing, founding partners of OPEN Architecture, will share with the audience observations drawn from more than a decade of architectural practice in Beijing. Through a series of questions—the starting points for some of OPEN’s latest projects on culture and education—Li and Huang will present their thoughts on how architecture can offer hope for the future by reacting to the challenges of today.

  RSVP online at http://cc.syr.edu/robbins19