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.
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Today the Civitella Ranieri Foundation—a prominent artist and writer residency program located in a 15th-century castle in Umbria, Italy—announced the winners of its first-ever WOJR/Civitella Ranieri Architecture Prize competition. The newly launched competition, co-sponsored by Cambridge, Massachusetts-based design firm, WOJR, will invite one emerging architect each year to the Civitella Ranieri Center in Italy, where they will be given $15,000 to design and build a temporary architectural installation on the castle grounds within a six-week time frame. Alejandro Haiek from Venezuela was announced as the 2019 awardee, while Catie Newell from the United States will attend the residency program come 2020. Both the Civitella Ranieri Foundation and WOJR aim to nurture and assist the young architects by presenting them with a high-profile platform to showcase their built work and gain recognition and respect. The culturally and historically rich city of Umbria, with its rolling hills and picturesque vineyards, serves as the backdrop for the six-week residency program, and it will influence the built works created by each prizewinner. Umbria is the birthplace of Arte Povera, the avant-garde art movement known for its focus on modest resources and everyday materials, such as ceramics, concrete, and metal. Conforming to the region’s history and traditions, the prizewinners will not be able to use digital modeling and fabrication software and must rely solely on locally available materials. Prizewinners Haiek and Newell were chosen from a group of 65 nominees from around the world, 48 of which submitted detailed applications to a jury of four eminent architectural professionals. In addition to the two recipients, three finalists were selected, including Sumayya Vally from South Africa, Sean Canty from the United States, and Ang Li from China. Alejandro Haiek, the 2019 awardee, will spend this summer at the Civitella Ranieri Center, from June 13 to July 23. In mid-July, he will present his finished architectural installation at a public event held at the Civitella Ranieri castle for its 25th-anniversary celebration.
Academia has always been a hotbed for innovation, and as part of a new series on under-the-radar projects on university campuses, AN will be taking a look at the smaller projects shaking things up at MIT. Modernized applications of ancient techniques, robotically milled artifacts, and boundary-pushing fabrication methods are producing new materials and structures worth publicizing. Cyclopean Cannibalism For the research and design studio Matter Design, contemporary reinterpretations of ancient construction and crafting techniques are valuable sources of new architectural insight. The studio, a 2013 winner of the Architectural League Prize for Young Architects + Designers, found that a Bronze Age stone-stacking technique was a fertile testing ground for exploring new uses of construction waste. Forming walls and structures by fitting boulders and large stones together without working or cutting them first, also known as Cyclopean masonry, is a technique that developed independently all over the world. The limestone boulder walls of the ancient Mycenaean Greeks were supposedly constructed by cyclopes, the only creatures strong enough to move such large rocks. The Inca used this methodology in the 15th century, but unlike the Greeks, they regularly disassembled previously-built walls for new materials, creating cities that were constantly in flux. This recycling of construction materials piqued the interest of Matter Design principals Brandon Clifford and Wes McGee, who wanted to apply the same principles of adaptive, sustainable design to the mountains of architectural debris clogging landfills around the world. The resulting “cookbook” is a prescription for turning cast-off precast concrete into new structures. In The Cannibal’s Cookbook, Matter Design has created a tongue-in-cheek collection of recipes for turning rubble into reusable materials. The limited-run book is one part primer on how to select stones based on their shape, one part practical instruction guide, and one part guide to one-eyed mythological creatures from around the world. Not satisfied with a theoretical tome, Matter Design teamed up with fabrication studio Quarra Stone Company to build Cyclopean Cannibalism, a full-scale mock-up of one of their recipes. The resulting wall, a curvilinear assembly of concrete rubble and stone, was installed at the 2017 Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism in Seoul, South Korea. Other Masks Cambridge-based WOJR, named after founder and principal William O’Brien Jr., creates work that bridges the gap between architecture, culture, urbanism, and art. In the exhibition Other Masks, the studio explored the intersection between architectural representation and artifacts, where drawings and models cross over into the realm of physical objects capable of being interpreted in different ways. During the Other Masks show, which ran at Balts Projects in Zurich, Switzerland, the WOJR team filtered architectural detailing through the lens of masks. Masks are artifacts with significant cultural value in every society, and transforming the facets, grids, angles, and materials typically found in a facade into “personal” objects was meant to imbue them with the same cultural cachet—and provoke viewers into wondering who crafted them. WOJR designed seven unique masks and a stone bas-relief for the show, enlisting the help of Quarra Stone to fabricate the pieces. Unlike its work for Cyclopean Cannibalism, Quarra Stone used robotic milling combined with traditional techniques to give the sculptural objects a high level of finish. Other Masks sprung from WOJR's unbuilt Mask House, a cabin designed for a client seeking a solitary place to grieve in the woods. Through this lens, WOJR created what they call “a range of artifacts that explore the periphery of architectural representation.” Active Textile The work of MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab is regularly publicized, whether it is the lab’s self-assembling chair or a rapid 3-D printing method developed with furniture manufacturer Steelcase that allows for super large prints in record time. The lab’s latest foray into active materials, Active Textile, is the culmination of a three-year partnership between lab founder Skylar Tibbits and Steelcase in programmable materials. Imagine a world where, after buying a pair of pants, a store associate would then heat your clothes until they shrank to the desired fit. Or a high-rise office building where perforations in the shades automatically opened, closed, twisted, or bent to keep the amount of incoming sunlight consistent. In the same way that pine cones open their platelets as humidity swells the wood, the fabric of Active Textile mechanically reacts to light and heat. The team thinly shaved materials with different thermal coefficients—the temperatures at which they expand and contract—using a laser to minimize waste, and laminated the layers to form a responsive fabric. The fabric was stretched between a metal scaffolding. Applied-material designers Designtex digitally printed patterns on both sides; the front was printed to allow the fabric to curl in response to heat, while the back allowed light to shine through. Active Textile is currently on view at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s The Senses: Design Beyond Vision exhibition through October 28. The Self-Assembly team is researching more commercial uses for the material, such as in self-adjusting furniture or programmable wall coverings.
The bust, the sculptural counterpart of the portrait that dates back to classical antiquity, immortalizes not only the likeness of a person from the chest upwards, but the values of both the sculptor and the era in their concepts of beauty and nobility. An object no bigger than a head and a pair of shoulders, centuries later, is a relic embedded with cultural meaning—the preference towards an aquiline nose, for example, or a fixation with youth. With BUST, a group show on view at Jai & Jai in Los Angeles, curator William O’Brien, Jr. asked designers to apply the titular sculptural form to architecture. “Broadly speaking, the primary motivation for the exhibit is to provide a forum for the declaration of new cultures of form-making in architecture,” said O’Brien, a MIT professor and principal of WOJR. He commissioned busts by 11 firms: Andrew Kovacs, Bureau Spectacular, CODA, First Office, MILLIØNS, MOS Architects, Norman Kelley, PARA Project, Pita + Bloom, SO-IL, and WOJR (his own). The design brief asked that each practice take the notion of a basic architecture feature and reinterpret it as a figure of human scale that could be displayed on a plinth. Specifically, he was looking for individual interpretations of “characteristics associated with the facade,” according to the design brief: frontality, proportionality, symmetry, as well as anthropomorphism and zoomorphism. “The conception of a bust within an architectural context privileges certain architectural concerns—such as those related to form, figure, facade, hierarchy, orientation, exteriority, interiority—while diminishing many other architectural considerations that must ordinarily be addressed when designing buildings,” he explained. Each firm was given a relative autonomy to their approach, and in the absence of the real-world constraints typically posed by architectural-scale construction, the resulting works of sculptural abstraction lining the walls of the gallery in pantheonic rows are purely expressive. Wide variations in material and form reflect the varying mindsets. SO-IL’s Losing Face, an object of protruding surfaces shrink-wrapped in a semi-translucent plastic, brings to mind their recent Blueprint project, in which they used a similar wrapping method not to conserve the Steven Holl- and Vito Acconci-designed facade of the Storefront of Art and Architecture, but to “reinvigorate” it. Bureau Spectacular’s Contrapposto Institute cheekily takes the signature S-curve posture of Michaelangelo’s David and applies it three-story building, a tripartite stack with dangerously sloping floors. “This group represents the widest possible spectrum of contemporary architects thinking about form in new and as-of-yet-uncodified terms,” said O’Brien, with little exaggeration; other busts include a deflated Tyvek sac; a composition of mirrors and faux fur; and a humanoid bust studded with matches. “It’s my belief that the “center of gravity” of the discipline has become increasingly clouded. My feeling was that this array of contributors could help us understand the landscape of architecture-as-cultural-production ongoing today.”
To commemorate its 120th anniversary, the Van Alen Institute is opening a new street-level space in New York City next Tuesday. The space, designed by Collective–LOK and located at 30 West 22nd Street, functions as a programming hub, event space, and gallery. Collective–LOK is a collaboration between Jon Lott (PARA-Project), William O’Brien Jr. (WOJR), and Michael Kubo (over,under). The team's proposal, called "Screen Play," won the Institute's 2013 Ground/Work competition, which received over 120 design submissions. "Titled Screen Play...is a highly flexible space utilizing a subtle interplay of surfaces and screens to allow for the diverse range of uses demanded by the activities of the Institute, from multimedia exhibitions and lectures to workshops and private meetings," Van Alen said in a statement. "Each changing function of the bowtie-shaped floor plan will be partitioned by silver accordion walls and a series of four semi-transparent curtains that descend from discreet tracks embedded within the perforated metal mesh ceiling." The opening of this street-facing space comes as the non-profit works to broaden its audience in New York City and build its online presence. The Institute has recently adopted a new visual identity designed by Bruce Mau Design and is set to launch a new website by Helios Design Labs and Laurel Schwulst. The new space kicks off with Elsewhere: Escape and the Urban Landscape, a multi-year initiative that will explore "escape in the urban environment." A public celebration for the opening will be held on December 12 at 10:00p.m.