While living and working at London’s Architecture Foundation—inside his latest gallery installation Three Little Worlds, a modular stage comprised of three inhabitable and interactive graphic strips—Chicago designer Jimenez Lai talked with AN contributor Jonathan Louie about his interest in graphic novels, living in his latest creations, and client-less architectural projects. Lai is an Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and principal of the firm Bureau Spectacular. His manifesto, Citizens of No Place, was recently published by Princeton Architectural Press. Earlier this year Lai was named a winner of the Architectural League Prize for Young Architects.
AN: Earlier in your career you developed a following for your graphic representation of the architectural process; but your interest seems to have moved toward other architectural endeavors—such as your oversized “Super-furniture.” How does the architectural narrative still play itself out in your design and process?
JL: The similarity between cartoon making and architecture is that both practices imagine other worlds, and both disciplines demand astute graphic articulation to resonate with their audience. With cartoons, authors literally needed to indulge in their own fictional worlds in order to tell stories that are unlike existing reality. In some ways, this is a very liberating thought for architects—the stories we write should resist the acceptance of the normal, typical, generic or absolute, because we are the physical writers of the city fabric that represents the culture of our times.
My interest in Superfurniture is scale-related. Many of the predecessors who I admire built installations before they were able to gain enough steam to build buildings. This is a path I’ve been interested in, the relationship between drawing and building as a young person. Some of the architectural effects that installations produce are simply unscalable, and probably should not be scaled at all—human perception doesn’t always work in every size. Worse yet, some installations forfeit architecture altogether and merely produce physicalized illustrator diagrams about some sort of global economy or community activism-without any desire to nurture a sense of architectural effect. My relationship with the installation scale and human engagement had to be one-to-one in order for the part-to-whole relationship to develop. This is why I think installations should be projects not quite big enough to be buildings, but far too big to be furniture— it is what it looks like, not to be scaled.
In Three Little Worlds, there seem to be two narratives unfolding. The first—through Kickstarter—communicating design intent to an audience, and the second the narrative of living in your Super-furniture. Can you talk more about performance, and how it has influenced your work?
The internet has helped me voice my intent in advance. I feel deeply fortunate to have been at my age during this era of the internet. So yes- the first life of this project lived its course through a different representational avenue. I have been extensively documenting my time in this installation through videos. In some ways, the delivery of the performative aspect will also require the internet.
The past week living here has been a journey inward (Three Little Worlds was on display at The Architectural Foundation between July 24 to August 12). While I feel extremely fortunate—I am now living in London by the Thames in an installation I designed and drawing murals all day— it displaced me from my comfort zone and I am gaining a perspective on what the next chapters of my life could be. Perhaps this isn’t entirely a performance. I wanted to take myself out of context to learn more about domesticity.
Do you consider installations to be architecture?
It depends if the intention of the installation is meant to be a scaled model, or a one-to-one architectural effect. In almost all cases, the installations that I enjoy are studies of parts, with the whole being architecture. Which is to say, these installations do not attempt to be at any other scale but the scale we live in, and therefore I think of them as being partially architecture.
More so than your previous pieces, Three Little Worlds seems to encapsulate a total lifestyle. If Super-furnitures’ organize themselves around the home, how do you determine what are and are not necessary additions?
In retrospect, Three Little Worlds could have done more to facilitate total lifestyle. In terms of sensibility, the color, texture and proportion of the frames really produces a distinct atmosphere from the normal world. So in that sense, the project does create a satisfying lifestyle. The frame-to-boundary relationship, on the other hand, was functionally miscalculated. Because I am currently immersed in a thought regarding graphic vs. painterly, and because I choose the graphic argument, Three Little Worlds deliberately withheld traces of how things were built. As a result, it even overlooked the white, poche spaces for other possible uses. In another version of a project like this, this will definitely be something I would pay closer attention to.
What is the graphic in architecture?
I am interested in two particular aspects of graphics—sensibility and convention. I believe both to be communicative techniques, but sensibility evokes effects, whereas convention articulates thoughts. Through articulation, I think about the exact meanings that line weights and line types can convey. We are able to communicate cut, directionality, orientation, projection, plane, above/below, surface condition, transparency, layers, and texture—all simply within the conventions of architectural notation that readers mutually agree upon. I think the same about drawings—careful control of lines can produce suggestive messages for the audience to read or misread.
With sensibility, on the other hand, the message may not be as exact. Perhaps the most simplistic dichotomy would be sharp versus soft, as the two sensibilities can evoke different reactions. Furthermore, within soft, there are many, many types of soft curves. I think of the specificity of curve-types to be similar to timbres in music, as it establishes the mood of a composition.
As a young architect, you’ve built a career around being client-less or having a larger audience as your client. What are the benefits and detriments in the development of your work and design agenda?
The benefit of having this career so far is that I have managed to build a portfolio with very little compromises, and was able to really meditate on the architectural effects and issues that I am interested in. This route has allowed me to nurture my thoughts.
The detriment is that I have almost zero money whatsoever. I spend every last cent of my university salary building this practice. The odd grant money or sales of art just does not cover the cost of the office.
Can you give an example of your project process?
As “clientless” as these projects have been, there still were a lot of constraints. With Three Little Worlds, the unattainability of funds vastly dialed back the ambition of the original thought. I began by proposing a comic book that a person can walk into, exploring the relationship between framing, windows, and voyeurism. We went through Kickstarter to fund the project, but it just still was not enough in the end. This process required us to take on the tasks of being designers, fundraisers, and publicists. And for White Elephant (a 2011 installation at Louisville, Kentucky’s LoT exhibition space) we were even partially the fabricators in-house. This life of multi-tasking is extremely exhausting, and I am very much looking forward to having a client. But, perhaps this process has also molded me to be a more creative and versatile problem-solver. This may influence the way I design when actual constraints emerge.