New York, New York
The issues WORK is grappling with at P.S.1 are ones that Andraos and Wood have been thinking about for a while. In particular, they are concerned with finding new ways to bring ecologically minded design to an urban level. “For us, it is more than a formal experiment,” explained Andraos, “it is a reflection of what is going on around us,” from the citywide popularity of farmer’s markets to the mayor’s PLANYC 2030 campaign to make New York more green. They have clearly hit on something, because in the first 24 hours after their selection was announced, Woods said they received hundreds of emails, including many that weren’t from architects. There was a man who has been running a farm in Queens, a high school teacher who has incorporated agriculture into the curriculum, and even staffers at the local botanical gardens. “It is as if we stumbled onto a whole network of people who are interested in this issue and what we are doing,” said Wood.
Though all of the big breweries in Milwaukee are gone except for Miller, beer and its production marked the city indelibly, according to Sebastian Schmaling. “The old beer barons were often great patrons of the arts, and there are wonderful old bars downtown that have amazingly detailed interiors,” he said. In fact, his five-year-old firm, Johnsen Schmaling Architects, has made its office in one of them. One of the firm’s larger residential projects is a renovation of an old Blatz brewery building into apartments. In a subtle reference to the building’s past, the architects created screens in the lobby that hold 1,600 of the original old Blatz bottles that they found stored in the building’s basement. The panels pivot into place to separate the lounge from the main entrance, and light washes down to illuminate the amber glass (below, left and right) “We didn’t want to bring it to a frat-boy level of humor, of course, and the bottles are the only reference, but it is part of the cultural history here,” said Schmaling.
The use of the bottles is also indicative of the way that Schmaling and partner Tim Johnsen think about context, and how they bring it into their work. “Context is an overused word,” said Schmaling, “but if you can read a site more poetically and less literally, you can develop a language that guides you through the project.” Another building that takes this approach is the Camouflage House in Green Lake, Wisconsin (above). “We were lucky to be able to spend a lot of time on the site, even camping out on weekends, and began to look at the verticality of the trees, the patterns of bark, and the colors through the seasons,” Schmaling said. The finished house echoes the solid-and-void pattern that one gets when looking through trees to the water, rooting the house to its site in the woods.
For any architect caught between a client and a contractor—at some point, that’s every architect—the idea of jettisoning both must seem tempting. The Philadelphia-based firm Onion Flats has managed to do just that, and for partner Tim McDonald, there’s no turning back. “Life is short,” said McDonald, “and we have no interest in going back and forth over color or material or budget. We control everything, straight down to the finances, and actually get a lot more accomplished.” While they sometimes form joint ventures, as they did for the Rag Flats (left and bottom left) housing, Onion Flats maintains a primary role. To do so, the firm evolved from a more traditional design/ build model into one with a
development arm called Onion Flats, a design practice called Plumb Bob, and a contracting and construction management firm called Jig. The three are intimately connected, allowing McDonald and his partners (two of whom are his brothers) to rethink the way they work. “Typically, a drawing set has to define 100 percent of a project, but we want our building sites to be creative places, so we have often kept ours smaller, making seven drawings as opposed to 30,” he said. McDonald explained that this lets the team respond with agility to the facts on site, which are rarely identical to those on paper.
As the scale of the projects they take on grows—they are currently working on a 70-unit residential building called Stable Flats—their drawing sets are getting more detailed, but the underlying thinking remains the same. “On Stable Flats, we had to rethink the process some, and partnered with a company that makes modular steel and concrete structures,” he said. This foray into prefabrication will let the scale and complexity of projects continue to grow while maintaining the same level of control. If it sounds like a lot, it is, according to McDonald, but it is also worth it: “It is so hard to build something, that this just makes life easier,” he said, and “by taking on more risk, you actually reduce the stress, because you have full responsibility.”
Think, for a moment, about how many architecture jokes you know, even ones involving severe black eyeglasses. There aren’t many, and for good reason: As a group, architects typically take themselves seriously. Not so Dan Maginn and his partners at el dorado, a Kansas City–based design and fabrication firm. “There is nothing less funny than a building that tries to explore humor,” he said, “but there is nothing funnier than a group of people trying to do something in an environment that isn’t set up for it.” Architecture is a tough business, said Maginn, and if you can’t hang on to some humor and humility, it’s not worth it. Maginn and his partners have set up their firm to make sure they can do just that.
According to Maginn, about 25 percent of el dorado’s work is custom fabrication, though the ability to design and produce fixtures informs almost all their work. “Designing and building things in steel satisfies a core need for a lot of us—making is crucial,” he explained. There is a
full metal shop in the studio, and this allows the architects to test and prototype details before going on-site. “We have a lot of respect for good contractors, and as fabricators, we can form a relationship with them that is really helpful for the project,” he said. It also means that el dorado can use prefabricated elements to stay within budget, as it did for the Cox Communications (top right) and the Hodgdon Power offices (bottom right), both in Kansas.
The 14-person firm is set up as a confederacy of designers, fabricators, and artists, and on each project, one individual leads the design process and gets the input of the rest. “We can help each other and judge each other, and also make use of a design language we have already developed,” said Maginn. “We aren’t reinventing the wheel each time, but this way, each project pushes that language forward a few steps.”
When the architect Michael Meredith got a fellowship at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, about ten years ago, the work he produced there was somewhat off the beaten architectural path: He designed a series of cushions for Donald Judd’s beautiful but ungiving furniture and wrote a series of theme songs for some friends. Nonetheless, Meredith said that much of the work he and his partner Hilary Sample are working on today has its roots back in Texas. “A lot of it comes from the people we met there,” said Meredith, like the Ancram Studio in Upstate New York (below). “The art world has been good to us,” said Meredith.
Some work comes over the transom, though not always in the standard way. A wrong number led to one MOS project that is tethered to the shore of Lake Huron in Vancouver (above). Designed for a couple, the house floats a few feet from the water’s edge on massive steel pontoons that can also be used as ballast when partially filled with water. Flexible couplings for utilities and waste allow the house to rise and fall with the lake level, which can fluctuate dramatically over the course of a year. “Climate change has really affected Lake Huron,” said Meredith.
The house may be one of MOS’ more traditional projects. “Because we both teach full-time [Sample at Yale; Meredith at Harvard’s GSD] we often gravitate towards the marginal and weird,” said Meredith, who then tried to explain what an inflatable factory/ theater/community center in Newfoundland might look like. “We don’t really have bread-and-butter projects,” he explained. But the ones they have are interesting: MOS is one of the one hundred young firms chosen by Jacques Herzog of Herzog & de Meuron to design houses for Ordos, a brand new city for 1.6 million in Mongolia. Though he is no stranger to some of the odder edges of his profession, Meredith was still impressed: “Walking around there is like being in some postapocalyptic movie—there are buildings and museums, but not always roads, and there is just no one there.”
Hagy Belzberg’s big break came when his firm was commissioned to do a 12,000-square-foot interior at Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. The building was widely praised by the press, and Belzberg got a share of it for his warm and curvilinear wooden interiors (left). But just as important as the exposure was the sense of possibility it opened: “It gave us the confidence to pursue more complicated forms,” said Belzberg.
Like many of his contemporaries, Belzberg is a huge supporter of the technologies that allow him to pursue innovative forms without seeing them as an end of their own. “We only take on work that can be built, because there is a real joy in building,” he said. “You can’t get seduced by the image of what the software allows you to imagine—it’s good to have limits like budget, program, and building code.”
One project currently beginning construction is the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (above), and for Belzberg, it presented the most productive constraint of all: a public client. They decided to submerge the building underground to keep from losing any open space, and so worked very closely with the LA Department of Parks and Recreation, which he described as a collaborator on the project. “They weren’t an approving body, but they acted as a design review board on every major decision,” Belzberg said, adding that it was an invaluable part of the process because they were so well-acquainted with the many constituencies. “As architects, we sit in the office all day thinking we know what all of the voices out there are saying, but we don’t. Working with a public agency made us much more sensitive.”
A stoss is a geological term describing the side of a landscape that has borne the brunt of a glacier’s force, and it comes from the German word for “push.” There are ruder translations, too, according to principal Chris Reed, and while he wasn’t aware of them when he launched Stoss Landscape Urbanism eight years ago, the mix makes sense. Reed described his firm’s approach to the design of landscapes large and small as inventive about a place’s nature and willing to bring flexibility into urban spaces. So why not have that in a name, too?
A playground in Quebec called the Safe Zone (top right) makes good on that approach. The brownfield site needed to be sealed off for safety, so Stoss designed a series of mounds covered in soft rubber pips made out of sneaker soles and old tires, creating a brightly colored landscape that doesn’t dictate how the kids who play there will use it. For Perkins Park in Somerville, Massachusetts, (bottom right) Reed described watching the way his own children horse around and make use of whatever catches their eye, and so he incorporated a series of overlaid patterns and colors into the design that don’t dictate what the game should be. “We wanted to provide a full palette of colors and textures and forms to give a sense of free play,” said Reed.
The same sensibility informs larger projects like the Erie Street Plaza in Green Bay, Wisconsin (top), albeit in a more adult way. “Sometimes you have to let the environmental conditions or bureaucratic conditions determine the way a project evolves over time,” he said. The Fox Riverfront in Dennis, Massachusetts is perhaps the most representative of this ethos: Reed described a landscape whose different parts will essentially duke it out over the years. Four conditions—salt marsh, cedar meadow, junegrass, and a filtration meadow—will grow or shrink as drought or municipal maintenance budgets allow. “If the town can’t afford to mow, then perhaps the cedars will grow into the junegrass, or if there is heavy rainfall, then perhaps the salt marsh will expand.” Either way, Stoss is willing to let it play out.
Sometimes architects test out ideas by making furniture, and industrial designers often itch to work at an architectural scale, but for Moorhead & Moorhead, this regular back and forth is a given: The two-man firm consists of brothers Granger and Robert Moorhead, the former an architect and the latter an industrial designer. “Each discipline has its own logic,” explained Granger, “and that logic connects material to program. In architecture, there is a logic to detailing in the field, whereas industrial designers are detailing for production.”
According to the Moorheads, who have worked together for eight years, they try to approach each project—be it the residential compound in Uruguay they are just completing or the rubber lamp they designed for the 2002 Skin show at the Cooper-Hewitt—with the understanding of both those scales at once. Last year, they worked with their father (also an architect) on a project in North Dakota, where they grew up, that is part public art installation, part architecture. A local artist commissioned six designers to make small spaces for reflection and art that would be mobile so that many more people could use them. Their solution was to use thermal plastic rods much like the struts of a tent set into a rigid bench that is both seating and structure. The result (above) suggests something between an open-air chapel and the frame of a covered wagon, and is a compelling synthesis of the two brothers’ respective disciplines.
Amale Andraos and Dan Wood,
Michael Meredith and Hilary Sample,
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