“Like all good experimenters, we graduated with no plans and no agenda,” said Mason White about setting up Lateral Office with Lola Sheppard in 2002. Still, the husband-and-wife team was well equipped with MArch degrees from Harvard, several years of working abroad and in the U.S. (including Sheppard at Atelier Jean Nouvel in Paris; White, at Machado and Silvetti Associates in Boston), and an interest in public work, especially infrastructure. In the public realm, said White, “there’s an over-lap in architecture, urbanism and landscape; it’s never clear cut and that ambiguity is exciting to us.”
Upon settling in Toronto, Sheppard and White decided they would explore their architectural interests primarily through teaching, writing, curating, and installations. “We do not try to get clients in a conventional sense,” said White. “It’s not that we don’t like building; but to build just for the sake of building—doing garage additions and cottages—would probably squash our freedom to pursue the kind of experimental thinking at the environmental edge that we believe in.”
Lateral Office is investing in architectural thinking in the broadest sense, what the two call “extrinsic architecture.” They applied this expansive vision for architecture in a competition entry that called for a bridge and “Peace Park” connecting Russia and the U.S. at the Bering Straits. Here, they proposed in parallel to a high-speed rail connector, a series of catchment piers that would link and respond to seasonal ice floes while also collecting ice melt for a water bank. In another project, the team’s research discovered the Salton Sea, an accidental lake fed by farm irrigation run-off in California. Extreme saline levels at the lake, once a tourist attraction visited by Marilyn Monroe, have rendered it an ecologically-at risk landscape that local engineers plan to overhaul and basically erase with dams. Lateral Office would rather explore opportunities for what’s there, proposing to float rings, spanning 40 to 80 feet wide, for a variety of compatible programs including harvesting fresh-water, fishing (tilapia, for example, thrive in salt water), salt-water diving, and other eco-industries and tourist ventures.
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Through installations, the couple has investigated the similarities between constructed infrastructures and natural ecologies. Last November, they presented “Active Layer” at the now-closed Extension Gallery in Chicago, consisting of a field of 25,000 dowels, ranging in height from eight to 30 inches, to try and communicate some sense of the unstable geography of the Canadian North, an underexplored but overexploited terrain. The firm has expanded even more laterally to include Infranet Lab with Neeraj Bhatia and Maya Przybyiski, a blog, collaborative research, and publishing effort that is producing an annual collection of critical essays; the first co-published with Actar, is “On Farming.”