Felecia Davis Studio balances traditional materials with new technologies

Emerging Voices And Technology

Felecia Davis Studio balances traditional materials with new technologies

Black Flower Antenna at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, 2021, by Felecia Davis. (Photo by Germane Barnes)

This article is part of our series of profiles on the Architectural League of New York’s 2022 Emerging Voices winners. The full list can be found here.

Borderless Studio and Felecia Davis presented on their respective work on March 10; more information can be found here.

As an architect and materials researcher, Felecia Davis readily identifies each camp’s quirks. “Architects love predictability. They want to know how a material is going to behave,” she said. “But researchers love unpredictability. We like playing with a material and seeing how it misbehaves.”

For years, she has channeled this “tension” into interactive art installations such as Flower Antenna, a knitted sculpture that modulated its environment via electromagnetic waves. Flamboyant yet also understated, the piece was one of several to be staged in the Museum of Modern Art’s 2021 exhibition Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America. The New York museum was the largest venue Davis’s work has been given to date, unless one counts Manhattan itself: Her first project, Walking Tours: Urban Riffs (2004), catalogued the ghostly traces of historical African-American sites across the island-city. Anticipating augmented reality technologies, Davis combined wearable devices (“a camera strapped to your neck”) with early web design to create a hybrid installation that was staged, after a fashion, at the Studio Museum in Harlem.

A diagram of different weaving
Fabricating Networks Quilt at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, 2020, by Felecia Davis. (Photo by Felecia Davis)

“People keep thinking there was this big technological switch in my work past some point,” Davis said. “But I don’t think there is one.”

An engineer by training, Davis went on to practice architecture professionally. It was the 1990s, and the discipline was only beginning to reexamine its conceptual apparatus; “hard architecture” gave way to “soft architecture,” elevating systems and processes to objects of design inquiry. This shift pushed Davis toward research, and in 2017, she completed a PhD in the Design and Computation program at MIT. Her work on smart fabrics—textiles, felts, quilts—became the basis of SOFTLAB, the research hub Davis directs at Penn State’s School of Architecture. Open to students of all experience levels, ranging from first-year undergraduates to late-stage PhDs, SOFTLAB explores the potential, as well as the discomfort, of what she calls “materialized digital media.”

By Davis’s own admission, her penchant for softness never had much to do with architectural discourse. She reaches for a biological metaphor: “It allows for fluidity, which I like because materials change constantly, as do we. Our bodies are these machines that want us to believe that everything is stable when it isn’t. But it’s not a conspiracy.”

That’s how some might describe the newfangled “machines” that overlie our everyday reality, Davis said. “Facial recognition systems are now part of architecture. These things are making our thresholds. They constitute what transparency and opacity mean and what they mean for different people, particularly Black and brown people. These are no longer exclusively material questions.”