Jesse Reiser and Nanako Umemoto

by Andrew Benjamin

Sagaponack House model, 2003. All images courtesey of Reiser + Umemoto.

Jesse Reiser and Nanako Umemoto have already produced a body of work that has exerted great influence on the practice of contemporary architecture. While that work reflects the current fascination with form generation that developed with the incorporation of animation software into the practice of design, their interest lies far more in the relation between materials and forces. Not just the potentiality of materials or the inescapable hold of gravity, forces can be understood as involving the urban field and programmatic conditions. Reiser argues that in an “idealist architecture, such as Mies van der Rohe’s, geometry seeks to transcend the accidents of matter. What we are doing is releasing potentials within matter understood as an abstract machine.” While abstraction looks like it stands opposed both to matter and to architecture’s need to be specific, this is not the case. To allow for abstraction is to allow for a conception of form generation that resists the impulse for instrumentalization on the one hand and simple idealism on the other, focusing instead on the potential inherent in materials and forces. Potential can only ever be realized when that in which it inheres is initially understood as abstract. In arguing against idealism, Reiser identifies what is unique to the firm’s undertaking. Many architects committed to the computer remain distanced from a sustained investigation of material possibilities. For Reiser and Umemoto, the choice is not between the computer on the one hand and tectonics combined with drawing on the other. In their work, not only does the implicit geometry of material inform tectonics, not only are materials able to register forces, but these elements cohere in the production of architecture.

All of these elements come together in Reiser and Umemoto’s recent work. In the East River Corridor Project in New York, for example, their concern was to analyze a site in such a way that a generative potential would already be at work in the object’s organization. While this is simply a description, what it allows is an easy transition to a discussion of materials. In other instances, what is always central is that the productive potential lies in the quality of the object and not in an ulterior concern that is brought to it. In their built work, competition entries, publications, and sustained pedagogical commitment, Reiser and Umemoto are at the forefront of innovation within the practice of contemporary architecture.

Andrew Benjamin How do you understand the relationship between architecture and materials? If there are changes in the materials, how do you adapt the architecture to them? Or do you think that the architecture should determine the materials?

Jesse Reiser Well, it’s an interesting question. The popular conception of the development of architecture relative to the development of technologies and the material developments that accompany them acts more or less as a baseline for any serious practice in architecture, which is to say that at least we have a modernist framework. There is a general acceptance of developments within material technologies, but typically those get incorporated into models of design that are already fairly known. In other words, many times you’ll simply see the same modernist organizational principles acquiring a new material sheath.

AB And so those materials are not exploited for their potential. They are in some sense restricted by the same old envelope or deployed in the same old way.

JR Right. The material becomes more or less coded into the architecture, and the way it is deployed becomes symbolic. The internal developments of the material wouldn’t necessarily be exploited. What I find more interesting than the material innovation per se is the way in which we as designers can begin to harness the abstract potential of the material systems—meaning that it’s not the use of a new material in a building that is of greatest interest to me, but rather that the matter itself, as a dynamic substance and principle, can actually inform the way we begin to conceive of how buildings can be organized. So it’s not entirely about the literal use of the material, although at the end of the day that finally has to happen if you’re talking about an actual building. It’s more about how we begin to understand the relationship of matter and force in a design process.

AB Okay, let’s take that point a step further. What is an abstract potential? I understand that it’s a possibility that is there in the material, but I think this opens up questions that have to do with experimentation and research and architectural theory. So tell me a bit more about what an abstract potential would be.

JR In the design process, you have to find a kind of currency within architecture, some vehicle to express change in the development of a project. And that currency is generally manifest for us in the way that geometry and materials work with each other. So in contrast to a more classical way of thinking, in which a geometric diagram defines the lineaments of a building, here we are looking at the way in which matter and force can inform geometry and actually begin to develop a notion of organization within space that’s based on those issues.

AB Is this development and organization only possible if one uses computers and specific programs, such as animation or CAD software? How much of this has been realized only because it’s possible with a computer?

JR Well, these kinds of issues have become thematic to a generation because of the advent of the software and the computer. But there is more to “computing” than the actual boxes sitting in our office. One of the things that we find very interesting in our practice is that we can make models that are actually physical analogues that compute themselves; the model is equally a kind of computer. That doesn’t mean that we’re rejecting the computer. Far from it; we use computers every day in our practice. But we find a very productive relationship between physical modeling and certain kinds of modeling that index forces in a literal way and how those inform our practice and the design we’re making. What I mean by indexing is that we set up models that are sensitive to external forces, gravity among them. Using these models allows us, first of all, to understand the structural capacities of the design we are generating and, more importantly, to register a wide range of influences, both programmatic and organizational.

Reiser + Umemoto, proposal for the Eyebeam Museum of Art and Technology, 2001.

AB When I look at your models, I can see that they contain a potential for representation, but they’re not representations themselves. They are in some sense only potentiality. So should I look at these models diagrammatically rather than as small versions of what will come?

JR Well, I think they tread both sides of the issue, depending upon your point of view. All objects have a representational quality if you choose to look at them that way. In practice, however, the only way these types of models become generative is if they are understood on a very particular scale and with a very particular direction. They are in some sense miniature versions of what will finally be generated, but one of the qualities of these kinds of diagrammatic models is that they’re changeable, they’re flexible, they can be edited. In other words, it would be a question not of taking one of those models wholesale into the project but rather of using the model in a generative sense, which means that its geometries can acquire a materiality in ways that the classical relationship between geometry and materials cannot achieve. You get transitions that cannot be understood as moving from the ideal to the real. In an idealist architecture, such as Mies van der Rohe’s, geometry seeks to transcend the accidents of matter. What we are doing is releasing potentials within matter understood as an abstract machine.

AB Your recent work has involved both large-scale buildings and urban projects and small-scale buildings and houses. How do you move between the two scales? How does your approach differ when it’s a large urban project as opposed to something small?

Nanako Umemoto The bigger projects require a more direct relationship with the moving components in the environment that have to be incorporated into it: cars, visitors, employees. It’s similar with small projects and movement systems within them. Smaller projects take more time to develop materially, since, typically, they require detailing in ways that large-scale projects do not.

JR We are dealing with the forces that shape a whole range of scales in any project. When you’re working on a large-scale project you have many more levels to deal with. But in a certain way the organizational principles are very similar. If you line up a series of our projects, you’ll find that while they might be radically different in terms of their scale—say the difference between a very finely scaled development like the water garden we built for Jeff Kipnis in Ohio in 1997 and the project that we proposed in 1999 for the west side of Manhattan (in the IFCCA competition for the design of cities), which would take up 40 city blocks—they employ common geometrical and organizational principles.

AB How do you understand the generation of form? How do you prepare for a project on the level of techniques and premises? The interesting questions will be how you generate the form and how you understand whatever answer you give to that question. It’s not as if you have the form and then you put the program in, as though the form were indifferent to the program. This relationship needs to be articulated in some way.

JR As we develop our projects, we look first toward typological models, not in any strict sense of a historical typology, but more along the lines of what Rem Koolhaas would call a crude typology and what others have called a formal typology: we take an initial look at the kind of project we would generate, then we begin to give, just roughly, a certain kind of grain to the project. For example, the East River Corridor Project in New York in 1998. It’s 12 miles long, and it deals with multiple layers in the city; we knew from the outset that in some form or other we were going to be dealing with stratification, that it would be a densely layered project that would be predominantly horizontal. And so that gives us, from the outset, a sense of where we’re going with it. It isn’t as if we’re pulling associations out of thin air.

NU The smaller projects demand a more direct use of materials but also a concern with the program. Within a certain limitation you have to push communication, as well as the architecture, so that it’s more challenging. We didn’t need to deal with smaller concerns with the East River Corridor Project, because it’s so big. With the large projects, the things we do have to deal with become much more simple.

AB Would you clarify the way in which you understand “program”?

JR There are different degrees of fitness of a program or an activity to an architecture. My sense is that “program” is something that’s spelled out by people or institutions, and it’s what they expect to happen in a space, and that relationship to architecture has always been a very approximate one, to my mind. In a certain way, it’s almost impossible to conceive of architecture as architecture via program. There is a desire for that to be the case, but I can’t think of any great architecture that’s essentially programmatic in its origin.

Reiser + Umemoto, West Side Convergence, proposal for the IFCCA Competition for Manhattan's West Side, 1999.

AB My question is more polemical. It seems to me that something like Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao, while visually remarkable and while being an organism that has transformed Bilbao, is programmatically uninteresting in that it’s two very large boxes clipped onto an extraordinary entryway. There’s a failure to think through what the program would be. Now let’s turn it around. Take Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin. He has a very specific understanding of program, not simply of the museum’s program, but program having to do with representing absence.

JR Yes.

AB The architecture has a tight relationship to the program, not just program as function but the way program itself is understood, and I think that the building is exemplary for that reason.

JR I would agree—when a program is understood as such or in Libeskind’s case, as iconography, it would be thematic, which has to do with deep content.

AB This is what I mean by program: a thought-through conception of what will be. I wonder how that has an impact on the way in which you understand form. Would you ever conceive of doing as much research on program as you would on form generation?

NU Normally there’s a certain kind of space that we try to reprogram into material and structure. Sometimes we break the program down so that it’s not necessarily just one program. Program is unthinkable without some intersection with matter. Matter is all we have to work with. Matter and program do not have a one-to-one relation. And that is the saving grace of architecture.

JR There’s a close tracking of how the substance of the building would develop, but not completely based on the stated activities of the space. That wouldn’t be a fully adequate way of generating what we’re after. If there were an immediate relationship between matter and program, architecture would be so constraining that any trace of freedom would be eliminated.

AB I want to talk about how you understand research and experimentation in architecture. I’m interested in experimentation in the sense of finding something out, of research. Both of you have at times taught; you’re both teaching now, I think, at Princeton and Columbia. Are there ways in which you would link your research to teaching? How do you understand, in general terms, the relationship between research and experimentation in architecture?

NU When we ran our joint studio at Columbia, we knew what kind of path the students should take. So we directed them that way.

AB But is it linked to what you as architects are trying to do? Do you use your teaching situations, your studios, almost like laboratories, like scientists would in order to discover something?

JR Absolutely. One really important thing has to do with the issue of invention. This follows the discussion on program and functionalism. I was very impressed with Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. It’s basically an anthropological book. There is a chapter called “Necessity’s Mother,” in which a litany of inventions, which were all soon to be directed toward the specific uses that they have today, were described in terms of their history. It turns out that most of these inventions weren’t created with their final use in mind. The inventors of the phonograph went through a whole series of possible uses: recording the last wishes of a dying man, capturing animal sounds . . . Finally, after many, many tries, they realized that it could be useful for recording music. But that came much later than the actual invention itself. That relates very much to the way we understand the studio that we teach and the work that we do in our own studio. Many things come up in a design, some of which we tuck away for later use, some of which we opportunistically incorporate into the work. There’s simply a level of openness in the design process if you’re attentive to it, which allows for a multiplicity of things to arise. I think that’s part of what a new practice should be doing. It should have an awareness of the multiple possibilities.

NU We also have limitations. We figure there are only three ways a project can go, but when we bring it to students, one of them will have a completely different understanding of things, and the surprise is that they bring a different solution to the project, a new discovery that opens our eyes again. It’s fun.

JR Absolutely. I mean, there were truly profound inventions that occurred in my last semester in a very modest class that was devoted more to the design of furniture than to architecture. One of the student’s projects caused me to rethink the relationship of materials and geometry in design.

AB Both of you talk about the importance of materials and the way in which materials become both a source and a side of invention, of prompt thinking. Given that material is in some sense linked to engineering knowledge, I wonder how you see the relationship between architecture and engineering. One of the ways I’ve always understood it, from my own position of teaching, is that a student should know when to ask an engineer to come in rather than feel that he or she can do it alone. How do you understand the relationship, formally and practically, between architecture and engineering?

Reiser + Umemoto, model for the East River Corridor Project, 1998.

JR Engineers can come into a project either as analysts or as physicians for a project that’s already there. The most exciting prospect is that they can enter into a project from the outset. We’re finding that it’s actually much more productive to work on architectural projects with engineers from the beginning, very particular engineers who aren’t simply problem solvers, who are not caught up in what I see as a modernist aspiration to design under the constraints of maximum efficiency and minimal materials. There are innovative and experimental engineers like the people from the British firm Arup—Cecil Balmond, Charles Walker—who really are using the rigors of engineering in idiosyncratic ways in relation to architecture. It isn’t simply problem solving or a technical discipline. Engineers today have an expanded notion of the relationship between matter, forces, and space. Although of course they still have to solve the problems, and they are extremely good technicians.

AB What you’re talking about could almost be described as another way of understanding practice.

JR Yes.

AB You’re saying that the truth of architecture is that it’s collaborative, and that relationships with engineers or environmentalists or even philosophers would be productive in thinking about contemporary practice.

JR That’s absolutely true. I would say that architecture is interdisciplinary, but in a very particular way. I think the most successful projects do arise out of the contributions of architects and philosophers, engineers, musicians, and social scientists. Each works strictly within his or her own field of expertise, contributing that expertise within the overall project. No one actually leaves his or her own discipline. I don’t try to do amateur philosophy, nor do I expect a philosopher to do my job.

AB What that indicates is that the thing about interdisciplinarity was always nonsense. One works collaboratively by letting something arise out of the relationship rather than out of synthesizing so that everything becomes a bland mixture.

JR Yes, it’s not about arriving at a consensus.

AB Right, quite the opposite. We no longer believe that architecture can change the world in any instrumental way, yet we also have to realize that only about 20% of buildings are done by architects. And so architecture, if it’s going to flourish, has to define itself in relation to culture; it can’t be a pure form. How do you understand the specificity of architecture? The question I’m asking is about the nature of architecture. How do each of you think about it, both as an activity and as a pedagogy? How do you understand what it is that you’re doing, given that it’s not building, even though it’s kind of linked to creating buildings? Buildings can be created without architects—so what is architecture doing?

JR Architects, in both their building and non-building work, are looking at problems that extend beyond problem solving or making society more functional, although that is part of our responsibility. This may sound very metaphysical, but I think there is simply a desire at some level to know what a new kind of space is. The universe is stranger than we can know, and one of the motivating desires in architecture is to somehow bring forth new realities in the most general sense.

NU It shouldn’t be just repeating work the builder is doing; it should be more challenging. It should push things forward rather than always having to work within given limitations.

AB So, new architecture is bound up with something like innovation, and that’s what distinguishes it from simple repair to the back of a building.

NU I don’t know if it’s innovation or not, but something that you push forward—

AB Discovery.

NU It could be that we’re discovering something that’s old. (laughter)


Andrew Benjamin is a professor of critical theory at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. He also teaches on a regular basis in the Graduate School of Architecture Planning and Preservation at Columbia University. His most recent publications include Architectural Philosophy (Continuum, 2001), and Philosophy’s Literature (Clinamen Books, 2002).

Architectural models
Landscape architecture
Public art
Summer 2003
The cover of BOMB 84