I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
New high-profile edifices designed by architects whose firms are becoming household names are everywhere these days. These towering, monumental sculptures frequently stand among, yet separate from, the buildings around them. Concurrently, if less visible, is another movement working to change the way we think about architecture. Instead of a building’s outward image, the focus is its entire lifecycle: its manufacture, its sustainability, even its demise. Architecture from the inside out, if you will.
Steven Kieran and James Timberlake have been busy lately. Their 24-year-old firm, KieranTimberlake Associates, has just completed a number of major commissions, including the new Sculpture Building and Gallery at Yale University and the Loblolly House on Taylor’s Island, Maryland. Besides the firm’s obsessive attention to detail, these projects are among the most environmentally sustainable buildings in America. And they are not just very green; they also push forward precision off-site-assembly technologies, reformulating the definition of prefab in the process.
Their peers have noticed. Along with two dozen architecture awards last year alone they also received the prestigious American Institute of Architects 2008 Architecture Firm Award. This month their Cellophane House, a four-story, off-site-assembly model home, will be installed on 53rd Street in New York as part of MoMA’s Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling.
I’ve had the pleasure of knowing James Timberlake since 1992, and recently had a chance to sit down with him and talk about his firm’s vision: past, present, and future.
Deven Golden You’ve been having a pretty good run lately. And you’re going to be in the Home Delivery show at MoMA.
James Timberlake It’s looking at the history of prefab architecture, or “off-site fabrication,” as our firm likes to title it, and I’m looking at examples of new housing prototypes that might serve that mission.
JT Prefab is considered in some circles as a derogatory reference; most people associate the term with the trailer home industry. In our book Refabricating Architecture (2004), we looked at how manufacturing technologies might transform architecture and construction. We felt off-site fabrication addressed a much broader, more holistic series of manufacturing technologies that might serve the building industry. Slowly, that particular term has taken hold and begun to offset prefabrication as the buzzword. Prefabrication too narrowly defines the world of off-site construction, which is what Home Delivery is about. The show takes a very creative view of the world of both home delivery, hence the title, and the future of architecture and construction as it pertains to housing. It’s going to be intriguing.
DG What’s your particular contribution?
JT On MoMA’s lot, between 53rd and 54th Streets, there will be five dwellings ranging from almost a pod to our project, which is four stories high and will take two or three months to construct in a factory. It will be delivered to New York in chunks, and in a just-in-time delivery and construction sequence, will be erected in less than a week.
DG It’s called Cellophane House?
JT Yes. Two projects are its precursors. In 2003 we displayed a building envelope called SmartWrap at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. It was a mass-customizable building material that could be used as an envelope on exteriors or, potentially (depending on the technologies), on interiors. The second paradigm is Loblolly House in Taylor’s Island, Maryland. We adopted hybrid construction techniques and produced it off-site, in order to gauge how on-site assemblage could transform the making of a 2,500-square-foot home. Cellophane House is, as Steve’s son put it, the love child between SmartWrap and the Loblolly House: also a completely off-site-fabricated structure, but its chunks are either transparent or translucent. It’s completely made up of polycarbonates, recyclable thin-films, and two high-tech curtain walls on the north and south sides. It will be like a lantern; a gorgeous thing lit up at night, I think.
DG I can’t help but think of Philip Johnson’s Glass House, but cellophane is a more proletariat term. Although yours is not really made of cellophane.
JT Plastic house was a little too mundane. It’s a lower embodied energy house with a higher embodied energy name.
DG Will it be fully functional for the show?
JT Well, no. It will have the fixtures for plumbing, a kitchen and a bathroom, but it will not have running water. It will have power. It will be principally naturally ventilated. In other words, not air-conditioned.
DG Let’s stop there for a second. You designed the Yale Sculpture Building and Gallery, which also avoids air conditioning, doesn’t it?
JT No, that is an air-conditioned building. It just has a unique curtainwall we designed that lowers the energy consumption of that particular building significantly.
DG Could you describe the curtainwall?
JT It maximizes the amount of natural daylight in the building, which also lowers its energy use. It has an air chamber and an interior wall that is made of a Nanogel-filled polycarbonate and glass. The chamber captures air and superheats that wall; it can also ventilate the wall with superheated air and lower the exterior wall temperature in order to keep heat from coming into the building. So, in the winter we want to trap that energy and build up the heat, while in the summertime we want to pull as much air through that particular space as possible, to keep that energy from coming into the building.
DG Then it lowers the energy footprint of the building.
JT We can actually monitor this. We have microprocessors in the chamber that send data directly back to our office. We are monitoring five projects at this particular point, and the purpose is to learn from our designs so we can improve upon them.
DG Don’t architects usually build buildings and walk away? This sounds like an elaborate science-fair project.
JT You know, maybe Steve and I were frustrated eighth-grade science-fair guys.
DG How long will you collect data on these buildings?
JT Well, as long as it’s useful to both our clients and us. We’re still learning from them, and we’ve already made one improvement to Loblolly House.
DG How so?
JT An accordion glass wall opens up to help naturally ventilate the house, but then there’s a polycarbonate garage door system that lifts to act as a sunscreen. Loblolly was originally designed as a summer house. If we are able to pull some of the trapped superheated air into the building so we can keep the heating costs low, it could be used year round. The monitoring that we do is an offshoot of the International Standards Organization that certifies our firm. Part of the way you become ISO certified is to map the processes within the organization, so that you can then return that information back into what you do. It’s the Japanese model of continuous improvement—kaizen.
DG It doesn’t sound like architecture; it sounds much more organic.
JT It’s more or less organic, depending on how one defines it, but I think it has significantly changed from when we were trained in the academy as architects. In the mid-’70s, modernism was at its acme, and there was an intense shift in architectural thinking from the performative work that the early modernists had been interested in toward something that was purely stylistic. That stylistic agenda pervaded the next 25 years of not only teaching in architecture school but also work produced by architects. It fundamentally undermined the work of the profession in the sense that people came to not trust architects and architecture as being performance-oriented and useful. So architecture has begun to change over the last decade to become more performative; it’s intensely more useful to society and to the clients that hire architects. Our generation of architects has been attempting to think differently about not only how we deliver architecture but how we incorporate our thought into our delivery.
DG But isn’t to call architecture performative another way of saying form follows function?
JT Yes and no. Form following function is not necessarily a diminished concept, but I don’t think it reflects holistically all the components of what we do at this particular—
DG It just depends on how you describe what a building’s function is supposed to be, no? I mean, say its function is to be environmentally green; the baseline for a building is that it stands up and allows people to go in and out of it. But you’re starting to add a whole other set of baselines.
JT Precisely my point. At the time form follows function was coined, how a building became three-dimensional was programmatic. Many other things now come into play: environment, costs, time, qualitative aspects of the building’s materiality. This is a very different alchemy than form following function because inherent to that term is a kind of permeation, one above the other, a dichotomy. What we’re looking at, in terms of this holistic alchemy, is something that’s incredibly more sophisticated, relevant, and deeply intertwined with how a person is going to live and learn from architecture as they engage the buildings that we design for them. Take Renzo Piano’s New York Times building in Manhattan. It’s a beautiful structure where an intense amount of time went into designing the environment of that building, and that environment is thought of not just in terms of a relationship of a person to a desk, and that desk to a window or wall, but also the relationship of people working with one another and how they interact not only on each floor, but between floors and with the public spaces of the street outside, within midtown Manhattan, and in Manhattan at large. People define iconic buildings as being these singular things that transform everything else around them. That building certainly is that, but it’s much richer than that. It redefines office space in New York City.
DG It sounds like the function of the building is to provide a very malleable social network situation that allows for certain information to be accumulated and dispersed, right?
JT Yes, and it’s something you can define in any social network, office building or private home. I call my Toyota Prius an appliance. It’s something I step in and out of. I’m always intrigued by the Cadillac CTS ad with that drop-dead gorgeous actress who says something like, “It’s not just turning on the car, it’s how the car turns you on.” There’s this idea that the machine re-engages you; it gives you feedback, and that engagement changes the performance of that particular machine. I think some of the buildings that are getting done at this particular time in architecture embrace this idea that the machine can feed back, and we in turn can feed information to the machine in such a way that it becomes incredibly more useful to us.
DG You’re describing a building as a machine.
JT Well, they are machines.
DG Traditionally, most people think of buildings as being about as static as it gets.
JT Steve and I challenge that idea. Before we wrote Refabricating Architecture, we looked at a variety of manufacturing sites. Obviously, because we were interested in off-site fabrication, we were wondering how the construction techniques of cars, airplanes, and ships might inform how we make buildings. The critiques we heard were: Why would you look at a car? It’s mass-produced. What relationship does a ship have to a building? Well 600-foot-long ships sail by our building every day. These ships are as long as our building or longer, floating in the water, carrying cargo around the world, and are now built with techniques that are precise and unique. And if the ship cracked in half, it would sink to the bottom and take lives with it. Airplanes take off 25,000 cycles in a lifetime. An airplane doesn’t leak; it depressurizes. It carries people comfortably 16 hours a day, from Newark to Hong Kong. Architects design one-off static objects, and people look at the building and ask, Why is water coming in? So, our argument, to bag the hyperbole a bit, is that buildings have a lot to learn from these other machines. And our buildings are machines, because they have highly sophisticated systems within them: electrical, data, walls … they all come together as prototypes. We’re looking at them first to see how can we improve them, and secondly, how we can integrate them. How can we make them better and more performative?
DG You know, it’s funny because you’re conjuring images of mass production, where one freighter looks like the next freighter. Cars come out by the thousands looking exactly the same. But your firm’s projects do not look like each other. I think it’s pretty safe to say your firm does not have a recognizable visual style.
JT See, I think it’s a misunderstanding to look at things such as planes, cars, and boats as mass-produced. Really, a car is mass-customized at this point. A car platform has four different choices of wheels, six different choices of tires, twelve different color choices, eight different interior packages—
DG different engines …
JT Different sound packages. So you multiply those different permutations and what you find is the replication of any one of those cars that is identically alike is something like one out of every 25,000. The platform becomes an opportunity to both upsize or downsize automobiles, and gives them great variety across that system. How does that relate to architecture? Well, we are interested in mass customization within architecture, but—
DG Mass production and mass customization at the same time?
JT No, I think mass production is for prefab, for the trailers coming out of Berwyn, Pennsylvania. But the idea that architecture, particularly in the housing industry, could in part operate under this principle of mass customization is really quite profound.
DG It’s an old idea made new, that automation and factory processes could at this point have the capability of turning out not the same item, but a highly customized item that could have a huge impact on architecture.
JT Mass customization is an interesting opportunity for architecture. It is about the ability to design components and integrated systems that have wide ranges of appeal to architects and their clients. Because of the systems’s integration, their ability to—
DG be interchangeable.
JT With a variety of larger, distinct platforms such as skins, structures, arrangements. That gives designers the opportunity to configure with variety. It is not a panacea; all buildings should not come out of this methodology. I bring it up in relation to Loblolly House and Cellophane House because producing houses is like producing automobiles. We need a lot of them. We need a wide variety. We want people to have their own series of choices. We want a high degree of design; we want refinement, precision, and higher quality, and building houses one-off, one at a time, doesn’t achieve that.
DG If Cellophane House were to be produced en masse, with the caveats of customization, what sort of savings for both production and energy would that provide?
JT Given its thin walls and its character of high transparency to draw abundant natural daylight into it, we’re not targeting latitudes like southern Florida’s. You’d cook it. In Montreal, you’d freeze it. This particular arrangement is targeted for a swath of geography in the temperate zone. We still have to develop different insulative skins and accumulations of systems. The heating side of this coin isn’t the hardest piece to solve; it’s the cooling side, because we’re perpetually bringing in more daylight.
DG Your firm has received attention for considering sustainability and green issues as integral and non-negotiable to the initial design of the building. I’ve mentioned that your firm doesn’t have a recognizable style. I think it’s because these issues of use and placement dictate the design. What does that imply for the aesthetics of your design work?
JT Since our firm’s inception, Steve and I have had an environmental ethic. Unlike some architects, who essentially began to market that as a difference in their services, we felt that it was a responsibility, something a client should get without question. In the last ten years, these issues have become more important to our clients, and therefore they engage us at a much higher level: We can push them, and they in turn can push us. Now clients understand why environmentally-conscious design will benefit them downstream. A little-known fact is that the buildings in the U.S. contribute to 50 percent of national energy consumption! Everybody looks at cars and says, Oh geez, we’ve got to get hybrid or hydrogen cars, we’ve got to use ethanol fuel. Frankly, I think we should be placing stronger regulations on how architects, engineers, clients, and constructors can build things, because we would make a bigger dent in our collective national carbon footprint by resolving the building issue.
DG It goes a little beyond using energy-saving light bulbs. Energy consumption in the U.S. is so much higher than the rest of the world, although other countries are catching up. Our energy footprint needs to be half of what it is today. You would think the issue would be more urgent in the U.S. than it seems to be.
JT Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth has popularized this concern, and rightly so. I would like to think that in the design community this would be relatively easy to do. I was in a warehouse building in Philadelphia this week that was built in 1965. It had single-width concrete block walls—no insulation. At the top there was a clerestory, with that wavy Plexiglas infill. The roof insulation was probably a couple of inches deep. It had skylights in the roof, so it had abundant natural daylight, and it was heated but it wasn’t cooled so it was probably uncomfortable for the workers during the summertime. In the winter they have gas-fired heaters everywhere up in the ceiling. This building is practically radioactive, in terms of the amount of energy that it is giving off. If we insulated the walls, doubled the insulation on the roof, installed a radiant floor, and changed out that clerestory for something with the same amount of translucency but a higher R-value of insulation, we could drop the energy footprint of that particular building by about 90 percent.
DG 90 percent!
JT In the end, value can be achieved and energy consumption can be lowered. There just isn’t enough code-mandated direct initiative for this in the U.S. because the country is so market-driven. Unlike Germany, for instance, where you can’t be more than 30 feet from a window without being in abundant amounts of daylight, because they think it’s good for your health and it decreases the building’s energy consumption. Gasoline costs $7.00 a gallon there. Everybody talks about the $3.50 per gallon prices here; we have to wake up to the fact that our energy costs are still lower than those in many other countries.
DG Artificially lower.
JT Artificially lower, yes. We need mandates to do the right thing. I think the only way to do that is for government to create code-mandated initiatives. It has to be part of the developers’ lexicon. In other words, you can’t build a building unless you provide a certain percentage of daylight in it. You can’t build the damn building if you don’t have an environmentally conscious carbon footprint of this or that. Otherwise people are going to keep going on building the wrong way.
DG Well, that is an extremely difficult thing to enforce in this country, to say the least.
JT Why? When you become dictator you could do that!
DG Yes, when I rule the world. (laughter) But another way of achieving this mandate is through seduction. You’ve become adept at this: The house you’re building for Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Foundation’s Pink Project in New Orleans is a vine-covered cottage! But everything about it meets your guidelines, and those vines are there for a reason. It’s not just to give it a pastoral-in-the-city-look, right?
JT No, they were there to help cool the building—
DG and keep the ground dry.
JT They are there to help provide a passive, green wall that would help both the filtration and the breezing through the building. You’re absolutely right. What you’re talking about is design. Architecture is an art and a science in balance. It’s both intuition and analysis. We’ve upped the ante on the science side. The science of the equation is now extraordinarily more important than just structure, than keeping the building from leaking or making it thermally comfortable. Buildings have become much more sophisticated. That’s why I was talking about them earlier as machines.
DG And you imbed sensors in them to record their breathing.
JT Right. In some ways we’ve come full circle from 100 years ago when Le Corbusier talked about buildings as machines in his own architecture. We went through a cycle where the science piece of the equation of architecture was dropped off for the permeation of the art. Now we’re bringing the science and the art back into balance, because the importance of the science to the art is indispensable.
DG It’s a matter of life and death. We both have children; the place we’re headed to has to be sustainable for them.
JT It’s a significantly different place than it was when we started the firm 24 years ago. It’s a profound experience to think about what sort of legacy, in the context of a future, we are leaving for our children. That urgency causes us to look for ways to radically design—change—the way we construct our work with every commission we get.
Deven Golden is a Brooklyn-based curator and writer. He has curated over 40 exhibitions, has written numerous catalogue essays, and contributed criticism for The New Art Examiner, Dialogue, and Artcritical.com. Like nearly everyone originally from Chicago, he has a keen interest in architecture.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee