SO – IL by Troy Conrad Therrien

BOMB 134 Winter 2016
Bomb 134 cover
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SO – IL, Tina Kim Gallery, detail of staggered brickwork at the building’s entrance, 2015, New York City. Photo by Jeremy Haik.

SO – IL transcends contradiction. The architecture firm’s two founding partners, Florian Idenburg and Jing Liu, met in the office of SANAA, the heavy-hitting Japanese practice with a light touch. They ended up in New York “accidentally,” setting up shop in Brooklyn despite maintaining an “un-American” approach. With Ilias Papageorgiou joining as the third partner, they are now two-thirds Old World, but position their work outside of what they see as contemporary European purism. They are modernists who think that architecture can impact the world, yet rather than smear their ideas around the globe, they would be happy to produce just a few good buildings. They think physical experience trumps digital mediation, but they want you to Instagram their work.

They embrace ambiguity and their projects are often spawned by misunderstandings, a symptom of the agility of a practice that is both formally exacting and historically aware. They want their buildings to be triangulated from multiple perspectives, for visitors and other architects alike to have unique experiences. Similarly, arriving at designs, is an exercise in parallel thinking amongst the partners, a process that allows different perspectives to coalesce in the same solution.

Joining them in their office filled with models, sketches, material samples, and wireless keyboards, it is clearly more atelier than factory. It is a machine for producing architects as much as it is for producing buildings. SO – IL work as hard as any firm, likely harder than most, but having the luxury of getting self-reflexive with them for ninety minutes quickly reveals that what binds them is their love for making architecture. There’s no more potent fuel for a practice looking to make a dent.

—Troy Conrad Therrien

Troy Conrad Therrien How many times have you been interviewed as a practice?

Jing Liu Many times. These profiles are often based on how we broke away from a quite famous firm, how personal our story is, and how international our backgrounds are. There has been a definitive second phase in the evolution of our practice—getting away from the biographical stories to finding a position as to which realm and area we want to contribute to in the larger conversation.

TCT When did your practice start to make that turn?

JL I don’t think we have completely turned the corner yet. Even to those more disciplinary questions, we don’t have a definite answer among the three of us. We don’t say, “This is what we’re going to do,” write that down, and then we become that. It takes time to evolve into it and you need to have projects that back it up. But people also expect us to leave our entrepreneurial start-up phase. After six years, having accumulated a body of work, the practice has started to take on a personality of its own.

Florian Idenburg It’s an interesting time now—architects seem to be very much looking back. But is the discipline about revisiting history or about moving the product of architecture forward? I think for us it’s much more the latter, but that includes respect, understanding, and knowledge of our field’s history.

What we see in architecture now is some sort of new movement that is not about trying new things, but about re-enacting certain moments in history that, in my mind, are mostly stylistic.

TCT Can you give an example?

FI A bunch of people are revisiting the work of Aldo Rossi, for example. It’s basically a way of revisiting representation and of repositioning certain moments in history. But these experiments seem to be about architects positioning themselves rather than about radical change.

TCT We’ve all just come back from the biennial in Chicago and there was definitely a room there that was, in my mind, the po-mo room. It included Bureau Spectacular, a Japanese firm whose name escapes me, and the Spanish—

Ilias Papageorgiou SelgasCano.

JL The Japanese firm is Onishimaki + Hyakudayuki.

FI I’m thinking more like [Pier Vittorio] Aureli and that journal—

TCT San Rocco?

FI Yeah, San Rocco, which seems to be the style de jour in Europe. I think it has to do with the moment after the 2008 economic crisis, which lingered longer in Europe.

JL There is definitely a camp that is much more about the most intelligent references than about the intelligence itself. But I think it would be nice if you could walk into an architecture biennial and some rooms felt more like a ’60s and ’70s expo. There’s a general lack of risk-taking in architecture these days, which I miss: the what-can-we-dream-of kind of projects. They might not become reality, but still, we can try.

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SO – IL, Passage, installation view at the Chicago Cultural Center, 2015, Chicago Illinois. Photo by Iwan Baan.

TCT Can you speak to what you did at the Chicago Biennial?

FI Our office has always been interested in how one actually experiences physical space. Rather than thinking about media or representation, we actually believe that architecture is about making three-dimensional space. This sets architecture apart from many other disciplines that have benefitted from the mediatization of culture, where everything is increasingly becoming 2-D. But the ultimate output of architecture is three-dimensional, tactile. So in many of our installations we try to provide a spatial experience, something you can go into. To that end, in Chicago we asked for a specific space in the building.

IP We selected the ramp because, historically in the discipline of architecture, it has been a very important thing—for example, it has provided ground for extensive conceptual speculation, from Le Corbusier to Claude Parent, and it also became the most important architectural element for universal accessibility in buildings. Ramps are required by building codes today in all public buildings and have become, mostly, a utilitarian element in design. We wanted to rethink the experiential qualities of moving through the space of a ramp and reimagine its potential.

TCT The argument that Marshall McLuhan made in the ‘60s was that, because of the mediatization of everything, our senses become numb. He argued that the role of the artist—and I think we can place the architect in the same category—is to create anti-environments, things that actually awaken your senses and thus allow you to understand the space around you. This could be one way to describe how you’re motivated in your practice—making space understandable, visible, and so on.

I guess the question would be then: If somebody shows up and sees your installation and the first thing they do is take a picture and put it in on Instagram—

FI That’s what we did. (laughter) We’re not like [Peter] Zumthor in the sense that we think we have to go back to a time where everything was pure, a time that never existed. Our question is rather “What is our contemporary three-dimensional spatial experience?” Pole Dance, our first installation at MoMA PS1 in 2010, is a very good example of that.

IP We are never going back to the pre-technological or pre-digital era. On Instagram, I saw several photos of our installation taken from weird angles, which means that people had a specific and meaningful spatial experience there and they were trying to capture it.

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SO – IL, Pole Dance, aerial view of installation at MoMA PS1 courtyard, 2010, Queens, New York. Photo by Iwan Baan.

TCT You mentioned Zumthor, and earlier Aureli, and Rossi, whose drawings are axonometric. They’re objective rather than subjective drawings. There’s no other angle, it’s just what it is—the God’s-eye view. My reading is that it’s also a kind of resistance.

FI We’re still modernists in the sense that we believe that we can make our world, our spaces, the places we inhabit, better. If you resist already, you should not make anything at all. We enjoy making things and we think it’s important to have them come into physical existence. Architecture needs to live in society and not just in books for a very small group of people to contemplate.

TCT But you also have an intellectual practice—you write, you teach, and you produce exhibitions. Are you always led by the production of real things and everything else follows? Is there a driving force?

FI Joy.

TCT Joy. So what makes you happy?

FI (laughter) Architecture.

JL Can I just make an anecdotal kind of metaphor? Latching onto what you’re talking about, the antimatter—

TCT The which?

JL The antimatter.

FI Troy was not talking about antimatter.

TCT I wish I was, but what did you hear?

FI (laughter) This is how most of our projects come into being—through misunderstanding.

JL What was it? You used the word anti-something.

TCT Oh, anti-environment. I prefer antimatter though. Let’s go down that road.

JL It also relates to the topic of resistance. We all know that the narrative of the modernist is very simplistic, right? You can solve the problem, or you will get to the single point. Then, in resisting that, complexity came in. For us complexity is not so much the anti, or the resistance toward the simplistic narrative. It’s a given state. We want to understand the complexity in the modernist narrative. The funny part, which I wanted to make the anecdote about, is that antimatter is actually the matter that we cannot visually perceive. It doesn’t take on light rays, for example.

FI Mathematically it exists.

JL We just don’t have all the means to detect, measure, or perceive it. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. So rather than labeling everything we don’t understand “anti” and juxtapose it with the things we see and know, we want to develop our tools and knowledge and try different ways to meet these new kinds of experiences. Then the complexity is revealed and understood, and the territories of our experience can be expanded.

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SO – IL, Kukje Gallery—K3, exterior view, 2012, Seoul, South Korea. Photo by Iwan Baan.

TCT In my reading, in the buildings you design and create, there’s a driving simplicity. They’re not simple buildings, but they’re not overly laden with ornamentation and complexity. The complexity is often in the subtlety. So if part of what you’re seeking is complexity, where does the complexity lie? Does it lie in the experience or perception of the building, or in your writing about the building?

JL I would say it’s in the thinking, the contemplating, and the attempt to understand. And in the architecture that results from this process. We don’t try to make a very complex narrative or a complex concept. In fact, most of the time we find a simple metaphor that can somehow align two or three very basic logics, and then you get to this new relationship. It’s a very intuitive relationship, not something you have to read an entire article to understand.

IP We’re not trying to generate an image that looks complex. That approach simply becomes a representation of complexity, which we don’t find so interesting. Formally, let’s say, it could be something quite simple, but the goal is to generate a complex experience, or an experience that can have multiple depths and that people can respond to and perceive differently. The multiplicity in the experience is what I see as the complexity in our work.

FI Sometimes we talk about things being deliberately not clear. This idea of misunderstanding is very much part of our time. We are from all these different backgrounds, working in this Babylonian city, so we are also interested in process and the unintentional things emerging from that. It acknowledges our contemporary chaos. It’s automatically integrated in the project because nobody here speaks only English. You know what I mean? We have sort of a global conversation—with all its flaws and its misunderstandings. Everybody sees things differently, depending on their cultural background. That means that we are not interested in making something that everyone has to understand the same way.

TCT When you’re designing, do you have different viewpoints or different people in mind?

FI We don’t design for specific audiences. And it’s very nice to have people misunderstand your project.

TCT But when you say people, I think there’s architects and there’s everyone else—two different species. What’s the balance in your mind when the three of you are making design decisions? What voice is speaking most loudly?

FI Architects. (laughter)

JL You as architect? Or audience as architect?

FI, IP, and TCT (in unison) Audience.

JL No, I don’t think we ever think of the audience as only for the discipline.

FI No, but we understand that those are the only people who actually take the time to look at it.

JL I disagree. We don’t ever design like, “If we bend it this way, then the discipline would not approve it” or something like that. (laughter)

IP There’s always this underlying dialogue.

JL Yeah, but that’s not our audience. That’s for us to have that continuing dialogue.

FI I don’t remember who said it—was it [Robert] Rauschenberg?—something like, I made the painting already. Why should I talk about it? We don’t have to enter, necessarily, into a dialogue about what we have already made.

TCT There are many architects who would say they’re building for the people. I feel this is part of the implicit rhetoric of sustainability. Also, whenever the word social, or cultural, is applied to architecture, there’s this idea of a universal social or cultural subject, and that the building might change their lives. You mentioned before that you’re modernists, that you have the idea of making the world better. What are the principal vectors for improving the world?

FI This sort of paternalistic, modernistic idea that architects are able to make the world better for everybody—it’s not necessarily the way we think about it. We feel that the built environment can be much more joyful. It’s more about sharing our enthusiasm than trying to push social change. We don’t believe that architecture can solve the world’s problems …

JL By itself.

FI But we do believe that a better environment can positively affect people.

TCT I don’t know the exact number, but the percentage of buildings in the world that are designed by architects is in the single digits. So to put a little pressure on that claim, would it be better if every building was designed by an architect?

FI Yes. (laughter) The question is how much money will people spend on good buildings? In the past, people spent fifty cents on a cup of coffee and now they spend $5.80 on a cup of coffee. So the question is: Can you make that shift for architecture in the same way? If you can train taste, if you can train appreciation for space, then maybe people will shift their priorities from say security systems to better spaces.

TCT Well, of course, Starbucks is the ultimate franchise. Which means, no matter where you go, you get the same cup of coffee, or the same quality. Can architecture scale that way? Or is architecture always site specific? Would you ever want to build the same building in multiple places?

IP Architecture is not a product that you can just multiply indefinitely. It’s a process involving many different parameters. Now, site specific doesn’t mean it has to be stylistic. Every project has a unique context. The context can be the actual physical parameters of site, but it can also be the client, the user, culture, and history. It’s really hard to scale it up in the same way.

FI But the Starbucks example is less about the franchise and more about people actually starting to have discussions about taste. For example, cuisine has changed in the US in the last ten years. You can have many different cooks, but overall there’s better food. And maybe people spend more money on food.

JL We were talking about architecture speaking to the people. Whenever we get rejected in a competition, often the reason is that we are too academic.

FI We think too much.

JL You were saying that our buildings don’t seem very complicated, yet they are not simplistic. Even if you don’t understand or cannot pinpoint the complexity in our work, I think people do feel that the result is not reductive and this communicates to non-architects as well. You don’t need to understand the architecture to understand the specific collection of issues considered. It requires you to have some kind of reaction to the experience and to how things are put together. It requires a little bit more energy to engage.

FI I think our architecture is not American enough.

TCT So why practice in America?

FI That was an accident. (laughter)

TCT Do you think your buildings are intimidating?

FI I don’t know why people think we’re so academic. Maybe we should stop teaching. (laughter) I don’t think we should dumb things down. If everybody dumbs things down, the world will gradually get dumber.

IP We’re not prescribing a specific message that can be easily communicated to the public, and we don’t even do that in our presentations or imagery.

FI Peter Eisenman is fine with being understood by, say, four people. Let’s say Bjarke Ingels tries to be understood by everybody. I think our intent is to create work that can be open for interpretation. Some people get it, some people don’t. You need to trust that ultimately people will recognize it. It just means you have to wait a little longer.

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SO – IL, Manetti Shrem Museum, construction view of precast concrete panels, 2013, Davis California. Photo by Iwan Baan.

IP Exactly. We are building our message slowly.

TCT How close would you say your practice is to art? You guys have done a lot of work with art institutions and in the world of visual art. How comfortable are you with that sphere?

JL We definitely think of art as the closest discipline to architecture, in terms of practice and development. We feel closer to artists than to scientists, engineers, social activists, or—

FI Politicians.

TCT How much can you scale as a practice?

JL We used to think, 500 people, no problem. Now, we’re not so sure …

FI Well, we’re moving our office soon and I think that’s the biggest the firm will get.

IP Let’s say thirty people or something like that. We are very involved in the design process and we like to keep it that way.

FI [Andrei] Tarkovsky made seven movies, I think. So if we make seven good buildings, that’s enough.

TCT When people work for you, do you see this as a sort of training ground? Do you hope that they’ll come through here and then spin off and start their own practice or take that teaching elsewhere? Or are you trying to retain people, shape them, grow them, and have them be part of your production machine and way of thinking?

FI I don’t think these things necessarily contradict. In this new phase we’re trying to optimize our processes while asking questions like “How far can we scale this so that we can still be involved?” At some point if you start making crap, you should stop growing. This is also why we grew at the top, by making Ilias a partner. And I don’t think it’s fair to burn through employees in the way that certain practices have done.

JL It ultimately takes an effort beyond average to make something really good. Since it’s the law of nature to conserve energy, naturally it doesn’t make sense to have many people spending late nights and sacrificing their personal lives to do this thing that’s important to only a few people.

FI Look at the financial system, people jump off buildings because they have to work seventy-two hours in a row. If you’re a young guy in finance, you never see anybody. You only do coke and don’t see your girlfriend. The rewards are different.

TCT Architecture has always been, at least in the last 550 years, a discipline where people work a lot more than they get compensated or respected for. There are disciplines where people work nine to five and do very well and produce things that might go out into the world.

IP For me, the most frustrating thing is not the hours. It’s the fact that you spend time to create things that will be lost. Only one percent or less of our ideas will ever be realized. There is so much intelligence wasted in our profession …

TCT I know of at least one architect who is working with a big tech company to introduce things like artificial intelligence into different modes of the design process. As a thought experiment, do you think emerging technologies could change what it is to be an architect? I don’t know if it means lessening or increasing the load.

FI We are trying to systematize the way we archive ideas. For instance, we want to make every past project, big or small, searchable and taggable. If we have to revisit a certain aspect of a project, we want to be able to just pull it up from an active archive. So this is where technology would help us a lot.

TCT So off-loading memory rather than thinking?

FI Yeah.

JL Memory is a really essential part of the thinking. Memory without intelligence is just a junkyard, but if you are able to make those connections and searches, then they become important building blocks for thinking.

TCT In the Turing test you interact with a screen, testing whether “behind it” is a human being or a computer. A computer passes the Turing test if you can’t tell whether it’s a computer or not. Let’s say you were given a brief and you went through the process with your entire office. You designed something and felt like, We’ve gone through our regular process and we believe that all the right forms of complexity are baked into this object. Then there’s a computer working on the other side of the screen that produces the exact same thing. Would you be able to accept that? Would it pass your test? Or would you say that this design doesn’t have any of the cultural memory of your process?

FI Jing can’t wait for that moment. (laughter)

JL What do you mean?

FI That you can’t wait for the moment that artificial intelligence is bigger than ourselves and can sort of lead the way.

JL Well, I do believe that the Singularity is near. (laughter) If something does not have the physical, bodily constraints that we have to adhere to, but still behaves in the way that we have evolved until now, that could be the future. We are trapped in our bodily existence but our intelligence keeps evolving.

IP But Troy, you were talking about something that would replace our own intelligence, right?

TCT The idea of my thought experiment was: Can you separate the ultimate product, which is a building, from the process of making it? You’re not going to be there to explain your process or the building to anybody. People will walk in and see what you’ve done. The value of the process is partly that it produces the result that you want. But if there were another way to arrive at that result, could you accept that and incorporate it into your practice?

JL The result that I want is different from the result Florian wants, for example. The result that I wanted yesterday is different from the result I want today. So unless there are set parameters of “exactly what Jing thinks today will produce that result and that result can be objectively measured in the world,” then it’s not as simple as “Is this artificial intelligence or is this a human being?” Or will it produce x amount of positive social impact versus x amount of negative impact? It’s hard to say that any given result is the right result anyways.

TCT So you wouldn’t even have a means of evaluating it if you didn’t go through the process.

JL No, I don’t think so.

FI The Google car has a very hard time driving because it’s programmed to follow all the rules. But every situation is different and drivers don’t always follow the rules. One of the Google cars was stuck at a four-way-stop crossing, waiting 72,000 times or something before finally being able to cross, because everyone else was like “you’re following the rules too long.”

IP There are still real human drivers on the street, that’s the problem. (laughter) We have to eliminate them!

FI Exactly. So when humans are gone then I think the Google car will work.

JL Well, maybe the really intelligent artificial intelligence will make the perfect architecture for the AIs. We won’t understand it. But we’ll just keep making our crappy architecture.

IP We’ve eliminated humanity in this conversation.

TCT That’s the antimatter and the Singularity.

FI I think we differ from other practices in the diversity and disagreements that we bring to ours. But there’s also an acceptance of the world as something that will never be resolved. It’s the joy in that that keeps us going instead of trying to come to an end.

JL If you are attempting to produce something that achieves certain social results, it’s almost like attempting to gain power. You make people behave in a certain way and claim that your product makes the world a better place. That’s a power project, not a project that evolves out of love. We practice because we love the process and we want people to love the thing.

TCT You’re beyond work. You’re post-labor. Post-labor architecture!

Troy Conrad Therrien is the curator of Architecture and Digital Initiatives at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and Museum. He has held positions as an architect, creative technologist, and innovation consultant. His current research focuses on the relationship between architecture, communication technology, and political economy through a curatorial practice that blends traditional exhibitions with experimental forms of programming.

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Originally published in

BOMB 134, Winter 2016

Featuring interviews with Jem Cohen, Tom Burr, Maylis de Karengal, Portia Zvavahera, SO - IL, Sarah Ruden, Michael St. John, Stephen Collier, Mayo Thompson.

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