The student voice of the Knowlton School of Architecture

Questions for Michael Meredith

Photo: Samuel Ludwig

By Samuel Ludwig

How did you meet Tobias (Putrih) and can you describe your collaboration on the Wexner Center?

I met him at an event at the (Harvard) GSD on Buckminster Fuller, we were both speakers and just hit it off. Tobias knew our office was working with this physics software that allowed for experiments which he quite liked and proposed we try and do something together.

The first thing we did was this contemporary art space in Newcastle.

They’re structures that were calculated to be on the verge of collapse, right before failure, so if you remove one more block it’ll fall apart. (Before that it was like stacking them)

So how did the Wexner Project come about?

The Wexner Project is the first that’s not fallen blocks but fallen surfaces. The thing we’re trying to do with the Wexner or, what I thought was pretty interesting, is taking these grids that in the end I think are still more polygon, and this project will leak out into others. There’s still a lot more work that can be done, that this is the beginning of something.

We’re looking at these kinds of grids that are then sort of collapsing or failing or slumping.

The aesthetic is that we wanted it to look like grids because, well, it seemed like a good idea I guess, I don’t know why. Grids, frames and then those frames become sagged or deformed.

We were also influenced by the work of the Robert Le Ricolais and his projects on failures where he would collapse or squish these space frames, which are awesome, and we kind of wanted to feel like that.

There’s also a kind of ruined sense of material, which, the geometry is more Alpine Bruno Taut without glass. Then the movie that is being projected within would inform some sort of color.

So was this project envisioned as more of a self-standing sculptural museum piece or as something more site-specific?

It’s generally site specific but that wasn’t the intention in the beginning. Formally there’s definitely some reference to the Wexner Center on some level. Thinking about grids and frames and then trying to screw them up or make them collapse in a way. Also, wrapping around the column was important to think about and in a way do the opposite of the hanging column.

In the end I think the materiality takes away from that reading but it’s something we thought about for sure.

I don’t think it’s as obvious at the end as it was for us in the beginning in a way I don’t know if that’s a failure or not but it’s something we thought about.

There are a lot of political issues that derive from the fact that it’s constructed in the museum, so you have to use certain glues and sprays.

Do you think your project has anything to do with the evolution of parametric systems where previously everything was clean, shiny and now thing are more, messy?

Well we’ve done the shiny stuff, but now as an office we try very hard not to be slick, we try to do projects that are like the (clean) parametric, but wrong let’s say. In some ways we’re having fun with them, making fun of them, or trying other things out that seem counter-intuitive through play, stretching, stomping etc. So there are parametric systems that are about producing complexity through geometric systems, say smart geometry. We kind of like dumb geometry, so we do things like cubes rather than incredibly complex tiling systems.

The thing I like about physics over geometry, with geometry you’re always struggling against ideality, with physics as an ideology there’s no ideal it’s much more relativist and in the end we’re more relativist, we don’t have a religion in a certain sense. We approach architecture with a sense of humor and a lightness that is liberating as opposed to oppressive. Like the idea of the absolute ideal is sort of a tragic thing, there’s always this loss of never achieving perfection so that’s why this is the sort of narrative I’m not interested in.

The renderings of your installations use a considerable amount of color whereas the finished pieces do not. Is it for your own enjoyment or is there a deliberate use of coloration to inform a greater idea to a client.

For the parametric things we try and use a scientific kind of aesthetic but wrong. It doesn’t have to code anything. On one level we use the parametric to play with it, we also screw it up, and try to do it wrong and find other things that come out of it which are like we like the aesthetic of what we call “Rainbow Vomit” where all of the colors are all over the place all at once and it’s this strange psychedelic thing which is also cheesy, kitsch, tasteless as opposed to the white on white renderings which have become symbols of elegance and slickness in architecture.

So we like that we’re not using photo realistic white on white vray renders which are incredibly beautiful and I have a lot of respect for the people that do them, it’s just that they’re not available to us because it’s already been done and it feels almost corporate now.

Do you have any interest in building something that deploys the coloration of your renderings?

Oh no! It would be so hard! I mean we think about this all the time, what happens when you literalize these representations? I kind of like them as their own thing but, it would look so bad. I mean, I don’t know if we could do it, I don’t know if we’re brave enough or big enough or we could find somebody to be willing to let us do it. It would be horrific in real life wouldn’t it? I mean it would be gross, but maybe there’s a way to do it.

We tend to avoid color in the work and in the representation of that work there’s color everywhere, so I don’t know what that means but maybe it’s a failure on our part that we haven’t figured out a way to resolve representation and reality, we like that they’re very different, there’s overlap, but they each have their own space. Maybe we’ll figure it out.

So for MOSsand it’s actually coated in glitter, that was kind of fun and it works for us in a way, it was kind of like the fur at PS1 or the foam at the Wexner project, because it comes a way to undermine the formal readings to produce other effects which can overwhelm or destroy the form.

There was an interesting moment (when working on the PS1) when we had this nice aluminum mesh, it looks super clean, elegant, contemporary let’s say, then when the fur arrives, we put it on, there was this moment like “Oh, it looks so ugly!” and I think that it was pretty exciting but I can tell you it took us, we still, we were a little worried it’s too ugly, “oh I don’t know know, maybe we made a mistake.” But I think it was in a way it was a breakthrough for us too in the sense that we got a little more courage after doing a project like that where you feel a little bit more about such experiments and not to worry so much.

We try to figure out how to experiment or play in the office, which sounds silly, but it’s not that easy, due to how work works, and how offices work, with contacts and deadlines, things like this.

The Wexner project was interesting in how fast it was, one thing that strange is that I think we were called in September asking if we wanted to do the project.

So you were approached?

So in early September they called, “Hey do you want to do this project? We need everything in six weeks.” and we were like “ugh, oh my god” and trying to figure it out,

We spent half of the time or maybe more writing software. That was tough, usually we have more time to study things, experiment, this time we didn’t so there were some last minute decisions that were kind of crazy, no time to figure it out, shoot from the hips, we didn’t really study all of the effects. We had a different foam system setup originally, that fell through, some toxic thing.

It’s even just hard to find a contractor interested in working on a project like this, I mean it’s a weird project, tis not a repeat client, you’re not going to get more work out of it. It’s going to be more of a headache, there’s not that much money in it, it’s not easy; it’s not something they normally do. It’s just hard to even find somebody, then when we found somebody he got so upset and quit because the institution was being so difficult, so we had to find somebody else. It’s just crazy.

It’s not really good for running an office, but they’re fun, they’re so kind of quick then you have something, but they’re not a good business model that’s for sure.

Other than the Wexner project, do you usually employ local architecture students to build your installations?

The only other one was PS1, which went through MOMA and that’s really because a lot of students know about it and apply through them. And then the Puppet Theatre we did with Harvard students.

At the puppet theatre we had students working 24/7 on that thing it was far more ridiculous. But in this case it was really our office,

The three people from our office were there so whenever I spoke with them it was like “oh people come and go, but

You don’t have any leverage over anybody, so people would just show up, it would be a different person each day, you have to spend more time training them, more explaining the project than actually working on it.

It becomes really a different thing, it’s not an efficient model, but it seemed like a good idea because the timeframe got so compressed at the end and all of the changes. We just had our whole office up in Vermont making the metal pieces with the fabricator, then three of them went to Ohio, camped out. So, it was fun for them to some degree, I hope, but it’s definitely tiring in particular.

So less collaboration more handing things off it seems.

We’re teachers, Hillary and I, and we like students and talking about architecture and thinking about it, so in that regard its nice. These things become educational on some level for everybody involved. I think why students do it is an interesting question, I think they like to be involved in things that are real, but I may be wrong. Because they’re used to just drawing things all the time or working on such fictional projects that they don’t feel attached to them in a way something that’s real.

We don’t have unpaid interns that work in our office. I don’t have a problem with it though per se. I just don’t, it doesn’t make sense from a running an office perspective. Because it’s like chaos if you do that.

So you just have employees that are paid rather than paid interns?

We pay all of our employees, relatively well I think, we don’t do unpaid interns. We’re such a small office, there’s like seven or eight of us. And our office is like this tiny submarine where you have to like everybody, get along and enjoy it and really be of the work and try and do things that are like school in somewhere. Lunches together where we talk about, whatever. We try to have people that come and give presentations or lectures that are academic. Because I think you find, as you get older, the hardest thing about running an office is, well you realize that you can’t control everything. That’s not the nature of an office; you have to produce a culture, a conversation, an atmosphere in which work gets done.

So less death-camp workshop in favor of a place where ‘architecture happens’?

The models for us are like the Eames or something. We also think about offices like OMA or Peter Eisenman, where there is a kind of thing about making not just drawing intensity. So we have to have some kind of intensity.

It’s not even in a real office per se; it’s on the first floor of a townhouse where we live on the second floor, right across from Yale. Dogs running around probably annoying people, music playing. More like a studio maybe, an art studio, just that we’re all on computers.

Our office is neither bottom-up nor top-down, it’s a mess in-between. The only thing Hillary and I really focus on is setting up a kind of culture. Talking about lectures, essays we have to write, buildings, history, talking how can you be an experimental   office now-a-days. It’s not easy. How can you recycle?

We like to think of it as a sort of camp as opposed to a factory.

What are your thoughts on unpaid internships?

Well I did that, I volunteered at many places, helping out different offices when they had installations. I don’t have a problem with it, I think it’s very upfront and everybody knows what they’re getting into, you have figure out what you want to do, if things are worth it or not. I really enjoyed that time when I was doing it, I can understand why a lot of people wouldn’t do it, you have to really truly believe that you’re involved in something that is really good, let’s say. I have no problem with people volunteering for Habitat for Humanity and I don’t think anybody would. It’s not really a commercial enterprise, it’s helping people. I do believe that art helps people, makes the world better, and the same thing with architecture. I think it makes the world better, it liberates people. So you have to believe you’re involved with something like that to make it worthwhile.

If people are making a ton of money off of exploiting children essentially or kids, then that’s a huge problem. People coming right out of undergrad, working for free, it’s kind of trouble.

I think it’s an individual choice for everybody. I know that officially, I should be against it and everybody should, but it’s so difficult in architecture, it’s so difficult for young offices to build something up, that there is this kind of a collective push. I think that it’s the only way that we survive as a discipline even. Otherwise we’re just corporate hacks with no interesting work.

What print publication do you look at the most?

Right now I’m looking at Log because I have to do something for it. For a while, well it changes, I really have stopped. It sounds pretentious and cliché because I do like magazines a lot, I love looking at them.

This is what I do, I’ll go for a time where I don’t look at anything and then I’ll go to the library and I literally pick out every single magazine that looks somewhat interesting, all of them, sit down read through them all, then I try and get a sense of what’s going on the world. Then I walk back to the office, and work. I think everybody is more interested in magazines that’ll get them work. I wish that we had magazines that were just for experimentation and not worried about seeing if it could sell. It seems like most of the magazines are about marketing and selling products. Domus is good, A+U, we probably look at that the most.

Thinking about the most recent issue of Log and how its theme is Curation, how do you feel about the blog publication model and how it deals with curation? used to be really good at the beginning in a weird way, it was exciting, it felt like it could replace magazines, and I think maybe it could still. I’m not so sure it won’t replace magazines. Everybody who will give you a project to put on there, has given it to him, and now he’s probably got to search for it, it’s hard to find new, interesting projects at the speed at which he needs them. So he’s got to put a lot of crap on there, which just seems like schlocky crap.

I think we’re at a moment now where it’s a problem for students, what does everybody want to talk about? I think it’s dead now because of the economy, but there was so much construction and so many buildings that people were just excited about building again and they didn’t really talk about anything. It was just like you were popular or successful if you built, you weren’t popular or successful if say, you said something that seemed meaningful or produced something interesting. It’s more like getting it built, getting it published, go off to magazines that you can get more stuff built.

I think the discourse side of it died down, Jeff (Kipnis) does a good job to try and keep it going, but there’s a certain moment where it has to be coming from other people who are just insanely excited about something, anything. It could be sustainability, an aesthetic project, a technique or methodology, but people decide that this seems like it’s important and interesting at this moment so let’s all try and figure out how to work with it. That would be exciting, trying to bring back methods of evaluation that aren’t objective, but sensitivities.

Really the only method of evaluation we’ve had recently is, is it built or not. Is it some expensive spectacular monstrosity or not? I think we’re all in a moment where it seems like things are going towards either a new earnest moralism, how do you improve the world with technology and sustainability? I think things like this are valid but also a dead end. Or, you have to figure out how you produce new aesthetic projects that have some resonance.

I typically say architecture is like music, so we’re like bands, we put out songs and albums. It produces a social agency, it feels right for a kind of moment, then it goes away. You just have to figure out what kind of song is interesting, some songs are difficult, experimental, on histories and legacies of music, then they’re pop songs that are just about trying to make people happy.

So do you think it’s better for students to see every project ever, or do you lament the loss of curation?

Oh I’m much happier, I like that architecture is more liberal. I think we’re not even they’re yet. I think architecture in the previous times was more controlled, neat, clear. When people controlled publishing and there was a certain narrative put out to the people. Now that control has eroded, it’s still there, but it’s gone in the sense that anybody can put something out there and people can talk about it. Some people believe in the slow evolutionary model of the discipline, and then others believe in a kind of avant-garde about breaks and shocks. It’s probably neither, but we can be open to this idea that the discipline is essentially an intellectual market of sorts, or an intellectual social, political condition. Where people struggle to define what architecture is, fight over it and at certain moments certain people win and other people at other moments win. Or at least produce a constituency and audience for their work that seems to make sense but people still appreciate or like or want to see or hear more of it.

To finish up, what question are you tired of being asked in interviews?

Well we’re not interviewed that often but there are certain questions you get from those outside of the architecture community that are kind of funny, like “What kind of architecture do you do? Hospitals? Houses? Corporate buildings?” They all think we specialize in a kind of building type, like you if you do the house you couldn’t possibly do an office building. That doesn’t make any sense to them. They’re just different problems, which I think it’s funny. I don’t know if it bothers me, it’s just an awkward question. I don’t mind if it if people ask me, you just don’t really have a good answer. And, the answers that you give are usually not going to help anybody to understand it; people just say “that sounds weird.”

Michael Meredith is Associate Professor of Architecture at the
Harvard University Graduate School of Design. He is also coprincipal
of MOS in Cambridge, MA and New Haven, CT.

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