Multifaceted is right. Situ’s practice straddles all sorts of disciplinary boundaries. You may have seen their finely-crafted models in the 2009 Guggenheim exhibition Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward, or their three Solar Pavilions which popped up everywhere from Stuyvesant Cove Park to All Points West to the Scope Art Fair in Miami. The studio collaborates with artists (Alyson Shotz, Mara Haseltine, Sarah Oppenheimer, Sebastien Leon Agneessens), architects (Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Eisenman, OMA, SOM, Snøhetta, Field Operations) and institutions (Harvard’s Dept. of Earth & Planetary Sciences, Storm King, MoMA) on sculpture, prototype development, parametric modeling and manufacturing. They have worked with Princeton Geosciences Professor Adam Maloof to develop 3D fossil reconstructions for morphogenetic analysis. And they conducted spatial analysis of video footage from a 2009 protest in the West Bank village of Bil’in, with Goldsmiths College of London’s Forensic Architecture Project and the human rights organization B’Tselem, as part an investigation into the death of a demonstrator.
The reOrder installation and its use as the setting for the upcoming museum event prompted us to start a conversation with the Situ team about their approach to designing spaces for public assembly, the role of the architect in catalyzing social interaction and how the traditional and the nontraditional aspects of their practice inform and enhance one another. Read on, and if you want to hear more from Situ Studio, sign up for the League’s upcoming tour of reOrder led by Aleksey and Wes from Situ Studio and Sharon Matt Atkins, Managing Curator of Exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum, on May 12. Or come have a drink with the team at next week’s Brooklyn Artists Ball After Party. –V.S.
Urban Omnibus: How did Situ Studio start?
Situ Studio: We, the founding partners, began working together while still in architecture school at the Cooper Union and formally founded Situ Studio shortly after graduating in 2005. The dual role of design and fabrication in our practice evolved from a commitment to working in the manner we had become accustomed to at school. Cooper has a tremendous shop and has always placed a lot of importance on craft. When we began our own practice, it was important to us that we set up a space that would allow us to move fluidly between the virtual and physical. The ability to interrogate ideas through experimentation of material behavior and mockups at a range of scales has become one of the core values of the practice.
Tell us about your current installation at the Brooklyn Museum, reOrder. How did that opportunity come about?
We became acquainted with the director of the museum, Arnold Lehman, during Art Basel Miami in 2007 when he stepped into one of our Solar Pavilions. A three-year-long conversation followed, first discussing how we might install one of our pavilions in the museum and eventually concluding with a plan for a site-specific installation in the Great Hall.
Transforming the Great Hall from Situ Studio on Vimeo. Tracking time-lapse video made in the Brooklyn Museum’s Great Hall during the installation of reOrder. Camera moves 700 feet over 3 weeks, taking a photograph every 2 minutes, presenting 200 hours of installation work. Video by Situ Studio with Nathan Levine-Heaney and Jeffrey Blair.
The Brooklyn Museum is a building with a long history of architectural transformations. With reOrder, we wanted to engage the ideals of proportion and ornament that were central in McKim, Mead & White’s original design. The 16 columns that define the Great Hall are augmented in an attempt to humanize the colossal space and better serve the needs of the contemporary public institution. The ornamental bases of the columns have been rescaled to become furniture elements and a flexible system of canopies reach out from the columns to break up the space above. By creating a range of spatial conditions and places to pause, we hope visitors will interact with the architecture and with each other on a more intimate level.
What do you see as the role of the architect in activating space for public use and assembly or catalyzing social interaction?
Architecture is a visionary profession. The agency of an architect lies in his or her ability to affect patterns of motion and direct attention toward new subjects, either social or environmental. The first step in creating a place for novel interaction is by creating a place for pause. Once people are interrupted, or surprised, they can more easily turn their attention to new conversations.
How do you see the role of pavilions and temporary installations in your practice? What are your thoughts on their role in architectural practice and urban space more broadly?
Pavilions and temporary installations have figured centrally in the first five years of our practice. Working on ephemeral structures has given us opportunities to explore a range of design strategies that would have been far more difficult to propose and pursue on permanent structures — at least as a young practice. As experiments that are limited in scale but require considerable coordination, temporary installations have served as opportunities to explore new tools, techniques and design strategies.
For us, these tend to be projects that take no more than a year to complete and exist outside of the standard chain of work flow and attendant legal/bureaucratic hurdles that define so much of what we as designers engage in. Having a studio in which we can fabricate most (in some cases all) of these temporary structures allows us to abandon the “off the shelf” logic that can constrain architecture and limit designers to a predetermined array of material and hardware choices.
We developed and fabricated unique components and hardware for both the reOrder and Solar Pavilion projects, and while it was extremely exciting to see these play out in the work it was equally important to have developed a system for the production of custom parts — one that could be potentially applied to future projects. We’re now finding that these experiments inevitably find their way back into projects of greater complexity, coordination and permanence. While the temporary structures present unique opportunities for us as a young firm, we imagine these types of bracketed spatial investigations will persist in our practice as we continue to get larger commissions.
When did you first begin experimenting with interventions in public space and creating environments for public gathering? What contexts and programs have you worked with?
The Flight 587 memorial was the studio’s first design project for a public space, and the Solar Pavilions followed soon after. Although both had similar site conditions — at the end of a busy street, along the waterfront — they had very different issues to deal with in terms of the public and very different relationships to time, program and the degree of privacy afforded to visitors. A memorial has a very specific program, is meant to be resilient over time and somewhat independent to changes in the neighboring area. The pavilions are temporary structures, which are able to adapt to varying sites and programs.
The pavilions are also conceived as event spaces, public spaces that aim to draw in a lot of people to have a collective experience. The memorial is all about having a private experience within a very public space. The challenge for the memorial was to create such a space of seclusion and contemplation while not turning its back to the neighborhood. The use of a slightly elevated plinth, a grid of trees, and a perforated granite wall served to provide this kind of public sacredness appropriate to a memorial on such a busy site.
Because of the time factor, the circulation diagram naturally seemed to enter our design discussions at different points; the memorial at the beginning, the pavilions at the end. With the memorial wall we began thinking about the role of building units, or blocks, and how individual units relate to the overall structure. The pavilions picked up on this and lead to ideas about flexible assembly systems and efficient part production and material use.
The Solar Pavilions, while they were sites for large events and gatherings, were principally a series of experiments in public participation. They were designed to travel and be continuously redeployed and reconfigured — in a sense mutable structures that could adapt to a range of programs and sites. The design of the pavilions revolved around the development of a kit of parts and a flexible set of rules for assembly that could be communicated to construction teams at each venue. The formal resolution of the pavilions was determined through on-site decisions by everyone involved in the construction. Similarly, with reOrder, the structural armatures could be freely adjusted during the installation and the fabric skin was tailored in situ. The flexibility in the system — in the case of reOrder, the folds of the fabric — remains visible and becomes ornamental artifacts of this approach to design.
For those spaces that are intended for collective experience, how has the context or client influenced the projects? Have you adjusted your approach for a large cultural institution vs. a city park vs. a Miami art fair?
It has been fascinating to see the same work exist in different venues — to watch Solar Pavilion 2, for instance, travel from the rich and complex urban ecosystem of Stuyvesant Cove Park on Manhattan’s East River to the highly refined and demographically bracketed context of the Scope Art Fair in Miami. For the reOrder project we are fortunate to have been commissioned by an institution that combines the best qualities of the city and the museum. The Brooklyn Museum audience feels like a cross section of the borough and, while there is no mistaking the fact that you are in an institutional context, the diversity of constituents that have shown up to see and experience the installation has expanded our notions of what can occur within an art museum context. Broadly speaking, of course the realities of working with a small grassroots organization are very different than the experience of being commissioned by a large cultural institution, but we like to think it has not changed the nature of the work itself very much.
From the April 2010 summary of findings on the death of Bassem Ibrahim Abu Rahma, Bil’in.
Tell us about some of the non-design applications — forensic analysis, geosciences, etc. — of your fabrication work and research.
I don’t know if I’d call them “non-design.” These are projects that brush up against, and often transgress, the limits of the discipline of architecture. Something which might seem completely unrelated at one point might become the crux of a project later. It is always interesting for us to see where the fruits of interdisciplinary collaboration re-emerge in our work. Collaborations with geologists over the past few years, for example, have given rise to alternative approaches within our practice to the management of large bodies of spatial data as well as strategies for the accessing, visualizing and dissecting of topographic information.
Likewise, for work being produced as part of a report for a legal context (the forensic work you refer to), an approach to visualization and the communication of nuanced spatial ideas are developed with an entirely different set of objectives and audience than we are accustomed to within the architectural community.
We’re currently working on two large spatial visualization projects. One is in collaboration with the architect and historian Eyal Weizman, titled “Forensics Architecture.” The project consists of several case studies where we compile and render spatial information for evaluation in human rights cases being tried in international courts. The second project involves developing a process for digital modeling fossils with Adam Maloof, a geologist and professor at Princeton University’s Department of Geosciences. The project began with processing a series of sections of a 640 million year old petrified reef. The fossils appear to be sponge organisms, and may be some of the oldest animal life forms ever discovered.
All images courtesy of Situ Studio.