Interview: Lisa Iwamoto

April 13, 2011

Lisa Iwamoto of IwamotoScott Architecture talks about the challenges and opportunities presented by practice at the ‘bleeding edge’ of architectural production.

David Neustein: Your experimentations with partner Craig Scott using paperwood seem superficially to recall the Eameses’ fascination with plywood. How would you compare the relationship of each material to the technological possibilities and manufacturing culture of the day?
Lisa Iwamoto: I haven’t thought about that comparison before, but it’s a nice (and flattering) one to be sure. I suppose there is a very direct similarity in that paperwood is a contemporary engineered wood material similar to what plywood was early mid-century. The Eameses were groundbreaking though in that their experimentation was quite novel at the time. It was an era of newly mass-produced products that could be leveraged architecturally for design, but also with a social and democratic agenda. How could inexpensive materials be used to bring design to a wider populace? Today, there are many architects conducting experiments with materials, of which we are but one, that don’t have a similar purpose of wide distribution. In some ways it’s quite the opposite, as each project is highly individualised, perhaps never to be replicated again. That shouldn’t diminish the innovation for the projects however. We’re quite excited by the re-purposing that we did with paperwood (a paper-like product usually used for office materials and supplies), and we’ve been enjoying pushing the material to unexpected uses, such as for lightweight structure, as well as examining its geometrical possibilities.

DN In a take on Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism, Craig Scott has said of your practice’s work, “the material is the medium”. Could you speak to this idea?
LI Did he say that? Interesting! So, I guess that implies that the material is the message as well? I’d say that concepts are the medium more than material itself, but we certainly see materials as a conceptual device. In other words, our conceptual strategies – the ideas that bind each project and our work as a whole together – are often dependent on material findings. These can be both hypothetical in terms of bleeding edge material performance, and of course physical material behaviours and aesthetics.

DN What new developments in materials interest you the most?
LI Any and all. We like thinking about possibilities for traditional building materials, learning about new, engineered products and manufacturing techniques, speculating on bleeding edge material technologies, and fantasising about materials that are probably ridiculous for architecture. Craig was just showing me this metal called Gallium that melts at around 85 degrees. That means that it can melt in your hand, or when it gets hot outside, or is near a heater. Basically, not something you necessarily want your buildings made out of, yet could we do something with that? A latent heating and cooling wall/puddle? Who knows, it’s certainly fun to think about.

DN Digital fabrication employs leading-edge technology to take form from concept to manufactured reality. I would imagine that the process is deemed to be at its most efficient when the human hand is excluded. How do we then compensate for the lost pleasure of making by hand?
LI From our experience, the hand becomes even more important. It’s sort of like saying now that we have computers that enable us to inhabit projects virtually, do we need gravity? The answer, of course, is of course. Digital fabrication enables us to have increasing control over the work through to physical assembly. With that comes the responsibility of understanding the fabrication process as well as the material, which means that there is a lot of work to do prototyping, understanding material properties and the way something comes together physically. For Voussoir Cloud for example, there was an intensive process of making mock-ups, understanding the relevance of the wood grain for the curved module definition, stress test, pullout resistance of connections, and many other things. What was difficult was getting what we knew could happen physically – a little bit of flex and deformation, natural reciprocities of geometries in plan and section around curved seams, etc. – into the computer.

DN Could you tell me a little about the meaning of ‘Protocell’, the title of an upcoming edition of AD featuring your work?
LI Protocells for architectural applications were new to me as well. Basically, there’s some interesting research going on at the Bartlett and elsewhere that is looking at how chemical compositions can act like biological material. In other words, the material is not alive but can respond in a life-like way. For us, we looked at structural aggregations. How could materials go where they needed to based on internal surface stresses? We made a stab at it, though it would require a lot more testing and designing to become realistic. Nonetheless, it’s a totally provocative topic, and we’re as interested as anyone to see where it leads.

DN Your first freestanding built work, the PS House, seems quite conventional when compared to your speculative projects. Your next, the Kauai House, is more obviously exuberant and contemporary. What do these houses tell us about the ambitions of your practice?
LI All of our projects are in some ways conventional in that they respond to conventional constraints like materials, site, context, structure, program, etc. In the spectrum of conventionality for our work though, you’re right in that PS House is at the end. We tend not to turn down any opportunities to build. We feel that there is room for good design in almost any project, and in most cases innovation, no matter how small. For PS House, which was really a study in massing for an unusual site, the long, narrow entranceway through the front Edwardian building provided the place for us to do something a little different with perspective, using the same (and sometimes leftover) materials from the house. The question you’re asking though, which is what does this say about our practice, is that I think our practice is malleable. We want to build, and build up our experience, collaborations, and knowledge through whatever projects come our way. It’s always a balancing act, but I think the more experimental aspects of our practice and the more conventional ones will increasingly meld together.

DN What can we expect from the Obscura Digital headquarters in San Francisco, and indeed your ongoing collaboration with Obscura Digital? [Obscura Digital is a technology company focused on experiential marketing – Ed.]
LI Obscura Digital is a simply amazing company. We renovated a 36,000-square-foot warehouse for their new headquarters. This is also our new office space. It was important to keep the warehouse quality of the building, because that’s the environment they were used to and supported the kinds of creative activities going on there. Basically, that goal combined with the miniscule budget defines the project character, which largely uses and re-purposes what was there. It’s sort of man-cave meets open office. We did connect some of the spaces with floor cutouts, and add offices, a conference room, and a new connective stair. The project is ongoing, and may continue slowly for a while, but we’ve moved in now. What’s most exciting is our new collaboration, some of which we’ve tested with schematic designs, others that are cropping up now. It’s not easy to gauge where this will lead, but we’re both optimistic. It’s especially great for us to be working with the kind of clients they have on new, experimental projects that incorporate interactive and immersive media with architecture.

DN I understand that IwamotoScott’s vision is of a future in which digital technology recedes through its pervasiveness. Yet the future commonly portrayed by architects is translucent, immaterial, fluid and placeless. When we compare IwamotoScott to practices that favour these sorts of images, is there a difference of ideology, as well as representation?
LI The practices you’re talking about – those formally and atmospherically devoted to computational form derivation and visualisation – are quite exciting for us to look at. I do think there are differences in our approach in that we are always tied to some kind of material reality. However, I’m fascinated by the way these architects look to the future and push the discipline forward. This work is not beholden to the constraints of budgets, clients, etc., and therefore can speculate more freely. While there is always some innovation in any good architecture, it’s an important part of the discipline to think radically.

DN The clustered, cascading or crystalline forms of projects such as Voussoir Cloud, Gwangju Restbox and Pixel Trees suggest an architecture that fluidly adapts to changing contextual conditions. Despite projects like your In-Out Curtain, the reality is that at present most functional architecture is static and fixed. Is the formal language of such projects therefore rhetorical? A freeze-frame glimpse into the future?
LI In general, it’s fair to say that the dynamic modulated patterns we try to achieve are not moveable. However, we hope that the non-fixed aspects of the projects will always be the user and their contexts. We rely on perception to continually change the work. In some cases, such as Lenticular Origami, it is quite literal; in others it is simply using space and movement, as architects have for centuries.

David Neustein is the Sydney editor of Architectural Review Australia and a director of the AIA National Conference, Natural Artifice, which runs in Melbourne from 14-16 April.

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