Raw Material

Posted in Vol 13 No 1 by bsaab on February 19, 2010

The New York design firm LOT-EK caught Boston’s attention with its design for the temporary Puma City on Fan Pier, using shipping containers. When you mine the industrial landscape, the possibilities are endless.

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Jeff Stein: When people are immersed in a new culture, they seem to react in one of two ways. Sometimes they bring their former lives, customs, and attitudes with them and try to impose them upon the new environment. But sometimes they revel in the new, taking advantage of their previous experience to see things in a fresh way, to see the opportunities. You and your partner Giuseppe Lignano fall into the second group. You came to the US from Italy, where you both studied architecture at the University of Naples in the 1980s. How would you describe your academic experience before coming here?

Ada Tolla: We were immersed in postmodernism, but it was an informed postmodernism. The postmodern movement in Italy was very different than in other parts of the world, especially in America, in the sense that it was never playful. It was really serious about the past. Being raised in Naples, we were heavily surrounded by history. In the end, we left the past and traveled to the present — we came to America. We discovered that there actually was a present, and one could do something in the present.

Studying in a place like Italy, you really learn about the history of architecture and come to appreciate the layering of history. You become very respectful. Coming to the US was like opening a door into another time. It’s not that we didn’t know it — this was before the Web, but of course there was television. But our understanding of America was very filtered — it was never a direct experience. So looking at a completely different reality was very empowering. And the experience of looking at it with fresh eyes was very important.

Puma City

Jeff Stein: What you’ve been able to do is discover some things that are invisible to those of us who haven’t had the really visceral historic experience that you have had. You make them visible.

Ada Tolla: The artist Ellen Wexler put it in slightly different terms. She said that because we are blind to the content of what these things represent, we are able to see them in a more abstract way.

Jeff Stein: My office, on the sixth floor of the Boston Architectural College, looks out over mostly four-story 19th-century brick buildings in Boston’s Back Bay. From that perspective, the main feature of these historic buildings is all the machines that are attached to them to make them useful and livable — elevator penthouses, air-conditioning units, cooling towers, fire escapes. We try to overlook that stuff — by pretending it’s not there, it isn’t there. You bring it back into our consciousness.

Ada Tolla: Designers tend to think those machines and devices disrupt and destroy what they think of as architecture: the main volume. Instead, from the beginning, we felt a positive energy in the way in which this country just does things: In order to provide the comfort, the safety, the efficiency, the things that we need as human beings living in this kind of environment, you just go ahead and do it. You add air conditioning. You put a fire escape in front of building façades. You run an elevated highway through a city right in front of buildings. You make these really powerful gestures and interact in a very interesting way with what we, more conventionally, consider as architecture. Giuseppe and I immediately sensed those gestures as something very positive, not negative, and something that had a lot of potential, exactly because it is uncontrolled and not “designed.”

As we were trying to understand our interest in that phenomenon, we talked about the idea of artificial nature, the idea that there is an aspect of architecture that is a layer within our built environment that develops on its own, that is not controlled by anybody, that just grows. It’s similar to the way nature behaves. Stuff pops up and appears — tanks, air conditioning, billboards — and all these other layers that belong to our civilization just grow and infest and interact with architecture as we traditionally think of it. In reality, they are a huge part of our visual culture and our urban culture.

Jeff Stein: I want to ask about the name of your firm, LOT-EK [pronounced “low tech”]. In the William Gibson short story, “Johnny Mnemonic,” Johnny visits the Lo Teks, an urban tribe living in the ruins of the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Bridge. Here’s a quotation from the book: As Johnny is “…led up into refuge in their future primitive aerie of repurposed industrial detritus, the copious graffiti on the weathered domes below actually fades until only a single name appears: LO TEK in dripping black capitals. ‘Who’s Lotek?’ he asks. ‘Not us, boss,’ they say.”

This is interesting to me for two reasons. One is for the science fiction reference in the name of your firm, a post-apocalyptic science fiction at that. The other is because your work does in fact take an attitude toward technology: it re-purposes some actual high-technology objects — welded metal boxes, the basis of world trade — by just stacking them up. Doing so makes us confront our attitudes about what, a generation ago, we imagined to be high-tech stuff in architectural culture.

Ada Tolla: The surprising thing is that we hadn’t even read Gibson. The name emerged at the end of the ’80s, when the word “high-tech” had become ever-present in our discourse and culture. But our focus wasn’t ever just on the low-tech; it was really on both Low and Tech and the way those two things interacted. Our interest is in the man-made and in the byproducts of our civilization and our own present. It’s a way to engage with what we are right now as a culture in a positive critical way, not just in terms of the negative environmental consequences of the Industrial Revolution.

Most of the raw materials that we end up using are already highly processed when they come to us; even natural materials — wood, for instance — comes to us as four-by-eights, two-by-fours. By the time you get it, it’s already a man-made product. Ada Tolla

Jeff Stein: Your firm is well known for your reuse of industrial products. It’s not the same as recycling. You’re not moralistic; instead, you take a celebratory attitude. Recycling has to do with converting waste into reusable materials or returning a material to a previous stage in a cyclic process, but that’s not exactly what happens when you reuse things.

Ada Tolla: For us, the most important aspect of reuse is the creative one. In that sense, we both belong and don’t belong in the category of what is called sustainable practice. Recycling is not our first mission.

Jeff Stein: It’s just an unintended consequence?

Ada Tolla: Exactly. From the very beginning, our main interest, as young architects practicing within an extremely urban environment, was the question, What are our raw materials? Most of the raw materials that we end up using are already highly processed when they come to us; even natural materials — wood, for instance — comes to us as four-by-eights, two-by-fours. By the time you get it, it’s already a man-made product.

So the question became, Can we draw these raw materials out of what is already around us? Our first two larger-scale projects used trucks; we’re in the meat-packing district in New York, so we’re surrounded by these trucks that deliver meat and that’s what we see out our windows. In a way, it overlaps with some of the logic of sustainable practice, where everything is about “local.” New Jersey’s been a great source for us. Thank God that we’ve got industrial New Jersey, otherwise we would be out of business!

We immediately became interested in the chemical reaction that is generated when you bring together a program — which is a great thing about architecture, because you have this given purpose that you have to deal with and that offers a good amount of resistance — and an object. There’s a clash, and then you have to see what gives and what doesn’t. It’s an amazing process because what happens is less about form-making, less about starting from a blank sheet and drawing a beautiful picture, and more about establishing a dialogue and seeing how unexpected solutions emerge.

Jeff Stein: One aspect of your work that distinguishes you from some sustainable practices is that you immediately see the architectural potential of these objects.

Ada Tolla: That simple, even banal, object on the street has interesting architectural potential the moment it contains a space, or as soon as it can be seen as modular or stackable or transformable. When we import these objects into other environments, they bring all their previous connotations, but they also become something else within the project. And these objects are ubiquitous in man-made America. Along with being this culture of people who pollute the planet, we are also an incredible culture of makers. We are very productive and there’s a lot of ingenuity in that production.

Puma City

Jeff Stein: You and Giuseppe are certainly part of the culture of makers. Your output since forming a firm almost 20 years ago is amazing, not just in terms of buildings that we can visit, but also in the number of temporary installations in galleries, public places, museums — places where the public can have a whole-body experience of your work.

Ada Tolla: When we started, we were very focused on becoming a “real” architecture practice, although we started in a very unusual way, by making things. Parenthetically, I must tell you that in architecture school, we never built one physical model, ever.

Jeff Stein: So you must have been longing to do this sort of thing.

Ada Tolla: Yes. Giuseppe always said that, from childhood on, he was somebody who would undo things to understand how they were put together. I, on the other hand, was brought up as a girl; I don’t think I ever even held a screwdriver. But the idea of actually trying to make things allowed us to engage with what we were doing. The first projects have a lot of detail because they were made with our own hands. Then there came a moment when we realized that we didn’t have the expertise anymore, and that, in order to learn, we had to start working with other people.

This unconventional start was more typical of an artist trajectory than an architect trajectory. We never worked for an architecture office here in the States. We already had the idea of LOT-EK. We knew what we wanted to do. So we made our money at night doing other things, and in the daytime we were here in our office experimenting with the idea of making things. We started to get some interesting commissions — a lot of work came from the art world in the beginning; it was much more responsive to us than the architecture world. The architecture world didn’t really know our place. We weren’t really an architecture office, you know? We were saying that we were, but we weren’t. But we loved the fact that the span of our projects was very broad and of a very different scale, and the temporality allowed us to play with things that we were interested in, that couldn’t necessarily be played with within the confines of conventional building design.

Jeff Stein: There’s a sense that your work isn’t pretty, but that there is a beauty to it.

Ada Tolla: It’s interesting that you bring up the issue of beauty, because that’s something that has come up a lot.

Jeff Stein: I’m sure, because you use found objects that we not only tend to overlook in the landscape, but also actually try to overlook, because as they’re used in their first life, they aren’t understood to be beautiful. But when you pluck them out of their context, all of a sudden we can see some of that beauty.

Ada Tolla: We truly love the objects that we work with. We love how fantastic they are, how well they were conceived. We are not just reusing the object, but also reusing all the human intelligence that went into developing them.

Jeff Stein: The artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky once said to me, “You’re an architect, maybe you can tell me — all children learn to make buildings with building blocks. So, what happened? Why is it that we don’t do this as adults? Why don’t we build buildings with building blocks?” In one sense, you actually do build buildings with building blocks — how else to describe your work with shipping containers? Architecture is about transformation, and that’s what you do: you transform found objects.

That simple, even banal, object on the street has interesting architectural potential the moment it contains a space, or as soon as it can be seen as modular or stackable or transformable. Ada Tolla

Ada Tolla: Seeing a container depot for the first time was a mystical experience. And it was completely accidental. It was in the early ’90s, when we used to say, OK, let’s drive around New Jersey to see what we can use. It was a Sunday, so no one was working, and we stumbled across this shipping container depot. Beautiful winter day, blue sky. We still have the photos, not digital at that time. I remember at one point I actually said, “I haven’t been so excited about being in a built environment in a long time.”

When we talk about shipping containers now, we show those pictures to communicate the experience. Because there in the depot, you can see the avenue, the piazza, the little street, the façade — all the components of the urban built environment as we think of it. And we felt that potential immediately. This is not just a block, it’s something that can take on a different scale.

Jeff Stein: There’s also the potential in their sheer quantity. There are several million containers sitting around in ports all over the world. Does anyone come to you with commissions for shipping container reuse?

Ada Tolla: Yes. We started with this excitement about the box and what it can do. We first applied the concept to a competition for the Gorée Memorial Museum in Dakar, where we used hundreds of containers. That was the first shipping container project, and it demonstrated the potential of these boxes at a large architectural scale, beyond the beauty of the object itself. From that moment on, we embraced a huge learning curve, understanding the container, how it works, how it’s made, how it operates, how you can transform it. We experimented with it, and we’re still experimenting with it. We recently did two designs for five-story residential buildings for a project with a master plan by MVRDV; we are rotating the stack of containers and cutting it on a slant and creating a completely different kind of configuration from what we’ve done in the past. People see now that we have an expertise with shipping containers, and they do come to us, as Puma did.

Jeff Stein: Thousands of us in Boston experienced Puma City when the Volvo Ocean Race was here last summer. It was fabulous: the overall form of Puma City exactly mirrored the new Institute of Contemporary Art on another pier just across the water.

Ada Tolla: It looked like a little kid right next to its mama.

Puma City

Jeff Stein: Exactly. And several million dollars cheaper, too. But what was most fascinating was to see how you were able to make real spaces, both indoor and outdoor, by shifting the stacking of the containers a little bit and of course cutting between them. You use boxes, but the space that you create isn’t just about the box. It’s more complex. And more memorable and more fun. I wonder if the sense of movement that these things embody — the fact they’ve been places — affects your work in some way.

Ada Tolla: We do think about the idea of mobility — on two levels. There is the idea of mobile architecture, portable architecture. But even more intriguing is the idea of global culture: How can a project address our global culture in a positive way? So here are these boxes that people had been complaining about because they are accumulating because of the imbalance of trade. They are part of our global network. But with some creative effort, you see them in a completely different way.

Jeff Stein: And yet they keep their identity. You seem to know when to stop, how to keep your architecture from getting too fussy, so we can still recognize the found object. Where do you take this next?

Ada Tolla: I don’t know. We’ve done a lot of projects with containers; we’re very proud of that and will continue to work with them. But we are also continuing the exploration with other objects. Airplanes are something we’ve been fascinated with forever; like containers, there are growing numbers of decommissioned aircraft. We have done some recent projects that have allowed us to learn how an airplane is made, what you can do with it, and how you can transform it. You have to know which ones make sense to reuse and which ones don’t, because of transportation or cost.

Jeff Stein: I would think that there is another level of difficulty in working with airplanes — unlike containers, these things are shaped for a particular airflow. There’s a directionality to them.

Ada Tolla: But we always think that the limitations are also the potential, right?

Jeff Stein: Yes, that’s right. There’s no creativity without tight parameters.

Ada Tolla: The limitations of the airplane take you in a completely different direction — one that has great spatial and volumetric qualities, but is not formally driven. You don’t start by thinking you want to do this space as a curve. You end up with a different spatial experience because you merged these two fuselages or these five fuselages. And that is ultimately what intrigues us: the idea that all of a sudden we find ourselves interacting with different kinds of places and spaces that are surprising and strange, but exciting. The limitations are what push you and then, suddenly, you are inventing a new kind of space.

Puma City photos by Jeff Stein.

One Response

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  1. Letters « ArchitectureBoston said, on November 30, 2010 at 9:44 am

    […] Stein captures the essence of Ada Tolla and Giuseppe Lignano’s creativity ["Raw Material," Spring 2010]. I believe that their firm, LOT-EK, conjures up a special magic precisely […]

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