Interview: Lola Sheppard and Mason White


Lola Sheppard and Mason White founded Lateral Office in Toronto in 2003, as an experimental design practice that operates at the intersection of architecture, landscape, and urbanism.  They are co-authors of Pamphlet Architecture #30: Coupling.  Sheppard and White are also Directors of InfraNet Lab, a research lab on logistics infrastructures and spatial networks.  Sheppard and White both studied architecture as undergraduates, respectively at McGill University and Virginia Tech, and both received their M.Arch degrees from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.  On March 10, the morning after their lecture as part of the League’s Emerging Voices series, they sat down with Nick Anderson, the League’s Program Manager, to discuss the ways in which they are “Emerging Voices,” the value of architecture as an “agent,” and the Canadian North.

After the interview, read Lola Sheppard and Mason White’s responses to the Architectural League Questionnaire.

This series emphasizes the “voice” of practitioners – how would you describe your voice?

LS: We remain interested in the expanded scope of practice and of the discipline. It is an interest in the intersections of architecture, landscape, the urban scale, and, more recently, the role of infrastructure.  I’d say infrastructure is the link that threads these together, the increased agency of the architect, which is how we engage issues of ecology, economics, geography, and culture.  Architecture has probably always done that, but I think that agency is foregrounded in the projects we take on.

MW: Another thing we are very interested in is format.  In other words, the means in which you deliver findings. Some things might not necessarily be realized as a design project and sometimes we shrug our shoulders and realize that it must be a book or an exhibition or a blog post, and I think we are fortunate that that has become increasingly acceptable as a means of expression of design. There is really an interesting gray, in between area, as “almost building” or “almost book.” So in that sense, format is a primary choice of ours in applying a particular  “voice.”

And the other part of “Emerging Voices” – as a small, emerging firm, what do you see as the advantages and challenges to practice in today’s economic, professional, and intellectual climates?

MW: I think we maintain a hope that ideas have a value that transcends the particularities of these climates.  Recessions will come and go, but they are really healthy stock-taking moments. And architecture has had a wild ride in the public eye in the last decade or two – of doing big museums and big iconic urban projects and other hallmark megaprojects. I think this has created a moment for our generation that is much more invested in smaller-scale socially and environmentally motivated work, and sometimes even public work.  Interboro is an example and even publications like Cameron Sinclair’s [Architecture for Humanity] or John Cary’s Pro Bono Design book. There is a lot of keen interest in that kind of practice and that voice was squashed in the last decade when Walt Disney Concert Hall and Seattle Public Library and other larger iconic projects were being built.  So, this seems like an opportunity presenting itself and playing out now.

LS: I think also there is an interest in architecture having agency.  In some strands, some schools or practices, there is a sense that architecture remains limited to an internal dialogue within the discipline.  I certainly see an interest in pushing back against this in current student work. Architects are often looking for models of how architecture can have social or environmental agency. I don’t think it is always a social mission, but agency in the broadest sense, in terms of affecting change in some way or accommodating conditions that might be in flux.

Well, it was interesting in last night’s question about the political and social content in your work, as being both implicit and explicit.  Do you feel similarly about ecological questions or environmental concerns?  It seems to be a keen interest of yours but it is always just one part of a project.  For example, in the Salton Project you are not just doing remediation.

LS: I would answer the same way about ecological concerns as I would the social question – I don’t think it is ever the sole mandate.  I am wary when that becomes the overarching mandate of a project, whether it is to “do good” or “remediate” or “make better.”  Those impulses are fine, but design and all the issues attendant to architecture must continue to have a crucial role.  In a lot of our projects, the question is how to manage the many things that intersect.  It is never a single issue foregrounded, but rather an overlap of opportunities.

MW: In a way, our projects that do address environmental or ecological concerns are the equivalent of the 20th century’s engineering ambitions – how high can we build? what bridges can we make? I would not say that it should be exclusively architects looking at this, but we are curious if architects might have something to offer the urgencies of our time, moving beyond problem-solving and into opportunity-finding. So, we speculate that there are opportunities in there to leverage a role that architecture can play.  Infrastructure does that anyway and we are always trying to find a way for it to address new publics.  For example, the Bering Strait Project is offering the idea not just to address an arctic ecosystem, but in the context of it as a political seam, it had the potential for diplomatic and political programs.

LS: Another reason we are wary of the “do good” projects in the overt sense is that you stop asking questions.  You can observe a problem, and do a project that makes that problem better, but we ask what are the other opportunities or problems that might completely transform that question or reposition it as not the only question. That becomes significant to our work.

That aspect of imagining into the future – you started your lecture with Charles Jenck’s predictive chart and I was struck by your interest in Farmers Almanacs – what specifically today has led you to this constant predictive posture rather than maybe more immediate concerns?

MW: I think we are dealing with the concerns of today but maybe that isn’t urgent enough or there are other distractions.  We are interested in architecture’s “to do” list, and the things on that list that keep getting bumped lower because the discipline is doing other things that address the “now.”  So we are trying to balance projective thinking – as in Jencks’ chart – without defaulting to typical utopian ambitions.

Architecture is always predicting, whether it is trying to anticipate fire or snow loading or wind or change of use or adaptive reuse or even style.  So the predictive aspect of the work is why the Charles Jencks chart, in particular, is appealing.  It is 30 years – and, through his chart, 30 years becomes a modest prediction time for what architecture can do and what it will need to do.  It’s not the kind of futurism where we are all wearing spacesuits.  It is a near-futurism that interests us, as versus the distracting condition of “now-ness.”  It is a provocative distance to be thinking and applying design speculation toward 20, 30 years out.  That might be why some of the projects are so large in that they can accept that kind of thinking…

LS: Yes, and given the scale of the projects, whether it is engaging social or environmental issues, we try to think long-term, including how long we imagine the cycles of transformation or the evolution of a project. Those issues are also in small projects, of course, but at a smaller scale, you can control the contingency more.

You practice in Canada – though you have studied and practiced both here in the U.S. and in Canada – and I am wondering if its geography and culture have opened up new avenues of research for you?

MW: As the outsider, I’ve been in Canada since 2005. The larger geography of Canada contributes considerably to our position on architecture in an expanded role. And complementing that is the diverse urbanisms of Toronto, where we practice and teach, which is an intense urban mosaic of culture – we’ve got five Chinatowns, a Koreatown, a Japantown, a Little India, a Little Tehran.  My experience in Toronto is really a unique immersion in multiculturalism, one completely different from New York. But the observation I am going to make isn’t really present directly in Toronto.

It is that there is this really powerful association with the land and geography, which has to do with deep history back to exploration, native cultures, Henry Hudson, Canada as the Canadian Shield, and deep geology and, of course, more recently the competition for resources like oil, gas, and lumber.  Something about that creates this powerful geographic aura of place and cultural identity. The sparse person per square acreage of land and cities concentrated along the southern border of the country – there is something about that relationship to land that is very powerful and that has leaked its way into our work.  It was something we were already doing, but it has become a very fertile place for us to explore conceptions of architecture’s relationship to geography.  There are others pursuing this as well, such as David Gissen, who wrote a piece in our Pamphlet Architecture about that and Keller Easterling has written about this – we are very influenced by her writing on global political spaces and their architectures, or what she calls “spatial products” – and within a Canadian context, it seems to be relevant.

LS: It is also a reaction to a current notion in Canada, and not just among architects, of a romanticization of the landscape. For example, when one talks about architecture and landscape, it is landscape as “setting,” or the building in the landscape. I think we’ve been interested in landscape and geography as an agent, as something that is active in pushing back at architecture.

MW: And something that is complicit with architecture….

LS: Our work in the Canadian North is interested in how can this territory be seen not only as a resource, which is how development perceives it, nor as a purely romantic condition.

It is interesting to see how contentious this is.  When we propose a region like the Canadian North for further study, it is either considered urgent and fantastic or it is not to be touched.

MW: This isn’t a do nothing landscape, something is being done anyway, the question is who is in the position to make those decisions and right now it is only the government and the resources companies….

I was interested in your use of the term “Nordic Urbanism.” Could you expand on that and are lessons there applicable elsewhere?

MW: We’ve been studying this for a few years now and we recently went up to Iqaluit, the capital city of Nunavut, a new territory created in 1999.  It still has the identity of a military camp, which is how it began in the 1940s, and the Inuit were out in the land, living off the land – “in the land,” as they say. When this camp was founded in 1942 it eventually became a destination for trade or exchange and eventually become a productive place to settle.  There is really only 60 or 70 years of history of arctic urbanism or cities in the Canadian North – before that it was always an outpost or satellite or port that you flew in to or it served as just an early warning line from the Cold War era. It is really an unknown history that has an architectural history and an unknown future.

The architecture there since the 1940s was completely imported.  The CMHC – Canada Mortgage and Housing Company – government housing initiative buildings are just shacks on stilts and then military camps and disheveled air terminals for fly in, which is the only year-round way for materials to get in or out.  It’s truly a frontier of urban living and some interesting lessons are there – for example to live with the most modest means possible – but we are also looking at it as an environment expanding. Its population is increasing; approximately 60% of the population is under the age of 25.

LS: Similar to our “Flatspace” project, which was an early project that looked at exurban retail corridors in Ohio, in the Canadian North we are looking at an environment in which the way we typically conceive of architecture or landscape has to be reconsidered.  So it is an opportunity to radically position what it means to intervene, whether it is in terms of landscape or urbanism because there are really no models. And the conditions and issues are rich and complex, which provides a remarkable opportunity.   And in terms of public space, you can’t simply import a model which found success elsewhere.

MW: In a way, the Arctic projects and the Salton Sea project, and certainly the Bering Strait project, are pursuing an idea of an architecture that is extrinsic.  In other words, an architecture that is very invested in or self-aware of its immediate or radiating scales of environment, whether the megascale of continents or the small scale of the logic of ice flows. The interest in the North is an architecture that is not just contextual, but possibly hyper-contextual.

LS: And that offer new opportunities for the architect.

Read Lola Sheppard and Mason White’s responses to the Architectural League Questionnaire here.

This interview was conducted on March 10, 2011.