Above: D’Oca, Theodore, and Armborst. Image courtesy of Interboro.
Tobias Armborst, Daniel D’Oca, and Georgeen Theodore founded their Brooklyn firm Interboro Partners in 2002. Armborst received his Diplom Ingenieur in Architecture from Technical University Aachen, D’Oca a BA in philosophy from Bard College, and Theodore a B.Arch from Rice University. All three attended graduate school at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Armborst and Theodore earning their M.Arch in Urban Design, and D’Oca a MA in Urban Planning. All three teach, Armborst at Vassar College, D’Oca at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and Theodore at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Since winning the Architectural League Prize for Young Architects + Designers in 2005, the firm has been “developing and implementing projects that represent an ever-expanding concept of what architecture is, of how it acts on the world, but also how it is acted upon by individuals, institutions, ideas, idealizations, and objects.”
The three recently took a short break from constructing Holding Pattern at PS1, to discuss their work and ideas with Anne Rieselbach, the League’s Program Director.
After the interview, read Interboro’s responses to the Architectural League Questionnaire.
This series emphasizes the “voice” of practitioners – how would you describe your voice?
GT: I think we have a unique voice in architectural practice. We seek to practice architecture in a way that leverages, or incorporates, the forces that operate beyond the traditional boundaries of the discipline, and in that way enrich the way that we work. So, our work taps into all sorts of dynamics, from the way that everyday people practice space, to the logic of real estate development, and so on… basically all sorts of things. We try to mine these dynamics to produce an architecture which is more all encompassing.
TA: Building on what Georgeen said, in order to have a voice, in order to speak, we first listen very carefully and we are quiet in the beginning. Before we speak, we try to hear what others have to say, namely those that are not usually heard in architecture: actors and forces that are relevant for architecture, but that are not usually part of the architectural discourse. This may range from real estate development, to the practices of people that use it and thereby transform architecture on an everyday basis. That’s something that runs through our projects that we are very interested in. To listen, and to first understand, instead of just dismissing those things as sort of the kind of clutter that is a detriment or threat to architecture.
DD: We think that good design really does always start with listening and paying very close attention. Sometimes we do end up screaming, but if we do, it did not start with screaming, it ended in screaming, or it evolved into screaming. It started with, as has been suggested, patient listening and quiet observation of something. This is one reason why our deliverables are really diverse, just to underline what Georgeen was saying. We all think that architecture can insert itself not just at the “we have a project for you give us a blueprint stage,” but at all kinds of stages of the process. If you think of design broadly, we’re interested in the built environment; we want to make a better built environment. If you start there, there are all kinds of ways that as creative spatial thinkers we could insert ourselves into the process through different kinds of means.
As an “emerging” firm, what do you see as the advantages and challenges to practice in today’s economic, professional, and intellectual climate?
GT: Building on what Dan had just mentioned about the way that we work, and that we have a very wide range of deliverables, I think that in our practice we’ve been very open in defining what the architectural product is. This has allowed us to be very opportunistic, and in turn, has allowed us to do more than just buildings. For us, this has been not only really fun and rewarding, but it has also been a good thing for our firm in the economic downturn. Our way of working is not dependent on a rise in property values or increased development. We would be happy if the economy would improve, but our work is not totally dependent on that. It is opportunistic, in a way, because there are very few architecture and planning practices that, for example, have developed strategies to deal with no growth or negative growth. We’ve worked in situations where there are shrinking cities and dead malls, and so I think it is a good balance between being opportunistic and just enjoying investigating all of these things in very different ways. The result is that we don’t always have to do the same thing, or have the same product, and this has allowed us to invent new forms of architectural production.
You have described your firm’s underlying design philosophy as expressing the idea that architecture’s ability to act is tied to its own ability to recognize those who act on it. Could you talk about how you understand architecture’s ability to act in relationship to your practice, and how you identify—either in general or on a project-by-project basis—those who act on it?
DD: I think it relates to what we were discussing in the first question. If you do define architecture broadly, or if you define what we do broadly, as being ready to manipulate the built environment and outcomes in it, this happens not just through blueprints. I think in some ways this is a very much influenced by the philosophy of Bruno Latour, whom we have always liked very much, and the idea that if we recognize that getting people excited about something or incentivizing people about something, it could be as valuable to manipulating an outcome as actually providing a “here is the plan” “here is the vision.” So, if you look at a project like “Improve Your Lot,” I think that a lot of people might ask, “What’s the proposal? It’s just analysis.” Our response is always “no,” it is part of the same process. By looking at, in this instance, identifying something that people are doing in the city [which is] buying land next to their house, re-parceling it, and building these suburban-scale properties in Detroit and then saying, “hey there’s thousands of people doing this throughout the city, let’s give it a name, let’s make a website and call it out as a practice; let’s bring these people together to conferences and help render them as a public.” Well, that’s not just analysis; that is a proposal for that project, which some people miss. For us, that gets at what we mean by that statement. In some ways that’s a very different kind of deliverable for a project. I think that it is important to understand, in this case, what is almost a branding component by giving it a name, “New Suburbanism,” by organizing conferences. These things are very important where they act on others, let’s say policy makers, to say “oh there’s a public of blotters out there; maybe we should think again about nixing this land bank and making it easier for individuals to acquire property.” That needs to happen. It’s a sense of understanding architecture as a kind of ecology where there are always things that are going to act on things that are going act on other things that are going to create what you want. There’s so many ways and places for you as a creative thinker to insert yourself into the process, and in that process there are so many individuals and institutions working on it, from the land bank authority, to the city council, to just individuals. To see it all on the same plane is, I think, in some ways what we mean by that statement.
TA: There are so many forces that control the making of architecture that are out of the control of the designer. We really try to understand those forces and to understand the role of the architect within that network of forces. Not because we want to diminish the role of architecture or to say that we are powerless. We really strongly believe in architecture and its role, but we think that it is important to figure out how architecture or design can contribute in each specific situation. We want to understand that spot that is specific to each project, that spot where we as architects can be useful. We have to understand what the forces are, and try to be sympathetic towards them, to understand their own logic instead of dismissing them. Architecture is sometimes considered an autonomous discipline, but we think that this claim of autonomy makes architecture irrelevant to the world. That is something that we feel happens specifically in a lot of schools, and with a limitation of architecture from the outside there is also a kind of limitation from the inside. People focus in on the form making, [which] has its place, but it also is dangerous to us, in that it diminishes the role of architecture, when we believe that architecture can be and do so much more. That is, I think, part of that statement as well.
GT: It’s not just about finding a role or being complementary to other instances. I think it really can be about leveraging opportunities, really being more strategic. By understanding, say, what the developer wants, or understanding what the city planner wants, or understanding what the resident wants, we can advocate for particular outcomes. By understanding those forces that act on architecture, we can advocate for the outcomes that we think are desirable, which are of course about improving the physical environment, but we always fold other things into that.
DD: Just to add to that, I think I mentioned “Improve Your Lot,” but I also want to mention the “Deploy the De-Voider!” project. It was a competition for the Van Alen Institute to find a vision for vacant land. For us, the idea of a vision that was detached from political reality or just everyday reality was not very interesting, so we wanted to make sure that we found a vision that had agents who were willing to execute it on some level. So, this project was really about finding something where there was initiative, but it needed architecture’s help. I think that all the projects in our portfolio are like that project. The dead shopping malls [project] is very much like that, about finding a constituency who existed in this place, at this time, finding a political reality, finding a reality that there was a developer who was not paying attention, who was land banking this property. The proposal could only come out of that. That’s what we mean by saying we don’t yell. If we had just started off with some principal “this is what you do with dead malls you turn them into town centers or whatever or women’s prisons,” you know whatever, its just that’s not exciting or interesting to us.
What led you to urban research and design rather than more traditional modes of architectural practice? You all have graduate degrees in Urban Design.
GT: We all studied in the urbanism and planning department of the GSD, so we have degrees in Urban Design and Planning.
And you each came to it with different backgrounds?
GT: We all have traditional degrees. I have a B.Arch from Rice University and a B.A. from Rice in Architecture and Art and Art History and Tobias has a Diplom Ingenieur, which is like the European equivalent of the professional degree but with a little engineering spin.
DD: I am by far the least pedigreed here. I have very little formal training in architecture. I have a two-year planning degree from the Harvard Design School. But before that I studied philosophy, so I came at design and urban research from the outside.
So what lead you to pursue Urban Design?
TA: In a way, it really goes back to the earlier point, the sentence about architecture, understanding how different actors act on architecture. That’s something that we are interested in. We were thinking that architecture can do more, seeing where architecture can be useful, and make a difference, as they say. That led us to the city, places where you have no chance at success unless you deal with, or open up a dialogue with, other people and other forces.
GT: We all met in graduate school at a time when planners and architects were working together in the design studio. I think we all wanted that program for very different reasons, and probably not entirely knowing what we were getting into. But I think we saw tremendous value in that environment, where we were looking at the design of the physical environment from this urbanistic perspective and we all got really excited about it. When we got out of school we thought, we really want to continue this, and so we started our firm.
TA: We were also all students or assistants of Margaret Crawford, who was teaching at the graduate school and was a great influence on all of us.
This question relates to your humility as architects – for instance, with the Blot project you don’t impose a master plan but are responding to users already acting in a certain way, so when is the moment to impose design and when is it to listen to communities or clients? Or when do you move from researcher or facilitator to an architectural “agent.”
GT: Well, we discussed “listening” earlier; listening is the first thing that we do. But I think probably the second thing we do is visualize what we hear, and we often use that as a way to start a project. Once we start visualizing these conditions, well, that is design for us. And so there is no “phase one: analysis, phase two: evaluation, phase three: design.” We absolutely consider what we do in those early phases as design.
How do you go about identifying areas for research? In response to competitions? Self-generated? In partnership with others? Has this changed as your firm has become more well-established? Many of your early projects are responses to competitions and then you created work that combines self-funded and commissioned projects, like the Dead Malls, where you received funding for additional research. It seems like a group of recent projects clients have come directly to you.
DD: We have this document in our server called Rainy Day Fund. Every once in a while when we are together, we would say “this would be the most fascinating project” and then we put it in the fund. These days we rarely get to take anything out because of how busy we are. “NORCS” started that way.
TA: It’s true, the first couple of projects we did were ideas competitions and that was just great. I mean, a lot of people are complaining about these ideas competitions—such a waste of time—but it was very good for us, it forced us to come up with strong ideas and run with them.
GT: It is just part of this itinerary that we have taken from those early days, up to where we are now having won Emerging Voices. Working on the competitions allowed us to find our voice. Those competitions weren’t about saying, “Oh, build a house.” They were really about us trying to describe a position and a way of working in these particular conditions, like the dead mall, or shrinking cities, or the vacant land in Philadelphia. So, that’s something that has been important to the forming of our practice, which has been about defining our position, basically establishing a voice.
All of your research projects involve complex, multifaceted research—historical, quantitative, typological, economic, and so forth. Yet, you manage to find ways to use a variety of compelling modes of storytelling to make your work accessible to a broadly-based constituency. How do you decide how best to distill your work to engage both those in the design profession and the general public? For example, “The Arsenal of Exclusion/Inclusion,” the piece you created for Rotterdam is displayed as a hinged book, or leporello, and your Newark project embeds very serious research in captioned cartoons.
TA: That is really the core of our design work, I think, to come to that point and work on it. For the leporello we worked with the graphic designers Thumb to generate the NAI exhibition, so it was really also a dialogue – we were more on the spatial side, they were coming from the book side, and through that dialogue that we came up with that one.
GT: But I think that it goes back to the earlier question about how we see architecture enmeshed with these other forces outside of architecture. I think that we do take the communication of ideas very seriously, yet while we take it very seriously, we also really have a lot of fun with it. I think that part of our design process is inventing new techniques that will best engage these different groups. And so we would say that a lot of the projects appropriate other forms of communication to engage particular constituencies. So, for example, with the “De-Voider” project we used this kind of flyer that looks like something that you would get in Home Depot because we were trying to engage the residents who have these vacant properties, or with the Blots project the website, or with Bayonne the newspaper for the residents. I think that that’s something that is a part of our design process and I think that we have a lot of fun in inventing these new forms to engage these different publics.
TA: It also has to do with listening, again, and the ambition to speak to people that are not part of architectural discourse. What you call humility, I would say is boldness camouflaged as humility. We really think that architecture can do so much – that we can do so much – but that in order to do so we can’t reduce ourselves to an area that is only relevant for a small group of people and express ourselves in a way that very few people can understand. Instead, we have to use languages that are very everyday and that people understand and can deal with. We have to be able to speak many different languages.
DD: It is so important to us to be clear in our projects. We make this front and center in a lot of our classes. We teach the importance of clarity, being able to tell a story, being able to have an idea and describe it clearly, but also describe it strategically in a way so that you sell it. That is very very important to use clarity. I am always a stickler for that on reviews. I always have a lot of comments that are based on the presentation, and the way that the information is communicated, but it is always different.
In addition to your research-based large-scale urban design studies, during the past few years your firm has designed site-specific installations. Could you describe how the research and design process for Lent Space and your current PS1 installation is similar to, and differs from, your community-based work and research projects?
TA: I would see it very much as continuity. It is hard to really define the difference. In the case of Lent Space the project came out of an earlier research project we did on dead shopping malls, which was a proposal for a temporary urbanism that happens during a limited period of time. That exploration went directly into the design of Lent Space. We developed that project with our client, and it evolved from a very limited brief. We just threw a lot of the ideas that we had developed in our earlier research projects at Lent Space to expand the project, and so in that sense there is a direct continuity with our earlier work.
GT: There is definitely continuity between Lent Space and PS1. We have continued to explore issues related to temporary urbanisms, but also we’ve continued to build upon our research on participation, which I know that sounds a little banal, but has been an important research arc for us. I know that it might seem useful to make these stages and compartments, but I think that with a lot of our work there is definitely intermingling and continuities. There are common threads.
TA: To add one more point to that, we talked earlier about our interest in the way people use architecture and transform it beyond the control of the designer. In the case of Lent Space we also tried to design the pieces in a way that people could appropriate them and use them in new ways. They were ambiguous enough to become public, so that there is not a very clear way in which the designer tells you how to use this thing but to build in many different ways, so that people can appropriate it. So that may be a direct translation from one aspect of our research into the design, and the same is happening here with the PS1 project.
GT: The pieces that we are designing here are going to be used in a museum environment for the summer, but then come fall they are going to go out into the community and they are going to be used in whatever way people want to use them. It probably is going to be different than we anticipated, and that is something that we get excited about.
Now read Interboro’s responses to the Architectural League Questionnaire.