Little Tokyo Design Week Info Center | credit: Joshua White. Click the image to see a project slideshow.
The Emerging Voices series spotlights individuals and firms based in the United States, Canada, or Mexico with distinct design voices and the potential to influence the disciplines of architecture, landscape design, and urbanism.
Working in a variety of media, INABA “gives form to content” by “giving shape to facts through design.” The firm, led by Jeffrey Inaba with offices in Los Angeles and New York, applies architectural design at multiple scales, ranging from diagrams and books to installations and master plans. Among the firm’s recent projects are a temporary café for the 2010 Whitney Biennial and installations for the 2011 Gwangju Design Biennale, Korea; Little Tokyo Design Week, Los Angeles; and the Festival of Ideas for the New City, New York.
Jeffrey Inaba sat down to discuss his work and what it means to be an Emerging Voice with Anne Rieselbach, the League’s Program Director. Following the interview is a full video podcast of Inaba’s March 2012 lecture.
ANNE RIESELBACH: This series emphasizes the voice of practitioners: how would you describe your voice?
JEFFREY INABA: After I graduated from school I was pretty sure I was going to do research, so for the last twelve years since graduating I’ve just focused on that. It was only recently, from 2005 onward, that we started to think seriously about doing design projects—and even those design projects came out of research commissions. So I think if I do have a voice, it would be one that comes from a content and analysis background. Maybe what’s unique about the way I see architecture, and practice architecture, is that I don’t believe form should be totally content driven, or totally research driven, but rather that research can teach me to put together arguments and assemble reasoning that is based in analysis.
AR: As an emerging firm, what do you see as the advantages and challenges to practice in today’s economic, professional, and intellectual climate?
JI: More people are willing to come to emerging firms because they’re worried at the moment about paying premiums for architects. I do think that there is some room for work [for an emerging firm], especially work where the client doesn’t know exactly what to do, so they want to approach a younger firm for exploratory work to test out options and scenarios. And being a smaller, emerging firm, and being very sensitive to the economic dynamics that we’re going through, helps us provide a point of view for clients when the commission or research doesn’t assume a large budget.
AR: It feels more flexible?
JI: It feels more flexible, and I think that they think we’re more sensitive to budget issues, coming from the fact that we’ve experienced budget crises ourselves.
AR: Much of your work has focused on aggregating content, yet you place an emphasis on the practice of architecture as a matter of advancing the design of form. Could you expand on the relationship between research and form-making?
JI: In general in architecture today there’s too much research going on, and a lot of that research is very well-intentioned, but the accumulation of facts isn’t really productive. There has to be some kind of assessment, evaluation, synthesis, and formulation of that information into something. That formulation has to be formed, in the sense that there has to be editing. There has to be a process of distillation, and there has to be a decision about what would be the right means to present that information. So it’s typological—should it be a book, or should it be a magazine article, or a diagram, or an installation, or a video? The type of form that content should take is a thing that is a matter of form-making. Once one does that, it’s not like that genre of form is going to do all the work for you; it has to be manipulated, it has to be designed, it has to be refined. That, too, requires an understanding of particular genres, points and issues. For example, the way of putting together a book—and refining it and editing it and dealing with emphasis of particular points of content—is very different than doing so in a video or in a master plan. And it’s that level of design sensitivity that has to be understood as a matter of design as form.
AR: You shy away from the term “multidisciplinary” in describing your practice, but your work spans a broad spectrum of disciplines and scales—from research to editorial projects, from installations to urban plans. How would you describe this mix, and what ties it all together?
JI: Our point would be that a client would want to work with us, or someone would come to us to commission a project, because we are architects. Our approach to things is architectural. I think that when we do a book or an installation, we try to understand the full spectrum of knowledge that’s required, but we just focus on the aspects of that particular medium that are similar to architecture, applying architectural design methods to just those specific elements. So there are things that are extraneous, or beyond our expertise in the very mediums that we work with, if it’s not a building or a master plan. So in that sense, we don’t see ourselves as multidisciplinary, or that we’re expert at a number of different things. It’s only the parts where we see resonance with architecture that we really want to engage and feel capable of doing so in an effective way. And more so, whatever content, whatever things that we do produce, I would want to regard as architecture rather than as artwork, or as a book.
AR: Can you give me an example of the editorial work you do, and how an architect would do something differently than someone who isn’t an architect.
JI: That’s a good question. I don’t know if there is a clear example, but in the editing that we do—of course we want the copy to be good, and we want it to be interesting and reader-friendly—but I think that how we juxtapose images with text prioritizes the visual narrative more than a person without a general design training would. There is a quantitative logic in the way that we lay things out—the compositional proportion of the text to the images—that many graphic designers would say are unnecessarily rigorous in terms of their layout. But it’s just something that we like to do, that we find consonant with the other work that we do.
AR: So each affects the other: how you’re designing it would affect how you would edit the text?
JI: Very much so.
AR: By my count, you’ve designed at least seven kiosks and temporary exhibition-related spaces in the last few years and I think I’m missing a few there. Can you outline the process of programming and designing these places and spaces: where do the material considerations come into play? Is the incorporation of content implicit or explicit?
JI: We have done quite a few kiosks, and if you also include the tables that we’ve done, there are a lot of varied approaches. Sometimes we’ll take a logo, like for a project that we did for the Little Tokyo Design Week. We took the logo that was designed for the festival and broke it down to make different types of typography and reinvented that typography to make a new pattern that could create a texture on the outside of the structure. Like architecture, the pattern was designed so that it had one sense of legibility from far away and another reading up close. On top of that, we took those fragments and produced a new typography out of them, so that at a very close scale you can read information on it. So that was a combination of taking formal elements and reinterpreting them as content, but a very different content than the content we were given. So that’s one way in which we appropriate forms and produce new ones, and new content, in return. Other things are really technology and fabrication driven. So, for example, the kiosk we did for the New Museum for the Festival of Ideas—it was really a matter of discovering that to make something with a robot would be cheaper than doing it manually. But also discovering that the form of the object could be more sculptural. So that was really interesting to us, that we could cut costs by using a particular type of technology, and at the same time create a new degree of latitude in what the formal expression of the object could be. The whole project was about testing to what extent the project could be formally expressive within the cost constraints.
AR: The New Museum project carried dual information: there was both the screen with information accessed digitally, and there was print material. Did you determine that? Or was the program determined ahead of time?
JI: It was collectively determined. So even though the form of the kiosk is probably one of the most sculptural things we’ve done, it was based on the opportunities that were afforded by the way we economically structured the project. And that type of tight fit between the economic parameters and the fabrication opportunities is something that comes from the analytical sensibility that we have in doing research. That was the main driver for that particular project.
This idea of just how sculptural a project can be within the fabrication constraints is also what drives the project we did in Norway, which is a hanging, suspended, sculptural piece for a new concert hall. The overall forms are generated from a pure cylinder. The form is created by chunks of the surface of the cylinder cut away. Because it is generated from a pure cylinder, the fabrication cost is less, because all of the panel units have the same curvature. We were able to get a very dynamic, asymmetrical form out of it, and the rigor of that form was really generated from the attempt to make something with a high degree of economy. For us, the way to explore forms is to use, generate, and explore limits or latitudes that we that we ourselves impose on a project. I think that’s what makes us attractive in this day and age: that we are conscious from the get-go of what the particular budget constraints are, and we stay within them.
There is a lot of space in between the rational and the sculptural. That’s exciting to me.
AR: Getting back to the one of the early kiosks, wasn’t it for a cancer center or a healthcare center?
JI: It was for a hospital, in Rome. It was a really interesting piece. It was a very strategic design, since in Rome to design even a temporary structure requires an archeologist, certified by the federal government, to do an inspection of the site. The archeologist not only has a say in whether or not it can be built, but how deep the foundations can be excavated. In this blog, they said that it could only be excavated half a meter, which became one of the drivers of the project. We proceeded with the idea that, in terms of budget, there was enough money to do either a nice temporary structure or a really low-cost permanent structure—we chose the latter. And even though officially it was permitted as a temporary structure, once it was built, since it was the only waiting room in the entire hospital, which is the largest public hospital in Rome, no one was going to say, “Hey, tear that down.”
AR: This is their only waiting room?
JI: Yes, interestingly enough. The campus was based on the mid-1800s model of science: the idea was that if you had a lung-related disease, you go to one building and you just stay there. If you have a blood-related disease, you stay in the blood-disease building. The campus was entirely decentralized, and so there wasn’t a single place for all patients to wait. So our project became the waiting room for all of them. The idea that it was a low-cost, permanent structure drove the selection of materials. The structure is steel, about seven meters in diameter. It’s managed by the hospital now.
AR: What’s next for you?
JI: The type of work we are doing involves the space between something that might appear to be overly logical because it’s rational, and one that may be excessively difficult to build because it’s sculptural. I find that exciting. The types of projects that will allow us to explore that approach are what’s most important. If it’s a building, great. If it’s an interior, great. If it’s a research document for a company, great. I think it’s more about being the right fit with the given circumstances, than it is being partial to a particular genre. I wouldn’t say doing a single, freestanding building right now would be an affirmation of all the work we’ve done up to this point. Though it would definitely allow us to explore many things that we haven’t before. But it is only now that I would even think about doing a building. It’s the work we’ve done thus far that has given me the interest and the reason.
Below is a video podcast of Jeffrey Inaba’s lecture.
Recorded: March 2, 2012
Running time: 42:32