Conversation: Jerome W Haferd and K Brandt Knapp

An interview with Jerome W. Haferd and K. Brandt Knapp, the winning designers of Folly 2012, a competition co-organized by The Architectural League and Socrates Sculpture Park for a new residency and commission for emerging architects and designers to produce and exhibit a full-scale project at Socrates. The residency was established by Socrates, in partnership with the League, to explore the intersections between architecture and sculpture and the increasing overlaps in references, materials, and fabrication techniques between the two disciplines. Interview by Gregory Wessner, the League’s Special Projects Director.

GREGORY WESSNER: Let’s start with you describing what is it that you’re doing in this project and how you see it as a folly?

JEROME HAFERD: Our project is called “Curtain.” Very simply it has three main components that come together to create a volume. Those three components are the frame, made of 4″ x 4″ wood beams; steel joints that connect the frame; and a curtain of white plastic chain that is then draped over the frame.

BRANDT KNAPP: We were really excited about the project prompt [for a folly]. That’s what got us going. We both have an interest in, let’s say, program-less architecture; architecture that has little or no function or purpose. I would say the components are for the simplicity of the project. It is complex in its form, yet simple in its components. We started with a plan that is a very regular orthogonal 25-square grid made up of 5′ squares, so it’s 25 feet by 25 feet. Within that larger grid, we inserted a 9-square grid and a 4 square grid. Then in designing it, we set some rules that kept being denied or transformed by the interaction of these three grids.

JH: In our research of follies, there are always words like “fantastical” or “fanciful” or “extravagant.” So we really wanted something very clear and simple. The challenge was how could we create a system that is supplying you with an extravagant amount of references and positions and different forms that come out of a very basic set of rules. In addition to our three grids, there were only a few more rules that we wanted to follow, one of which was creating an entry with a very specific form. Beyond that, it became much more loose in how we played with a few key constraints. We started at the front and then let it evolve as we moved back.

GW: Let me ask you about these rules: what are they, why do you have them, what do they do?

BK: Some of them are extremely simple. As Jerome was saying, we wanted a formal entryway. So if we start with the grid and we know that one side is the main entryway and we know we want to make a fanciful entry, then we have five squares within that side of the grid to work with. Take the center three and there it is. A lot of it had to do with the siting within the Park. Then we think about the back of the project versus the front.

JH: There’s a progression from the front to the back and displacements along the way, so that you depart from what is a really strong front elevation through a series of weak de-centerings to a small quotation of the front entryway at the back. It is a reminder for us of this progression across and around and through. We start with this almost proscenium entry at the front and it evolves into just a weak little square at the back. You could say the rules are self-imposed but in a sense they’re given to us by what a folly is supposed to do: it’s inherent in a folly to play with rules and to deny expectation.

BK: That’s the idea of a folly: it’s “thought play.” We were interested in the idea of transformation and the chain link was the final step to really let this project be extremely transformative. Allowing those curtains to be pushed aside and off the structure. That for us was the last layer of play.

JH: The chain is great because it clicked with us and brought us in dialogue with certain artists, which is what we really wanted to bring into the project.

BK: We’re not extremely interested in material, but the fact that it’s way plastic, glossy chain link …

GW: You’re very excited about that.

JH: Yeah. [Laughter]

GW: What artists were you looking at that you wanted to be in dialogue with?

JH: The chain came out of our internal discussions about making something that is sort of a field and an envelope emerging out of that field, but as soon as we started to think about beads or chain, that’s when we began to look at artists who had done this before. Felix Gonzalez Torres was one of the first we looked at. Jesús Rafael Soto is another artist that we looked at, because we wanted to kind of explore references that we were perhaps vaguely aware of but wanted to delve deeper into.

BK: In our proposal we had a word-play about an idea of a “curtain wall.” It was interesting for us because we work day jobs where we’re working on curtain wall schedules and it’s all very standard and architectural, like a kit-of-parts, and something to order and then this fabricator is going to make it. When we’re sitting here, when we’re designing our folly, we’re thinking, “Okay, what is the enclosure of this thing? Like how do we make partitions or walls or how does this volume really show itself?” There’s of course something beautiful about seeing just a wood frame, but it needs to be a folly. We wanted to find out how exactly to make this volume without using plastic sheets that would just keep out the water. And we knew that if it were a harder material there would be no way we would be in budget. We thought this thing also needs to transform. It’s in a park; it needs air to go through it. We wanted it to move and be bendable. How does this happen?

JH: I think the juxtaposition to a curtain wall is great. On a certain level the structural system and the envelope of our folly is very ephemeral, but you could argue that it’s laden with just as many constraints, just as many expectations and variables as a super-heavy skyscraper curtain wall. It’s just a different set of them.

BK: And conceptually it does make walls. It makes thresholds and it makes barriers between areas and between the interior and the exterior. I know that when it comes to this idea of a curtain and contemporary architecture, we are certainly not the first to propose a curtain. But for us I think people hear the idea of curtain wall and our project is called “Curtain,” so it makes a lot of sense.

GW: In addition to artists, what references were you looking at specifically in terms of follies?

JH: I looked at playgrounds. [Laughter]

GW: So you were picking up on the playful aspect of follies. Follies can have lots of different meanings and purposes. Eccentric. Surreal. Whimsical. Even political. Were there other aspects that you were thinking of?

BK: This is where Jerome and I are great partners because we look at different kinds of things. Two things struck me, thinking historically and architecturally. I thought of British landscapes and I thought of grottos. The fact that this is a public park in Queens and follies were typically on very rich people’s property, built in the garden or landscape for a nice view or to possibly have picnics in or something, excited me on a social level. It also excited me on a visual level and to think about the idea of what is beautiful and what is the sublime. That this could be in a landscape with New York City skyscrapers in the background–what those views are and what is beautiful today or what is sublime? The idea of the sublime mixed with a grotto made a lot of sense. The texture of a grotto and the texture of the chain link is something that was really exciting to us when we finally had that moment of, “Ah, chain link; that’s easy and it comes in rolls.”

JH: Our background is very formal and our architectural education has been filled with a kind of heavy background in the disciplinarity of architecture. Certain references come to our mind simply based on our education and our professional experience. In addition to these things we were also looking at abstract art. It’s interesting to juxtapose minimalist sculpture with certain folly precedents that come from British landscape, which tend to be much more expressive and very Rococo and Baroque. There is the issue of site specificity that Brandt was looking at with grottoes and precedents of that type. Whereas working under someone like Bernard Tschumi, my initial thinking was on a serial or prototypical aspect to the discourse of the Folly and its embedded references. There is an aspect of the system or game which acts as a “generic”. So we were looking at several different things.

BK: And bottom line, it asks you to play. I mean, that’s what this typology asks you to do. We were excited to play. [Laughter]

GW: When you say you looked at the work of artists—when architects say that they look at an artist’s work—what are they looking at in that artist’s work for reference and inspiration? What are they taking from it and how does it get translated into architecture?

JH: That’s a big question. One thing is an interest in how the artist brings something that is an abstract idea into the real world, how they grapple with a form or an idea that is sometimes essentially abstract and then realize that in space and that’s meant to be perceived in the world.

GW: Doesn’t an architect also do that?

JH: Yeah, an architect does that.

GW: So is there a difference in the way an artist does it versus an architect?

JH: I could go on so many different trajectories with this. I, for one, began looking at sculpture even more in this project than I had in the past, but I think that it’s almost easier in a way for architects to engage painting because it deals more with the two-dimensional surface. One way I conceive of architects is that we make drawings and we work with the two-dimensional surface. We work with a frame, we work with composition and formal relationships. I like to see how painters develop their grammar and their language in their work. How they play different games over a series of works, be it shapes—I love to look at how painters work with different shapes; be it larger ideas of the frame and the canvas; or even color or not color. One thing that I began to think about when looking at sculpture versus painting when we were thinking about this project was how it really does matter to someone’s perception as they walk around a piece of sculpture. As much as we like to have the whole picture in one representation, a sculptor is dealing with, among many other things, that problem a lot more intentionally.

BK: I think that I’m interested in anything or anyone that poses questions that get me thinking on a level that art is supposed to, but I think that the difference between many artists and many architects is so blurred. It’s really just that our disciplines set us apart. I think especially today with new kinds of fabrication technology and the fact that many artists have assistants and don’t create the work themselves, by their own hand, they are working very much like an architect. I think that that line between art and architecture really has a lot to do with disciplinarity.

GW: So when you say that a lot of artists are working like architects, what is that way of working?

JH: They outsource their production. [Laughter]

GW: So you’re saying there’s a change in the way we might think of an artist working, some possibly romantic idea of the artist making a work by his or her own hand, alone in the studio. Now they’re more like an architect, who is orchestrating others to make the work.

BK: Yes! Orchestrating, managing the production of the project. That is what architecture is. This reminds me of the question you are asked freshman year in college when you take architecture 101: What is architecture? Is architecture somehow related to art? Does it have an art sensibility? To be able to say this is a work of architecture or a work of art, what are those criteria? To each their own; everybody has their definitions of what art is and we have been formed in a certain way.

GW: So ultimately do you think there is there any difference between art and architecture?

BK: There really isn’t.

JH: There is no difference in the work. The difference is the history and what you’re looking at and what has come before you. And that’s created not only by our education, our discipline, but it’s also external. What are the expectations of a discipline by the public and the history put on those expectations? While we’re on site at Socrates, people ask us, are you making a house? Are you making a shed?

BK: Are you making a gazebo? [Laughter]

GW: Do you think that visitors are going to look at your piece differently than the other projects in the Park, which are made by artists? And would that bother you one way or another?

BK: This is the best question, because we’ve been out there every day. A lot of times visitors don’t want to even say “house” or “gazebo,” until they’re told that you’re an architect, which is interesting. They may think it looks like a house, but they don’t want to put it into that category because of the Park’s context.

JH: They don’t necessarily have the words or any other vocabulary to ask what they want of it. That’s just the closest thing that they can get to, house or gazebo.

BK: Power dynamics are always crazy, right? You get people who are like, “wow, architects!” But they you also get people who are like, “wow, artists!” And architecture is just some gazebo or some house, because people always think in typology.

JH: But they don’t seem to question that it’s in a sculpture park; they seem cool with that. [Laughter]

GW: Your project obviously has a lot to do with grids; you talked about that already. What is the fascination by architects with grids?

BK: I think artists are interested in grids as well, as Rosalind Krauss would point out. I think that grids are important to try and understand something. There’s something about using grid paper when you’re in sixth grade that everybody understands. It helps to organize, analyze and can be a frame of reference. We’re both interested in grids, as many other architects and artists are. I work with grids everyday in quite a rigorous way working for Richard Meier. Both of us have studied under people who have intensely worked with the grid, such as Peter Eisenman. We heard all the time there are three different types of grids; 25-square grids, 9-square grids and 4-square grids. It has to be one of those three grids. Well, our project is all three of them.

JH: I have a funny anecdote, which I think also gets at why we use grids. When we had just the holes dug on site, which is very much based on the grid, Mark di Suvero, who’s obviously very involved with Socrates and very interested in all the work done there, came by and he said, “Oh, so you guys are using a grid? You’re still haunted by Descartes.” [Laughter] It was a little bit of a dig and I said, “Just wait until this thing grows into the trees and transforms.”

BK: I think now he’s scared. [Laughter]

JH: Because he comes by and looks at it now and it’s amazing how much the grid is present but also invisible, now that the project is coming out of the ground.

GW: The grid is lost, in a sense.

JH + BK: Yes!

GW: Now I want to ask you some more broad questions about architecture. As young architects who are just starting out, how do you feel about the practice of architecture right now?

BK: Within the last four years there has been all this talk about, “Oh, now that the economy has gone down, we’re going to have paper architects again and produce these Zaha Hadid’s and we are all going back into our caves to study.” I think that all of us in this world right now, no matter where you are, cannot hide in a cave. We are on the internet, we are connected, we are expressing ideas. I think that architecture in so many ways, in terms of the profession, is melding in some form or another with academia. Architecture will continue to pick up new ideas and will continue to resurface historical ideas, which is what we’re interested in. We’re interested in being in the here and now, being on the internet, being on the phone, being at the club, being at all of these places and being alive, but at the same time having a root, having a core. I think architecture as long as it has that core—which obviously is its disciplinarity—as long as it has something to fall back on, it’ll continue to grow and continue to foster change. Architecture seems to grow into anything and everything. Hopefully it’ll just continue to be relevant.

JH: I’m optimistic about architecture right now. There’s been a lot of frivolity and surface and image and it seems that the next step would be a little bit of interest in meaning again, from the public and from architecture in general, but still retain this kind of postmodern humor. But I think people are interested again in intent and meaning and history.

BK: Rather than, how can you just fabricate that or make a cool rendering.

GW: Were the 2000s, when there was so much building going on and so many starchitects making spectacle buildings, a good period for architecture? Did that inspire you while you were in school?

JH: Only because buildings were actually being built. [Laughter]

BK: I think that it was both. You could definitely see a generation gap. Architects that were younger than the starchitect generation who were successful were much more interested in certain types of think tanks or labs and so on. Even though they might not have been making the money or having the publicity that starchitects were having, they seemed to be provoking ideas and being successful and productive and moving forward in their careers. I think that the think tanks weren’t really seen by the general public the way starchitects were, but to us, they were just as important and they were emerging at the same time, while we were in school. So it just made us realize, “Oh, there are so many different trajectories you can have in architecture, what you can be interested in.”

JH: For me it was really interesting because during school I worked in China. I decided, “I’m going to go to a contemporary place where architecture is at the forefront.” See CCTV under construction and see these things that really are kind of other to what we see when we look out of the window here in New York City. That’s why I said it was interesting to me that these buildings were being built. There’s no way to not be excited about that because it pushed architecture so far in terms of actually producing things. It pushed our productive capacity light years ahead in terms of collaborating with other disciplines, getting stuff realized within a budget that allowed it to be realized. You learn, “Oh, you can do this cheaper than we did it before.” I think that it was really important and the aftereffects of that era of high budgeted experimentation are trickling down to a more vernacular expression of forms and ideas that needed that to happen.

BK: We’re always excited that there are clients out there that want to support these high budget experimentations. We are really so grateful for those clients. It’s great that somebody wanted to put his/her money and invest in really furthering our discipline. If those works get built, as Jerome said, then we’re able to study them and look at them on an even deeper level.

JH: Brandt and I are really interested in how some of these things that we assume required a digital process actually start to get incorporated into much more baseline analog ideas about form and people get used to seeing different things that may or may not have anything to do with digital processes.

BK: But going back to our folly, it was doable because of some of this same software. But even though it’s a crazy triangulated surface, we’re building it out of standard four by fours.

JH: Four by fours and bolts.

GW: Would this have been doable 12 years ago?

BK: No, not without a computer program. We are excited that some of the things that are so easy to design in the computer but difficult by hand are/will be in the physical world. The chain-link is “projected” at a 6” spacing from above and the material allows the catenary arch from the project to be realized. You needed a computer.

GW: Would you have even been able to have the idea?

JH: That’s the better question and I think, no. I think Brandt and I could sketch this form but it would have been a different thing. But it’s so much a part of our generation’s thinking; it’s not even about being digital or not, it’s just now in the vocabulary of what we think about.

All images of Curtain, a project by Jerome W Haferd and K Brandt Knapp, courtesy of the architects; all rights reserved. Interview conducted on June 20, 2012.