Studio NMinusOne

Carol Moukheiber and Christos Marcopoulos of Studio NMinusOne

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.

Studio NMinusOne works on projects in scales from urban design and architecture to diagnostic objects and building materials. Throughout the cross-disciplinary work of Christos Marcopoulos and Carol Moukheiber one finds the “physiological engagement of the body, through physical/material and informational processes.” The Toronto office’s work includes “real” houses in Toronto and Whistler; “surreal” houses, theoretical projects exploring domestic space; and responsive prototypes such as a digital window and other collaboratively designed projects. Christos and Carol were Architectural League Emerging Voices in 2012.

GABRIEL SILBERBLATT: As an emerging firm, what do you see as the advantages and challenges to practice in today’s economic, professional, and intellectual climate?

CHRISTOS MARCOPOULOS: It’s a bit of a cliché to bring this up at this point, but the shift towards a knowledge based economy has had a lot to do with the changing role of architecture. The realization that building is but one component of a vast body of work that architectural thinking produces — and that more than anything else architecture is a mode of thinking and acting in the world – has been liberating. The techniques of architecture in this broader sense are being leveraged and deployed by various practices, generating diverse manifestations of architecture as a unique form of research and knowledge production.  Practices range from the technical to the social — from the advancement of material development, testing and deployment, to architectural activism.

CAROL MOUKHEIBER: As in many other fields too, we’re seeing entrepreneurial strategies spill over into architecture, where practices are becoming ever more resourceful in generating, and initiating projects with socio-political relevance and technical innovation.

GS: This series emphasizes the voice of practitioners – how would you describe your voice?

CAROL: Questions of self-reflection are very difficult.

CHRISTOS: Our voice has been formed by many voices over the course of our education and career and continues to hopefully evolve! For us there is a clear line in architecture, that is let’s say pre and post Koolhaas. As recent graduates, reading S,M,L,XL was nothing short of an epiphany: it cast aside the introverted theoretical jargon, obscure process and navel gazing dominant at the time. It proposed, and recovered a practice that is highly pragmatic, with the rigor of clear methodologies and diagrams that palpably informed the performance of architecture. There was also an infectious level of joy and entertainment in the way architecture was presented. This combination of extreme clarity and pragmatism infected with wit resonated with us.

If we’re not surprised, then we’re somewhat skeptical, or let’s just say that one of the criteria for us is to be surprised by the results

CAROL: We have been engaged in very diverse projects in both content and scale. It’s hard to pin ourselves down to a single voice, but one of the central questions we ask ourselves during the course of every project is “what’s the story?” and the story has to be entertaining on some level. It has to be fun. We think of architecture as the creation of new physical and social situations. We try to narrate a story around a project. Architecture is a powerful tool of control, scary really — dictating everything from the color of the paint to the quality of the air we breathe, the furniture we sit on and the view we take in. The characters we choose to place in the domestic scenes are selected carefully and bring with them their own histories into the projects. They are a mise-en-scène.

In that sense, we aim to place architecture in the service of pleasure in a hedonistic sense – of physical and intellectual pleasure.

GS: As a firm, you describe one of your broadest ambitions as the fostering of “wellness and delight.”  I’d like to know what is delightful to you.

CAROL: Pleasure or delight as a sensation is transformative, liberating. Architecture can facilitate, enhance or deny these sensations. In our early work—namely the domestic series, starting with the PoolHouse, the Gallery House, and the Mirror House–we wanted to play up the programmatic effects with delirious juxtapositions that altered the inhabitant’s perception of themselves and others, providing new experiences in turn. We drew on art—specifically on the work of artists like James Turrell, Doug Wheeler, and Robert Irwin. These artists’ manipulation of both substantial/formal and non-substantial/thermodynamic aspects of architectural materials towards psychological and physiological sensations were important inspirations for us. We are interested in how these constructions or immersive spaces, through their artificiality generate sensations and feelings that are non-domestic, i.e. related to the outside, to the wild, the unregulated. Those are delightful sensations.

CHRISTOS: With questions of sustainability and health dominating the architectural and urban landscape, we found that our focus on the subject’s perception began to align itself with more dynamic, responsive and perhaps ecological ways of thinking about building technologies and systems.

GS: So much of your work engages issues of habitation and domesticity, what does it mean to be “at home” to you? 

CHRISTOS: The domestic scale has allowed us to experiment more readily with issues of the body and atmosphere or ambiance. It creates a concentrated zone of a diverse set of relationships between inside and outside, public and private, etc… The conceptual or surreal houses have allowed us to test certain hypotheses, extreme scenarios of inhabitation that we have yet to absorb in the built houses.

One of our favorite thinkers on the home is J.G Ballard. In one of his interviews he said something like if he had to sum up the future in one word it would be “home” – for him the home will be the place where through technology, one can deeply explore various forms of traditionally accepted pscychopathologies.  At home one is able to fully explore and exploit one’s obsessions and desires.

CAROL: Home, in the way we engage it through its own program and infrastructure, is a moment of total release from those same conventions that constitute the routines of life – a de-domestication.

GS: Much of your research also involves responsive systems, which put technological or environmental forces in charge of generating form.  Have you ever been very surprised by the results?

CHRISTOS: Well if we’re not surprised, then we’re somewhat skeptical, or let’s just say that one of the criteria for us is to be surprised by the results.

CAROL: Our methodology has varied from project to project in terms of the role technology plays in generating a project. In the case of the Sky House for example, we started out with this very rough collage that aimed to illustrate one of the oldest ambitions of architecture, namely to simulate the feeling of floating in space, overcoming gravity. We then had to reverse engineer it in a way to figure out what infrastructure, what set-up would create this situation. The process of form-finding was placed in reverse.

IM BLANKY, image courtesy of NMinusOne
Click the image to see a project slideshow

At other times we really do start with “What if?” questions based on a larger paradigm. In the case of responsive systems, the idea that every object can be embedded with computation, begs the question of what will it do? How will that object perform? The IM BLANKY project followed such logic. What happens when you add a small computer to a blanket? What would the blanket do and how? Once we determined that it had to remain soft, and began to research soft sensors, we were enchanted by the organic forms that these sensors took on. One of the more exciting revelations as we were working out the circuits was that the very logic of electric flows, when followed towards efficient patterns of current/energy flows and connections, yielded a highly decorative pattern of stems, flowers and petals that we were of course exploiting.

The idea that one could harness the logic of these ancient patterns and motifs based originally on patterns found in nature towards an enhanced performance through the logic of natural systems was very exciting.

All images courtesy of Studio NMinusOne. Interview conducted on March 9, 2012. 


Full lecture podcast | Recorded: March 9, 2012 | Running time: 47:35