Architectural League Prize 2013
The work of Ann Arbor- and Boston-based Matter Design combines Brandon Clifford’s “dedication to design” and Wes McGee’s “proficiency in fabrication,” placing the studio at the confluence of several contrasts: drawing versus making, digital versus physical. Described by its principals as an “interdisciplinary academic research studio dedicated to re-imagining the role of the architect in the digital era,” Matter Design explores such issues as volume over surface and the usage of scale experiments to adapt the tenets of masonry construction to contemporary methods of construction. On the occasion of their League Prize lecture, Clifford and McGee sat down with the League’s Ian Veidenheimer and Alexandra Hay to talk about their practice and installation at Parsons.
Alexandra Hay: This year’s League Prize competition theme is “Range.” What does this mean to you and to your work?
Brandon Clifford: Range describes many aspects of our work. There’s the interdisciplinarity: Wes studied engineering and industrial design; I studied architectural design. Wes is an expert in making with a respect for design, and I’m a designer with a respect for making and fabrication. Because we make each project ourselves, the projects also move along a range from the theoretical through drawing to making. Everything we do has a historical reference that could be from the 14th century on through today. We also do everything from jewelry design up to large-scale installation projects.
Ian Veidenheimer: Walk us through your League Prize exhibition installation. How does it fit with your range?
Wes McGee: Instead of doing a one-off experimental research project, we decided to curate the various product scales at which we’ve worked. Many of the models were part of the design process of previous installations. There’s the model of Periscope: Foam Tower as well as full-scale smaller items.
Veidenheimer: The opening sentence from your portfolio states: “Matter Design revolts against the idea that the role of the architect should be relegated to producing representations of architectural intent, while the contractor maintains control of the means and methods of making. This is a revolt against standard practice of the architect, but is also situated in a field of digital design that bounds in the fantasies of rendering and gravity-less designs.” What do you hope to achieve in this revolt?
Clifford: Our revolt is part of a larger revolution in the way that architects engage with methods of making. Architects typically draw something and send it off to be made without reciprocity in the process. We are trying to regain methods of making that have been lost since the industrial era when AIA contracts stipulated that the architect was no longer in charge of these methods.
McGee: I also see it not so much about putting tools back in designers’ hands but about getting designers interested in making again. The separation of drawing and making is an old construct—describing architecture only through drawing goes back to Alberti—and a revolt against that drives our approach.
Veidenheimer: If you were interested in new scales of production and installation—building a big building for example—what are the implications of this approach on that process?
Clifford: The two of us certainly can’t scale up and build a soccer stadium. There would be many more collaborators and in principal we don’t have an issue with working with contractors. But we’ve deciphered a method of drawing through our work that has a reciprocal relationship with making, and that making is where our real passion lies. I don’t know what the next step is on that larger scale. If we start sending drawings to people, we approach the model that we’re revolting against. I really do like how we work, where we break scale between larger installations and create a piece of furniture.
Veidenheimer: What do you get out of that break?
McGee: Different exigencies occur on different scales, and techniques that we use on smaller scale projects often end up informing other projects down the road. This smaller scale is always a chance to get our hands dirty and build something. I’ve always thought of myself as a craftsman. In that way it is reflective of our process.
Veidenheimer: Is the word “matter” in the name of your firm a challenge of sorts to develop an idea and realize that into matter?
Clifford: Yes, I think that’s the essence of what “matter” means for us. We just want to make things. We’re not interested in drawing, but we do have to spend time drawing things to make them. As an example, Wes looked back at a sukkah we designed for a competition here in New York that we never built. His first response was, “we still need to build that.”
McGee: Understanding these methods and techniques also allows us to work in an intelligent and informed way with professionals who do this at an even higher level. There are so many good designs that have been compromised because of lack of dialogue between fabricator and designer, which is especially important in our collaborations.
Veidenheimer: Skylar Tibbets of SJET, who is also part of the show, is very interested in materials that can be formed or programmed and a lot of his work centers on inventing new tools. Given your interest in production, how much do you work toward creating new fabrication and production techniques?
We revolt against the idea that the role of the architect should be relegated to producing representations of architectural intent.
McGee: It’s definitely an emphasis of my work in particular. I wouldn’t say that they’re new techniques, but I do spend time looking at advanced manufacturing methods that are commonplace in the aerospace and automotive industries. There’s an interesting difference between Skylar’s work and ours because we’ve always been interested in “dumb” materials—wood, glass, and steel—whereas he’s looking at new “smart” materials like advanced composites. I look at those from an architectural perspective and see that composites are non-recyclable and very high in embodied energy. Working with them is completely different. I don’t discount them and I think in the future there will be advances that will make buildings made of composite material perform better. But it’s more interesting for me to look at a material like sheet metal and try to find a more efficient way to form it.
In terms of processes, I definitely spend a good amount of time working on new ways to communicate with our tools. The lab I run at the University of Michigan is focused on industrial robotics. We have five full-scale robots that are the same ones used 40 years ago, but the tools we’re using to program them have evolved dramatically.
Veidenheimer: How does your partnership work, especially with one of you focused on drawing and the other on fabrication?
McGee: It’s a process of revision. At the conceptual level, we may not even have a drawing. We may just be talking about the idea and seeing it in our minds’ eyes, knowing that even though we aren’t seeing the same thing we’re both seeing something good. We work together, but often remotely.
Hay: You mention Philibert de l’Orme as someone very important to your approach—who is he and what do you draw from his work?
Clifford: I first became familiar with de l’Orme at Princeton through a group situated around geometric disciplines that also dealt with stereotomy. At one point later on, Wes and I looked around and it seemed like everyone was doing laser-cut riveted surface projects and no one was doing volumetric work in digital manufacturing. We wanted to invest in learning how to re-translate this information into contemporary methods. The surface projects that exist today are pushing forward their own agendas, but there’s a severe vacuum around volume, and we were interested in filling that gap. We started working on a competition, which ended up being Periscope: Foam Tower. While we were working on the project, de l’Orme started popping up, so I spent a considerable amount of time researching who he was.
I feel closer to de l’Orme than I do any other architect since the 14th century because he was someone who spanned the gap between drawing and making. He started as a mason and then developed a technique of drawing that he could hand to other people who could then very precisely carve blocks of stone in unique shapes that would aggregate into a wonderful piece of architecture. They were two-dimensional drawings that a mason could wrap around blocks of stone to make the cuts. The precision of those flimsy artifacts is directly connected to the way that digital fabrication works today, where often every single piece is unique and each has to be aggregated in a specific order to make the desired final form.
McGee: Understanding the production process also feeds back into our drawing. There are limitations that you don’t see when you’re working with a conceptual idea. That’s the big revolution for us working digitally: the very direct connection between the digital model and the actual production—that bidirectional communication—with no shop drawings in between.
Clifford: There are really two modes of representation: there’s communication representation and reality representation. For example, you can draw a rectangle and make a note that says “length = width.” What that means is that the drawing is of a square, not a rectangle. As long as that note exists, an architect is covered from any liability issue. If the contractor builds the rectangle without paying attention to the note, they have to pay to fix it.
That’s illustrative of the severe relaxation of geometry in architecture, in that drawing today often communicates intentions, not the reality of the geometric form. But when Wes and I talk about drawing, we mean to represent actual modeling. If you were to follow the geometry in the drawing incorrectly, the structure would not work. If you model something and you hand it to someone that’s going to CNC mill it, they are going to make what you draw, so you better draw it right.
Veidenheimer: You cite stonework and Renaissance masonry as conceptual and technical inspirations. What is your approach to understanding history and incorporating it into your built design?
Clifford: In our book Volume: Bringing Surface into Question, which we created through the SOM Travel Fellowship, we surveyed how people work with stone, and that’s been a resource as a compilation of methods. It includes techniques that may have been extremely trivial to the Inca, like their stonework that appears mortar-less but actually has mortar in the back, that is still applicable today. We built our Le Voûte de LeFevre project before researching that. We had the voussoirs aligning precisely, but we ended up having to chamfer away the back half to get the fronts to align just as the Inca did. None of this is new. If we had known this before, it would have transformed the way we did the project. We also saw that people have always rendered stone to look like something other than it is. We often represent things as other materials, so it’s in some part validation that there’s something inherent in us to do so. You carve stone to look like fabric or you pull a representation of a physical body from a block of granite.
Hay: The unusual and surprising ways in which you use materials enrich your references to those historical precedents—how do allusion and illusion interact in your projects?
Clifford: To use our own term, we like rhetorical inversions. Le Voûte de LeFevre is a good example. It’s as if the surface and fabric are being stretched in one direction, especially the first time the vault is calculated that way, and then it’s recalculated to change the aperture to make sure that it can serve as a compression-only vault. This is a very old method of making: any gothic cathedral vault is compression-only. Their spires are not decorative; they actually redirect thrust down into the columns, so if you take that spire off, the cathedral will fall down. The architecture requires mass and weight. With Periscope: Foam Tower, we had this moment when our structural engineer told us that our problem was not holding something up but rather holding something down. All of a sudden it turned from a tent into a tied-down blimp. You also look at it up close and think that it’s a masonry project, but it’s custom foam bricks stacked very much in the way you stack a wall. These rhetorical inversions are playful acts that hopefully surprise people and pull them into the project.
Veidenheimer: How do the temporary and the permanent interact in your work?
Clifford: We really straddle different time scales. The majority of architecture today is based on a 30-year time frame because everything you can purchase has a 30-year warranty. We have bridges that were built for a 50-year life span that are 80 years old and still in use. If you approached it from a longer time scale, you would build for a longer period and you would go straight into volume. The irony for us is that we often talk about these projects that last for eternity but almost everything we do is based on a time frame of six months or even one week.
Veidenheimer: How much of that is just a factor of being a young firm and the opportunities that are available to you versus a conceptual interest in the temporary?
Clifford: There’s an assumption in the question that permanence is better. You can accomplish a lot of things when you stretch your scale of time in the other direction as well. What does it mean to build a house that would only last a week? All of a sudden your presumptions operate drastically differently. Our Temporal Tendency project asked a similar question with a six-month mortgage house. Because how we train architects today is based on this 30-year time scale, if you break that scale you have to think of new methods and materials and, all of a sudden, because of those changes, you think of new geometry as well. You create a new architecture. We would also like to do a project with a one thousand-year life span, but of course that’s going to take some time.
Clifford received a B.S. in Architecture from the Georgia Institute of Technology and a M.Arch from Princeton University and teaches at MIT. McGee received a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and a M.I.D. from the Georgia Institute of Technology and is currently the director of the FABLab at the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.
Each year the Architectural League and the Young Architects + Designers Committee organize a portfolio competition. Six winners are then invited to present their work in a variety of public fora, including lectures, an exhibition, a catalogue published by Princeton Architectural Press, and here on the League’s website. For information about more of the 2013 League Prize winners, click here.