Architectural League Prize 2013
Principal Bryan Young founded the Brooklyn-based design studio Young Projects in 2010. With an emphasis on building, Young Projects draws from digital methods and traditional construction techniques to uncover “loopholes and glitches,” or unexpected moments where digital and traditional forms interact, to produce “elements of the bizarre and fictional.” As an example of his interest in the unexpected and contemporary, Young completed a master’s thesis investigating the diagrammatic spaces of Donkey Kong and Pac-Man. On the occasion of his League Prize lecture, Young sat down with the League’s Ian Veidenheimer and Alexandra Hay to talk about their practice and installation at Parsons.
Ian Veidenheimer: This year’s League Prize competition theme is “Range.” What does this mean to you and to your work?
Bryan Young: We approached the theme by focusing on six projects that are either built or being built. The design issues we’ve wrestled with in all of them relate to constructability, detailing, and representation, but in terms of an architectural language or vocabulary, the projects are quite diverse—so we presented our work as a “Range” of languages. As a relatively young architect, there’s pressure to identify a singular voice or conceptual agenda—a very clear short statement that establishes your position relative to the contemporary practice of architecture. We are generalists in the sense that there isn’t a specific aesthetic or formal agenda that groups each of the projects into one identity, and we’re happy to prevent ourselves from defining a singular voice for as long as possible. These six built projects demonstrate that we are as interested in complex geometry as we are in stripped-down, simple projects, depending on the constraints and opportunities of the project. We are unbiased and open to engaging a diversity of architectural solutions, which I think is fundamental when acknowledging that the work we do comes from clients.
Our design work still has a point of view in terms of how we approach a problem, which ultimately comes through in our thinking about materials, their physical characteristics, and how they might be arranged in a manner that begins to either complete or enhance the reading of a project on a formal level. At first glance, you see distinct partis and a range of vocabulary, but as you work through the projects, you begin to understand a common methodology. That thread begins to speak to who we are as designers.
Veidenheimer: A number of trends have come up among the other League Prize winners this year related to drawing. Lcla Office uses it to map the office’s internal dialogue while Matter thinks three-dimensionally with digital methods and then uses two-dimensional drawings to instruct how to build something. What is the role of drawing in your work?
Young: We are generally traditional architects. We maniacally diagram in plan and section to begin to compose three-dimensionally, and then that, in a very unfiltered way, goes into construction drawings. We draw to understand how a structure will perform, how it will be experienced, how various surfaces will be connected to each other, and moments in which certain geometries begin to bring together disparate parts of a project. Drawing is also a tool for zooming in and out on components to understand how the work will actually be executed. And then we use drawings to communicate a design intention to a contractor so that a project can be realized in a consistent manner.
Veidenheimer: Something that comes across in your portfolio is that you like to build, to bring things into the real. You also talk about combining digital methods with traditional and forgotten building techniques to generate form and structure and the “loopholes and glitches” you discover in this digital to physical translation. Talk about that translation and these loopholes and glitches.
Young: I use “loopholes and glitches” to refer to the accidents and opportunities that might occur when you deploy materials or construction ideas in a manner that seems contrary to how they have been designed. We want to see the aesthetic, spatial, and compositional parameters that might be established by a digital methodology, and then take those out of the computer to manipulate them in a very analog way, acknowledging a willfulness and an aesthetic bias as the designer, so that the ultimate reading might be in conflict to a more pure articulation of the elements—this is the glitch.
One example is the cladding of the roof geometry in the Playa Grande project. It’s a highly complex three-dimensional form of ruled surfaces, and it was very difficult to understand how to clad the roof in a manner that was translatable to the contractor. We decided to use battens, and through Grasshopper we set a rule for overlaying these battens to understand how we might disperse them to form a roof. We then took the process out of the computer and allowed the hand and the eye to tease out a pattern in very graphic manner. That is the loophole, the opportunity. You end up with moments of tangency and continuity in the roof’s form, but you also have moments that seem at odds with the surface topography. The process is the overlay of three things: consideration of constructability, the digital methodology, and then the analog design idea. These layer on top of each other to substantiate something that is overtly graphic in terms of the pattern that is constructed, but at the same time has a very complex relationship to the three-dimensional form that is being presented in that it aligns with it, contradicts it, and reinforces it.
Veidenheimer: In terms of the roof, how did you establish that rule for the batten spacing? Is that a structural necessity?
Young: It actually starts with the rules that dictate the roof’s geometry. There’s the influence of the existing landscape on the plan of the looping courtyard. The roof pitch undulates based on program and natural ventilation. And we’re working with somewhat limited construction techniques, so the use of scissor trusses was purely an issue of labor cost.
So before we made any rules about the battens, there were already rule sets in the roof based upon an understanding of the experience of the building and the site. When you get to the question of the roof itself, that’s when we look at what makes sense in terms of constructability. So the rule we set for the battens came from talking to the contractor, looking at past projects, and understanding what would be appropriate from an aesthetic perspective.
Veidenheimer: Do you ever break these rules with a gesture for gesture’s sake?
Young: Absolutely. I talked in very general terms about a “conscious, idiosyncratic nature” in our built projects; similarly, there are idiosyncratic, inconsistent languages within the projects themselves. For example, we wanted the Playa Grande Main House to be perceived with a multitude of architectural languages. Sometimes it reads as a mass, an object that’s been lifted off the ground that’s dictated by positive and negative cuts or subtractions. At other moments, it appears as a series of surfaces that relate to each other through peeling and unfolding. Those are gestural decisions that contribute to an experiential quality within the space. One critical aspect to this design is understanding a sense of threshold at arrival. You move under an extremely tight, massive entry, and the power of that moment is more profound with a cut instead of a peel. When it is a peel, you’re moving adjacent to a surface; when it’s a cut, you’re moving through a volume. In this case, an inconsistent moment of language contributes to what fundamentally seems to be a critical cinematic quality to approaching this building.
It’s more interesting if something you understand one way is in turn understood differently when seen from a different perspective. The West Broadway Loft project has a courtyard that reads as a void when you first enter the elevator. We emphasized the fascia of that cut so that you see it as a negative mass that could be filled with rain, snow, and air. But because that mass is positioned and intersected with a much larger opening, from the vantage point of the kitchen that begins to read as a solid, as this kind of terrarium that is completed on all sides.
Veidenheimer: I want to talk more about this idea of readability, specifically the appearance of certain elements of your projects as digitally fabricated when they were actually made with a very analog approach. Can you walk us through this approach to fabrication?
Young: That approach is well demonstrated by the Playa Grande Bungalows, which, from an aesthetic, spatial perspective, are primarily defined by a solar and wind screen that floats the masses of the building. The screen has pleats that are created by cutting a piece of lumber obliquely in plan and section on a table saw, and then making a second cut on the same angle, thereby allowing the pieces to notch together at the ends and center. It creates an accordion that drives the aesthetic for the project. The screen is analog in the sense that it could have been fabricated 75 years ago in any woodshop with a simple jig.
In that sense, it’s very similar to the plaster wall panels at the West Broadway Loft project. We designed a knife and a table that act as a jig for pulling the plaster to create the panels. This is a technique that has been used forever to make crown moldings. You have a knife profile and a table with a rail on it, and you push that knife up against the rail, and you pull the knife along the rail over the slightly wet, goopy plaster. As you continue to pull it, the profile becomes more and more defined.
We thought it would be interesting to reconsider this traditional technique, and so we are now using it to generate some complex curving surfaces. We took a rail and made it bend side to side, and we constructed a knife that has two blades that can go up and down as you move across. So instead of having a two-dimensional linear extrusion along a certain length, the knife begins to operate in all directions. We also began to play with the profile of the knife itself, so some have serrated edges that would begin to scrape and scar the surface of the plaster and others have very clean and crisp profiles. The end piece juxtaposes that sculpted, smooth plaster to something that is intentionally aggregated and scarred and much more dramatic. Each pull generates, to some degree, a unique transformation, which speaks to the analog and physical nature in which the material is conceived. But we do work digitally with Rhino and Grasshopper to prototype the knife profiles and the rails by creating a digital mockup of what we would expect to happen through this physical process.
Alexandra Hay: The Hive Lantern is somewhat different from your other projects, which are clearly buildings or built spaces. How does it fit in with your work?
Young: We were commissioned to create two lights for an extremely lush and overgrown rooftop garden in Tribeca. The idea was to create a brief moment where you could see this natural organic formation hanging from two birch trees. The three lobes and the repeating close-packed cellular pattern speak to a kind of organic process, unlike our other projects where the organic quality comes out of a process of making. The pattern deployed across its surface in this case does not successfully integrate with the form itself. Like the roof of the Playa Grande Main House, there’s a component to understanding the ways in which pattern, ornamentation, and graphic application begins to compete, disrupt or enhance the formal proposition.
Veidenhimer: On the topic of digital design, what is your interest in Donkey Kong and Pac-Man, and how does that connect with your work?
Young: I was interested in the operation of extrusion from the two-dimensional to the three-dimensional, specifically in extrusion-based diagrams that become buildings. We began to think about the overly simplified, two-dimensional diagram of the game screens of Donkey Kong and Pac-Man, and how those might translate into three-dimensional diagrams and models. Architects tend to read these familiar screens almost exclusively through the operation of extrusion. But, if you follow the performative aspect of game play—the loopholes and glitches where Donkey Kong can throw a barrel from one position and hit Mario at the bottom or where Pac-Man can pass through a ghost or a tunnel and come out the other side—you realize that the actual spatial complexity of the game is not resolved if you just extrude the game itself. Something else must be happening. There must be a void in the middle of the game board, if that barrel is going to move from the top to the bottom diagonally. In working to resolve the games three-dimensionally, that becomes one transformation among many that reconcile the rules of the game with a logic other than pure extrusion. We manipulated Donkey Kong and Pac-Man to create two alternate three-dimensional forms that express such hidden readings of depth and form in the games. These are, however, only two possible solutions among several alternatives.
As a methodology of working with a plan, understanding geometry, composition, and interconnection is critical. For example, if you look at the entry sequence to the Playa Grande Main House as performative and understand the voids you move through, peeled surfaces that you move against, and the moments you see from one position to the next, you can recognize that it is choreographed or calibrated with a very similar methodology to how we manipulated the game spaces in generating their three-dimensional form.
Young received his B.A. in Architecture from the University of California, Berkeley and his M.Arch from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He is currently an adjunct assistant professor of architecture at Parsons The New School for Design.
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.