Florian Idenburg and Jing Liu of Brooklyn-based studio SO-IL chat with Ana Miljački on a wide range of topics, such as discerning a client’s political intentions, the power of an architectural brand, and the possibility for architecture to transcend its relationship with an institutional client.
Florian Idenburg and Jing Liu founded their New York City-based architectural firm SO-IL in 2008. The practice, with team members speaking a dozen languages, describes itself as “both locally-rooted and nationless.” Describing its design approach, the firm writes that “In a digitized world that increasingly draws one inward, our architecture is outward-looking, engendering meaningful dialogue with what is materially and psychologically outside of ourselves.” SO-IL has worked in Korea, China, Portugal, Mexico, Italy, the Netherlands, France, California, and New York. Its most recently completed projects include the Amant gallery and studio residence campus and a multi-family residential condominium, both in Brooklyn. In early June 2022, Williams College announced that SO-IL has been chosen as architects of a new building for the Williams College Museum of Art on the college’s campus in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
About I Would Prefer Not To
Conceived and produced by MIT’s Critical Broadcasting Lab and presented with The Architectural League, I Would Prefer Not To1Herman Melville, “Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street,” The Piazza Tales (1856). tackles a usually unexamined subject: the refusal of an architectural commission. Why do architects make the decision to forfeit the possibility of work? At what point is a commission not worth it? When in one’s career is it necessary to make such a decision? Whether concealed out of politeness or deliberately shielded from public scrutiny, architects’ refusals usually go unrecorded by history, making them difficult to analyze or learn from. In this series of recorded interviews, I Would Prefer Not To aims to shed light on the complex matrix of agents, stakeholders, and circumstances implicated in every piece of architecture.
Transcript lightly processed and provided for reference only. May not accurately capture all aspects of the conversation.
Ana Miljački: (0:21) Hello, thank you for tuning in. I’m Ana Miljački, professor of architecture at MIT and director of the Critical Broadcasting Lab. And on behalf of The Architectural League of New York and the Critical Broadcasting Lab, I welcome you to our architecture podcast series titled I Would Prefer Not To.
I Would Prefer Not To is an oral history project conducted through audio interviews on the topic of perhaps the most important kind of refusal in architects’ toolboxes: refusal of the architectural commission. By definition, this issue stays hidden from public scrutiny, and that’s also hidden from history. Withdrawals of this kind do not leave paper trails; if at all, they exist as echoes of professional gossip, not easy to examine or learn from. And yet the lessons contained in architecture’s deliberations about and decisions not to engage seem politically relevant and urgent. Decisions to not engage a commission, or types of commissions, or commissions with certain characteristics, inevitably forfeit potential profit, placing other values above it, at least momentarily.
My guests in this episode are Florian Idenburg and Jing Liu, the two founding partners and leaders of the architectural firm SO-IL, based in New York but operating globally from it. They founded SO-IL in 2008 and have in a little bit over a decade completed work in Korea, China, Portugal, Mexico, Italy, the Netherlands, France, California, and the state of New York, and have many things on the boards. Most recently, at the time of our conversation, SO-IL completed an art gallery in Brooklyn, Amant. Their work has been collected by the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Art Institute of Chicago, and has received numerous accolades,
We may get to talk about some of the work in the rapidly expanding portfolio, but we will do that by talking about the work that is not in it, by discussing at what point is a commission not worth it, what kind of line gets drawn with the decision to forfeit the possibility of work, and how they make such decisions in the firm.
So let’s start with your most memorable decision to not engage, or to drop a commission.
Florian Idenburg: (2:46) I have a very clear one coming to mind, Ana.
Jing Liu: Go ahead.
Idenburg: It’s very complicated, and it immediately dives to the heart of the issue. Recently, I was in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, where we decided not to participate in a very complex project.
So, it will need a little bit of time. I think every time you decide to not do something, it’s based on intuition, right? You don’t know what will happen, so in some way, you have to make that decision before you actually know how something unfolds. You don’t know how things will unfold. But you have to at some point say, “You know what, I think we should not do this.”
We were invited to think about something very complex, which is a Holocaust memorial for Babyn Yar. Babyn Yar was the Holocaust-by-bullets that happened in Kyiv, in ’41, where the entire Jewish population was assassinated through rifles in an area that is currently a large park in Kyiv. And now, 80 years later, there is the desire to build a memorial, and there has been a large international competition. And that didn’t lead . . . well, it led to a winner, but it didn’t lead to a satisfactory result. Now there is a new artistic director and a new group behind it, trying to find a way to remember, you know, basically build this memorial, but not a memorial on the single site [but] actually for the entirety of the site itself, because this happened on the terrain, not just on a specific location.
It was not just one thing that made us decide not to participate. And not that we shy away from complex historic issues; actually we were very excited about the prospect of working on the memorial, and memorial, in general, is a very interesting thing. We believe in the power of architecture, in some way, to affect our experience, and something like this had happened so long ago, how can you use architecture in order to bring back, or at least, have people think about those moments in history.
The issue here was the complexity of the current, not so much the complexity of the past. It had to do with the way in which the organization was supported. It’s a very political decision, any moment, at any moment in time, when you make a Holocaust memorial; it’s probably the one that also speaks about the current. So the funding and the people involved and, say, precarity of the Ukrainian state at this moment in relation to some of its neighboring countries, and indeed, the people involved. Plus, the way we were actually treated was a reason for us to ultimately say, “We decide to not participate in this effort.”
Miljački: (6:27) Do you want to say something about how you were treated?
Idenburg: (6:31) We realized that the credibility of this organization was one of the main things—that they were interested less in our ideas and more in our name, more in us giving a certain significance to it . . . In some way, it seemed that the ideas were already pre-cooked, and it was more finding names that would execute it, rather than, you know, us giving a direction.
The other thing is purely the amount of effort it would take us and the realization that, you know, it takes time, and time is money, to an extent. We felt there was a lack of respect, basically, for the architectural ideas.
Miljački: (7:18) Would you say that there is a generalizable set of characteristics for the commissions that you decided not to take on?
Liu: (7:30) Well, I think maybe just to expand on the last point Florian was touching on, that the amount of time that it would take to really seriously look at this problem: Whether the question that’s been posed, and to come back with an architectural answer or response to that, is not reflected in the amount of resources that the commissioning party is allocating to that. Not to reduce everything to the dollar signs, but I think how much resources the commissioning party, or the client, is putting out to engage architects is a measuring stick, a yardstick, in showing what they’re looking for. I think if you are looking for someone to just draw a few lines that somehow their name can be attached to, yes, that doesn’t take so much work. That’s why the money is what it is. I think if you are looking for a team of intelligent people to really think through this problem, come up with a well-considered, thoughtful response, then you would allocate enough resources for that. So I do think that there is an often-correct indication of how much resources allocated to that project from the beginning from the commissioning party.
Miljački: (9:13) Are there others you want to bring up in as examples of the conundrum that you’re describing or the predicament you’re describing?
Idenburg: (9:22) I’m trying to think of another example that fits in the line. I think we’re now at a point in our career where there is a certain, say, value to the brand, to say like it that, where people think that by using our name, they can get some other gain, right? So it means that they get a permit or they can develop something, then they can have a certain profit. And often they already know what they want. They just need us to put our name on it, and that will allow them to do what they were already planning in the first place.
I think what Jing is saying is, that means that there’s a disrespect for the ultimate intelligence that we can bring to a project, right? So in some way, they don’t need our time, right—that’s why they don’t want to pay for it, because it doesn’t fit within their plan. That can also happen just for a commercial client.
I would say it’s not so much that we sort of as explicitly, you know, withdrew from a project, but I think we shy away from some of those projects where we feel that that’s actually what they’re after.
Miljački: (10:44) As we discussed I Would Prefer Not To, Florian told me an anecdote about working for SANAA, and specifically working on a project for Novartis.
Idenburg: (10:57) Jing and I once taught a studio at Columbia that asked to do a new state capitol in Queens, and the architecture of it should be able to represent either side of the aisle, so to say. We had students think about, is there an expression that doesn’t have an ethics, to an extent? Or is every, does every architectural attitude, is it inherently political or not?
I think that that’s a very relevant conversation, and I think, the idea of every four years the wind blows from the left or the right, and there, can we make a building, a political building, that is not sided? Meaning, what is the longevity of architecture? And what’s the longevity of ethics? And which one prevails?
Miljački: (11:55) And where did the studio come down?
Idenburg: (11:59) The most memorable was the guy who made the blue and red glasses. You can look at the drawings through blue glasses and then certain lines were highlighted, and you can look at the drawings through red glasses and see the other drawings. It was really nice. One was very monumental and then sort of symmetrical, and then if you put on the different glasses, it was all open and transparent and like a playground.
Jing Liu: (12:27) The example of the project in Kyiv may conflate two questions, because one question I’m hearing is about the ethics. I think the basic question, the ethics question, is much more complicated, especially in our time, because we have moved beyond the good and evil, the bad guy and the good guy. And I think sometimes we could be feeling slightly differently about certain issues than the people in the room, but that shouldn’t be the predominant reason to not engage in that conversation, unless it’s very clear. There are certain ethical boundaries that we can draw, but in most cases, I feel like we shouldn’t be so black and white and so judgmental very quickly about the issues.
So that’s one side of that story. I don’t think we declined that project based on ethical issues, that we might feel differently about certain things toward Holocaust and toward Europe geopolitics in that project, but that’s not the reason that we said no. I think the reason is the question: can you make architecture here or not?
Which is maybe going back to Nishizawa’s comment, right? Even if you don’t see eye to eye about certain issues with your commissioner, if they appreciate the effort of architecture and the value of architecture and the value you’re bringing to the table, then you can make architecture. And I think the predominant reason we said no there is that there was no room for architecture.
Idenburg: (14:11) We felt architecture was used speculatively to regain land for commercial speculation in the future. That was something we couldn’t verify, but the idea was that land would be taken back for this memorial eventually. This is the size of Prospect Park, pretty much. Are we part of a larger operation with a different type of intent, not so much to memorialize something, but more to actualize something?
Miljački: (14:50) It would be great to hear other things that you can think of that you have already said no to and decided to go away from, but I wanted to go to one way of framing this question a little bit differently. You describe your office as diverse in origin, as teams of collaborators who speak dozens of languages informed by global narratives and perspectives. I’m wondering how you think this maps onto a geography of work? And how you think of it in the office?
Liu: (15:30) That’s a very good question, because maybe this allows us to explain a little bit that the finance and financial scheme is not the sole reason how we judge to say yes or no to a project. We know that in certain projects, in certain geographic locations, the project will be losing money just by default and that we’re having operations in New York City, one of the most expensive places on earth. But that has never been a reason for us to not do projects in as much expanded territory and context as possible, because we believe that those experiences and the ability to engage in a wider range of conversations ultimately will inform our architecture, and the practice of architecture in our generation as a whole, much more insightfully. And if a practice can only work with very rich people, very big corporations, and only in the developed countries because their architectural language can only be applicable where executed with very well-educated, skilled craftsmen, and the factories and products, then the architectural ambition becomes very contrived.
I think it was from the beginning for us very important that we could do projects in a very economically humble context as well as more well-resourced and geographic locations, and we could work with a project that can afford 50 consultants and projects that might just be us, wild, wild, west style, trying to figure out how to implement this. I think there is definitely an attitude there in being global—not that you’re in the kind of expansionist sense, but in a more expanded sense.
Miljački: (17:43) What I was reading in your office description is a signaling that says we have cultural capacity to understand the different situations. That’s what I was reading between the lines of the description. But that’s for me, I think, also an important determinant in thinking about where you engage and why you engage it, and whether or not you think you have enough of an understanding of that context to know what your participation in it is going to bring or not bring to the project?
Idenburg: (18:22) I don’t think you ever know for sure. There’s never a moment where you are 100 percent certain what the intent is of the person that commissions you. I do think, Jing and I, having been between so many cultures allows us to see things from another point of view, so the ability to, to actually, in some way know . . .
Liu: (18:51) But also to have a pretty quick and somewhat, maybe not 100% correct, but with enough precision to understand what are the forces at play, and if I can bring to the table enough added value here in this project.
I think that’s another big reason. One is of the ethics, and the other one is can you make architecture or not, and then the third reason probably we say no to is not so much that we don’t feel supportive of the project or we don’t feel that we want to be part of it, but sometimes we also have to tell ourselves, “This is not our expertise; this is not a project that I’m the person who can bring the best value to the table.”
And I do think that architecture is a collective, collaborative practice, and sometimes it’s better to step away and let the other colleagues step into that place. And I think this is more, it’s not I prefer not to. I would prefer that we had that expertise, but sometimes you just have to be very honest to yourself, but this is not my place to, to hog the room.
Idenburg: (20:14) With that in mind, recently we have been recommending other people to do the project. We would prefer to do that, but we see that the project might prefer somebody else.
Miljački: (20:31) I have a connected or slightly differently, again, refracted question, because in much of your work, or a number of your projects, you’re experimenting with materials, and you seem to be engaging particular kinds of labor. I’m wondering to what extent that the labor and the material circumstances of a commission affect your thoughts about whether you take it on or not.
Idenburg: (21:01) I recently joined this group Design for Freedom by Grace Farms. I don’t know if you know of or heard about this, but it is basically to try to rid modern-day slavery from the building supply chain. And obviously, we would all prefer to not have slave labor make our buildings; I think nobody wants that. So that’s an easy one. But the hard one is to figure out, where is, actually, that labor deployed in such a way? And also very quickly it becomes clear that almost every single supply chain, at some point, specifically at the source, employees, labor and the like, uses labor conditions that we would say are wrong. Most bricks have been touched by children at some point. Basically, we met with a group, there was a list of the 12 materials you shouldn’t use: concrete, wood, glass, steel, aluminum—every single thing that we are touching on a daily basis.
It’s very complex, but I think what it means is that we need to spend more time in really looking into those supply chains. Because not all concrete is bad, at least from a labor point of view. Not all wood is bad, not all steel is bad. But where and how do you source? Often the cheapest . . . same with your T-shirts, same with your clothing and same with some of the other things we buy. In some ways, somebody else loses. That’s where the challenge, I think, for architects lies, it is in how do we get better at understanding what are the implications of the things we specify? So I prefer to not specify things that further deteriorate the earth and create inequality or are exploitative.
Miljački: (23:04) Thank you. Maybe a question about the kind of patrons that you do like to work with? Or about the choice of typologies and commissions that you’ve been most involved in, which now seem to be in the art world and housing? And maybe this is me too quickly assessing the portfolio from afar. But are there things in those realms that are exciting, or that work better than in others, or not?
Liu: (23:44) Well, I think for us it’s very easy to say that we prefer to work on projects that have a public component, and rather than individual homes, housing [that] can serve a large number of people, it’s open to a large number of people and enters into discourse that can be discussed and useful as a kind of point of reference for much larger conversations.
I think working with art is maybe more than just art and institutions. It’s more a kind of a cultural and public institution as a whole, so that the door can be open to everyone to come in, and by you designing it one way or the other, it has a bigger impact on a larger number of people. I think to have a public component in our project, that is very satisfying to us while we’re working on them. I think engaging in culture conversations is something that maybe, it’s just intellectually satisfying for us to work with: commissioners and work collaborators who are thinking about the same abstract concept. That also pushes us to be more imaginative or ask ourselves, are we exploring this, experimenting with this far enough? I think that’s more of a craft and the more intellectual conversation that is satisfying. That might be more selfish, but I think that definitely the public component in the housing and the cultural institution projects is, as a typology, is very important.
Miljački: (25:31) I have only two more questions for you. One is, are there ways that you make decisions about what you take on and don’t take on in the office? Are they a conversation between the partners or do they involve a larger number of people?
Idenburg: (25:52) We have a “go, no go?” sort of discussion. When there is a new opportunity we look at the schedule, we look at what can we do—just purely the practical things. Do we have time? I would say we only bring it to the table if there is an intellectual interest, meaning, so we first see, are we interested in doing a project like this? Then the question comes, can we actually make it work? So I would say often there, sometimes it’s a matter of spending some time with a client to just say, “Well, this is actually what it would take,” and then maybe it disappears.
But maybe we should also be frank: I think sometimes either me or Jing feels strongly that we should try to make it work, sometimes against all odds, but they then offer something else. But it is something which is not just Jing and me deciding, it’s actually something where we have at least two senior associates that are part of that decision making. Also because they, and more people in the firm, are benefiting from us doing well financially, because they’re tied into them as well. It is something where there are actually decisions being made, also, about their own compensation. So that’s where they are also involved.
Miljački: (27:20) Do you have something to add, Jing? You don’t have to, it’s okay. That’s all I have for you, unless you have some anecdote that comes up now as you think about this.
Idenburg: (27:37) Jing says often no to being profiled for, like, commercials.
Liu: (27:44) You know, now, particularly, there’s a lot of use . . . no, not using—that sounds really bad—but there’s a lot of performative work that’s being done at this moment. I’m all for empowerment and changing the landscape of practice, both on the gender and ethnic, racial point of view, but I think if it’s purely performative, I’m not sure if we need to add the log into the fire, so to say. So that’s the one . . .
Idenburg: (28:19) What was it? AmEx or Delta Airlines?
Liu: (28:24) Lots of strange requests.
But I do think that maybe it’s not the collective bargaining, but the collective no is an interesting concept. Because I think we, as architects, there are too few people who say no and too many people who say yes where they should have said no. And if there are too many people saying yes to conditions that are just not good for the collective good, then we’re not going to change that conversation. I think as a community, we actually need to have more collective Nos.
Miljački: (29:03) That’s an awesome place to end this recording. Thank you, Florian and Jing, for talking to me, and thank you, listeners, for listening to the I Would Prefer Not To podcast.