SO – IL, the office of Florian Idenburg and Jing Liu, uses abstraction to digest the contextual and programmatic needs of a project, producing a refined response to site and function developed from iterative studies of form and information that “clarify the essence of an idea.” Recent projects of the New York City-based office include the Kukje Art Gallery in Seoul; the 2012 Frieze Art Fair tent in New York City; the Linked Community Center in Wulpen, the Netherlands; and, “Tri-colonnade,” an installation at the 2011 Shenzhen Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale in Shenzhen, China. On the occasion of their lecture (video below), Idenburg and Liu sat down with League Program Director Anne Rieselbach and Program Associate Ian Veidenheimer to discuss their practice.

Ian Veidenheimer: The Emerging Voices lecture and prize series specifically emphasizes the voice. How do you describe your voice?

Florian Idenburg: Language is important in our office. In our lecture, Jing spoke very nicely about the language of architecture. I was educated in the Netherlands, I worked there briefly, and then I escaped to Japan before coming to the US. If you compare those three cultures of architecture, it speaks a bit to how we think of our practice today. In the Netherlands, architecture is about making things in society and coming up with solutions, sometimes rational and sometimes overrational. In Japan, the voice is something you only use to mystify things you come up with. In the US, the notion of voice is very important in the architectural field. Here, we really had to find our voice and articulate our projects. It is certainly a voice we are still testing and practicing. We have a lot of conversations about our work. For us, the voice is more of an instrument to generate projects. It’s not something we can define by saying, “This is our voice.”

Jing Liu: We think of our voice in more abstract terms. For example, yesterday we went to this artist’s loft and he was making these very big, state-of-the-art, custom made speakers.

Idenburg: These speakers create this visceral experience. It’s the most pure sound you’ve ever heard.

Liu: He was playing Muddy Waters, Michael Jackson. But it didn’t actually matter what he was playing. The experience of hearing such a rich voice or sound coming out of something that’s so physical was amazing. We started to talk about it in terms of the difference between art and architecture.

Another example is the Transhistoria project that we introduced at the lecture. We specifically did not choose text that was pre-existing for that. We commissioned local writers, from Queens, to write personal stories and then had other people, not the writers themselves, read them to an audience. In a way it’s not about the content for us, at least at this point in our careers. We’re often still searching for the content. It’s more about the act of finding a voice. That’s more interesting and productive to us at this moment.

Veidenheimer: You write about using built models to refine and clarify your issues of program and functionality. How does that translate into your more urban work?

We’re often still searching for the content. It’s more about the act of finding a voice.

Idenburg: Architecture is a physical practice and a physical act. It’s dealing with matter. To understand the way things feel and become, you have to work with your hands. We are continuously testing and trying and mocking up and modelling, to refine and examine everything we do. It’s not about making presentation models. The models are another tool, whether a very abstract small concept model or a one-to-one mock-up in our office. It’s a very physical process.

We’re not interested in material as an end, but in how material creates an experience or effect. In that sense, we’re working with this physical stuff not to obsess over the actual matter but to control the outcome.

Liu: We always find our own DNA in our architecture projects that we can trace back to these experiments.

I think that material has the most potential to start something technically new. We experiment a lot with structural engineers to see how we can make certain things proportionally different. But it’s not so much about the actual material invention. It’s about introducing a new experience through that.

Idenburg: Our hope is that people become more aware of their own movements in or around these spaces. Whether the material is at the scale of a fabric or on the scale of a building, we use it in a way that provides an experience with the form people are dealing with.

Veidenheimer: The “SO” in your firm’s name, SO – IL, stands for “solid objectives.” What do you mean by solid objectives?

Idenburg: The “objectives” are basically our ideas or concepts, and the “solid” is meant to express a desire to solidify those ideas so that we don’t just end up talking about them—so that we find a way to translate them into matter. In a way, they are “solidified objectives.” Maybe it works better in Dutch.

Liu: We thought about two approaches to office naming. Agenda-based names, like OMA, and name-based names, like Herzog and de Meuron—we kind of combined them. Architecture is personal. At the end of the day, we are the ones people are working with. Also, it’s a very subjective process. We can talk about having an objective agenda, but the way you work through it is very subjective. We didn’t want to make our name anonymous, but we also wanted some kind of agenda that we were committed to. “Solid objective” is not just urban or suburban; it’s not about this or that. It’s more of an attitude and an intention.

Idenburg: It can be whatever you want. It’s more an M.O. than a specific interest in a specific area.

Kukje Art Gallery, Seoul (South Korea), credit: Iwan Baan

Kukje Art Gallery, Seoul (South Korea), credit: Iwan Baan | click for a project slideshow.

Veidenheimer: You opened your office three weeks before Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008. As an emerging firm, what do you see as the advantages and challenges to practicing in today’s economic, as well as professional and intellectual, climate?

Idenburg: We didn’t look at the Dow Jones index when we started our office. It just had to happen at that moment. I think it was actually quite good that we didn’t start four years prior, when we could have thrown ourselves into a lot of work that then probably would have been stalled. The way we approached our new practice was very different. It was a time, of course, when we were thinking about how tightly connected architecture is to the market. That year, many architects were losing their jobs and many offices were closing. From an economical standpoint, it was very pragmatic that we start lean and take on very small projects. The vulnerability of the practice was something we had to think about quite a bit. It influenced our attitude towards work as well. It allowed us to be a little more independent, I think. We realized we could make a project out of everything or anything.

Liu: The office, as a general attitude, shares a desire to create a unique language for every project, or at least find something original in it. We try to resist doing something just for the sake of doing it. I think that came out of starting the office during the recession.

Idenburg: We actually have no idea what it means to have an office in a boom era, to just crank out buildings.

Veidenheimer: Do you think that means you get to digest more?

Liu: Sanford Kwinter wrote a beautiful comment on our first show in LA about how we release the leash but at the same time tighten up control. We always want to experiment, but in a very controlled environment and process. Maybe that desire to both let go and keep control is why we’re not so comfortable when we have too much work—then you can’t insert yourself in the right moment.

Veidenheimer: You have a clear conceptual and formal interest in abstraction as a device for identifying what you call the “essence of an idea.” But your projects are not minimalist or simple objects. What is abstraction to you and what does mean to how you work? What does it mean for architecture?

It’s very hard to be deliberately ambiguous; it takes a lot of physical testing.

Liu: Well, you can look at it from the international makeup of our office. Naturally, the language that we share will be more abstract. There’s a desire to find a universal language, something that’s not viable in only one culture or context, but that has a more visceral relationship. Material, dimension, light, and proportion are the architectural tools that help us achieve that language of abstraction. It’s just a result of the way we work.

Idenburg: Jing spoke in the lecture about deliberate ambiguity. We try to find the ambiguous because the ambiguous, in a way, is much more open to receiving multiple readings. But it’s very hard to be deliberately ambiguous; it takes a lot of physical testing.

Liu: We have many versions of that word, like Soft Icon.

Veidenheimer: Or, Solid Objective!

Idenburg: We’re always interested in the notions of explicit and implicit, or semi-suggesting something but then not going all the way to the end, and instead pulling back at certain moments. It leaves space for people to project their own ideas, to appreciate it on their own terms, or from their own viewpoint. And I think there needs to be more than just a concept which is assembled out of standard pieces. We want to find a place for some sort of new element. In this country, the tough thing is that everything is so overly regulated, specified, controlled. It’s much more legalistic and much more administrative here. In other places it’s a little bit more artistic and you just start experimenting, because the risks are less.

Liu: And everything’s so fast, compared to a lot of other places. Things happen quite fast in Asia too, but there, if you’re going to experiment with something, there’s time for that experimentation in the beginning, and maybe a little less time for CD drawings later on. But here, it’s the opposite: people don’t want to spend too much time experimenting, but they want you to spend a lot of time making sure all of the legal documents are good.

Idenburg: In Japan, if there’s a problem you just figure it out with the contractor. It’s a different type of relationship. It’s more personal. There’s more space within that relationship to find innovation because it’s trust based. Of course there are ways to innovate within the US. You just have to work a little bit harder and find ways to perform within the conditions that you are given. But I think the building industry is getting better and more innovative than it was maybe a few years ago.

Liu: Yeah, I think there is a lot of knowledge here and the consultants we work with—Front, Arup, Nordenson, and all of those people—want to innovate as well.

Idenburg: I’m curious to see how new fabrication tools are going to change to the building industry.

Antwerp Province Hall, Antwerp (Belgium), credit: SO-IL

Antwerp Province Hall, Antwerp (Belgium), credit: SO-IL

Anne Rieselbach: Do you think that integrative approach, like what happens in Asia and has been for twenty years or so, is going to shape things to a certain extent?

Idenburg: It’s interesting because we’re almost in the last round of this design-build competition for a museum at UC Davis where we are already meeting with contractor in the middle of competition. We are working very, very closely with them. The budget is completely set, so if we win we will start building pretty much the next day. It’s a very intensive approach. But the earlier you start to work with people, the more uncertainty you can get past.

Liu: The people who actually are going to build the project have known our thinking process from the beginning, which helps them take more risks. They know the budget, we know the constraints, and we’ve talked all of these things through, so at least 90% of the uncertainty is gone. Then they’re more willing to experiment with us on things when we decide mutually where we’re going to innovate.

Rieselbach: As opposed to the old days, where the architect waved the wand and went to the landscape architect or engineer to make it work. This kind of collaboration is happening more and more today. Why do you think this is occurring now?

Idenburg: I think mindsets have really changed. I think people are much more willing to share. I also think the notion that you must have all the answers is no longer valid. It’s more about solving problems by putting out a question and seeing what’s out there.

I also think the building industry has become much more quantifiable. You have to work more towards hard numbers, or fake hard numbers like LEED. But you can’t quantify beauty, right? But you can quantify energy performance or cost efficiencies. I think that’s happening much more now. But often these things are a fiction. You can’t predict if a building is really going to be green or not. So now, my one provocation that I’m trying to do through the schools is find a way to quantify beauty so that they can put the soft, experiential qualities in the mix as well.




Florian Idenburg received a M.S. in Architecture from Delft University of Technology and currently teaches at Harvard University. Jing Liu received her M.Arch from Tulane University and currently teaches at Columbia University and Parsons The New School of Design. The office is the 2010 winner of the MoMA/MoMA PS1 Young Architects Program for its project “Pole Dance.” See more of their work at so-il.org.