Fortunately, architecture has the power to solve numerous issues of the modern world and how we live in it, and there are infinite ways of doing so. However, not all architecture is effective in providing solutions while also being sensitive and thought-provoking. With a portfolio that is getting richer every year, SO–IL, an architecture practice based in New York City, has proven that buildings can actually do this and much more.
Founded in 2008 by Florian Idenburg and Jing Liu, SO–IL, which stands for Solid Objectives–Idenburg Liu, is a mid-size practice made up of a diverse group of people. They have been experiencing, through their architecture, a range of programs and scales, from temporary installations to large housing complexes and cultural centers, innovating with materials and production systems, playing with local identities, and working with international teams across the globe. Their projects are rich in expression, playful, functional, and aesthetically stunning. They surprise, spark emotions and generate unique atmospheres that will not leave any visitors indifferent.
We recently had the opportunity to talk to leading architect Florian Idenburg, to learn more about their projects, their thoughts, how they work, and what they are planning for the future.
SO-IL Architects Chosen to Design New Building for Williams College Museum of Art in Massachusetts
Can you tell us about the origins of the practice? What did you find you had in common with your partner Jing Liu and how did you decide to start the practice together?
I met Jing (Jing Liu), working in Tokyo at SANAA, where she was interning as a student. We lost touch, but three years later, we met again in New York while I was working on the construction of the New Museum, and she was at KPF Architects. We share a curiosity for what is “other”, the unknown, by being outside our own culture. I grew up in the Netherlands and understand the Dutch way of doing things very well, which can be very reductive. It’s useful sometimes in architecture to be rational and reductive, but I was drawn to the ungraspable and discoverable aspects. Jing grew up in China, attended high school in Japan, and then studied in the United States. So for her, the journey was in another direction, but we both share a curiosity and interest in things beyond our comprehension.
SO–IL’s team is made up of a very diverse group of people. How is this reflected in your work? Where do you think this becomes such a valuable asset for your architecture?
After working for somebody with such a strong signature like SANAA, and learning how to make things in Japan, I think you come up with a method or a way of producing design. It’s important to realize that there is a difference between a method and a style. If you take the architecture of Frank Gehry for instance, their buildings are very recognizable, no matter where they are or what they are used for. In that practice, style is very dominant, whereas OMA is more of a method firm.
We’ve been more interested in the idea of developing a design methodology over a style. There’s always a discussion because we work in a variety of cultures, housing different programs with diverse people and different building industries. We consider consistency vs. diversity. It’s very hard for an office to make completely different projects. There is already quite a difference and diversity in the work we do while trying to find a balance with a coherent identity.
You often say that your architecture is one that starts by looking at which ways boundaries can be pushed, stretching the typical architectural grid to reach uses one cannot imagine. Can you explain more about this idea?
The idea of elasticity and the pliability of the grid we use in many of our projects is an underlying concept, a fundamental aspect of our thinking. Design is ultimately the implementation of systems of thought: meaning that all design is the organization of “stuff” in a particular order. This is governed by rules, regulations, techniques, and a rational type of order. Design is, in that sense, about the overlaying of your order or the system’s order on a place.
How do you create a certain tolerance within that? How do you leave space unresolved? How do you make a little bit of pliability? If it’s too resolved, there’s no more space for interpretation. There’s no more space for unanticipated occupation. Architects have to work with these organizational systems, but we are trying to not hermetically seal them so that there is no more space for the other or for some other point of view. In every project, there’s a different way of doing this. Sometimes it’s more formal and occasionally programmatic by not necessarily designating a function. The function is sometimes highly overrated. Ultimately, it’s about making space and allowing people to become aware of their environment.
Sometimes this happens through the construction systems. We talk about straight lines and curves, for instance. Straight lines are the easiest to absorb by the system because they are ordered, a repetition, and can be prefabricated. A curve immediately asks people to think, scratch their heads and do something different. It often involves onsite labor and requires people to participate in resolving it. We like to bring in specific geometries because they produce another type of labor condition that often makes the construction more local. That makes it more of a place. We think a lot about who ends up making our buildings, and this is where we make a difference.
One of the interesting things that stand out in your projects is the way you treat the “in-between” spaces – home/street, interior/common space, interior/circulations, to foster the collective space. In cultural programs common spaces are easier to predict, we know these are necessary.
However, when it comes to housing and social housing, how do you approach these spaces? How do you make people engage with these shared spaces, and how can you add value, so that the conception of collective spaces can be shifted to optimize its use. Especially now that the pandemic has forced us to avoid sharing and connecting.
The problem with rigid borders and hard lines is that we stop seeing that we are part of a larger system, relationships, and society. The systematic problem is that real estate companies and private capital build walls and divisions, so we need to operate within it because otherwise, we cannot make architecture. So we’re trying to find the space within that system.
A recent project in New York, 450 Warren, is quite interesting in that sense. Obviously, the shared space there is shared by the people who buy an apartment. On the ground floor, we create a specific porosity, but it is a different type of porosity than the shared staircases and circulations. There is more than inside and outside, there are many different layers in between, and we want to make people aware of it. This differs from the idea of total transparency in modernity, representing this universal connectivity. We are interested in these layers where you have softer and multi-layered boundaries and what is navigating in there. The relational awareness of these layers is very much of our time. It’s not as simple as in and out, public and private, or yes or no. It is much more complex, and we try to translate that into an architectural experience.
Architecture can’t necessarily cure or solve all problems in the world, and that’s why we also don’t tell people how to behave in specific ways in space. What architecture can do is offer particular insights or relationships. That thinking doesn’t force anything, but it can allow insights to emerge. Las Americas in Leon is an affordable housing project that is organized through the state, and 450 Warren is market housing in New York City, which is quite expensive, but the connectivity, porosity, and sharing there are still much larger than what the building next door could offer, designed by a developer and an architect that make these borders extremely hard.
We try to operate in reality, in the conditions of the now, to highlight and focus on those intermediary spaces and see if they might provoke some insight from the people from either end. It also doesn’t mean that sometimes we need hard borders as well.
You mentioned that you often think of your buildings from a structural approach first. How is this relationship between the design team and the engineers? When does this collaboration begin?
In Japan, where there is a long history of structural engineers, I learned that from a structural engineering perspective, people like Matsuhiro Sasaki or Jun Sato are the true visionaries who place their ideas with the architects they select. The work of Ishigami, for example, relies a lot on structural innovation and capabilities. That thinking is very different from other places, where you first make a design, and then the structural engineer comes and solves the structure, and it’s a fundamentally different approach.
It is also a question about how can you innovate. Most innovation typically happens through technological innovation, meaning that in the two narratives of modernity, there is social and technological modernity. Sometimes they go hand in hand, and there is a strong relationship between technological innovation and social innovation, or technological innovation is used for social innovation in its best intent. The question at this moment is: are they still related? Sometimes the “structural heroes” come without any social developments. That’s where we have to understand the methods with which we build. It’s not just about what we build but also about who creates it because it always depends on the capabilities of the people we work with, so we try to find these partners at the projects’ early stages.
The use of traditional materials in innovative ways gives your buildings their own expressions and identities. Material experimentation and the use of technology are present in all of your works. What drives your material explorations?
Intrigue. We want to apply materials for them to evoke a specific awareness and more significant curiosity. So they should not just be smooth and disappear, and they should, in some way, make whoever is around them almost bodily aware or evoke interest. We use straightforward techniques of light and shadow to have a surface change and apply the idea of craft vs. mass-produced or very sterile materiality. The moment you see a little bit of imperfection or a little bit of a hand in it, it produces more curiosity, or you start looking at patterns. We’re trying to use materials to evoke a certain sense of awareness so that people ultimately get more connected to the place where they are. That’s the objective of the materials.
Furthermore, there are very few options to pick from brick, concrete, wood, glass, and steel, so the challenge is how to mix them up. We like to work with materials that evoke a certain weight or earthiness and combine it with something that does the opposite. At Amant, there’s something that is estranging to the user. If everything is warm, comforting, and earthy, it produces a certain thing, but we like to put the opposite in there just to disturb the peace a little bit.
What is your approach to sustainability through materiality?
This is one of the most exciting things at the moment, and we’re getting a lot more educated about it. There are many different versions of sustainability. There is a big problem which is sustainability pushed by the building industry. For instance, there is a new law in New York stating that all facades need to have higher energy performance, which means every single skyscraper in New York needs to be re-clad, and the amount of energy that is needed to produce these energy-efficient facades is much higher than the energy saved with these new facades. About 30 to 40% of the energy in the building is in the construction of the building itself and about 60 to 70% of this in the lifespan through the years. If the building is already there, it’s much better to let it live for another hundred years than to put an incredible amount of energy into making it energy efficient. This is where we are fooling ourselves a little bit, spending an astonishing amount of energy to create an energy-efficient building, and that’s the math we must always consider.
The way the building industry is organized now is in 30-year cycles. A building is supposed to stand for 30 years because if it stays longer, it’ll lose the craft, the tradition, and the contractors will go out of business. The Dutch Economy is based on the idea that every 30 years, a building gets torn down and rebuilt, and that’s the only way the economy can continue to exist because all the industries have to do with them. The moment you make a building that can stand 100 years, many people lose their business.
We have to be careful not to get pushed into things we think we must be doing that are not necessarily true. Talking about comfort is much more interesting, which is incredibly important and requires serious research and critical thinking. What is exciting now is that we’re also learning about measuring systems, but all these systems are also all in a way either pushed by certain industries. The concrete industry in Switzerland says concrete it’s the most sustainable material, and the steel industry as well, so everyone says they have their solution. We have to be careful, critical, and educate ourselves.
Do you think you have one project that has condensed everything you believe a good architectural project should have?
We tend to be very excited about the project we did for the MoMA PS1, Pole Dance because it was our “coming out.” There are a lot of aspects that we researched back then that still hold today. The grid we made for the installation was not a stable grid but a grid that was weak and falling apart. The project, therefore, brings a lot of these things together. On one hand, the idea of the system, but the system as something that is not offering stability, but one in which the users are responsible for its stability. We used a grid as a metaphor for top-down planning, but actually, it’s weak, and it needs to be activated with a participant who has agencies. The idea was that everybody in those systems could make them move and change, possibly causing them to collapse. It was exciting to see that most people tried to break it down. This was a metaphor for our world. We also created playfulness in the installation with the introduction of environmental elements and objects, three different colored balls, but there were no rules on what to do with them. The moment you have three colored elements, people automatically start inventing games. The idea was that users could activate space through pieces that evoke imagination.
Today we continue to work on temporary structures, which we think are very important. We try to make them in ways that we anticipate their future use because the problem with many of these temporary installations is that they end up in the trash when a lot of them should be recycled. However, temporary structures allow us to explore ideas we bring into the permanent work.
What are the projects, programs, or interests you would like to develop further with your architecture?
We would like to make an architecture school. Jing and I are both educators and feel we want to share these thoughts, and there’s obviously no better place than an architecture school to do so. Maybe the value of our thinking is most appreciated there. We are very fortunate that we’re able to work in the museum and the cultural sphere, but it would be fun to do an architecture school.
We are exploring a lot of material cycles. We also really enjoy the unpredictability of what gets thrown at us. Sometimes it’s a lottery when clients come in and get us to something where we wouldn’t naturally go. But then it suddenly lands on your plate, and it becomes super exciting.
For instance, we worked on a competition for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new modern and contemporary art wing. For us, it was an inspiring project intellectually. Thinking about how modernity fit within the Met and how that project could change the direction of this museum and its relationship to the park was highly satisfying. It was great to immerse ourselves in that institution with all its problems, and it was fascinating to be able to dive so deeply into these issues. We really enjoy whatever comes out of the raffles. Jing and I typically have very different perspectives on things, which helps to explore those thematics. We’re curious about almost everything.
SO-IL Architects Chosen to Design New Building for Williams College Museum of Art in Massachusetts