Most of us have forgotten that the desire for sleek, bare, planar architectural surfaces is simply the effect of an 80-year-old trend. Before modern architects liberated the plastic powers of glass and concrete, buildings were festooned and filigreed with elaborate details and laborious materials. Modernism’s rationality, though, leaves little room for enjoying architecture’s more sensual charms. While many architects of his generation are busy finding new ways to defibrillate an aging aesthetic, GREG LYNN, 44, has been patiently replacing modernism’s stylistic stranglehold with a curvy digitalism. Not necessarily 032c’s usual aesthetic territory.
In person, he’s towering. When we met in an empty banquet hall at the Hotel Bayerischer Hof in Munich during DLD ’08, Lynn spoke with an easy bantering clip. Having founded his office, Greg Lynn FORM, in 1994, Lynn also established himself as the central figure in the synthesis of computing, architecture, design, and philosophy. He employs about a dozen architects in his Venice, California office – half of which are rapid-prototyping robots – who have helped him engineer crossbreeds, things that share a gene pool with flowers, aliens, and cars. Lynn channels the digital baroque: his walls swell, his ceilings bulge, his silverware grows webs between its wavy prongs.
Already synonymous with the proliferation of blobby, biomorphic shapes in contemporary architecture, Lynn’s practice has been much more than an elaborate exercise in exotic form-making. Having trained with the notoriously theoretical New York architect Peter Eisenman in the late 1980s, we find in Lynn’s work a rare, deep commitment to realize contemporary digital architecture’s heady, theoretical underpinnings through its material incarnation. While his idiosyncratic vision makes him suspect to many of his peers, it has also made him a unique and invaluable collaborator to a roster including BMW chief designer Chris Bangle, Hollywood production designer Alex McDowell, branding guru Peter Arnell, starchitect Frank Gehry, Italian kitchenware enterprise Alessi, and the high-end Swiss furniture makers Vitra.
Already synonymous with the proliferation of blobby, biomorphic shapes in contemporary architecture, Lynn’s practice has been much more than an elaborate exercise in exotic form-making.
In 2000, Time magazine named him one of the top 100 innovators of the 21st century, and a few years later he became of Forbes’ “Ten Most Influential Living Architects,” exposing his work to a world beyond the limited circles of experimental architecture. Today, with two residence projects that push the limits of construction technologies well on their way to completion, a comprehensive monograph (with contributions by J.G. Ballard) appearing this Fall, and an installation currently on view at the MoMA, it seems that Lynn is only beginning to show us how he imagines the future will take shape.
CARSON CHAN: When did your fascination with curves come about?
GREG LYNN: This is very autobiographical, but my mother wanted to have a son that was an architect. I was always going to be an architect. When I was twelve, I could already construct perspective drawings and draw axonometric projections. In high school, someone taught drafting and in the first day of class they saw that I could do all these constructed drawings. I started picking oddly-shaped objects like threaded combs and I would try to draw them in two-point perspective. I got into drawing as a kind of sport.
I’ve always loved these strange geometries: drawing everything from very complex curvilinear shapes, meshed gears, and engines, rendering their plans and sections. Curves are basically just more advanced than straight lines. I was always interested in the next level of difficulty, so I’ve always gravitated towards curved forms. Then along came the computer.
In the summer of 1987, while I was a graduate student, I interned for Peter Eisenman and immediately started working on his entry for the University of Frankfurt Biocenter competition. His office had just bought their first computers, but they weren’t sure the computer program was going to work – so my first day of work with Peter was to draw what the computer was drawing with a pen and an adjustable triangle.
It was like that John Henry song, the American fable about this guy that had to hammer railroad ties faster than a machine that could do the same job.
There’s also a palpable sexiness to curved shapes.
I hope people connect to my work on an aesthetic level. I don’t believe in an aesthetic that participates in the standard history of modern architecture, or the dominant avant-garde languages like constructivism or Northern European modernism. I never liked it. Even when it was new, I never liked it. I was always a bigger fan of Frank Lloyd Wright or Oscar Niemeyer’s work.
Most people forget the other side of architectural modernism: the Paolo Soleris, the Rudolf Steiners, the Antti Lovags, the esoterics and eco-futurists with their organic forms.
I worked for Soleri when I was seventeen; and Frank Lloyd Wright was a real virtuoso. When I was a student, you couldn’t talk about them. No one admitted to being interested in Wright, even though he designed some of the most amazing buildings: the Robie House, the Martin House complex, the Guggenheim in New York, the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. Meanwhile everyone was talking about Mies van der Rohe. I just didn’t get it. I couldn’t connect.
I’ve always seen architects like Buckminster Fuller or Reyner Banham as latter-day Wrights. They have these practices embedded in the understanding of nature and science as a technology for making architecture.
“I like strong reactions; it’s definitely a sign that my work is not familiar.”
They were also not afraid of historic architecture. Wright was modern, but he was not afraid to get close to 19th-century architecture. Mies, on the other hand, was oppressively classical. I see Mies’s work as super stripped-down neoclassicism in a way that made Wright seem much freer. Wright’s language is organicism that verges on nostalgia for the 19th century – which is also something I like flirting around with.
This attitude towards history reminds me of your writing on evolution in your book, Animate Form (1999) – specifically, how change and development were part of the explorative process of form-making using animation software and computer programs intended for the film and aerospace industries. Design became this operation in which software was used to create 50,000 different forms, with you as the architect choosing the “best” one.
Well, I should sort this out. Five or ten years ago, I was interested in animation as a new design medium. Now, there isn’t anything I design that isn’t designed using animation software. I do everything, 100%, in animation. The project is to solve the problem between the one and the many – how to make a generic thing and 50,000 variations of a generic thing. I’m not making 50,000 to pick the best – I’m making 50,000 because I’m going to make 50,000 perfect ones. This is a project that I’m still trying to do. Whether it’s 50,000 window mullions for an exterior wall or 50,000 pieces of flatware, I still want to do each one perfectly.
What I am ashamed of – one of those things that I wished I were quiet about – was how I used to justify all the happy accidents produced by the computer– the amateur phase of my work with digital tools.
Like the “bouncy balls” animation you used for designing the forms in your Port Authority Bus Terminal competition entry (1995)?
The bouncy balls, the mapped context with special effect worms coming out. I used them to represent all the movement at the Port Authority. In a sense, it was kind of like the Rem Koolhaas rhetoric, where architects compile all the statistics and constraints of a site and the form, the design, is what’s left over. It’s like saying, “I’m just a service professional.” The way I used to justify forms that were happy accidents – now that’s embarrassing. The fact that this has become the pedagogy that I’m associated with is really very, very, saddening to me. That I hate. I hate seeing students today making their own versions of these animation techniques I used to do, I really hate that – and I’m ashamed of that. But everyone has got to go through that amateur phase. Now, there are no happy accidents.
How about your writing? You distinguished yourself as an architect in the early 1990s as a practitioner who worked through architectural problems using philosophy and critical theory. I’m thinking about Folding in Architecture, the issue of Architectural Design magazine that you edited in 1993. How did the amateur/mature phases of your design work correspond to your theoretical writing?
Folding in Architecture was more or less my observation that architecture was becoming something defined by surfaces, not grids – a shift in the discipline from thinking of space in terms of coordinates, to space in terms of surfaces. It was related to how architects were beginning to really use computers, although there was nothing really computer driven in that issue. Theoretically, the editing of that issue was right on the edge of the movement we call digital architecture.
It was inevitable. Look, I’m too close to it. One thing that I liked about that time was there was a lot of discourse. Folding in Architecture was not made in a vacuum. It came out of a discussion around the “Deconstructivist Architecture” exhibition at MoMA (1988). I thought it was really “off” when Philip Johnson historicized deconstruction in architecture through constructivism. Folding in Architecture was produced to correct this, to direct the movement towards a more geometrical principal of surfaces. Those were the good old days when architects took part in discourse. Now, there are very few architects out there writing books and having conversation at the level of this discourse. There are a lot of good architects doing good work, writing about their work, but there is not a lot of discourse out there.
What do you mean by “discourse”? Many students and young practitioners today would say that contemporary discourse in architecture is about participation, as opposed to the discourse of resistance that has been prevalent for the last 40 years. Whereas resistance gains traction through strong axiomatic positions (manifestos, movements, etc.), participation recognizes and embraces the extreme interconnectedness in the way we communicate though economies of image, capital, and information.
I see a younger generation of architects taking mainstream practice and making it their own. I think there is a model of practice out there for participation, but that is very different than a discourse. I think that a lot of this problem is because theoreticians backed off from being oppositional and progressive, and instead became historians and started to work on the past. Mark Wigley, now the chair of Columbia University’s Architecture School, made a very public comment that he’s had it with today’s architects – that he was only going to research and work on the practices of dead architects. Instead of being polemical, most architects today are happy with just going about doing their work. Young architects today often don’t invent their own projects, their own positions. I don’t think that’s so great. It actually troubles me a lot.
Architecture has become so involved with other disciplines and the boundaries of its discourse are so loose that theorizing in the traditional way seems to be a fruitless exercise. I see a lot of “participation” in your work actually, especially in the Atlantis Sentosa project (Singapore) in collaboration with Frank Gehry and Chanel’s branding impresario, Peter Arnell.
Sentosa was a big mess that I was brought into about two years ago. [laughs] After seeing some of my work, David Rockwell (who is responsible for the designs of everything from the interiors of Nobu to the set of Legally Blonde), and Saul Kerzner (the international casino tycoon), asked me to come up with some ideas for a large-scale beachside complex that included a resort, entertainment, retail, and residences in Singapore. After working for a couple of weeks on it, the project was still quite out of focus. I was having dinner with Frank Gehry, and I found out that Saul had asked both of us for proposals. That’s when we decided to collaborate on the project.
“Architecture has never been more widely followed, more relevant, more culturally engaged; but when you talk to architects they are so self-deprecating that they don’t even acknowledge the fact that there’s this burden on them to do something new because everyone is looking to architecture.”
Peter Arnell had been working with Frank, and the way he saw it, we were working on a sea monster! He said, “Greg, you like Gundam and Asian culture. Frank you like Bernini. This project should be Gundam meets Bernini!” Giant Japanese robots meet Italian Baroque. Saul Kerzner was going to produce the world’s largest aquarium with whale sharks, and Peter Arnell would be the Walt Disney of the thing, coming up with robot characters that would wander around the site. Early on, Frank had said that he believed that his work to this point had movement in it because of the forms – kind of like what I was talking about in Animate Form. I don’t think Frank ever read Animate Form, but we were basically talking the same language, which we both think of as Baroque. What he thought we should do was a moving building – the first 90-meter-tall moving tower. That’s where we got started, and the idea of a giant robotic building evolved into robotic displays and robots wandering around the landscape. In the aquarium, real fish would swim alongside both holographic and robotic sea creatures.
The architecture was totally alive, and totally interactive on all levels. At one point, the director Peter Jackson came on board – the whole project was just infused with pop culture. In any case, the project was dropped last year.
I’ve heard that you really love mainstream pop culture and – B-movies …
Way more than high culture! I don’t have good taste [laughs]. You can’t start with doing something in good taste. If you start with that ambition you’re going to find yourself in banality.
So what are your favorite “pop cultural trappings”?
It’s more the people, the visions. I really like Alex McDowell’s work. He was the production designer for Steven Spielberg’s recent screen adaptation of Minority Report. I’m in Los Angeles so I love all this stuff.
Your wife – herself an architecture theorist – once said that your Ark of the World Museum in Costa Rica (2002) was the ugliest building she had seen in her life!
She meant that in a good way!
So what’s the relationship between taste and value?
Let me give you a few examples. Embryological House (1998) was a prefab housing project that took advantage of new manufacturing technologies to produce mass customized houses adaptable to local conditions. With a number of set parameters, I was able to generate limitless variations of the same house. When I showed it to Peter Eisenman at a conference in New York, he stood up and kept asking, “Tell me which one you like?” I said, “I love them all.” He kept asking me which one was the best. “They’re all the best!” Peter then said, “That’s impossible, you have no criteria for judgment.” He couldn’t accept that the idea of the project was to make them all perfect. I said, “There is no ideal house here.” Peter said, “In that case, they’re all ugly!” For the next two months he kept calling and saying, “Greg, you’ve lost it, you’ve totally lost it. Those houses are all ugly, they’re a mess.” Then I showed him the Ark project, the one that my wife said was so ugly, and he called me up: “Greg, I just saw this thing, I’m sending you something in the mail.” He sent me a postcard that said, I forget, but it had seven words, I have it framed: grotesque, degenerate … all negative words. He called and said, “Greg, I don’t know what happened to you, those embryological houses were so beautiful!” [laughs]
When we started Sentosa, Frank Gehry thought that my new work was “really strange and ugly.” He said, “Why don’t you just do beautiful stuff like that Ark project in Costa Rica.”
I like strong reactions; it’s definitely a sign that my work is not familiar. I’ve only worked with people that need something new; people that want an image that is unprecedented. That, I like. I wouldn’t want to design a bank that had to look like a bank.
One thing that struck me about Sentosa – how it’s really a collision of real, virtual, and robotic elements – relates to new media and its potential to fold both real and virtual experiences together. As we discussed before, you have worked through many of Deleuze’s ideas, often to justify the exotic shapes you produce. With Sentosa, I see Deleuze at work again, not on a formal level with folded geometries, but rather in the new social potentials activated by the way you embed technology in the experience of space. Instead of simply seeing a representation of the “fold,” we experience it.
I have to say, when I started using animation software, I wanted to use it as a design medium; so I’m very reluctant to say that buildings should have media on them, or that buildings should actually move. Now that I feel more confident in my understanding of the principles of digital media, I’m really interested in absorbing the idea of buildings that are giant robots that move, buildings that are themselves the media. I wouldn’t say that media is secondary, but maybe ancillary to the history of architecture – an aspect that most architects would typically exclude from the architectural problem in the classical sense. Those “extra”-architectural things I now find really interesting. Sentosa had them all.
Most of my projects are not culture projects, per se. I think about an audience, and how they would receive it. I’ve learned a lot about how to engage my audience on a social level from dabbling in other fields –designing a chair with Vitra was a good idea. You do a book when you’re 35, and a chair when you’re 45. Ideas and theories can be supported by writing a book; but the material vocabulary, the formal vocabulary, and your relationship to your audience is captured directly by a chair. I designed the Ravioli Chair with Vitra so that people would understand my architecture. Here’s a guy (Gehry) that made cardboard chairs with Vitra – they were fun, it was made of inexpensive materials, it was a new typology, it was comfortable…
People understand it immediately the moment they sit on it.
Now, when you think Frank Gehry you think unconventional materials, responsive to a client, durable, comfortable – all this stuff has become the Frank Gehry brand. It’s communicated through furniture rather than his buildings. People are generally too casual with how they look at their architectural surroundings. Whereas they are more serious about furniture. With my chair, I wanted to communicate comfortable, stable, good looking, and inexpensive. I also designed a line of tableware for Alessi, the Italian product design company. Many architects have experimented with household products to get their architecture really in focus. Now the most fun thing I’m involved in is Paola Antonelli’s “Elastic Minds” exhibition at MoMA. She commissioned me and Imaginary Forces to make an installation.
Are they a production company?
They work on almost everything in one way or another. They make movie titles and trailers – but now half their business is in architecture. They do content for billboards, graphic design, wayfinding, marketing, and films for architects. So together with Alex McDowell, we made her an online-city called “New City.” It has the same status as a globe or encyclopedia. It’s a spatial information filter that’s architecturally defined. It has 8 billion addresses in it – so the entire population of the Earth in a city that has access to all kinds of live feeds. For Paola, we made a film, but eventually it will become something between a web browser and a community.
Google designed by an architect.
It’s urban. It’s the Renaissance “ideal city” put on the web – it organizes the desire for a new form for a city. For Imaginary Forces it’s a graphic communication/community interface and for Alex it’s a cinematic environment. So we each have our own roles in it. It’s not done – it’s definitely taking shape, and it’s ready for our partners to really develop as a commercial thing now.
Chairs, spoons, Internet cities – you also designed a planet once …
[laughs] Yeah, we designed one for a film called Divide; we didn’t design everything on the planet! The film stuff has been really fun. It started with Alex McDowell calling me in to consult on Minority Report.
Architecture has never been more widely followed, more relevant, more culturally engaged. Fashion and automotive designers are really watching architecture very closely; but when you talk to architects they are so self-deprecating that they don’t even acknowledge the fact that there’s this burden on them to do something new because everyone is looking to architecture. Alex knows more about contemporary architecture culture than your average graduate student. It hasn’t always been this way.
Greg Lynn’s monograph, Greg Lynn FORM, edited by Mark Rappolt and Robert Violette, was released by Rizzoli in November 2008.