Fiction Brings Architecture Closer To Its Users/ III/ Interview With Jimenez Lai

by | 16. Apr 2017

Article | Interview | Student Writer
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Township of Domestic Parts. 2014 Venice Biennale, Taiwan Pavilion. Bureau Spectacular. Photo by Iwan Baan

By Kristina Barniskyte

Jimenez Lai leads Bureau Spectacular, an architecture and design practice based in Los Angeles. His work spans many disciplines including the publication of an architectural graphic novel Citizens of No Place and the curation of exhibitions that include the Taiwan Pavilion at the 14th Venice Biennale.

Through his practice, Lai tells stories by drawing them in the form of a crisply composed, eye-catching manga comic in which he turns fake realities into tangible architectural objects of varying scale. These objects, which look colorful and alien to the spectator, set the scene for awfully familiar characters such as the prehistoric human to the citizens of the future. Somewhere between the object and the character is where Lai uses architecture to tell his stories.

Kristina Barniskyte:  Thank you for accepting the invitation to discuss and show some of your work with us here at arcspace. What lead you to start your own practice? What was your background – how did you evolve as a designer up until then?

Jimenez Lai:  In the summer of 2008 at a basement in Toronto, Bureau Spectacular was born. I realized architecture has the ability to document and produce history. With that in mind, it became attractive to start a platform and work intensely on architectural issues with cultural concerns.

I did not consider architecture to be a career at first. As a younger person, I was always more interested in art, music, comics, cinema, and history. At the end of university, I decided to give architecture a try and applied for the Master of Architecture degree at University of Toronto. Luckily, I encountered Michael Meredith during my first year where he encouraged me to pursue my strengths – draw more comics and construct oversized models.

Around this time, I decided to take some time off from school to clarify my thoughts. I went and studied at Taliesin for almost a year, and had a brief few months working at Atelier Van Lieshout where I slept in a shipping container. This was followed by periods of work at OMA in New York as well as Rotterdam. In between these stints, I went back to Toronto and completed my degree. My graduate degree was littered with projects that failed to meet the course requirements, including a graphic novel about the struggles of life without gravity on board a spaceship, as well as a story about teleportation.

I started teaching at The Ohio State University, and subsequently at the University of Illinois at Chicago where I spent about six years under the mentorship of Bob Somol, with a distant whisper from Jeff Kipnis. The influence of those figures motivated me to escalate my focus on the relationship between cartoon and architecture. It was during these years I not only worked on the representation of architecture through cartoons, but began to translate the cartoon graphics onto architecture and design. In John McMorrough’s words, “cartoons about architecture” as well as “cartoonish architecture”.

Today I am working with my partner Joanna Grant in Los Angeles. The feeling is optimistic, as we (Bureau Spectacular) continue to cultivate our academic projects, but also move towards more built work.

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Township of Domestic Parts frontal drawing. Bureau Spectacular

KB:  Bureau Spectacular is presented as one that “imagines other worlds” and tells stories, which sometimes involve “fake realities that invite enticing possibilities”. How does fiction empower you as an architect and what role does it play in your work?

JL:  The notion of multiverse is a powerful idea. Somewhere out there in another parallel universe, there is another you and another me where we made a few different decisions. DC Comics thrived on the retelling of stories with the multiple earths, where there could be a few different Batmans who may or may not use guns, as they may or may not kill. Another approach to this thought is the Rashomon Effect – the same story can be retold from different perspectives, but how a story is retold becomes the content.

During one of Michael Speaks’ lectures, I was exposed to the book On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt. I quickly gravitated towards the central thesis of this book, which was a discussion about the distinction between lying and bullshitting. According to Frankfurt, the act of lying acknowledges the presence of truth, because a lie deliberately conceals or distorts truth. Bullshitting, on the other hand, does not require the presence of truth. It is an act of projecting a story about what something could be, whether or not that something is there yet. Architects do this professionally – working with factual sites, architects produce fictional matter on paper. These fictions, often in the format of drawings, are then submitted to the city hall for approval, and sometimes become as real as concrete.

Based on this train of thought, “other realities” or the production of many options for temporarily suspended decisions became a methodology of working. Particularly, the cartoon page became a fertile surface towards this effort: every frame a portal, every bubble a speech act. The name “Bureau Spectacular” was even designed so that its acronym “BS” could become a constant reminder of Speaks and Frankfurt’s thesis.

With all this being said, the recent political climate in 2016 and 2017 has given me a reason for second thoughts. I am realizing this argument only worked during a time of political stability when power was in the hands of sensible people who respected truth. I have decided to embark on a new journey that takes on the opposite disposition of people currently in power as I will commence a new project that is mostly based on normalcy and facts to combat the unsteady toxins hovering in the low clouds.

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The Obsession Accelerator. From Citizens of No Place, an Architectural Graphic Novel by Jimenez Lai.

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The Obsession Accelerator. From Citizens of No Place, an Architectural Graphic Novel by Jimenez Lai.

KB:  Your projects are based on several layers of theoretical framework and often embody irony-filled critique of stagnant architectural theories. How does historical and contemporary architecture discourse influence and shape your work?

JL: Embedding references like Easter Eggs (that are consciously hidden in order bring joy when finding them) and offering the possibility for multiple re-readings is something that storytellers do. Architecture tells stories. As a physically constructed object that captures many aspects of human endeavor, architecture performs the role of documentation and communication of humanity. It allows the details and traces of thoughts to reach very specific keen readers – details that only few kindred spirits would pick up. From drawing, writing, building, or photographing, there are several platforms to represent opportunities to quote other thinkers and construct a larger argument with architecture. I like the work of Andrew Kovacs for this reason – he curates his historical references, and chooses who he performs a dialogue with. Or, for that matter, the work of Quentin Tarantino – he is able to pay homage and produce commentaries upon the work he bases his work on. I decided to construct a list of people I want to think about or talk about, because that itself is an act of design.

For instance, our recent exhibition insideoutsidebetweenbeyond at SFMOMA was based on this train of thought. The exhibition is based on a drawing that SFMOMA recently collected by the same title. It was a drawing based on many other drawings, including the Diamond House (Hejduk), Moriyama House (SANAA), micromegas (Libeskind), Manhattan Transcripts (Tschumi)…

With each tower, there are architectural anecdotes populated throughout. At times these anecdotes implicitly nod at an architect, artist, or cinema from the past, but other times the references are very explicit. This process began in 2014-2015 when I worked on the Cave Painting Series – I applied one simple rule during this process: no line-work should come from myself, and every curve should be a quotation of someone else. From Bernard Tschumi to John Hejduk or Isamu Noguchi, I wanted to compose a drawing entirely comprised of quotations.

In addition to historic references, I find it very important to be constantly reading the temperatures in the many territories within contemporary architecture. I have encountered many very interesting approaches towards the design and thinking of architecture that I don’t necessarily work on. There are people focused on the technology of fabrication, environmental innovation, entrepreneurial advancements, economic diagramming, geopolitical analysis, social justice, parametricism, digital sensationalism… and even within the finer grains of digital sensationalisms, there are various distinct approaches towards the same problems. It is physically impossible for me to work on all of these topics, because I need to maintain my own focus. However, I am keen to understand the motivations and methodologies behind each approach. Having a read of the rest of the landscape is a healthy practice because it helps me maintain an awareness of everyone else’s work.

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Bureau Spectacular’s exhibition insideoutsidebetweenbeyond at SFMOMA. Photo by Injee Unshin

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insideoutsidebetweenbeyond drawing by Jimenez Lai exhibited at SFMOMA. Photo by Katherine Du Tiel

KB:  In your process you use writing, drawing and building. Are all three techniques equally important in your design process and as means of communication?

JL:  There is something more to architecture than just building. I believe architecture to be a cultural pursuit that requires architects to both digest and produce. This is why writing is extremely important, and by extension drawing. The two-dimensional work of architecture may or may not exactly lead to construction documents, but it is a platform that allows for the exploration of drawings as language.

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Briefcase House. Bureau Spectacular. Photo by Jasper Reyes

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Briefcase House plan drawing. Bureau Spectacular.

KB:  You often work in a scale of superfurniture, a structure that is too large to be a furniture, but too small to be architecture. Some of these superfurnitures have even served you as living quarters for a certain period of time and seem to be especially user-centered. What are the advantages and possibilities of this scale?

JL:  There is a practical reason and an architectural response. The practical reason was being a young architect starting out in year 2008 during one of the worst recent financial crises of our times. At the beginning of my career, there were no clients. I was spending most of my time teaching, but also recognized the importance of developing a body of built work if I wanted a building career. I decided to save all of the money I earned from teaching to build something on my own terms. However, the constraints of getting construction approved by local authorities made it very difficult to self-initiate a ground-up, free-standing outdoor project – not to mention the budget. For that practical reason, my earlier projects were within the scale of the superfurniture – buildings within a building. Working within this scale allowed me to understand the immediacies of spatial impact and material effects. It was also helpful to figure out structural problems at a smaller scale at the beginning of starting a practice.

For instance, I rented an inexpensive space to start my practice in Chicago, and built the Briefcase House project to live in. This became a comfortable scale to work out developing ideas, and allowed me to start work on architectural diagrams from the interior. A real-life poche diagram emerged: my private life was packed away into a private box that one could paint black, and there was a white (and public) gutter around the black object. Like a Russian doll situation, the stranger the shape of the superfurniture, the more active of an interior coastline.

This diagram was later translated when we designed the boutique fashion store Frankie in Los Angeles. The loose-fitting nature of compartmentalized superfurnitures in plan transformed into a scattered archipelago of useful parts, like a confetti. The lessons learned from this early development will for sure influence our approach towards plan-making in the future.

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Frankie Store Interior. Bureau Spectacular. Photo by Injee Unshin. (click image for GIF)

KB:  The relationships between users that occur within architecture turn out to be more important for you than the architecture itself. Your signature phrase “If you set the stage, the players will play their parts” suggests that you envision architecture as a trigger, actively shaping the feelings of its users. What are the prerequisites for architecture to become more than a mere backdrop and start to create this stage?

JL:  Some of the classic relationships between humans rely on exact distances in plan and section. For instance, the iconic mood of pining lovers in Romeo and Juliet become accented by the sectional relationship between a half-story balcony and half-climbed tree. Or, the public speech scene in Life of Brian (1979) would not be the same if there wasn’t a sectional setup for the one vs. all setting. Almost like a strategy board of a sports game, the arrows that connect the x’s and o’s really become a political diagram in plan and in section.

In addition to the vector diagrams, materiality also really helps establish a stage. The combination of velvet and brass, for instance, creates a very specific environment different from concrete and glass. Silk and terrazzo also suggests a different room from mahogany and leather. The choice of materiality will almost always amplify the diagram between humans, sometimes they become the only factor that defines a sense of occasion.

KB:  Do you see a direct connection between fiction as an appealing means of communication and way to create more inclusive architecture?

JL:  Yes, of course. If a broader audience became attracted to architecture, there will be more possibility for more interesting work to emerge.

KB: Thank you for giving up your time to talk to us here at arcspace.


Bureau Spectacular

insideoutsidebetweenbeyond exhibition at SFMOMA