Challenging the physical and disciplinary boundaries

March 4, 2013

Julia Sedlock interviews Sean Lally.


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Sirenuse, 2011. © WEATHERS / Sean Lally LLC.

Sean Lally’s work upholds architecture’s role as both physical and cultural boundary-maker, yet does so by fundamentally questioning and redefining how those boundaries are created and deployed. During our previous interview in MAS Context’s Energy issue, Lally explained that “material energies…have physical boundaries, actual boundary conditions that can organize and distinguish activities.” In this follow-up interview, Lally elaborates upon how he uses material energies to challenge the physical boundaries produced by architecture’s conventional materials. He points out that the design of these boundaries works in conjunction with new understandings and enhancements of human sensory perception, rendering both environment and body open for design. His unique model of practice finds overlaps between architecture, landscape architecture and urban design, and activates them in order to realize connections between ideas and concepts typically outside of architecture.

In the three years since our last interview, Lally has begun a new business and was a recipient of the 2011 Rome Prize. His entrepreneurial efforts produced Climate Design LLC, a company geared towards the development of technologies needed to implement his design objectives. While a fellow at the American Academy in Rome, Lally completed his book, The Air on Other Planets: A Brief History of Things to Come (Lars Müller Publishers, 2014). Lally, with all these recent accomplishments, has refined his ambition to imagine an architecture of the future by engaging, manipulating and building on the potential energies embedded in our contemporary environment.

JS: There are many issues raised by your work relating to the concept of boundary—issues of scale, time, body, imagination—but I’d like to start simply by having you define boundary.

SL: For me, the most fundamental way of thinking about this is that if you can define a boundary with that which you can organize people and activities, regardless of what the material is, that’s a form of architecture. Quite often when people think about energy, whether it’s electromagnetic, thermal, acoustic or chemical, it falls into the categories of effects, atmosphere, and moods, but they don’t create a boundary that all participants have to acknowledge. In architecture, materials help define physical organizations; they dictate movement, how we interact with each other, and they define boundaries. When you fundamentally switch the material property of a boundary, it has huge implications. When you go from brick and mortar to concrete and steel they give you new properties, and new typologies; they give you cantilevers and towers. Architectural boundaries that mediate the environment have always been defined by surfaces and geometries. So now we are going to shift and say a boundary is no longer a line or a geometry, but it’s energy fields, it’s a gradient. The existing energies that course around us daily can be manipulated and amplified, much like the geological resources we use to make our concrete, steel and glass, but instead they create extreme microclimates, which have a new form of boundary. When you have a new form of boundary you get a different aesthetic, you get different connotations of value, and you get different spatial organizations. So many aspects of architecture are going to be rewritten when architectural boundaries shift, from surfaces and walls that mediate our connection to our surroundings to material energies that act as gradients built by amplifying the very materials that already exist around us.

JS: Would it be wrong to say that a gradient is the opposite of a boundary, or even the lack of boundary?

SL: I would say it’s just a different form of boundary. A gradient still has boundaries; they just operate differently, as intensities. Street lighting is a boundary and it has different intensities. It can be focused. It can be wide. There’s the boundary that you are inside of when you are in the light, the darkness beyond, and a moment of in-between where the two meet. We can focus these energies to be as wide as a room or as small as a beam but they still work as energy, as particles and waves, and they operate as gradients. But they certainly still do operate as a boundary, with all the social and spatial implications that trickle down from its formations (public safety, recreation, and commerce).

JL: Can you elaborate on the architectural implications of gradient boundaries defined by material energies?

SL: When these material energies are seen as building materials, controlling movement, separating activities from one another and not simply as comfort controls, new typologies of space and form will emerge. But not as long as energies are seen as things that fill interiors or bounce off walls as effects. Again, take the example of street lighting: prior to the advent of street lighting, night was night and day was day. Street lighting gave the ability to have light as a constant resource, and that gave you new typologies, everything from little bubbles of light, like pearls on a necklace separated by a distance, to streams, to floods, to outdoor recreation and commerce. It allowed a resource to exist that wasn’t there prior. Imagine starting with an outdoor streetlight and layering on other forms of energy that visible spectrum, other forms of energy that can separate sounds, chemical compositions of the air that shift opacity, electromagnetic fields that affect movement and apertures into that spaces. These spaces will then have their own aesthetic qualities that can be shaped and then clustered to make new possibilities for larger or aggregated spaces. It will also create other forms of interiority and other forms of environment that are entirely new and artificial.

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Sirenuse, 2011. © WEATHERS / Sean Lally LLC.

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Sirenuse, 2011. © WEATHERS / Sean Lally LLC.

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Sirenuse, 2011. © WEATHERS / Sean Lally LLC.

JS: It also produces an architecture that varies with time. More often than not, architecture is fixed and static in time, and fixed in its relationship to its environment. So how does time become another form of boundary within the work?

SL: Time plays a very specific role with this type of architecture because the materiality is directly linked to a feedback loop to the environment in which it exists. Returning to the streetlight example, if it’s a moon or a full moon, those two different types of ambient light are going to affect the boundary of that streetlight. With an architecture that is formed by energy, the behavior of its boundaries will be altered by changes in the atmospheric properties of its environmental context. One can decide how that boundary reacts to such changes. Does it intensify in order to maintain its aesthetic qualities and physical boundaries, or does it dissipate? An architecture that is formed by a materiality that shares properties with the surrounding context is very different from a surface architecture that really stands in opposition.

JS: Time plays a role not only in terms of environmental changes, but also in terms of changes in the human body and its sensory perception. Your definition of boundary relies more intensively on our body’s relationship to its physical environment and how that environment is perceived. How do you understand the human body as a form of boundary?

SL: The physiology of the human body is a huge part of this. For so long we have thought of the human body in a similar way to how we see architecture, which is about the outer skin, and the proportions and distances from that skin to the wall. Now we are starting to talk about the augmentation of human sensory perception. We are at the point now where we are going to be able to choose whether or not we want our sensory perception to exceed the abilities that we’re born with. These advances in bioengineering coincide perfectly with the application of material energies. Our boundaries are defined by what our body can sense, and if you can increase that perception, then you have a new range of what defines physical boundaries, and those physical boundaries open up new possibilities of organizations. Right now in history, we can visualize and control a range of energy systems like never before, while at the same time the human sensory perception is clearly advancing. This can be seen in work with bioengineering and prosthetics, as well as pharmaceuticals. Outside of architecture, these appear to be two separate threads. As architects, we can see that they are actually directly linked through our capacity to build new environments, so we should see this as an opportunity for architecture to play a significant role in weaving together those different threads.

JS: This relationship between body and environment suggests that your work has implications at multiple scales. In our previous interview, you identified the two primary areas of inquiry: the gizmo-scale installation and the urban scale proposal. How does your definition of boundary change with scale?

SL: What you refer to as gizmos, I would describe as proofs that exist at the scale of outdoor installation, through which I test and play out architectural concepts. Although working out the technologies is an important aspect of them, they are playing themselves out in a small scale design, producing their own outdoor interiors. They are spaces that I am trying to produce and they require a technology in order to make them happen. Testing the proofs allows me to see what typologies of space they produce, how the gradient works, how it interacts with the environment, with the climate of the time of year and day that they are being deployed. From there, a kind of typology and aesthetic condition emerges.

JS: When you talk about these proofs, are you referring to the work of Climate Design, or is that different?

SL: No, that’s different. The proofs still fall very much on the design side. On the other hand, Climate Design is a way to splinter our need for specific technological knowledge and run it through a different approach, a different business model. Not all those little parts can be figured out, and I often can’t go shopping for them. The technology company allows us to figure them out through other avenues, like funding and research. They originated from an architectural desire, need and approach, but then we pluck them out and move them to another venue in order to advance them. Architecture right now just doesn’t have the resources to do this work, there’s no funding for it. The proofs are not a single project, but rather they are testing the energy systems so that they can be understood as a type, and if they could be understood as a type, then they can be reused in multiple ways.

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Sirenuse, 2011. © WEATHERS / Sean Lally LLC.

JS: You have done a lot of competitions where you scale up the energy systems to work in conjunction with a building that depends on more conventional conditions of architecture, in terms of using geometries and mass to organize program, to define conditioned spaces in a more stable or predictable way. So if we take a specific project like the WWII Museum in Poland, can you walk me through how you start to tackle a project like that in terms of balancing your interests and ideal conditions with the competition brief and the requirements of a project?

SL: To be brutally honest, I think in everyone’s career you find that things that don’t work the way you want them to work. During my time in Rome, I realized that trying to do these competitions was actually doing me a disservice because I was interested in an architecture that didn’t fit the brief. In the case of the World War II museum, this interest was expressed in the upper floor. It was a type of new city floor that we put in the roof system. The idea was to take all the energy dumps of the building and to allow all that energy to be dumped into this very thick floor slab that then became a programmed artificial landscape that was new to the city. However, at the end of the day, when you look at that project what you saw in those renderings was the 300,000 square feet of mass that met the predetermined regulations of the project brief, one that I wasn’t willing to jettison at the time, because some part of you wants to win the project. These competitions are no longer the way to go. The energies that were then represented on the roof were seen as some ancillary byproduct, when in truth they were the most important part for me. The proofs that I’m doing now are really about putting the resources into seeing what these various forms of energy can produce as an architecture. Taking a step back helped me to realize that I needed to push the directive through the energy to see what that produces as a form, to see what the shape of energy is so that it can become the discussion, and from there to play out what the organizational and spatial ramifications will be.

JS: Your time in Rome has clearly had a significant impact on your work. Can you describe the working environment there, specifically the multi-disciplinary nature of it and how that changed the way you are thinking about these ideas?

SL: It was a great resource. You have a lot of people that do different things—from archeologists to scholars of 15th century poetry, to digital artists to architects—it’s a huge list, like Noah’s ark with two of everything. The running joke is that you can tell who is new and who’s been there a while because the people who are just showing up want to talk about Dante, and the people who have been there for a while want to talk about a hedgehog they saw in the garden. This is not to say that when you are talking to people at dinner every day about the hedgehog in the garden that you are not opening up the possibilities of your work, it just comes in a very different way. It slips in, all their experiences and knowledge and big ideas just kind of percolate through your work and through your ideas in such ways that you are not even fully conscious of it. It just happens slowly.

One of the real beauties of the program is that once you get there, you are not required to produce anything, and that translates into people working in ways they hadn’t planned on. For me, I had probably worked on this book for three or four years prior to getting there, and then I finished it while I was there, in ways that I never could have otherwise. Our profession doesn’t allow for these kind of air bubbles to exist, which you can slip in to and sit down for eight hours a day, everyday, and just write or design this, that, or the other thing you had been thinking about. For me, it allowed for a kind of momentum to build in which I could actually sit there with the book and the drawings and turn it out more quickly, instead of piecing it together from small chucks of time I had at night back home. Being around people who are looking at 2,500 years of history puts things into a bigger perspective. That was a really exciting part; you’re not seeing the myopic window of architecture as it is. It’s always about now, now, now, what are you doing now? And where’s architecture now? But in this other context, you are seeing it through 2,500 years and you are seeing a very different arc of history.

JS: This broader perspective relates to a question that I had about the Science Fiction sensibility you invoke in your work. You are laying out a specific relationship between technology and architecture, where the architectural imagination is the driving force behind technological innovation, and where cultural practice promotes the possibility of new future worlds. Even the title of your book, The Air on Other Planets: A Brief History of Things to Come, suggests this relationship. How would you frame your role in that process, because on one hand, you are invoking imagination through your design work, while on the other hand, with the Climate Design company, you are also making the things happen in the world that need to happen in order to make that narrative real. Are you consciously playing a different role as architect?

SL: I’m talking about such large sweeps of history and the future of where architecture can be, because I think it does help you to position your thoughts in a bigger move. There’s an article by Neil Stevenson called “Innovation Starvation,” where he’s talking to scientists and engineers at a conference, lamenting the loss of what was promised to him as a child, specifically the end of the manned space program within our lifetime. He says that we are not dreaming large enough, and Michael Crow, President of Arizona State, responds by saying that it’s not the scientists and the engineers who have failed, but the fiction and science fiction writers who have failed us. These figures once inspired a generation of scientists and engineers to go into a profession and dream big, and now it is their failure to continue to dream big. You realize that fiction and science fiction writers don’t live in a fairy tale land that doesn’t impact a larger realm. There is a relationship between people who are dreaming and laying out these imaginations, and another group of people who are drawing from that, pushing those ideas forward. This kind of back and forth relationship is extremely important.

I think architects’ greatest strength is being able to paint pictures of the future. These images don’t have to be dystopic or utopic; they are just projections of possible futures. It’s not about getting the future right, but rather it’s about getting the ground work going today that will give us the opportunities in the future. The Futurama Pavilion at the 1936 World Fair is an example of this. The oil industry and the car industry did a great job of putting together a pavilion that showed us moving out of the city and into these suburbs, paving the roads and getting us out of the city. Lo and behold, 10 or 15 years later, we were doing exactly that. It helped to paint an image of what the world could be, and the people and the general public coveted it; they wanted it and we produced it. I think right now when it comes to energy, sustainability and efficiency, we paint a pretty bleak picture. It’s all about a kind of moral good and as architects we seem to want to push that. We somehow collectively think as a profession that this is where we should hang our hat, that this will put us back in a position of control and relevancy. Making the building people already say they want, but cheaper and cleaner. That’s important, but if we want to march ahead, if we want to be leaders, we need to get ahead of the crowds. As architects our responsibility isn’t just to make a building more efficient, it is to paint a picture that if you harness and work with energy as a materiality we can create an environment and a place that people would want to have. People won’t make sacrifices as a moral choice, but they’ll do it because they desire it and it piques their imagination. From there we’ll have the resources and attention of people to meet those other needs, as well.

If we want to push the boundaries of what architecture is and what our role can be in society, it’s not going to come from simply solving the problems around us that occur today and now, it’s going to come from imagining and projecting new opportunities in the future that we strive to realize. Sooner or later, tomorrow becomes today.