Looking to Introduce Something Inconvenient

September 14, 2020

Stewart Hicks of Design With Company talked with Lai about the evolution of his practice, the influence that moving to L.A. has had in his work, and his quest to make people to question their normalcy.


Since founding Bureau Spectacular in 2008, Jimenez Lai has been exploring the relationship between cartoons and architecture. Cartoons such as Out of Water and Point Clouds and projects like The Briefcase House and White Elephant, acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, set a fruitful and successful path for the office from the beginning that later continued with a series of acclaimed drawings, installations, exhibitions, and publications.

Since moving from Chicago to Los Angeles in the fall of 2014, his work has continued to evolve in its focus and scale, creating projects such as the installation Tower of Twelve Stories for Coachella, the fashion boutique Frankie, the Pool Party proposal for the MoMA PS1 Young Architects Program, and a collaboration with Swarovski, who named him one of the 2017 Designers of the Future.

Stewart Hicks of Design With Company talked with Lai about the evolution of his practice, the influence that moving to L.A. has had in his work, and his quest to make people to question their normalcy.

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Jimenez Lai. © Brian Guido for MAS Context.

Stewart Hicks: In the firm description of Bureau Spectacular, you use the word “story” five times to define your practice and its productions. If you had to divide the evolution of your practice as a series of acts in a story, what would they be and how would you define the current act in the Bureau Spectacular story?

Jimenez Lai: The first act would be cartoons about architecture, where cartoon is the medium and architecture is the subject matter. The second act is cartoonish architecture, where architecture is the medium and cartoon is the sensibility. Now we are into cartoons on architecture, where architecture is still the medium, but we are introducing humans into built constructions to complete the stories. At a base level, the third act includes getting things built at a range of scales. The third act also overlaps with the other two. As far back as The Briefcase House project, I had this idea that if I can live in it, my life would become a story, or whoever lives there will fill in the blanks, and therefore, there will be cartoons on architecture. This is independent of the scale we are working, and is true for big things and small things, for light fixtures and furniture, and for full-retail environments.

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Jimenez Lai. © Brian Guido for MAS Context.

SH: As you mentioned, in your work, at least at a certain stage, you were the primary occupant, both in the graphic stories and living within the things you built. This collapses the subject and author of the architecture. Inserting yourself as the character seems like an important hinge point between building objects that require the alternative reality of a narrative, and ones that live in our world and operate on those that inhabit it. You construct a space to shape you and operate on you.

JL: As you know, early in our careers it is difficult to do work quickly and land clients. I thought if I were to force the matter it would have to be me, I had to be the test subject. It reminds me of that line from Morris Lapidus, “If you create the stage setting and it’s grand, everyone who enters will play their part.” Lapidus designed fancy hotel lobbies. He designed staircases in a way where the sectional relationship would give someone a higher ground, someone else a lower ground, and there was bound to be a love-struck moment with that kind of sectional relationship. The selection of materiality and color becomes a backdrop that compels the individual to behave slightly differently.

The Briefcase House did influence me. My personality changed as a result of living in it. I was less of a hermit before The Briefcase House, but it really compelled me to stay in there and turn the world off.

SH: Do you think your experience in Los Angeles has similarly changed the way you are thinking about space, architecture, and this question of your own behavior?

JL: Definitely. I have been making a running list of the ways this occurred. For instance, people’s relationship with the color white in Los Angeles is fascinating. I see it in Andrew Atwood, I see it in Erin Besler, I see it in Andrew Kovacs, I see it in Mark Lee and Sharon Johnston. When you look hard enough you can even see it in instances of Greg Lynn, Michael Maltzan, and Hernan Diaz Alonso. Peter Zellner’s building career is filled with white. I could go on and on. There is something about L.A. that makes architects design things that are white. Our Taiwan Pavilion for the Venice Biennale in 2014 was incredibly colorful. It felt like the right location to do something colorful, but everything turned white after moving to L.A. in 2014.

Another aspect is the way that the city is laid out. It is difficult for people to be around people, so you really have to make a point to show up to destinations. There is a lot of investment in meeting. People are always far from each other and every meeting requires getting into a car. In New York or Chicago you can almost walk to see your friends. Even though Chicago is quite big, there are only a few spots people go. In L.A., there are so many more places people meet to convene. Also, most people arrive at a place and there is already a sense of investment. It is as if the place already owes them something for getting there.

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© Brian Guido for MAS Context.

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© Brian Guido for MAS Context.

SH: What it the role of architecture in that environment? Do buildings participate in this investment in forming collectives? Is it a stage, a corral, or a spectacle as an instigator in meeting events?

JL: I would use the word event in the sense of how Bernard Tschumi might use the term, if we are reading or misreading L.A. as an event-centric environment. You go to a place and you don’t even go into buildings. You are outside of buildings. I think that is very interesting, because people aren’t inside that much. A garden, or a parking lot, or something that is next to the address seems to be where events happen. For this reason, everything seems to be made of papier-mâché. The building is mostly a garnish for exterior spaces.

SH: Do you think that has anything to do with the fascination with whiteness?

JL: I think so. For instance, in museum interiors, you don’t want color competing with the art, therefore you have a lot of white. It’s also partly for environmental reasons because white is much better at reflecting light and absorbs less heat.

SH: The pool has been a feature in a few of your recent projects. How does it figure into this third act of your career? I am thinking specifically about your Pool Party proposal for the Young Architects Program at MoMA PS1 and your Pool House project.

JL: Featuring pools in our work goes beyond using them only for their athletic use. It’s the cultural association and life around pools that interests us. In our presentation to PS1, we cited a few movie references about what pools do to people, what pools make people think. They are places for coming of age, getting in trouble, and falling in love. They provide a romantic space, a fantasy space. Being around pools has that power.

And for the Pool House, which predates the Pool Party project by about fourteen months, I had been thinking a lot about skateboarding in a pool, where there is the shocking availability of doubly curved spaces in almost everyone’s backyard. People who are interested in digital architecture kill themselves to produce doubly curved surfaces when they are already at everybody’s house. As a person interested in digital architecture, and in the act of reappropriating ready-mades, I thought that the semiotic power of the pool would be amazing and great to use. The idea of being under a pool, next to a pool, or having a pool on the roof of a house can breed all sorts of misbehaviors.

Come to think of it, you had something to do with it. If I had never been to your house in Urbana, IL, maybe this wouldn’t have been in my mind. When I visited you in that house with a pool in the middle, I kept thinking about the safety issue. Like, do people trip and fall into their pool?

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© Brian Guido for MAS Context.

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© Brian Guido for MAS Context.

SH: I guess earlier in your career you were scared of pools within a domestic space as a safety hazard. In this new phase, your instinct is “Yeah, let’s go under it, and on it!” This reminds me a little of Charles Moore and his interest in water, domestic spaces, etc. Water for Moore was both symbolic and physically immersive. It is something with deep cultural associations as well as deeply corporeal and sensory.

JL: That’s true. I just want to use the word “semiotic” again. Going back to that day at your house. Nobody got wet that day, right? Nobody went into the pool. But its very presence produced a culture around it. Without activating it, it’s already sort of activated.

SH: It goes back to the idea that architecture in L.A. is like a garnish to spawn different types of activities around it. The pool, for you, does that in a very particular way. You don’t need to be in it, its presence changes the way people behave. But then there is also the materiality of the pool, like in your MoMA proposal, where it is like a light filter in a more phenomenological way. There is a heavy object floating above you that filters light in a dynamic way. Thus, the unfamiliarity you are achieving through your use of pools is multilayered.

JL: My partner, Joanna Grant, and I worked on the project together, and I think these layers come from the act of collaborating with her. She worked closely with Forrest Meggers at Princeton University. In the project, we talked about sun angles and evaporative cooling. I mean, for me, the only thing that I was interested in, with regards to the environmental effects, was, how do you spray rainbow on people with the refractive qualities of a fine mist?

SH: With all these lessons on how space constructs its occupants, what kind of subjects are you constructing with your own architecture now?

JL: We are always looking to introduce something inconvenient: a room that rotates once an hour, or a bubble-ish room where you might slip off so you have to hang on and sit in a certain way. These kinds of inconveniences are interesting to me. If life is convenient, flexible, and typical, then we get those types of people: convenient and typical people who are not marred by things that would seem to be signs of madness. People who display signs of madness are so much more interesting.

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© Brian Guido for MAS Context.

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© Brian Guido for MAS Context.

SH: Do you want to turn people mad?

JL: I would like people to question their normalcy. I also use the word “madness” not so lightly. I am talking about the way Foucault would frame the word “mad,” in terms of the medical norm. If someone was outside of the norm, it means that society has a norm. If we introduce something that challenges people, they become aware of the norm and its deviance in ways such as the presented inconveniences.

SH: Inconveniences? That sounds so Eisenman-esque! “If it doesn’t hurt, you’re not thinking about it enough. If you don’t hit your head on it, it means you’re not contemplating hitting your head.” Do you see it in those terms? Because I wouldn’t. I would say your work is surprising, but it doesn’t beat people up until they go mad. Maybe it delights people until they go mad, tickles them until they go crazy.

JL: Maybe I can frame it in a slightly different way. A literary/cinematic reference with which I identify is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I most appreciate the character of McMurphy played by Jack Nicholson. He played mad. He wanted to go to an institution where people are trying to become normalized, and his presence is there to remind them there is joy in the madness. However, he is faced with Nurse Ratched, and the weight of
society which always reminds those who seek joy that life is largely joyless.

SH: You produce atypical experiences that introduce joy through the irregular rather than inconvenient experiences. Is this type of conceptual framework true for all the scales at which you work: furniture, lighting, buildings, etc.?

JL: Yes and no. I am interested in the difference between how a designer would approach this question versus a typical architectural response. I think the fact that we are having this conversation indicates that we care about framing what we do, and we also care about the discourse at large and which architects are doing what. Designers don’t want to care. In fact, it’s unattractive to overthink it. It is a totally different approach. I think it’s already in my DNA at this point to overthink it, but it is interesting to see how they behave.

As designers and architects, the work of Archizoom, Superstudio, and the Memphis Group demanded that out of people at all scales. They demanded people to be uncomfortable or to become suddenly aware of how they sit, what the backing is, or what the material is. Maybe there was a time where that probably happened. There is a very sophisticated joke somewhere about that, where objects do ask questions.

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© Brian Guido for MAS Context.

SH: How does this disciplinary awareness change how you design and shape what you appreciate in other’s work?

JL: It is silly to be original. Original artists sound bad. Recently, I was very big on Lady Gaga. I thought her practice was really interesting, in that you can clearly hear what she’s trying to do. Identifying these sounds and histories while listening is super interesting. There is even a sense of narcissism involved with originality, and that is unappealing. I don’t like narcissists.

SH: In response to that, collaborative models of practice like Superstudio and Archizoom are making a serious comeback these days. Collective-LOK and T+E+A+M for example are popular and productive practices right now. Michael Kubo is even researching the history of collaboration between firms. In a sense, you prefigured collaboration as an important model in your practice with your name by calling yourself a bureau. Your career model might be: design a “pool” (like The Briefcase House), dive in, and try to get everyone to dive in with you.

JL: Designing modes of collaboration is a metaproject of ours. In the past, I would have said “We are a garage band that keeps changing drummers.” We had a string of incredibly amazing people that I got to work with. But in the past year, I have focused on collaborating with Joanna Grant, and the process for our PS1 proposal this year offered a new and interesting model that ended up being very satisfying.

We drew a roadmap. On day one, we looked back at the last eighteen years of projects that won the competition and the projects that didn’t win. We set up interviews with as many firms that participated as possible to chat with them about pro tips. From there, our roadmap included finding a graphic designer as well as a consultant that could help us with fundraising from the beginning. By the end, we needed a movie and, if we needed a movie, we needed people for filmmaking that we didn’t currently have access to. We needed to know a filmmaker and we needed to know the right filmmaker. We needed a structural engineer and so forth.

It’s almost like assembling a bank heist, and, I have to say, we did it. We did not end up winning, but we really did put a great team together and pulled off the heist. It was such a satisfying thing to do. We had an environmental consulting team who were advising us about sun shading and water collection. We had a person who was just on the phone all the time trying to get pools donated and we got letters from owners of companies who were willing to give up pools. We had all kinds of people who were a part of this effort.

SH: Your new firm model is like casting a classic bank heist film where each character is an expert at one thing, all coming together and making something happen.

JL: Looking at the roadmap of previous eras, Memphis only lasted around five years. Superstudio was maybe five or six years. Archizoom was even shorter. We have already aged out practicing like Superstudio. We are past that point. Now, I have to look at other models. We can’t be a garage band anymore. It has to be a bank heist.

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Jimenez Lai. © Brian Guido for MAS Context.