I talked with Michael Meredith of MOS recently. Michael was on my first design review as an undergraduate architecture student around 2000–2001. All I can remember from the experience is that he didn’t appreciate my use of the word “syntax” to describe the relationship between materials, objects, and their assembly. I’m sure he doesn’t remember this. I didn’t bring it up.
That initial meeting occurred shortly after Michael spent time in Marfa, Texas as a Chinati Artist in Residence, where he met and befriended the late fiction writer David Foster Wallace. Shortly after our encounter, he began MOS Architects with his partner Hilary Sample. Now he teaches at Princeton and she at Columbia. Their work and influence on the discipline of architecture is extensive and I admire what they do. It is all just so . . . horizontal and fuzzy. I used the occasion of this interview to ask some questions about how they work as architects today, what he learned from David Foster Wallace, and why he’s such a character.
Stewart Hicks: From your satirical manifesto “Notes on Beginning the Discipline of Architecture” to your essay “For the Absurd” included in Issue 22 of Log that you guest edited, you are constantly inventing yourselves [MOS] as semifictional characters. What role does that play in your design process and in the portrayal of your practice?
Michael Meredith: Something has shifted in the field, where questions of authorship and games of anti-authorship are popular as ways to displace the willful expressionism of architects. This is also true within literature and art practices to disguise the gestural expression of will. These things have shifted a little bit nowadays toward problems of, not so much authorship, but how we construct identity. I think there is a big concern with everybody about constructing identities.
Nowadays, you have to be a performance artist to be an architect. It comes naturally with some people. Bjarke Ingels is a natural performer. He’s got it. For us, I definitely do not have it. It is a performance of sorts, but it is also real. I’m for sure [pregnant pause] awkward, at a kind of basic socially awkward level. And I am sure that comes through in everything we do. At some points, it gets amplified. Speaking personally, the role of performance in MOS is more complicated because we are multiple people. We play with our identity, with fiction and reality. We even have a children’s book where the main characters are kind of us, but not us.
I do not have an answer to why or how this shift has occurred from questions of authorship to identity. Perhaps it is because we have all become more removed from the physical acts of doing our work. Maybe it is just also part of getting older—I don’t know. At this point, we are like art directors. We sit down and review everything and complain that no one is going fast enough.
SH: We feel that too. Being partners in life and partners in the office, you have to consciously construct the line between the office and life. Neither side of the line is fake, but there is a little bit of work in life and a little bit of life in work. Each is constructed.
MM: We try to be honest, but it’s really honesty up to a point. The role of humor and playfulness in our work is part of our identity. I have always felt like the humor just really comes out of being honest. It is not always funny. A lot of times it is super tragic. Either way, we like to play with the construction of identity.
SH: Humor itself is double-sided. It can be construed as being defensive, putting up a wall, or constructing a barrier. But what you’re saying is that it is a kind of honesty.
MM: Yes, I think of it as mostly honest, honestly. At least from the writing side of it. Writing is very hard for me. It is not easy.
I spent some time in Marfa when I came out of school, and I was there with David Foster Wallace. I spent a lot of time with David, hiking with him and stuff. I maintained a close correspondence with him for years. His work has been very influential, especially at that time when I was just starting out. He was very nice and approachable. And in a way, I think that attitude of ours is indebted to him. He was always trying to be very genuine, despite how hard it is. In the end, it is almost impossible. The impossibility isn’t just external, it is also internal.
SH: How has this connection with literary figures like David Foster Wallace also affected the way that you think of the inhabitants of your architecture? You often script interactions between people within your designs. In projects like your Lot No. 6 house for Ordos 100, you present it through a day in the life of someone living there. This close attention to the subject of your architecture, is it formative in your design process? Is it mostly part of the capital P project of MOS, or is it only a way to frame the reception of a design?
MM: It is all of those. When designing buildings, one has to imagine how it will be used. Some empathy for the person in your buildings is required of architects.
There is a project that we did with a developer in Seattle. We met with the developer, and she showed us all their work they were doing, and a lot of it was horrible. We said, “Listen, we can’t imagine doing something that we would not live in. Something that we thought was bad. It would just be horrible. Would you live in this thing that you are making?” And the developer said, “No, no. Of course, I have a really nice historic house that is huge.” And it was just so sad to me. I think if you are making anything, it should be good enough for you to love living with it.
Some empathy for the user, and even thinking of yourself as a user, is important. My partner, Hilary Sample, might have a different answer. But I like to imagine that everybody is more similar than different. Which is problematic in its own way. But if we are doing something like housing, you have to find some ways to think, “People like windows,” or something. Although I am sure there’s the odd person who doesn’t like windows.
SH: Walter Netsch?
MM: See, there is somebody. UIC’s Art & Architecture Building is really intense—a little scary.
SH: To get us back on track, we have gone from constructing your own identity as a quasi-fictional project, to meeting David Foster Wallace, to imagining the lives of people in your buildings. Those are intimately connected because it sounds like you are saying that you imagine yourself in the projects that you do as a mechanism for evaluating design decisions.
MM: Architecture is a service-providing profession. So, in some cases, you have a client that says, “I want to put my bed in a strange location,” or “I want to have a sink here.” And sometimes we respond, “Right. I wouldn’t do it like that.” But you still do it, and you have to still imagine it and think about it from a positive point of view. Not a point of criticism, but you have to get into it. You have to say, “Okay, let’s try to make it really work. Let’s try to think about how to make it the best version of this.” Architecture is not completely self-centered. It is part of you projecting into other people.
SH: That sounds like something an author might say, “You have to like your characters,” or “You have to find something that you like in them” in order to write them.
MM: I totally agree with that.
SH: How, if at all, does this translate to the material and formal decisions in your work? Specifically, I immediately think about your recent experiments with veneer. Sometimes you draw a material onto another material. Materials masquerade as other things, or consciously masquerade as themselves, such as marble with a drawing of marble on it. Which is a real collision of things that interest us. For instance, we are exploring the idea that character is both a word that you would use to describe your innermost self, like the most authentic you. At the same time, it is the same word that you would use to describe the most superficial you, like you get into character. It is completely an affect. The idea that the one word would describe the deepest and the most sincere and the least changing, as well as the most fashionable but the most fleeting affect. I think that that is something in MOS’s work that you make collide very explicitly. There is a fascinating transparency there between representation and reality, fiction and nonfiction, authenticity and fakeness.
MM: All these things, even the identity we were talking about, sits in a space between what is neither real nor representational, and both at the same time. At a number of levels, we like playing with realism. Even our book An Unfinished Encyclopedia of Scale Figures without Architecture, is like this. It is very consciously about how architects represent people, and humans in their work, and how architects represent humanity. And, at the same time, they are representations. At some point, when you take everything else away, and you look at these drawings, they be- come real figures. There is a space where they are neither purely a drawing nor a real thing, but somehow between them.
And the marble on marble is like that. We took real marble and then we made it like you are looking at a representation of marble. We are superimposing things on top of each other and we are interested in this condition where everything is piled up and all coexists in the same space. In our work, this remains relatively subtle, but others push it much more than we do. We get conflicted because buildings last a long time. Sometimes jokes can be funny in the moment but also have a short shelf life. Humor is always very context-based. It is of the moment. It is reacting to the audience or the last thing you said, trying to swerve it a little bit.
SH: There is something that I’ve noticed binge watching stand-up comedy sets. Like the way Kevin Hart’s comedy shifts as his life changes and he becomes more famous. He can’t do the relatable stories of everyday life because his life is no longer relatable. His context has completely changed.
MM: The last one of Dave Chappelle is really good, but there is still a little bit of that.
SH: Chappelle is the master. But he had to step away. To keep himself real, he had to step away when he was at his height. He still lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio. He had to step away to maintain his connection to himself and his life, his authentic self. This brings us to a quality of your work that is always really striking to me. It is at once super generic, seems mass-produced, like it is one of a million. Almost commercial, even. But then there is always something off. Idiosyncratic.
MM: We like playing with that edge of something being not designed, or primitive, or not sophisticated, or kind of dumb. When we graduated from graduate school, it was all about the parametric and high tech. We were even part of it, with exhibitions about scripting, etc. However, I have always been ambivalent or even slightly critical of mass-customization or the idea that computers will make everything unique yet still cost the same. We never believed it, and we went the other direction. Instead of smart geometry and all these things, we go toward dumb geometry.
SH: I know you were (or are?) really into electronic music and its production. Do you think this relationship to technology you have in architecture has anything to do with dealing with it in another discipline like music, which is about repetition, sampling, etc.?
MM: I still want to get back into music at some point in life. But, yes, I did a lot of music in college. While I was in graduate school, I did electronic music composition in the music department at Harvard. I was writing and composing pieces and doing performances. It was also at the time when you could download almost anything off the Internet. It was crazy. And I feel like nowadays, I am nervous that somebody will be watching me or something. Back then I could get sample banks that would have cost thousands of dollars if you were to buy it legitimately. You could just download it and use it.
I also did a project in Marfa, and Foster Wallace was part of it. I wrote theme songs for people. Everybody would write what their theme song sounded like in their own head, and I would just try to produce it as best I could. They would give me these beautiful handwritten notes with weird words that I have saved somewhere, and I would somehow have to try to figure it out. Some people were very precise, and some people were just poetic and abstract.
SH: Do you do anything with music now?
MM: I have all the gear. I guess if one day everything falls apart, I can turn to music. But that is the nice thing about having kids. I can project all these desires onto them. I have all the stuff around in case they want to do any music and inherit all the equipment.
There is just no time for me anymore. That is the other thing about the “whole architect” or “living the dream” or whatever: you are in it 24/7. Our office is downstairs and we live upstairs. A lot of times we tell ourselves “We are so lucky, this has worked out great,” because we don’t have to go anywhere. But the problem is, we don’t go anywhere. It is like we are in a submarine. I am walking around in my socks for two days and not leaving the building sometimes. There are these stories of Dan Flavin at the end of his life where he literally was in a bathrobe for years, just sitting, and people would bring things to him. They would write and talk about it, then they would move on. His assistants would come to his bedroom and he would be there, wrapped in a bathrobe, watching TV.
SH: That is how your dream becomes your nightmare.
MM: It is a nightmare because I could see falling into it. Deep down I feel like it is seductive. But to get there, I would have to pass through music first.