Material Energies

March 8, 2010

WEATHERS, an environmental design office, envisions architecture as responsibility. It builds to break down the barriers between architecture and climate, landscape and urban planning, body and sensation. The work pursues the opportunities—spatial, organizational, and social—inherent in the building materials that influence our daily lives. Graduate architecture student Julia Sedlock interviews WEATHERS founder Sean Lally.


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Amplification installation, Los Angeles. © Sean Lally.

JS: I will start with the question of possibility vs. speculation. In your work, it seems that there is a genealogy of earlier speculative projects, like the ones of Archigram, the inflatables… projects that question the relationship between human beings, sensation and their environment. You are in a new stage of a similar project where much more is possible because of technology. It’s no longer a series of fantastical images or funny little gadgets. In a way, it’s much more settled because, all of a sudden, you can make it happen. You are working within the realm of possibility; pushing what architecture can actually be rather than just creating the image of what it might be.

SL: I think a lot of that comes from, in a way, the fact that this is the second time around. What I mean by this is, if you look at the work from the 60s and 70s, there was the kind of fantastical aspect of it because these ideas weren’t necessarily intended for implementation. What interests me the most about this is the question of “so what?”, spatially and socially. If we are going to do this, what are the trickle-down effects that may occur when these ideas are released into the system of our daily lives? It isn’t just a one-off thing that we interface with or explore but instead it can become, perhaps subversively, something that is part of our lives. At this moment, we have an opportunity to think about what that means for our current lifestyles. But I hope to always have this schizophrenia of unabashedly daydreaming on the one hand, yet striving to implement on the other.

JS: And yet, it seems like the project is still held back by the burden of proof, of showing that you can do this. You are bound by the diagrams, the thermodynamics, and the explanations that we actually can do this now.

SL: But I think that is shifting too. Going back to earlier examples within the office, I think there really was always this need to prove. There is always a diagram, there is always some sort of plan to show it happening, and I think that is shifting in our work because many of these smaller designs, specifically the Climate Design series, are intended to go into production. We tend to play out scenarios of lifestyles where it is, in fact, the end game condition that we are interested in by showing people spatial and social implications of the work, rather than storyboarding diagrams about how we came up with a concept. That has made a big difference in how I even lecture about our work or describe it. It’s really not A + B = C. That’s why we have D and E now, because you can’t really argue with it. I think there has been a real reversal in that.

JS: Which projects in particular are you thinking about?

SL: The Wanderings project is especially relevant to this discussion. It is a climate design project prototype that we are making. We just entered a competition in which we developed another project within this series called Undertow, where we had a crushed glass sub-grade infrastructure that you could walk on. It works with lighting and heat and many of the material energies we have been dealing with for microclimate design, but they would originate below your feet, so that you could arrange furniture circulation over or around it. It is a system intended for private gardens, or even larger urban landscapes. You could apply and configure the furniture around the various microclimates designed. Essentially, we did not design anything beyond the level on which your foot stepped, primarily because we wanted to see what kind of interactions it would allow. We did not want to specifically dictate where things had to happen: create a chair and place it here, or create a bench and put it there… Instead, we started with a larger field condition and then designed the climatic and microclimate boundaries in which people could locate themselves. It allows for those interactions and was intended as an exterior installation to act as an experiment as much as anything else. The office works at two very different scales: these smaller installations for testing out feasibility and behaviors of the materials and systems, and the larger building and urban scales that feed from that knowledge and then seek to tackle other issues.

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Wanderings. © Joshua White.

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Wanderings. © Joshua White.

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Wanderings. © Joshua White.

JS: I think it’s interesting that you brought that up because, in thinking about the Wanderings project, I was going to say that one of the more compelling images is the collage of the park scene where snow has melted in patches around the infrastructure. You start to understand what that really means for how people live and congregate in exterior spaces. But this goes back to the settled quality of it. This kind of representation seems critical to how you sell these projects, in terms of what is immediately and visually charged, what take a little time to sink in and really understand, and what might not be seen at all. This idea of invisibility also comes up in the work of Philip Rahm. You’re dealing with invisible sensations and processes, and I’m curious about how you think about that.

SL: It plays on a couple of aspects. For instance, we are showing the project Wanderings for two months at the Pratt gallery in New York. It is the first time that we are actually showing any of this type of work in a gallery because anything that we are trying to do is usually meant to be outdoors as it requires a feedback from the climatic context it’s situated within. The intention is not for them to be technological specimens on display on a podium that you can look. Instead, we use them as an opportunity to test the ideas, For example, the Amplification project in Los Angeles, which is deliberately located in an outdoor garden, became an exterior test to see how it could work and operate. The invisibility is a big issue because the materialities and energies that we are talking about rely on something more than the eye. So, even with the Wanderings project, you have to find secondary conditions that can index that shift for someone to understand it. In that case, it’s a snowy public park that shows when grass is melting or when people go from being solid masses to actually having color spectrum in their outline to express the interaction of the human body. That way you realize that they are feeding against the thermal conditions and that is actually affecting the physiology of the body. Visually, it appears to be an invisible condition but, in reality, you have to actually experience these conditions to understand that these other qualities are affecting the behavior, the thermal mass, the lighting, or the color spectrum. Whatever they are, they have potential implications but they are not based on just seeing an image, rendering, or model of it. And that is a big issue.

JS: Some people are working within that premise that architecture is image based and some are critiquing that.

SL: It’s a tough back and forth because we, as architects, are still trying to show people what these conditions are. So, as a designer, you are still publishing, writing articles and, at the same time, you need an image to show how the condition performs for the print media. So, either you default to images that have gradients superimposed on top of them, or, going back to the first question of the actual vignettes and scenarios, you have to have complex social interactions to test how these things work out, so you need some means for visualizing them. You have to play these variables out visually for the public to understand what dynamics are at play. Otherwise, the other option is to produce a diagram that explains either social interaction or some type of electrical diagram that says: this element gives off heat, it’s in a closed air cavity that radiates…etc etc, and then it just becomes a widget. Maybe it’s an issue of explaining vs. demonstrating. I’d much rather demonstrate it.

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Amplification. © Joshua White.

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Amplification. © Joshua White.

JS: It seems that you are fighting multiple battles at one time. First of all, there is the question, within the architecture world, of how is this architecture. But also, you are dealing extensively with the awareness of the body and sensations. I feel that this idea of comfort, and revealing how social interactions are based on people’s own awareness of their physical comfort, is one of the major contributions of your project.

SL: Or even rewording your question, what has to qualify as comfort and is that what we’re designing for? In a sense, so much of what we design for are these locations within the psychometric chart for the human body. We say it is a comfort zone so we seek to meet 72º F degree interior temperature and a certain amount of humidity. And it’s funny as you look back to the advent of air conditioning and conditioning of spaces at the turn of the century to see where these ‘standards’ come from and how little they’ve changed, and how skewed these standards were in the first place. But in terms of architecture and why what we do is architecture, for me it is the aspect of responsibility, meaning taking on spatial responsibilities (i.e. facilitating the activities you design for within these spatial configurations). I think that is why this project differs from these conversations of sensation, effect or mood, which as far as I can see from this work, doesn’t take on any real responsibility within the profession of architecture by way of spatial organization. I’m saying that these material energies (the materials I’m interested in) have physical boundaries, actual boundary conditions that can organize and distinguish activities. I think it was Robin Evans who said that as architects, our primary goal is to separate activities in a hierarchy that we define and, at the same time, bring them back together. I am paraphrasing, but if that is what we are doing, and I think in many ways it is, then I’d like to know how these materialities can take on that role? Giving them some responsibility other than being qualitative, ephemeral, and evocative of moods and atmospheres. I’m not saying the work of WEATHERS doesn’t produce such conditions, but it’s not what we hang our hat on, that’s not where the project starts or ends. Those conditions aren’t my motivation. These materials, these ‘material energies’, in order to become architectural materials, have to be garnished with a responsibility and can become useful in the organization of activities and programs. They can work to divide something or they can work to bring two things together. They don’t simply work as an ephemeral quality or by-product. I don’t do atmospheres!

JS: It is easy to give walls and conventional materialities responsibility because it is visually obvious how they distinguish one space from another but, in terms of temperature gradient, that difference is not so obvious. People will not necessarily see it and know that this is space A and that is space B. They have to be in it, experience it and move from one to another to even understand that the transition occurs.

SL: Sure, but there are other things going on at the same time. Just having an empty room here and an empty room there would not get people to go to them. There are other things that it is taking on. There are the other types of emblems of the activity, the congregation of other amenities that are embedded within it, or byproducts and trickle down conditions that might be visible.

JS: So, this brings back the issue of form, which must be addressed.

SL: Form does become another aspect of this. Just because our area of interest are these material energies, that doesn’t mean that we are form hating, or that form does not have a role. It just means that it doesn’t have to be the impetus of the design. It doesn’t have to be the top down, starting with the sketch. Even as you put pen to paper, it’s usually to describe geometry, not many people sketch in terms of gradients or intensities. Form has a different role. It doesn’t have to be the initial starting point for the organization that we then stuff with the mechanical, electrical and lighting to comfort that space. The material energies and their gradient properties can actually be an a-priori approach in the project; it’s the starting point. Then, certainly form can play a role, but it’s not the same as it would be if it were the starting point.

JS: At a certain point, when does the consideration of these properties become analogous to the role of structural engineering in getting a building to stand up? Once it becomes common practice among the architecture community, then can you just go back to thinking about how things look?

SL: But I think this isn’t an approach because it’s some calling. I see an opportunity here that we should play out and see where it gets us. We are going to play it out and, if it becomes a norm, I don’t think my next step is to react against it.

JS: I guess what I am trying to say is that every project of yours is about climate, but what if you had a project where all that was happening but the description was actually about something else? When does it stop being the foreground? Or is it possible for it not to be the foreground?

SL: One example would be the Tamula Lakeside Planning project where we are trying to talk about a gradient nolli plan, generally understood in black and white as what is public and what is private. If you basically were to do the same kind of plan of conditioned space and unconditioned space (interior air-conditioning and exterior climate) you would get a very similar black and white plan. This particular project was a mixed use lakeside project to create a strategy that could break that dichotomy of conditioned vs. unconditioned space. Our thought was that within the Tamula Lakeside Planning project we were organizing housing, commercial space, hotel and recreation along the lake. It was a large urban condition and the thought was to see if we could extend the seasonal activities in Võru, Estonia. It wasn’t about creating a complete new climate in the area but extend the activities that generally happen throughout the course of the year. And if you do that, could you actually increase commerce? Could you actually increase times of the year where people are outside using recreational facilities, pedestrian movement?

The same way we don’t question the fact that we have street lighting, and that street lighting allows for activity to happen once the sun sets, these other materialities can be deployed in such a way that you can extend the season or even look for other things do not necessarily belong there. There are of course always some subversive actions and repercussions to such moves, just like street lighting is nothing like the sun rising, these climatic creations will not simply be recreations of know preconditions, but something other. We sought to do this with buildings that were elevated off the ground with green house structures above them that would essentially create the necessary energy that would be released through openings in the floor plates to the ground plane below. Certainly the point of this approach is to provide them with a mechanism to look at an urban system. These gradient conditionings were the urban form. The question for us was how can that affect everything from the commerce to housing, lifestyle, the hotel to tourism, which is a big part of that? That was really the important aspect of the project. That was really what we were looking at. The deployment of these energies was just a way of saying that this is the system that can allow us to do that. And projects go back and forth, so the installations are really investigations of actually seeing if we can fabricate and test these concepts.

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Tamula Lakeside Planning. © Joshua White.

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Tamula Lakeside Planning. © Joshua White.

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Tamula Lakeside Planning. © Sean Lally.

Within the office we are trying to figure out the mechanisms that make these projects work, trying to record them and test them. Sometimes they are more tech-like because we are really trying to press for their operation. But at the same time, we work at much larger scales, like in the Tamula Lakeside Planning project or the Estonian Academy or Arts, where we try to figure out what the implications are spatially and socially when these material energies are the organizational devices for these activities and programs. What does that start to bump into and how does that actually affect large-scale organizational systems? So to answer your question, we do work in two very different scales because one is the mechanism or trigger and the other one is the larger organizational factor.

JS: This brings up the issue of technology and data. You mentioned in a previous seminar that, as architects, we don’t have to crunch the numbers like a structural engineer but we need to have a basic understanding. At this point, it seems that making it work and knowing how things work at a technical level is really important.

SL: It is, certainly. But at the same time, that is when you realize that you don’t do anything by yourself, that everything is done with other people who have greater knowledge than you. Those casual conversations will push your ideas forward. Equating it, for example, to structural engineering, you have basic knowledge of roughly how much something can cantilever. But what we don’t know is if it is possible under the realm of feasibility. The question I think with mechanical and all the material energies is really our current education and knowledge of them is in terms of how much room do we need to spec to leave for them. It’s not what you can do with them but to make sure you leave ‘x’ amount of space in your building so you can get that in there, and that’s a missed opportunity. It’s not really their performance that we tend to have a rule of thumb knowledge of, but rather how much square footage do we have to allocate for them to exist in the building.

JS: I am thinking of Michelle Addington’s piece in Log 17 where she is basically saying that basic assumptions are not enough. And that the basic assumptions that we make are wrong because the thermodynamics of interior space are more nuanced and complex than anybody can imagine. Even physicists haven’t learned how to model these systems properly because there are so many factors involved. I wonder if we need to have more integrated and intensive working relationships, and maybe this is an extreme example, but Cecil Balmond comes to my mind. His role as a structural engineer influences Toyo Ito, for example, where the roles of the architect and engineer are complementary. The engineering aspect becomes totally integrated with the design of the project. In a way, the engineering perhaps can make the design concept come alive in a totally different way. Is that a relevant analogy in terms of the role a mechanical engineer can play in thinking about architecture?

SL: Yes, and I think that’s why there are a lot more offices today like Transsolar, that call themselves climate engineers, or Atelier Ten. Those are all offices that are taking bigger roles within the design profession, and that come at an earlier stage of the project. I don’t know if it is simply a matter of thinking of a similar relationship by swapping out structural with mechanical. I just think that the more conversations you can have with people who know more than you about these various issue and fields, the better off you are as a designer. But I really do also think that as architects, maybe we all have to have the ability to make extreme speculations and see what is plausible. In our office, we have this back and forth relationship. I don’t have a blueprint that we follow and I definitely don’t have a strategy that we deploy in terms of working relationships. But those generally start off with what-if scenarios. What if we could do this?

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Undertow. © Sean Lally.

JS: You call yourself an environmental design firm rather than an architecture firm. Why?

SL: There are two aspects. One is that I am not a licensed architect, and I don’t currently have plans to become one. Business-wise, I also think that the way I see us moving forward with projects is really always through team building. Realizing that, whether it’s for the two projects in Estonia or future projects that we are working on now, even if I was a licensed architect, I would have to bring in another architect anyway when working outside of state lines or outside of the country. We try to build teams that basically add knowledge and, within the team, our role is essentially to bring up those what-if scenarios. Through the research we have been doing, the writings, and the objectives that we have, we outline a tent concept that can be implemented, explored and nurtured through a team environment. At the same time, these are our interests and investigations and we instigate that design conversation in each project. There was this ‘Low2No’ competition that was done, I think, in Helsinki where they put together large teams based on qualifications, and selected six or seven from that would ultimately submit proposals. I went back to try to figure out who the teams were that won (since we didn’t), and in a team of six, there were often only 2-3 titles that I would have recognized as a profession five-ten years ago. There would be an architect, a landscape architect, and an engineer and then, there would be someone like Experientia that does design experience, ARUP’s Foresight Innovation, or Space Syntax in London that does a kind of evidence based planning for social and environmental design. There are a lot of these kinds of offices that are becoming more and more prominent as designers seek more opportunities, not only as part of the market base, but in terms of creative opportunities.

JS: How does this play into this whole disciplinarily talk that some people seem to be focused on?

SL: I don’t know, and in a weird way, without trying to be trite about it, I think that discussion comes from insecurity. I think within the architecture profession there is a need to put the word architecture on everything all the time. It is the insecurity of somehow thinking that we are going to lose control of the profession, but instead we should be looking for new opportunities as designers. Does that mean that in the last year and a half, the office has become more of a landscape architecture office than an architectural office? Maybe. Is that because we’re following design opportunities that cross over into other fields? Definitely. I think within architecture there is this fear that the profession is being eclipsed by other disciplines and that somehow we are going to be moved out. If that’s the case, the answer isn’t slapping the word architecture onto everything. The answer is adapting and taking more responsibility, whatever that term turns into. That way again, with the term environmental design, it doesn’t behoove me in any way to not be called an architect. If I can still get the work and I can still play a role as a designer in the built environment, it doesn’t really bother me what profession I am representing in the process. I think we as an office are still finding our footing in this discussion, and as contracts need to be signed and legal responsibilities need to be parsed out, it can get complicated. When Dana Cuff lectured at UIC the other night, she mentioned the therapeutic gardener, and how now they want to lock it down as a profession where it would be a registered moment so that landscape architects and architects can’t do the same work,. That to me seems absolutely crazy. The fact is that we don’t need any more locked down professions, specializations that lock us out of creativity, not as a business model but as just an attempt to engage the environment around us. The issue with specialization is that it becomes such a small sliver that keeps you from engaging with the bigger audience or bigger knowledge base.

JS: I think the thing about holding on to architecture is not always an issue of control but of how the public perceives the role of an architect, which is often understood as service provider rather than speculative thinker or cultural figure…

SL: I am not saying that my role should be diminished in the process in any way. At the end of the day, I’m looking for opportunities to both realize these ideas while simultaneously continue to push forward and see where these ideas and avenues can bring us next. I was educated as a landscape architect as well as an architect and at this point I feel fortunate enough to have grabbed onto a thread that I’m willing to see where it leads me, what fields it brings me through, the business models that need to be formed to deliver it and the little worlds that we can create doing it!


Amplification Installation
WEATHERS, Part of the Gen(h)ome Project, Schindler House, MAK Center for Art and Architecture, Los Angeles, 2006–07, Curated by Open Source Architecture, Kimberli Meyer and Peter Noever.

Tamula Lakeside Planning
WEATHERS in collaboration with Morris Architects, Võru, Estonia, 2008

WEATHERS, 2009-2010

WEATHERS, 2008-2010