Rising architect Jimenez Lai speaks to Glass about installations and absurdity
This year, Chicago-based architect Jimenez Lai received the Architectural League Prize, one of North America’s most prestigious awards for young architects and designers. Having founded his studio, Bureau Spectacular, in 2008, Lai’s work is worth paying attention to, particularly for its experimental approach towards design. Great imagination is shown in his recent publication, Citizens of No Place, a graphic novel that engages architecture through the telling of stories. Character development, relationships, curiosities and attitudes, are all explored in an architectural comic which jumps from the page into real life situations. Ultimately these stories are translated into physical installations that are both interesting to experience, as well as thought provoking.
Three Little Worlds – a three-part modular home at London’s Architecture Foundation – is the latest inventive project to be produced by his practice. The architect himself resided there for almost a week, painting a mural of his “cartoonish metropolis”, an activity that conjures the image of an obsessed artist. Glass managed to talk to Lai at Three Little Worlds, his first solo exhibition outside North America, to understand more about his remarkable installations.
What inspires the stories within your work? It mostly has to do with movies I watch, the internet I read, the history/theory that interests me, and the people/places I know. I also always try to return to thoughts that are very immediate to architecture. Do you ever begin your stories with writing, as opposed to drawing? They come hand in hand … but almost always, some form of writing or planning needs to happen on paper before the drawing. But I suppose one could apply this question to a songwriter – does the music come first or lyrics? I would say it sort of goes both ways. Sometimes I build an installation that I feel strongly about and need to make a story about it. Point Clouds is an example of that. The installation came before the story. In the past, you have lived in some of your own installations. What did you discover about your work through those experiences? Sometimes when I feel tired of my social setting, I disappear into the Briefcase House for a “spaceship hour”. I shut everything off – I do this for hours on end, even days – for me, it is a really great way to condense my thoughts and regain a sense of disassociation with the outside world, so I can rediscover things I loved and remember what I took for granted. In your work you have said that absurdity creates new possibilities. Could you explain this thought a little further? I think of the deviation of languages as an example for this thought. A dialect can occur when a collective people mispronounce things or rearrange the order of words in a grammatically incorrect way to address a lexical gap in the exact attitude of the expression. Given long enough, the mutation can reach a point where groups that once shared the same origin speak in mutually unintelligible ways. Genres and styles of the arts, such as music, painting, or architecture are not dissimilar. As a discipline that creates buildings, I value absurdity, or misbehaviour, because I see it as having the potential to open plural dialects in architecture and culture. Absurdity resists monoculture. Does it require a certain effort on behalf of the audience to access the fictions within your installations? I enjoy a fluid author-audience relationship, like a two-way street. I like leaving things ambiguous enough that the audience can connect their own dots, or make their own associations. Some of the problems with paper architecture are often the scale and scope. Are there any significantly large-scale projects that you hope will be possible in the future? Housing is definitely is something I want to work in. Cultural institutions, even. I may change in the future – but currently I have a very hard time seeing myself doing an office tower, and I probably will never design a masterplan. by Renyi Ng