Glass ventures into the fantastic worlds of Bureau Spectacular, a design firm challenging architecture as we know it
Los Angeles-based design firm Bureau Spectacular don’t refer to themselves as an architecture practice, despite their work being architectural. Instead, they opt for a description that diversifies the possibilities of what they do and can do: Bureau Spectacular is “an operation of cultural affairs”. Speaking to Jimenez Lai, who leads the firm with partner Joanna Grant, I agree with his view of architecture, in that architecture is a confluence of many different disciplines. What’s truly special about Bureau Spectacular is that their approach to design is led by imagining new worlds portrayed, illustrated and coming to life as stories and cartoons. Narrative and storytelling are key components of their output. It’s a young firm with a small selection of built projects, but a plethora of ideas, and Lai believes that architecture, especially one that’s left behind – such as in Pompeii, for instance – helps tell a story of the lives that were lived in a different time. In this way, Bureau Spectacular upholds that architecture is an instrument for documentation, but also a catalyst for culture.
When did Bureau Spectacular’s ethos begin taking shape?
It’s a difficult question because it’s kind of like asking someone when they grew up. I don’t really know. So in a way, maybe we haven’t grown up yet.
Tell me a little bit about the use of humour in your work. To me it comes across as a tool, but also as a strong critique.
You know, the idea of a court jester is someone who can tell the truth. I do think that performing acts of criticism with a weakened smile is super interesting as a mode of operation. When we look at journalism and let’s say, look at editorial sections, the most critical criticisms are “Pulp Fiction”. They’re often caricatures and I think I would say that’s one of the aspects of criticism that you’re talking about.
You have to be intelligent to be funny. I think there’s a general misunderstanding that confuses seriousness with intellect.
I do agree with that, I do think it’s a difference type of intelligence.
You’ve always drawn cartoons. How much of your childhood is alive through Bureau Spectacular, and is there a project that you think this shows through more than in others?
I’ve always drawn cartoons, that’s true. Bureau Spectacular is 10 to 11 years old, and the first few years it was really just me drawing the cartoons, making the installations. I think at various stages there are projects that I find to be more exemplar. It was a little story that I made and published in Texas and the name of that piece was “When I Grow Up”. It could be that, I’m not sure.
So it’s a piece of writing, actually?
It was a drawing, like a comic, but I think as far as built work, it’s the Coachella 2016 project. It was really fun, we had a great time. It was unbelievable because we were on the same poster as Ice Cube. The organisation was easy to work with and we also had really amazing collaborators, especially getting to know structural engineers. That was a huge plus and we are still working together for as long as I’m having my building career. So to answer your question, it was really cool, exhilarating. The parties were really fun, but the process was also really rewarding; we got to meet incredibly talented people along the way.
Did you always have a clear, strong voice through design, or did you find yourself having to conform to traditional forms of making architecture?
One of my favourite professors once called me “unteachable” [we chuckle]. But we’ve since become friends and I think I know him well enough to know that he meant it as a compliment. I did try to conform, for sure.
How does your personal practice feed into your teaching?
I used to teach like I run my office, I used to, until – for lack of better words – it became a little boring to do. Over time I’ve taught a lot of core studios, these kinds of required courses that you’d expect an architecture student to take. In my studios now, I’m researching things completely unrelated to my practice, I would say. Inadvertently in the teaching, I will talk about how I generate form, how I tell stories, what colours and textures I’m interested in or which architects I enjoy. These are just kind of unavoidable and they’re the type of overarching conversations I’d have in the office, but I like to keep teaching and practice as completely separate projects.
If I were to look at your students’ work, would I see a little bit of Bureau Spectacular in them?
I would hope I see something else. There are a lot of people I admire, I’m talking about contemporary architects. When I teach, it’s a case-by-case scenario, but I want to understand what the students are into. I try to facilitate what they’re into. You might see practices that look like other practices when I teach. I think that’s maybe a better way of teaching and understanding. It’s more like being a better scout than a coach.
This experimental approach to architecture, what are its benefits?
I don’t believe that I should facilitate the requirements of a vocational school. I don’t think academia is for vocational purposes only. Yes, there is a vocational expectation that we have to fulfil and I very much respect that, but if it’s only that then I think we’re missing part of our responsibility. Something that is not necessarily vocationally meaningful thus appears to be outside of the ‘formula’ and, therefore, quote-unquote, ‘experimental’.
When you’re working with worlds of fantasy, what are the parameters that you consider to keep it rigorous and not let it become too wild?
I think understanding who we are and looking at the field at large helps to temper certain impulses to do something that is only wild or only mild. So I think just the awareness of the field introduces constraints to the wildness. I don’t think we should only be wild, but also listen to our other “bands”. What do they sound like? To understand what we contextually do. So that’s more of a logical answer.
Pool Party, Unbuilt entry for 2017 MoMA PS1 Young Architect’s Program Long Island City,
New York, 2016 by Bureau Spectacular
When I browse through your projects, the words play and fun come to mind. Could you tell me a bit of what play means to you as a design process and as an aesthetic?
There are a few words that I ban in my teaching studio and my office, and one of those words is “playful” [chuckles]. The reason why I have such an allergic reaction to the word is because what we do is really hardcore; we really try to understand different approaches to architecture. We’re definitely not fooling around. Almost every statement we make, we try to make it in a hyperaware type of way – earlier I was talking about a wink or a smile, a kind of tongue-in-cheek reaction to things – that type of approach is anything but playful, I think, it’s super serious, and I would consider ourselves really serious people. Sometimes I understand it’s meant as a compliment, but I don’t really understand how to take it. And there are other words I would ban: “picture”, I hate the word picture so much because I think it lacks specificity.
I’m drawn to your Cave of Hugs, because it is both space and architecture. How do you describe it?
This was a real competition we did. It was a school for the blind and deaf that was looking for a proposal and I guess we started looking a lot at Harry Harlow, an American psychologist. He did a lot of not just controversial, but I would say cold experiments on apes, monkeys. What Harlow did was deprive the mother and introduce humanoid sculptures, things that looked like monkeys in front of the baby monkey. One of the two monkey sculptures carried milk, was cold, hard and made out of wire; the other one had no milk, no feet, but it was a soft material, like a blanket.
What happened was the monkey would go to the harsh monkey for food, but would look for shelter and empathy with the soft monkey. And to me, that was such a striking understanding of not just human tendencies, but also ape tendencies; we don’t necessarily want sustenance, we need comfort. And so when we started working on this project for the school of the deaf and the blind, we thought handheld qualities would be really important; we needed to make something that was huggable, soft.
Tower of Twelve Stories. Coachella, 2016 by Bureau Spectacular
Field House is one of my favourites. During the day it’s a barely-there white structure, but at night it bursts into blue and purple.
We were on a pick-up, we use recycled fencing. Despite the cartoonish quality of our work, we really want to be environmentally friendly, and one of the things we pay attention to is the relationship between reuse, reduce and recycle. For this project we, once again, worked with Golden Voice, organisers of Coachella. They told us they had so much fencing left over that they didn’t know what to do with it. That stuck in our heads, that became something that we want to work on in the Field House project. Since we haven’t built so many things, the Field House project became a way for us to test the spatial qualities that we hoped develop more some day.
What does colour mean to Bureau Spectacular?
In a lot of our projects, when you look at them, what material we end up using is not specific. It may not matter what material it is. We choose colour over materiality. And why is that? You know, I think about flags of countries, for example: red and yellow could be Spain, could be China, could be Vietnam. Red, white and blue in itself conjures up such patriotic emotions among a lot of people; not even necessarily Americans, you could be from France, The Netherlands or Russia. Red, white and blue could still mean something to them. And I think, to me, it means that colour is a political choice.
Could you tell me, for Bureau Spectacular, what’s your mission? What drives you?
If we’re staying on the topic of experiment, the scientific method usually demands experiments to be written out. The first point is purpose – that is procedure, observation. I think the notion that architecture is both a means to document and also a catalyst for culture, shapes our purpose. I think in doing so, critiquing the status quo is so important, as architecture itself is an art form like art, literature, cinema or even music. Architecture should perform these types of cultural role. And I would say these are some of the reasons to keep going, for the moment anyway.
by Regner Ramos
For more information please visit Bureau Spectacular
Taken from the spring 2019 issue of Glass
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