For the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial, New York City-based firm SO-IL designed a site-specific installation, Passage, which reflects upon and destabilizes the spatial qualities of the ramp. The studio’s founders speak with New Museum Deputy Director Karen Wong about their design process, current projects, and “inventing magic” through architecture.

Karen Wong: I would like to explore the attitudes and themes of your studio practice through three current projects. Florian, let’s start with you and the Shrem Museum of Art in Davis, California. This was not a typical competition — you knew going into the process that this would be a design-and-build contract. You are on-site now. What have been the pros and cons of the D&B process?

Florian Idenburg: In this case, design/build meant that we had to generate a proposal as part of a team that included a contractor and associate architect. We also had to guarantee the total construction cost of the project — no room for overruns. Our fees were tied into the total number.

One thing we were quite excited about was that we could significantly innovate the infill of the canopy. Originally, these were just flat sheets of perforated metal, since this was not something we could fully resolve in the short time of the competition. Through precise modeling and geometry optimization, we were able to change this infill to triangular perforated beams, some spanning up to 35 feet, making the experience under the canopy substantially more exciting and memorable, in the way the light trickles through. We have a full-scale mock-up on-site, and it’s exciting to see this coming together.

Shrem Museum of Art, Davis, US, currently under construction

KW: Context and density have often framed your previous projects. In this case you were given a large plot on a campus setting. Did you have more freedom here?

FI: For this project, the site is very important on a number of levels. Let me try to explain. Davis is located in the northern region of California’s Central Valley. As you know this part of California produces one third of the US agricultural output, and currently this is the area most affected by the West Coast drought. It is an incredibly flat, geometrically organized landscape of production, with the Sacramento River winding through it. With the design, we wanted to heighten an awareness of this place, and the environmental conditions.

At the same time, the site is located on the edge of campus, not in the main area where the students hang out — so really at the periphery — while at the same time abutting the interstate between Sacramento and San Francisco. This meant the site was a focal point from the outside of campus, but within the campus it really needed to be an attractor, to draw people towards the building.

Lastly, the program was much smaller than the site. So our idea of the large canopy covering the entire site does a few things at once. It filters light and heat, making it an attractive place for the students to be, while making people aware of the climate. It also creates volume that appears larger than the museum itself, but with a lower threshold for entry.

KW: Since I am not an architect and I am not beholden to your vocabulary, I am going to make a brash statement. That chain link facade covering your Kukje Gallery in Seoul is damn sexy. I’m feeling some of that same energy in the canopy that envelopes the various buildings of the Shrem Museum of Art. Why the oculus? Elucidate the design process, please!

FI: In both these projects we use the outer edge as a soft border, a veil — which is maybe why you feel some sort of seduction. We do use material, daylight, and the edge to give buildings an aura, a tactile layer. We carefully consider the placement of material—and void—in order to create a filter, or frame, that makes one wonder. The oculus at the Shrem Museum allows for a view in, possibly creating intrigue. Once you’re underneath, it makes you realize the difference in light, temperature, and feeling between the various canopied areas.

In many of our projects we work very closely with fabricators, not because of some sort of obsession with ‘making,’ but because we know that every detail affects the total experience greatly.

Kukje Gallery, Seoul, Korea, 2012

SO-IL is a New York City design office that brings together extensive experience from the fields of architecture, academia, and the arts. Lead by partners Florian Idenburg, Jing Liu and Ilias Papageorgiou, it has worked on an array of projects including the Shrem Museum of Art at the University of California in Davis, Frieze Art Fair in NYC, and the Kukje Gallery in Seoul.

Karen Wong is deputy director of the New Museum in New York City, and cofounder of the Ideas City conference and NEW INC, an experimental arts incubator. She is also a board member of +POOL, Rhizome, and Apex, a mentoring and education program for underserved Asian youth.

This is an excerpt of a longer conversation, condensed and edited for clarity by Consortia. The full text of this conversation and many others will be featured inThe State of the Art of Architecture, the catalogue of the first Chicago Architecture Biennial. The book will be published by Lars Müller Publishers in November 2015.

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