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40. Focusing in the fog

Our train cuts through a desaturated dawn. Hazy, fleeting images of a carefully constructed landscape flash by in various shades of gray. The track runs perfectly parallel to an unswerving canal. Perpendicular to this connective corridor, endless rows of similar trees rhythmically emerge out of the thick of the mist. More and more signs of a meticulous modern world appear under the sun’s slowly rise. The free newspaper offered at the station declares that people living here are the happiest in the world, yet the mood is sad. Globalization brought quick ecstasy but a draining hangover. The idea of progress has become suspicious. Beliefs are regressive; tastes yearn for long-gone eras. Even architects over here profess a nostalgic modernity, romantically reviving radical schemes from the past. ‘Now that we have seen the future, can we please go back?’ they wonder.

Our office, SO – IL, is across the ocean in what once was the New World. Founded in New York at the beginning of the decay, it has provided shelter for natives of countries in various states of anguish, be it looming bankruptcy, ideological hollowness, or rising extremism. Voluntarily exiled from our frustrated utopias or unattained Shangri-Las, designing today for us is a quest for new common meaning in an evolving socio-political and cultural environment. We search for ‘growth-within’ at a time when the notion of progress has become suspicious.

‘To be determined’ has been our impulsive battle cry and modus operandi. While modern states go awry in their inability to reconcile inconsistencies inherent in reality, we question whether architecture has to be deductive and exact, and to what extent it can be shaped by fleeting uncertainties — whether those be programmatic, social, meteorological, or cultural. We are determined to work on projects that frame types and degrees of indeterminacy, projects that invite external activation or subjective reading. We relinquish control to introduce deliberate ambiguity. We believe that through leaving things open and unfulfilled we can

introduce an appropriable space for common exchange. Varying widely in scale and life expectancy, we create projects that through mediating layers define a multitude of charged voids. This issue introduces two projects in which this space-in-between materializes.

For Kukje Gallery in Seoul, Korea, we have ‘shrink-wrapped’ an explicit organizational diagram into an indefinable form. A carefully crafted veil of 500.000 hand-welded rings creates a permeable poché, a soft blur around the hard edges of the white gallery space. Producing this one-off stainless steel mesh involved a process of extensive computational and physical testing, and the development of a custom production infrastructure at a fabricator in Anping, a region of China specializing in the manufacture of wire mesh goods. Through stretching, coiling, scoring, patterned weaving, welding, bead blasting, electro polishing and cleaning, fourteen unique swaths of mesh were created. On-the-fly troubleshooting of problems and a rigorous quality control process in the form of sample reviews, factory visits, and custom specifications (with language on such issues as the use of the local car wash for mesh cleaning) controlled the production. Once on site, swaths were hung on the building separately and spliced together with loose rings to form a single sheet of seamless mesh. The space-in-between the mesh negotiates its insertion into a historic context and liberates the form of the building from any one encoded interpretation.

At Logan in New York, stretched fabric walls create diffuse borders between different workspaces and mediate between the virtual realm of Logan’s production and the SoHo loft building they inhabit. Extensive material research led us to a few possible fabricators who could supply the seamless stretches of nylon fabric that form the walls. A similar, yet more modest process of 1:1 mock-ups and an innovative installation procedures, overcame initial concerns about feasibility.

In both commissions, a group that includes clients, architects, engineers, and fabricators, embrace the risks and uncertain outcome (in form and effect) of novel material and organizational explorations. We strongly believe that designing today is catalyzing such processes of invention. Progress and its uncertainties are immanent in design, not for capital gain, but for the advance into a new territory of growth. Rather than modernist top-down utopianism, we strive to achieve a series of local heroisms – subtle interventions positioned in the murky space between modernism and the fear of its impotence. The uncharted grounds are fuzzy. Layer over layer we work towards a new kind of focus.

Editorial in Domus #958 May 2012