Le Corbusier once wrote, “In every field of industry, new problems have presented themselves and new tools have been created capable of resolving them.” He believed he had to look outside of the discipline—to the engineered designs of ocean liners, airplanes, and automobiles—to create architecture that captured the zeitgeist of the 20th century.
For Los Angeles–based Geoffrey von Oeyen, these modernist ideals remain applicable today, yet it is high-performance sailboats that represent the zeitgeist of the present. Trained in architecture at Stanford, Cambridge, and Harvard universities, von Oeyen cites Modernism and the work of Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as critical forces shaping his own work. “I always wrestle with [Modernism] in my practice; and make sure the work that I’m doing advances the discipline in some way.”
After a six-year stint at Gehry Partners—where he combined his work with his love for sailing by racing Frank Gehry, FAIA’s fiberglass-hulled Beneteau 44.7, Foggy—von Oeyen established his own firm in 2012. The small West Los Angeles practice focuses on a range of project types. Using technology and materials from the sailing industry as well as modernist principles, Geoffrey von Oeyen Design (GVOD) creates interactive spaces that leverage existing environmental forces.
For a recent project in the Pacific Palisades, the Project and Idea Realization Lab (PIRL) at St. Matthew’s Parish School, GVOD created an interactive, educational environment in a new technology lab and middle school classroom using sailcloth and rigging to compose a retractable shade canopy covering an outdoor teaching space. When students operate the canopy, “they see the forces, how everything is designed, and how it all comes together,” von Oeyen says.
The firm also has two recent projects in Malibu. One reworks an existing ranch house from the 1960s. Aptly named the Horizon House, GVOD frames views of the horizon between cantilevered canopies above and the pool below, which work together to diffuse light on the ceiling surface.
The other, the Case Room, is a work room addition to a Malibu residence for two attorneys in which GVOD uses north-facing roof monitors and a zinc roof to bounce and diffuse light so that different portions of the ceiling are illuminated as the sun passes across the sky.
Von Oeyen has explored the interplay between sailing and architecture at great length in both practice and theory. At the University of Southern California (USC) School of Architecture, where he teaches, von Oeyen designed and built pavilions with students where he used sailing techniques, ropes, and tension members in addition to fiberglass resin to make stretched skin surfaces. Last November, he organized an exhibition at the school, “Performative Composites: Sailing Architecture,” which included other designer/sailors like Greg Lynn and Bill Kreysler, to explore how new materials and techniques in sailing allow designers to reconsider spatial, formal, and environmental forces in architecture. The exhibition opened up the conversation about sailing to the architectural discipline and was later turned into a USC graduate studio in which students worked in teams to design future housing solutions at different scales using precedents in the sailing industry such as sails, rigging, hulls, and composite materials.
By looking at the way naval design leverages environmental forces like wind and water to deal with external forces—human occupation, space, and mechanical systems—while also creating elegant structures that are smarter, lighter, and stronger, von Oeyen is able to create innovative designs that have the potential to steer architecture through uncharted waters.