Architecture “is supposed to be bold and it’s supposed to be large,” says Aaron Forrest, AIA, one-half of the Providence, R.I., duo Ultramoderne. “It’s meant to be a statement of some kind.”
This perspective, from architecture’s vanguard in the post-recessionary year of 2016, may be controversial at a time when many of the field’s academic circles are coalescing around the notion of design as a social utility and not as formal bombast for its own sake. And it’s not what one might expect from a firm like Ultramoderne, whose projects use simple geometry and everyday materials to create freewheeling and lightly programmed public spaces. But it is through its exuberant use of modest materials that Ultramoderne weds a generosity of size—and spirit—to budgets in line with architecture’s current mode of austerity.
Generosity is a key theme for the firm, which seeks to deliver as much public space possible with maximum experimentation. “In order to be big, you have to be cheap on a per-square-foot basis,” Forrest says. He and firm co-founder Yasmin Vobis—also his partner in life—work almost exclusively in physical models, eschewing slick CGI effects in favor of sawdust-spattered study models aided by bandsaws and C-clamps. Wood is the signature material for both models and built work for the couple, who met as M.Arch. students at Princeton University. Their appreciation for tangible objects over fleeting images reflects a sensibility they share with the Rhode Island School of Design, where they both currently teach.
The firm likes to push materials into “unconventional possibilities,” Forrest says. Vobis poses questions that drive the firm’s processes, such as “How large can you stetch this material?” or “How lightweight can it be?” They see themselves as heirs to the integrated formal and material investigations of early modernists like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—a clear touchstone for Chicago Horizon, Ultramoderne’s breezy, lakeside pavilion for the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial.
From its inception, Ultramoderne decided to allow the increasingly evolving structural possibilities offered by steel, glass, and wood to guide the expression of its architecture, “and the world hasn’t stopped changing since,” Forrest says.
The firm’s deepest explorations have been with cross-laminated timber (CLT), which employs layers and layers of dimensional lumber stacked at right angles to create massive and strong wood beams and panels. Chicago Horizon featured 8-foot-by-56-foot slabs of CLT—among the largest commercially available—balanced on 13 slender, wood columns. The Four Corners pavilion, created for a Boston Society of Architects exhibition on wood-building, explores the structural capacity of bent-and-gable construction, commonly used for barns, by orienting CLT panels in accordance with structural loads. The result is an unruly, deconstructed knot of gables that slot together and can only stand up due to CLT’s strength.
CLT itself has become something of a metaphor for Ultramoderne’s work as well as the firm’s preferred medium—it affords new possibilities for performance, fabrication, and formal gestures, while maintaining its distinctive, visible grain. But the firm's entry to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s 5x5 exhibit, "Spekulatius," grapples most directly with the idea of gigantic spectacle. It imagines monolithic blocks of wood for a polluted future dystopia where carbon-offset fees mean the only financially feasible skyscrapers are uninhabitable carbon sequestration machines.
Changing the public’s perspective is another theme running through Ultramoderne’s work, demonstrated by its Weir Farm project, which places view-finding poles along the grounds of the 19th-century pastoral Connecticut estate of American Impressionist painter Julian Alden Weir. Each pole, branded with colors common to Weir’s palette (Vermillion Red, Naples Yellow, Cobalt Blue), has a hole drilled in it wide enough for a smart phone camera. The network of poles are a landscape orientation device; planting visitors in the same patches of grass and looking at the same landscapes canonical artists luxuriated over. They cut visual noise out of the frame and focus on landscapes as isolated photographic compositions. The project's hashtag—#SeeWeirFarm—groups the resulting photos on social media, creating a collective impression of the park outside of time and distance. By setting up multiple venues for the artful documentation of nature, Ultramoderne’s landscape frames the everyday as art.
"Recess," Ultramoderne’s shortlisted proposal for MoMA PS1's Young Architects Program and Summer Warm-Up concert series, is little more than a ring suspended by layers of chain link, held aloft by wood struts. Forrest sees the proposal as a free-form schoolyard for social interaction and experimentation, and its simple wood and chain link materials cut through PS1’s occasional air of hedonism. But as one of four finalists not selected by the jury, it’s to remain a model, held up by wood stilts and chain link flexed into a rigid circle, seemingly light enough to float away. Like much of Ultramoderne’s work, the pieces and forms are prosaic, but the way they come together is not.
Forrest views Ultramoderne’s minimal compositions of space as a nod toward the work of early modernists. “There’s a lot of architecture in simplicity,” he says. “Our discipline went through a long period of thinking that things have to have complex forms or lots of pieces in order to be innovative.” Ultramoderne’s approach instead pares back formal complexity to showcase innovations in fabrication techniques and material experimentation. As Forrest puts it, “We try to force people to rethink their expectations of what a chain link or wood structure can be.”