“Treatise: Why Write Alone?,” organized by Jimenez Lai, brings together 14 young design offices to consider the architectural treatise as a means of theoretical inquiry, experimentation, and debate. The exhibition, currently on view at the Graham Foundation in Chicago, will be accompanied by a series of volumes, with each firm publishing its own title. (The Graham will host a book launch and panel discussion on March 28). How did Lai choose the contributors, which include Andrew Kovacs (Los Angeles), Bittertang (New York), Norman Kelley (Chicago and New York), and Speedism (Brussels)? “Generally speaking, they don’t do anything useful,” he says by way of explanation. “They do impractical things, or things that are not immediately remedial, or that are even somewhat unprofessional.”
That’s high praise from Lai, 35, who has developed a reputation as a provocateur with a longstanding interest in discursive practices and nonconformist approaches to architecture. His first manifesto, Citizens of No Place, a graphic novel, uses Japanese manga–style storyboards to explore the role of fantasy and storytelling (as well as theory and criticism) in the profession. And most recently, he curated the Taiwan Pavilion at the 14th Venice Architecture Biennale. His “Township of Domestic Parts: Made in Taiwan” was a collection of nine small houses, each with a single program, and each larger than a piece of furniture but not quite big enough to be architecture.
In October, Lai uprooted his Chicago practice, Bureau Spectacular, and moved cross-country to teach in the Department of Architecture and Urban Design at the University of California at Los Angeles. In February, I sat down with Lai at a bustling ramen joint on Sawtelle Boulevard to talk about “Treatise” and his plans for his new office in downtown L.A.
Welcome to L.A.!
Jimenez Lai: First, I want to say I miss Chicago. I miss Stanley Tigerman, FAIA, Bob Somol, Sarah Herda. They’ve been so supportive. I really found the time and the space in Chicago to produce my work. But it was a good moment of clarity to uproot everything.
In Chicago, I didn’t know what it meant to have an architectural practice or an art practice. I think it’s time for me to actually sit down and look at what these two things mean. And if I should have any ambition in both, it means that I also have to compartmentalize our activities in the office here in L.A.
I feel like the Rudolph Schindlers of the world, who moved out here to pursue a foolish path. I’m Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive or something (laughs). I’m landing here looking for a gig.
In “Citizens of No Place” and your current project “Treatise: Why Write Alone?,” narrative appears to play a critical role in the definition of your practice.
It’s super important. Everything we do in the office is super-deliberate and specific. For example, I wrote a bunch of texts for “Treatise.” One of my personal favorites is “Glue, My Only Weakness.” When I say glue, I’m talking about tectonics, how the success of certain buildings is oftentimes measured by their detail. But I wonder if buildings can be designed so that the measure of success is different.
Going back to writing, it’s pretty important for us to clarify these thoughts and to be very specific about what it is that we target and invest our efforts in. I mean, we can’t do everything.
You cite Steven Holl, FAIA, and William Stout’s “Pamphlet Architecture” series of books as an inspiration for “Treatise.” Are there other projects that inspired the exhibit?
Some of the others include “Matters of Sensation,” [a 2008 exhibit at Artists Space in New York that also featured a selection of 14 projects, and was curated by Georgina Huljich and Marcelo Spina, Intl. Assoc. AIA]. To me that was a really important show. And that was only seven years ago.
I believe that seems to be the right generational gap, seven to 10 years. There are also interesting and strange ways of defining generations. The oldest people in “Treatise” are Michael Young [of Young & Ayata in New York] and the principals of Fake Industries Architectural Agonism in New York. And by old, Michael Young turned 40 last year. But what’s interesting about that is Huljich is also 40, but she belongs to the previous generation.
How did you come up with the premise of “writing alone”?
There are two flipsides to writing alone. Writing alone can be good, because there is a sense of freedom and no overlord watching over your shoulder. But it can also be bad. I’ve kind of joked about Alanis Morissette being the “greatest” self-writer because she has no awareness of what sounds good (laughs).
That’s why I also think writing alone with other people is good—the idea of being able to compare notes with your contemporaries, who may be like-minded in attitude but not like-minded in genre. I have nothing in common with Softlab (New York), and very little in common with First Office (Los Angeles), or even Michael Young [all of whom are “Treatise” contributors], but I have admiration for what they do.
There are certain individuals that experiment by making—people I really admire—such as Catie Newell [of Alibi Studio in Detroit] and Brandon Clifford [of Matter Design in Boston]. And then there are also people who come up with ideas. Why are we building? What are we building? Those questions are really important to me.
Why did you decide to contribute to the book series?
I actually discussed this in depth with Georgina [Huljich] and to some extent with Marcelo [Spina]. Georgina and Marcelo did not include themselves in their show. And when I wondered why they didn’t, Georgina said that in some ways you don’t want to extend yourself that way. I can’t really quote her exactly, but it was a combination of humility and modesty, maybe.
When I discussed this topic with the Graham Foundation, they offered the flipside of that modesty, which is a sense of being above it. But I didn’t want to be above it, so the happy medium was getting involved and getting dirty.
“Matters of Sensation” was primarily an exhibition, although there was a follow-up in the journal Log 17. For “Treatise,” was the physical exhibition always an integral part of the project?
No, at first we were just going to self-publish, à la “Pamphlet Architecture,” which is a nonchalant, saddle-stitch work. It was really rough in the late 1970s. Steven Holl [who co-created the series with William Stout] was jobless at the time; he was pretty much homeless, too. He had just moved to New York from Seattle and had nothing, no one. And now he’s Pritzker-worthy. We were definitely inspired by that.
While I was in Venice, I ran into Sarah [Herda], and she mentioned that at a Graham Foundation board meeting they were discussing what it means for the state of architecture when young people are not given the space to experiment. I guess we were at the right place at the right time, and they wanted to host us. The board, as well as Sarah, felt that the exhibition accompanied by the publication would be a really great thing.
This does seem like a critical point of time in practice.
There is a definite sense of urgency. Youth is fleeting. Steven Holl was in his early 30s during the late 1970s. “Pamphlet Architecture” became an institution in the mid-1990s. Issue #15 in 1995 was the last Lebbeus Woods issue, and for me, that was the last time I paid close attention to it. If I had waited until the 2030s [to organize something like this], I would have been 50 years old. I believe something like “Treatise” is the work of young people.