Nataly Gattegno, 35, and Jason Kelly Johnson, 39, founded their practice in 2003 with a name that embodies their multiscaled, wide-ranging ambitions: Future Cities Lab. The firm, based in San Francisco, and with an outpost in Gattegno’s hometown of Athens, Greece, is harnessing sophisticated technologies to address pressing urban issues such as migration and population growth, food and energy shortages, extreme and unpredictable weather, and rising sea levels.
The two partners, who got married after meeting as students at the Princeton University School of Architecture, view the city as a complex ecology and the role of the architect as being grounded in ethics. “Our projects evolve from thinking about how cities should be,” Gattegno says. “We experiment to envision the future.”
The setting for these experiments is a loft in the semi-industrial Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco. The space—part conventional office, part electronics lab, part workshop—is a study in ordered chaos. “All our fabrication is done in-house,” Gattegno says. “We love experimenting and making things.”
Cabinets full of wires, circuit boards, and actuators line the walls, as do bins piled high with hammers, pliers, screwdrivers, and other tools. A freestanding clean room houses a CNC router and a laser cutter. The partners view every project, model, and competition as an opportunity to explore unconventional and leading-edge technologies. “We are firm believers in the necessity of design research and speculative practice,” Gattegno says. “In fact,” Johnson adds, “we have structured our lives around this.”
To support their burgeoning practice, both partners teach architecture at the California College of the Arts. Gattegno and Johnson have collaborated with various experts—material engineers, computer interface designers, and paleobiologists—as they have pursued a range of efforts: design/build projects, the prototyping of digital and electronic technologies, and beta-testing in many contexts, including a small host of gallery installations and temporary structures. Johnson also collaborated with architect Andy Payne to design Firefly, a set of software tools that augments the design capabilities of Grasshopper (a free Rhino plug-in).
The firm has won its share of honors, including the Architectural League’s 2011 Prize for Young Architects and Designers, and the partners were named 2009 New York Prize Fellows at the Van Alen Institute. Visionary practices such as Future Cities Lab can make profound contributions to architecture by shifting and expanding how we understand the boundaries of the discipline. But the firm’s biggest challenge remains: How to segue from more-or-less pure experimentation into the design and construction of actual buildings—a transition that Gattegno and Johnson’s former professors at Princeton, Jesse Reiser, AIA, and Liz Diller, once made themselves.
“Our practice model is inspired by practices like Reiser’s and Diller’s that are research driven and speculative. Both of them pushed and pushed until the work was material, spatial, public, and urban. In each case, the body of research aggregated to produce a very potent kind of architecture,” Johnson says. “In the end, we want to make space, to make buildings. We love the challenge of actually making what we are thinking about, of getting down to the details and imaging how it happens in time and space.”