For Brandon Clifford and Wes McGee, architecture has always been about the connection between drawing and making things, and the interplay between history and technology. Pursuing different degrees at Georgia Tech—Clifford in architecture and McGee in engineering and industrial design—the two met in the middle when they founded Matter Design in 2008. Clifford is based in Boston and teaches at MIT. McGee lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., where he is director of the FABLab at the University of Michigan. As the designers explain below, their firm has produced a range of research-driven projects at a variety of scales from product design to habitable structures.
On Their Design Approach
We would probably say we are designers more than architects, but we’re constantly negotiating architectural terms and theory; we see our projects Round Room, Helix, and La Voûte de LeFevre as being architecture. At different levels, all of our projects are connected to architectural research. Drawn Dress might be considered product design, but in fact we were questioning some of the typical sartorial references that are used in architecture. The “Skin + Bones” exhibition at MoCA in Los Angeles was happening around the same time, and there were a lot of references in architecture to pleating, draping, and folding. We were asking what it would mean if we employed our architectural tools to construct a dress.
On Digital Fabrication
We’ve always looked at how the translation from representation to making has occurred traditionally, and how that has changed with digital technologies—especially CNC and robotics—becoming more prevalent. As a rule, we have been building everything that we design. One assumption that we have always worked under is that we are a digital practice; 10 years ago the idea of being a digital practice meant you were producing renderings of impractical works, so that period was very much living in a speculative realm, almost like the work of the 1960s and Archigram.
When you get into the physical world, there are examples of very complex processes of the past that we can learn about—things like stereotomy from Philibert de l’Orme—and translate into digital processes. The work that we do is certainly digital, but it also has a feeling of being very ancient at the same time because we’re pulling references from times before the digital era. We’ve recently been collaborating with commercial and professional fabricators to develop novel processes, or re-appropriate existing manufacturing processes that occur in other industries and reapply them at different scales to our practice.
Those two projects, Helix and La Voûte, are interesting next to each other also just from the standpoint of the chance to work at different domains of production. The vault is able to be mass customization for performance, where every part of the whole structure is completely unique. In Helix, every stair tread is exactly the same, so we could work at a much more detail-oriented level because once we get that one part correct, we could reproduce it through the efficiency of the casting process.
On Historical Precedent
The history of architecture has been carved in stone, literally, and we have so much available to us—but contemporary practice isn’t carving volumetric stone. We’ve been trying to find ways to get back into mining some of the knowledge from those processes, moving incrementally from very light materials—like EFS foam for our project Periscope—to very heavy materials.
Round Room is a continuation of Le Voûte, and the closest to stone that we’ve achieved. Just after the completion of Le Voûte, we went down to Peru and found these zero-tolerance, voluptuous stone architectures in Incan ruins. For Round Room, we applied the Incan wedge methods and translated them into contemporary production to build a complex geometry out of aerated concrete.
We have a few projects in the pipeline right now. One of them is going to be a caldarium, or bath complex, in Singapore that will be constructed at the end of this summer. We’re merging some of the research Wes has been doing at Michigan for the past few years with complex reinforcing and robotically-bent rod materials to produce a rebar system for a complex canopy, leveraging low-tech materials for high performance to create a variable truss system. For us, working together is not as interesting if it’s only pure applied research. It needs to be materialized into a design project. So we’re looking at the new toolkit we’re working with and how it can inform something new.