[Ever since his infamous essay "Blobs" turned the name of a 1950s movie monster into a groundbreaking design strategy, Greg Lynn and his Venice, California firm, FORM, have occupied a leading position in American design. He has applied his innovative mind to designing the Korean Presbyterian Church in Queens, NY, to imagining an eco-minded museum, Ark of the World, in Costa Rica, and to rethinking a residential community in Amsterdam, all while gaining an international reputation as one of the contemporary architecture's most provocative thinkers. Eva Prinz recently spoke to the architect in his Venice atelier.]
EVA: You are known for challenging the idea that a building should be a rectilinear box.
GREG: Vertical structure is overrated. In the end, there's no structural force that's purely vertical. It's just an expeditious way for architects to calculate force, to just calculate it in reference to a vertical column. But there are really very few buildings that have genuine vertical structure. Even in houses, the load isn't primarily vertical it's earthquakes, wind, and
lateral sheer. So, I always try to think
EVA: When did you begin working with this idea?
GREG: I had a strong reaction to the
emphasis that was placed on flatness and frontality when I studied architecture at Princeton. Rather than seeing the façade
as working like a flat sheet or a sign,
I began to think about the importance of
a building's mass and volume. A building should communicate in a more dynamic way
in order to react to the people moving
EVA: You were selected in 2001 to renovate a huge block of public housing in Amsterdam that was
built in the '70s. How do your ideas come into play in a renovation project like that?
GREG: The complex is a mega-structure
almost a kilometer long. We're changing the circulation and retrofitting the mechanical systems. The challenge was how to lift people up to their apartments without putting them all in elevators. We're using a mix of escalators, stairs, elevators, and ramps. It's a building that moves very diagonally. The force of the project comes out of its urban scale its massive event scale.
I feel that's where most of my intelligence is focused. It's probably where I do my best stuff.
EVA: At this point in time, the Korean Presbyterian Church in Queens, NY, is the largest project you've built. But you were recently commissioned to design a large museum complex in Costa Rica. How did that come about?
GREG: This man in Costa Rica was looking
to build a national museum focused on eco-tourism and environmental issues that would also serve as the headquarters for the national park service. In Costa Rica, you know, they've set aside half of the whole county for national parks. It's a really unique thing preserved wilderness, more or less, and old growth forests. He approached Frank Gehry first, and Frank sent him to me.
It was an idea so perfect for that place.
EVA: How is the project progressing?
GREG: It's still alive, but it's tough to
do a big ambitious thing in Central America. We worked like crazy and pulled together this whole package. We figured out how much it would cost and we even had the President of Costa Rica behind it. Everything was rolling, rolling, rolling, and then it all got caught up in politics. The funny thing is that any American company could probably get twenty million dollars in tax breaks if they wanted to build a factory down there and five years later, they'd want to move
to Taiwan. It's heartbreaking, because if there's one thing I really want to get built, this is it. But if there's one project that's a real long shot, it's this one.
EVA: But Costa Rica bills itself as a center for eco-tourism.
GREG: They have this image, but in fact, everybody just goes down there to play golf. The idea of getting some of those people to stay a couple of extra nights and go into the national parks ▄ it would start to add some depth to that image. But it's tough to get everybody to take the risk.
EVA: In recent years you have experimented with
a number of innovative approaches to fabricating objects. The coffee and tea set you designed for Alessi in 2003 was fabricated from titanium.
GREG: That was a lot of fun. We worked
with a company that builds military aircraft
components and private jets. They do one-
of-a-kind aeronautic panels from shaped
aluminum and titanium.
EVA: How did they do the coffee set?
GREG: It's the equivalent of vacuum-forming titanium. They began by cutting a mold out of graphite, shaped like a clamshell. Then they put two layered sheets of titanium inside the mold and place the whole thing in an oven that pumps all the oxygen out of it. They heat it to a thousand degrees, until the titanium gets soft. It's called "superplastic forming" because the titanium gets elastic, but it's still strong. We got very intricate detail and these great colors. It's incredible material.
EVA: You also used clear vacuumed-formed panels in the installation you executed in collaboration with the painter Fabian Marcaccio.
GREG: In 2001, I did an installation with Fabian Marcaccio called The Predator at the Wexner Center in Ohio. My closest colleagues in the art world are both painters, Fabian Marcaccio and David Reed. I talk to them all the time. There are also some architectural problems that a couple of sculptors are working on that I am following very closely. Tony Craig is probably the most extreme
version. He is working with interiors and perforated skins that produce volume and that kind of stuff.
EVA: Most of the innovative fabricators you use
are located near you in southern California.
GREG: Yeah, for example, there are lots of boutique manufacturers of car prototypes out here. They sculpt cars out of foam, coat them with chopped fiberglass, and then paint them with automotive paint, and do leather or upholstered interiors. A lot of architects have tapped into these companies. Frank Gehry used them to design his curved glass walls for the Cond┌ Nast cafeteria in New York. We've used them for shaping plastics and models. We also just worked with
a company that makes surfboards and boats.
EVA: Have you ever thought about designing an automobile?
GREG: I've been working with the industrial designer Ross Lovegrove from London and the architect Tokujin Yoshioka from Japan to try to get a car project off the ground. We're thinking about recycle-ability, fuel efficiency, and contemporary materials with aerodynamic surfaces. I keep talking about it as having a surface that's highly textured and spongy, and Ross wants to design
a car that's an odor-eater, driving around eating up pollution. We're trying to get
a couple of museums interested in an exhibition. We'll start from scratch and come up with a few concept cars. We want to play around with all kinds of materials and just see what happens.
EVA: Writing has always been an important means of expression for you. You have recently taken on science fiction as your preferred writing genre.
GREG: I took on the science-fiction genre because I found that architectural theory was always promising it was always saying, "Please, please in the future, think about architecture in this way." But in Sci-Fi, you always write as if it's already happened. It gives you a whole other approach to how you can write. More importantly,
I've started writing more visually. I try
to do all of my writing using an atmospheric vocabulary.
EVA: What do you think of the term "virtual reality"?
GREG: Architects have been doing virtual reality for over two thousand years. I always think of it as designing a thing that has yet to be specified or realized. Rather than virtual reality being a space detached from reality, I always see it as a thing that gains something by becoming real. The anthropologist Gregory Bateson always talked about how the virtual was the thing that had a kind of vital energy, an organic-ness to it. I actually love the term its represents the kind of thing that I am most connected to but when I say virtual reality to somebody, he or she immediately thinks that I'm talking about a web site.
EVA: In college, you studied environmental design and philosophy, as well as architecture. Today
you're a writer and theorist as well as an architect. What is the connective tissue linking all of these activities?
GREG: In the end it's geometry. I've always studied architecture ever since I was
a little kid. I had the full treatment, because my mother was the equivalent of
a stage mother. I could draw perspective before I was in junior high school. Visualizing geometry and thinking abstractly was something that came easily. When I went to college I got out of architecture for
a while, and majored in philosophy. Then
I realized that all the philosophy I was reading was really about form.
EVA: What else are you making right now?
GREG: I'm doing my own house, and I'm doing another house here right off the beach.
Both of these things are very new problems in terms of material and intimate scale.
EVA: Tell me about your neighborhood. Why are you in Venice, California?
GREG: Historically, Venice is a neighborhood that has been very diverse. There are a lot of artist's studios here. Charles Ray is my neighbor. You can get a cheap studio space, and it's close to the beach. Venice won't gentrify like Santa Monica, because there are immovable factors that are going to keep it a little rough.
EVA: What's an example of a successful urban space in Los Angeles?
GREG: The best is the beach. Really. On a summer weekend there are more people on the beach, and it has a higher density, than anywhere else in L.A. It's supposedly the most visited outdoor space in America. It's super urban. And the best buildings are, let's see, the Disney Concert Hall is great, the new Caltrans Building by Thom Maynes is great. Art Center has a new set up that's very cool. There's a whole lot that has been going on out here. I schlepped around Europe as an eighteen-year-old to see as much Le Corbusier as I could, but the amount of modern architecture here is pretty staggering. And I haven't really even scratched it all. I go back to the Eames house over and over again. There's a lot I love to go see.