Serious Playfulness: 6 Young Firms Balancing Experimentation and Pragmatism

“Serious Playfulness” is a conversation among six emerging architecture firms in cities around the world that was by conducted by ARTIFIZI in collaboration with Toronto’s PARTISANS. The exchange took place over email, a remote correspondence that culminated in an intimate, multi-person dialogue, one that shows how even under lockdown it’s important to work creatively and keep the big conversation going. The participants, alongside Partisans, were Young & Ayata, SCHAUM/SHIEH, Miracles Architecture, Michan Architecture and PARALX – all of which engage in play and experimentation, yet are able to build their ambitious works through pragmatism and seriousness. These firms embrace bold visions and deploy them onto the space of the everyday.

Led by Alex Josephson, Pooya Baktash and Jonathan Friedman, PARTISANS has created a number of stellar projects, including the Grotto Sauna, the Union Station concourse and the restaurants Bar Raval, Quetzal and Gusto 501, as well as products, like the AZ Award-winning Gweilo light fixture. It has also engaged in the broader architecture discourse through its speculative projects and the publications Suburbylonia and Rise and Sprawl. Among its major upcoming projects is the bold master plan – called Orbit – for a community in Innisfil, Ontario.

PARTISANS principals Alex Josephson, Jonathan Friedman and Pooya Baktash
The recently completed Gusto 501 restaurant in Toronto’s downtown east end
Photo: Jonathan Friedman
Union Station’s concourse, with its UFO-like modules combining HVAC and lighting
Quetzal Restaurant, also in Toronto, is characterized by its softly sculpted ceilings
Photo: Arash Moallemi
The Orbit, an urban master plan for Innisfil, Ontario, features organic-shaped buildings

The conversation begins with a simple provocation: that all of the participating architects carry their work through a kind of push and pull between seriousness and play. In this discussion, seriousness specifically refers to the pragmatic, down-to-business aspect, while play refers to the freedom and license to experiment and produce almost-utopian visions. It is the seriousness with which the participating architects approach architecture that allows them to have their visions built.

The first question, posed to all participants, was: Does the distinction between seriousness/pragmatism and playfulness reveal new insights about the way in which you work?

Young & Ayata, New York

Michael Young and Kutan Ayata, founders of Young & Ayata
Young & Ayata’s award-winning entry for the Bauhaus Museum Dessau
The firm collaborated with Michan Architecture on the apartment building DL1310 in Mexico City
The Sonic Hut is an acoustic environment for one of the Cones from artist Harmen Brethouwer’s Bronze Bell Series
A model for a concert centre designed for Kaunas, Lithuania

Michael Young (Young & Ayata): The primary questions for Young & Ayata are aesthetic. We view these very seriously – it is through what we call “the aesthetics of the background” that we find a significant amount of architecture’s political agency. Challenging assumptions regarding aesthetics, especially one’s own sensibilities, is a laborious task, a daily effort. I haven’t called it this before, but it is a kind of pragmatics of play. Our design experimentation is positioned in relation to past projects the office has done, artwork we have recently seen, disciplinary research agendas, images gathered for lectures, etc. All of these sounding boards are the pragmatic labour of building a practice, a partnership, a project. Challenging them to be other than assumed requires a playfulness, irreverence, and curiosity in order to screw it all up into something strange and hopefully provocative.

Alex Josephson (PARTISANS): In 2020, seven years after starting our firm, we are asking questions we had never bothered to ask: what is our aesthetic project? What is our process or what makes it our own? Until this point we have just been struggling to exist, in a way, but now we are stepping back to observe. There are certain emergent qualities we are finding across our work. We find ourselves taking stock and asking: What impact do we want to have on the profession? What is our project?

Michael put forth a distilled and very thoughtful statement. We want to reflect on the idea he brought up about the “pragmatic labour of building a practice” as a core project. Our studio has always sought out work in unlikely contexts in order to stimulate technical growth, but also to allow ourselves to engage design in the most constrained circumstances. Along the way, we have encountered contradictions emerging between our work and the political intentions which began with the firm’s inception. It was in the Union Station project (our first commission at a larger scale) where we began to understand the political effect of disrupting the familiar. In this project, the familiar drywall ceiling of a food court becomes defamiliarized through the invention of a mutant HVAC-duct-cum-lighting-fixture: the hybrid pod.

Sebastián López Cardozo: Although achieved through different means, the end result of the work of Young & Ayata and Partisans is rather similar. In both cases there is an interest in the political agency that emerges with the challenge to the “aesthetics of the background.” In the case of Young & Ayata, this is explicitly stated, while for PARTISANS it is presented as a “disruption of the familiar.”

These aims are reminiscent of certain works by Postmodern architects like James Stirling – who created the infamous western entrance at Rice University, with its off-centre door and central column that awkwardly confront everyone who enters the building – except that they embraced irony, rather than seriousness and pragmatism. What, in your mind, are the limits of irony? And what are the benefits (or downfalls, if any) of the turn toward a more pragmatic or serious form of play?

MY: The ironic wink can be annoying. If you’re part of the crowd that gets the reference it is fun and funny at first, but when the “aha” moment dissipates, a different affect takes over, that of cool detachment. What we find more provocative and productive is conveyed by words such as “estrangement” or “defamiliarization.” These are attempts to intensify attention towards ordinary aspects operating in the background. This being said, the estrangement of the background can also be humorous and often produces surprise. When Stirling is at his best, we find these qualities (the side stepping staircase at Queen’s College in Oxford, for example). And it seems to me that Partisans’ “mutant-HVAC-duct-cum-lighting fixture” could fall into this desire to shift attention towards the subtle aesthetic issues that create the background of reality. Which in our opinion is absolutely part of the political agency of architecture.

AJ: For us, the background of our projects is not the physical context, but the political one. In approaching the Union Station project, for example, we were pushed to the point where we had almost no scope, no space to design and no time – as our client and the entire team around us had seen scheme after scheme get reduced by withering criticism or budget cuts. We were operating in a technocratic morass. Thus, to some extent, the site of the ceiling as our “context” was simply the reality of the scope we were confined to after much effort to define larger ones. We describe our work at Union as a stroke of architectural luck in a context that was almost happy to have us out, rather than in. To us, we are at our best when challenged or pushed to the point of discomfort. Architecture seems to be at its best when the conditions are extreme. So I welcome more extremes in hope that there will be a confidence that emerges that can produce beauty.

SCHAUM/SHIEH, Houston, Texas & NYC

Troy Schaum and Rosalyne Shieh, founders of SCHAUM/SHIEH
Photo: Yuko Torihara
The firm designed the acclaimed Transart in Houston, Texas
Photo: Peter Molick
The White Oak Music Hall, also in Houston, features super-sized signage
Photo: Peter Molick
The firm’s Blow Up the Wall! proposal was a finalist in MoMA-PS1’s Young Architects Program
Shenandoah House will be situated on the slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western Virginia

Rosalyne Shieh (SCHAUM/SHIEH): We have always wanted to be “serious” architects. I have a mental image of us dressed in blazers and leather shoes, carrying briefcases, perhaps on the way to an important meeting. The punchline is it’s actually two seven-year-olds, arms swallowed beneath enormous sleeves and oversized shoes. It’s a comedic tableau of what it feels like to grow into an architect. We in fact approach our work quite seriously, but sometimes crack ourselves up, oscillating between “yes, we can absolutely do this” and “hell, what do I know, I’m just making this up!”

Troy Schaum (SCHAUM/SHIEH): Laughter is a constant, laughter is method. Both of us laugh a lot – sometimes from discomfort, sometimes in surprise or joy. It’s a way to keep moving, to stay open and to pause when we encounter the unexpected so that we don’t immediately dismiss something that might end up being interesting. In the work, we hope this translates into non sequiturs, for example the pod-like room tucked into a rational plan or the funny little mismatched door that covers a teardrop window – both at Transart in Houston. What’s important is that these moments are not agonized, they aren’t necessarily expensive, but are visible to anyone who spends time in the building.

Alex Josephson (PARTISANS): What I think is so wonderful about your response is the joy imbued by your partnership within your architecture. There is also a play of form, a play of solid-void, which is an extension of your ethos. I would be curious to know more about the process or methodological approach within your studio that seems to be flowing through as a common thread in your projects. Does a style matter to you, based on that method?

We relate to the idea of finding our direction in a dark room, blindfolded; we are searching as well. The way it usually manifests is that we find a solution to a particular set of challenges with a very unlikely or improbable approach, one that has critical and formal value but that clearly raises the question, “Well, now that we know what we are trying to do, how the hell do we do it?” We then have to innovate at all costs. I think that struggle can then be substituted for the word “play,” because serious play, to us, means we are exerting all of our will to make something manifest, be it an idea or material.

TS: “Searching in the dark” certainly resonates for me. Searching in the dark also means occasionally stubbing your toe or bumping into things – and very often, each other! Collaboration is the one structure we can adjust and experiment with in our process which I’ve found, at its best, adopts the “Yes, and…” rule from improvisational comedy. Regardless of what one person says, the other accepts and takes it even further or builds off of it.

RS: We also say “sure” a lot to each other. For instance, the “funny little mismatched door” that Troy mentioned came out of an on-site conversation between the two of us. We were puzzling over how to make a shade for that geometry, perhaps exasperated that we’d designed ourselves into the proverbial corner. Suddenly, I realized, how about we just stop trying? Let’s just put a rectangle over it. I think Troy, who had worked so diligently to sculpt those curves, kind of looked at me unblinkingly and nodded. In the end, we are both really happy with that moment in the project.

TS: Yes, I think that responds also to what you name as struggle, Alex. We also struggle a lot even as we play, but every once in a while, we give ourselves a break, and it ends up surprising us.

Sebastián López Cardozo: To me, SCHAUM/SHIEH engage in a kind of bending or swerving of the familiar without changing the ontological composition of the elements they are working with (philosophically, it recalls Heidegger’s broken hammer). Troy speaks of the “funny little mismatched door that covers a teardrop window,” which defamiliarizes the door and window and calls for us to contemplate them, with discomfort and humour. PARTISANS, rather than bending the existing, often seems to work to alter the very essence of what they design, like their “invention of a mutant-HVAC-duct-cum-lighting fixture.” This call for contemplation not only generates surprise, but also asks us to reconsider the very meaning of the elements that are being altered.

AJ: The HVAC-slash-lighting-mutant is only ironic because we were able to tell a romantic story about such an under-loved aspect of architecture. It is funny to imagine that these HVAC pods could be described heroically, but hey! It’s not the size that counts, as some like to say! That being said, the design for these pods emerged out of an extremely uncomfortable and limiting context. Much of our other work happens in different formats and often larger scales as well.

Michan Architecture, Mexico City

Isaac Michan, founder of Michan Architecture
An inverted vault, this brick pavilion was created for METROPOLI 2018 in Mexico City
The 13-storey residential tower TL 2816 for Mexico City
Oku, a Japanese restaurant, with “three legs pulled down from the ceiling to match program and aesthetic ambitions”
Luma Cafe, and its ceiling lamp installation – a “boolean field of half spheres, deformed by cables with spotlights”

Isaac Michan (Michan Architecture): “Playful,” as you describe it, was the approach that led me to a formal experimentation at the time I started my practice. Given the opportunity to build, there was a moment where I had to negotiate “serious” inputs that inevitably ought to be considered in the design process. I saw it as a trojan horse strategy, with subtle interventions in order to build the ambitions I pursue.

Later on, I realized that the particular tension between these two agendas produced an unexpected quality. This led the work towards a provocation on the ordinary, a glitch on the everyday, where some aspects are taken for granted but others are challenged to produce weird coherences that de-familiarize the familiar (or familiarize the un-familiar). It was very refreshing to find this, as all the super expressive digital work that I strived for was becoming a cliché of how things were supposed to look in the future.

Alex Josephson: I really like your idea of the provocation of the ordinary, a glitch on the everyday. Disruption is, in a certain sense, a reframing of the banal. Even a slight innovation or response to the everyday breeds the possibility of beauty in the banal. For example, we took an everyday material – acrylic sheets, commonplace in the signage industry – and turned it into a dramatic lighting product: Gweilo. An architectural equivalent to disrupting that sheet of plastic is our Glitch Tower, which is our way of bending the Miesian glass extrusion. Even more to your point about the everyday is the way we reworked the terracotta block as not only a wall assembly but also as an aesthetic lighting installation at Gusto 501. The question that emerges from these thoughts, and which we often ask ourselves is: Is it okay to have more than one language of play? And is it rigorous enough in a world obsessed with singular aesthetic projects that are plodded on over a lifetime?

Sebastián López Cardozo: One may argue that there is a certain anxiety of influence at play in the search for a cohesive stance within the field. To what extent are your firms aware of their stance within the discipline, and how is it manifested in their outputs (both in academia and design)?

IM: Positioning with our own agenda while maintaining a clear dialogue with the discipline is something that I am very interested in, but at the same time I find it tricky. I feel that when you close yourself to a particular position in some way you need to stay on those terms. This can either further develop the initial idea or enclose the evolution of the project.

On the other hand, if there is no clear stance, it’s difficult to track down a line and maintain a cohesive body of work. I try to place the practice and academia among these poles, reaching the balance between tight and loose. Whether in a speculative project, a commission or an academic exercise, I search for a variety of opportunities either within the history of the discipline or with external outputs to establish an open-ended dialogue.

AJ: In a certain way, we live in a time that makes adherence to a particular aesthetic project rather difficult – especially given the abundance of technology and material choices. On the other hand, globalization tends to encourage the creation and export of recognizable brands, which in architecture could be translated to a firm having a signature style. My view in general is that our work at Partisans – which could be described as engaging in a sort of formal pluralism ­– tends to be defined against those who conduct themselves through a kind of monistic focus. Our tendency has always been to explore more than a couple of formal projects. When we sit down and revisit our work critically, we often try to narrow down and categorize the projects into a few cohesive streams, to avoid it from reading as a kind of hot mess of exploration. But who knows? Perhaps “hot mess” is also a signature style.

Miracles, Houston, Texas

Viola Ago, founder of Miracles Architecture
Thick Skin, an installation by Viola Ago and Hans Tursack, was installed at the A + D Museum in Los Angeles
Overly “reveals and interrogates latent visual structures in current architectural drawing procedures”
Poppy Red, an art installation, “borrows processes from graphic and industrial design (slick, high-finish, commercial processes like hydro-dipping films, flatbed printing, and vinyl applications)”
Understory, a pavilion created by Viola Ago and Hans Tursack, served as an ecological education centre in Columbus, Indiana

Viola Ago (Miracles Architecture): There are two primary drivers for my practice: the experimental component, which is typically visually driven; and the structural component, which characterizes the processes that are embedded in my work, regardless of the phase or scope of the project. The experimental component, which in this context can be referred to as “playfulness,” takes its cues from other visually oriented disciplines in both high and popular culture: art, film, media art, digital art, video games and graphic design. The structural component, or “seriousness,” is a little more fluid and is project specific. One example is the way in which I employ a series-based methodology in order to test an idea. However, the structure of my practice can also refer to the material or tectonic expression of my work.

Alex Josephson: Methodology: this is a really important point. We have been grappling with this in our studio in an attempt to understand what we do differently, if anything at all, than any other design-focused studio. Are we relying on a thought process that imbues our work with a stain or flavour arbitrarily – or is there a repeating series of investigations that necessarily leads to unexpected outcomes?

There are certain operations that we use in our office which could be called a methodology. We use large wall collages made up of images and sketches, which build up, change, and accumulate as a project develops. On most projects, we are also interested in rethinking the brief itself before a certain amount of the design process takes place. Thus, for us, design is as important for the brief as it is for the architecture itself. We play with the definitions and rules of a project from the outset, the major assumption being the original brief could be improved. At the moment, our office is interested in the mutations that occur not only formally from a tectonic perspective but also from a narrative or requirements point of view.

Sebastián López Cardozo: In the case of Miracles Architecture, series-based methodology operates almost as a blueprint for much of its production of work, and one is often able to read it in projects like Thick Skin. For PARTISANS, it is much less evident visually, and it is perhaps less consciously or rigorously deployed, yet it could be said to be equally productive.

What are the limitations of methodology? How does one ensure the currency and validity of methodology in a field that changes really fast? And lastly, why does one need a methodology?

VA: Thick Skin, which is a collaborative project with Hans Tursack, is an interesting project to bring up in the context of methodology. Our collaborative work has evolved from project to project in a very natural and intuitive way. In Hans’ case, his interest in seriality (as a method) spans across multiple projects; a good example of this would be his house series. For me, my interest in seriality as a method lives within one project, with small interferences taking place over time. I think our different approaches to iterative and series-based working attitudes creates an interesting and relatively complex (but productive) space for us to visualize, design and construct our architectural concepts.

As for limitations, methodology can be alienating if one becomes too dependent on it. Methodology is a system, and just like with any system, you need to develop a healthy relationship with it. I think it is a crucial step for architects to critically look at their work, question what it is responding to, and figure out how to allow their system to evolve or when to abandon it altogether.

AJ: We divide our own aims into three distinct projects that operate simultaneously. The first is a socio-political dimension of the aesthetics of activism, which usually manifests through criticism, debate and issues of affordability. The second is the creation of complex languages imposed on rational shells (or with strict constraints). The third is an object-based formal aesthetic for larger scale projects. The third one tends to be our weakest project so far. But we’re a young firm, entering into our seventh year as a studio. I’m optimistic that in time we’ll emerge into something that will somewhat resemble cohesion, if that is even our aim.

PARALX, Beirut, Lebanon and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Karim Moussawer, founder of PARALX
Renderings of the St. George Church display a celestial ceiling
The DL apartment in Beirut
The DL project features expressively undulating balconies
Y Chalet in the Ski Village of Faraya, Lebanon

Karim Moussawer (PARALX): It’s worth noting as I begin that we’re interested in the built form of architecture. We do embrace technology and rely heavily on its latest tools. However, it is the physical aspect that we aspire to explore.

That said, the pragmatic side of our work lies in the design process; it is the desire to challenge typologies, strip the conventional and explore the core problems. It’s about innovating and not accepting the “as is.” We defy preconceived ideas and don’t have a set architectural conclusions in mind. The collision between all project challenges – people, history, cultural values, constraints, codes, budgets, politics and environmental issues – become opportunities for effective design that leads to unexpected results. Such results, whether they are new or recreated, are often seen as bold and experimental — or playful. Although very distinct, “seriousness” and “playfulness” are inextricably interlaced. For us, with this type of architecture, it’s no longer about “why” but “why not.” It’s a paradigm shift.

Alex Josephson: It is interesting to read your perspective on the built form of architecture being primarily physical. We work in a context that is quite political: Convincing our clients to build something formally radical is followed by trying to convince a brittle bureaucracy that has no sensitivity to formal innovation. For many reasons, we see politics as the primary barrier to innovation in the built world. For example, in Toronto we have a regulatory system that conditions the possibilities for architectural mutation or hybridization.

Sebastián López Cardozo: For PARALX, most of the answers to their work appear once the project has been built, as opposed to during its conception. It is a strategy of “first make, then think” or “first innovate, then reflect.” For PARTISANS, on the other hand, most of the questions are sought to be answered within the design and planning stages, the constructed state only serving for final moments of reflection. Their ethos pushes for certain predetermined political results. To what extent does the political and cultural context play a role in each firm’s approach?

KM: Yes, in fact, we see architecture as a result of a design process, and these answers you’re referring to are a series of explorations along the way. In a lot of our work, what appears at the end is not necessarily the final answer; but rather, it’s a part of that exploration. It’s like an on-going work in progress.

In that sense, architecture, although static in form, is very dynamic. We practice in a region that is very diverse culturally, socially and politically, with thick layers of history. These constitute the platform upon which our work is conceived. Our projects are very contextual in that sense, and these contexts act as catalysts of innovative ideas — or answers as you called them.

AJ: The political and cultural context I referenced in my last response is a local one. I want to drive deeper into the larger social role architects believe they play today and our ability to effect change. In the context that Partisans operates in, we find a lot of missed public opportunities due to an opaque bureaucracy and NIMBYism. What appears safe and stable on the surface is in reality incredibly stifling for the design field. Working within this context, we find it necessary to be more pointed in our aims – not just through aesthetics and branding, but through a stronger fight on the economic end. Finance meets form. This constant and complex negotiation between finance and form, which is not new to anybody working in architecture, becomes more deeply embedded into the working process in a city like Toronto. We use it to our advantage.

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