24 October 2013

LOT/EK's Ada Tolla: Objects + Operations

On Thursday October 17 I had the pleasure of seeing Ada Tolla, principal along with Giuseppe Lignano of the innovative New York and Napoli, Italy based architecture firm LOT/EK, speak at the Old Westbury, NY campus of the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT).  The talk, titled "O+O (Objects and Operations)" was, I imagine, a preview of the firms upcoming book of the same title, and focused on the firms innovative approach to architecture and materials.

LOT/EK is largely known for the work it does creating architecture with the ubiquitous shipping container, an object we are all, no doubt, familiar with but few of us associate with architecture.  However, starting in 1993, LOT/EK has stepped beyond the initially intended or the expected use of everyday objects, rethinking how things can be changed and used in unconventional ways.  This goes beyond the shipping container and includes objects both small (kitchen sinks, road cases, detergent packaging) and large (concrete mixers, water tanks, airplane fuselages).  To paraphrase Tolla during the lecture the LO in LOT/EK is noticing the inherent potential in everyday man-made objects, the TEK is the "incorporation, adoption, and corruption of the hidden systems" inherent in these everyday objects.  The Operation of LOT/EK is to transform these everyday Objects.

Throughout the presentation a barrage of images, within various given categories such as "Stack + Shift", "Tilt + Lean", and "Point + Hover", featuring items commonly found in an urban environment, were shown (lumber, packages, construction vehicles, manhole covers, etc.) accompanied by Tolla speaking of the objects, not specifically but both literally and theoretically; their material, their form, their intrinsic value, their impact, their beauty, their transformation.  Alternating with these bundles of images specific projects were discussed, ranging in size from a 30 square foot Theatre for One made of road cases and exhibited in Times Square among other places, through the 400,000 square foot Pier 57 mixed use project on the Hudson River currently under construction.  These projects, along with the others presented all share one thing in common; transforming existing, everyday objects into architecture.

I was first attracted to LOT/EK as a student working on the 2005 Solar Decathlon entry of NYIT, the same school this lecture took place. We had made a decision to include a shipping container in the design, I would be dishonest if I didn't point out LOT/EK's influence.  At that point my outlook to what architecture can be, as well as what can be architecture, changed.  I looked up books on LOT/EK, exploring their explorations and was fortunate enough to be able to visit the Mobile Dwelling Unit they had on display in the moat of the Whitney Museum of American Art.  As a student these ideas challenged my thought process and approach. What LOT/EK does is not a gimmick, while they are known for using shipping containers each project addresses a specific site and circumstance.  All designers work with a given set of materials, whether it's paint, fabric, lumber, or steel, LOT/EK has made the conscious decision to use materials of a notably larger scale.  LOT/EK takes an approach to design that strives to be "unoriginal, ugly, and cheap" while at the same time being "revolutionary, gorgeous, and completely luxurious."  They achieve this by considering a project within its context, both local and global.

After the presentation this past Thursday I spoke with Ada Tolla about how the use of these everyday, often discarded, objects represents a 21st century vernacular.  The objects LOT/EK uses are all around us and represent our time.  The shipping container speaks to our consumer culture, our worship of belongings, our insatiable appetite for everything, while the fact that they litter our ports highlights our wastefulness, our damage to the environment, and our disconnect from our community and culture.  Using these very objects addresses the issues we face, the changing environment, resource reduction, waste, social and cultural interaction.  Hopefully by changing these everyday objects into ones with different, more personal functions, the collective awareness of our surroundings and the impacts of our decisions will improve and help create a better world.

I will end with something Ada Tolla said during her presentation that stood out, and I expect will stick with me:  "to use something is to hack it, by changing something is to make it more truly itself...to circle around something is to avoid it, to put a circle around something is to face it."

Theatre for One
Pier 57
Whitney Studio

Version of the lecture given at MIT

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