Shortly after his solo exhibition wrapped up at Jai & Jai Gallery in downtown Los Angeles, I had the chance to interview Boston-based architect William O’Brien Jr. The show came about mostly as a result of O’Brien’s studies in Rome a few years back. O’Brien runs the independent architecture practice WOJR: Organization for Architecture in Cambridge. Upon returning from Rome, he formed Collective–LOK with architect Jon Lott and curator Michael Kubo. CLOK is an architectural collaboration that has lead to a nomination and final placement in the 2014 MoMA PS1 Young Architects Program as well as the winning entry in the Van Alen Institute competition in New York that same year. In between running studios at MIT and working on his firm’s and the collective’s projects, O’Brien produced “Artifacts Seven Objects Since Rome.” Check out our conversation about the exhibition, architecture, and music below.
Can you talk more about the development of the Artifacts exhibition?
Sure. I had the opportunity to live in Rome under the auspices of the Rome Prize Fellowship in 2012-2013. The Rome Prize is an opportunity to study at the American Academy in Rome. Each year 30 fellows are selected, two of whom are architects. The other 28 fellows are scholars or artists—painters, sculptors, composers, graphic designers, landscape architects, writers, poets. It is an incredible environment, as you’re surrounded by this group of very passionate people who are all working on projects related to Rome.
My project while in Rome was to look at old architectures and to question the contemporary relevance of the formal strategies that are used in baroque, classical, and Renaissance architecture. I became, and remain, preoccupied by characteristics like symmetry, axiality, and primitiveness in general. I was interested in trying to test some of those characteristics in a contemporary architectural context. Since leaving Rome, there have been projects in the office that have lent themselves to experimentation with the formal strategies that I was thinking about and looking at while in Rome. We decided to pick seven of these projects for this show… the ones that seemed to resonate most with the characteristics I was studying in Rome.
Do the objects represent real structures that have already been built or are in progress?
There are three types of work in the show. One type is commissioned projects. Another type is projects that are not commissioned but are designed to be developed in the context of a workshop. Then there’s a third type which is purely about experimentation without any external prompts or influences.
It was important for me that all three types of work were in the show because it is suggestive of the idea that across the varied types of work, there’s still the ability to have a single, overarching agenda that stitches them all together. Two of the houses are commissioned. Two of the installations are things that we did recently as design workshops—one in Bangkok and one in Rio. Then the others are experimental rehearsals of form that we wanted to do in the office.
The inflatable “Fortress”, that we made in Rio recently is one that I’ve preoccupied by… it is one of those projects that is straightforward, dumb, in a way, but when built yielded results that were rather unexpected. The material used, reflective mylar, has a slight transparency to it which meant that different times of day produced an incredible spectrum of environments inside the fortress.
Before you studied architecture, you studied music theory and sculpture. How did that background influence you?
I think that background got me really interested and fascinated by form in several different mediums. In sculpture, we were using clay, or miscellaneous pieces that we would collage together to produce compositions. In music, we were making form using sound as a kind of sonic material. The questions about form, in general, are the same.
I think it’s possible to have a value set about form that can be shared across different media. Having the opportunity to focus on form in a vacuum and being able to bring that interest to architecture probably got me thinking about architecture differently than, for instance, architecture as a service. I would say that having the chance to work on ideas about form within other disciplines shaped the way that I’m thinking about things now.
Since you studied music, is there a particular genre or musician that you draw inspiration from?
There are some composers who I was listening to a lot when I was starting to understand that there might be some relationship between form and architecture and form and music. I was really into a lot of the 1960s minimalist composers like Steve Reich, John Adams, and Philip Glass.
I won’t say that there’s a direct correlation between that work and the stuff that we try to do. There are some shared elements… like there’s a kind of distilled or minimal quality to some of that work. It tries to make sonic expression from minimal means. I think we’re, in a way, trying to do something similar where it’s about reduction and distillation of form.
I also like opera; baroque music which is all about embellishment, form, and decoration. There are hints of that dichotomy between minimalism and ornamentation here in the show. It’s worth noting because if you look at all the drawings, there’s at least two messages that we’re trying to convey with the drawings. One is the immediacy of the graphic in the drawing. Then there’s the grain, the tiny markings on the canvas that are intricate relative to the large scale of the figure. That intricacy is in some ways related to the desire to have a fineness, a kind of filigree of texture.
I’m certainly not trying to make minimalist architecture. Maybe there’s some relationship between the dichotomy of baroque embellished music and 1960s minimalism.
In terms of 21st century modern architecture, where do you think your work fits in?
I think the way that you asked that is interesting because 21st century implies the beginning of 2000’s. That’s an interesting time for architecture because 10, 15 years ago, anybody interested in architectural form felt compelled to be fascinated by what computation and digital thinking could enable form-making. There are several different schools of thought that emerged that took positions about how the computer could influence the way that one could conceive of new forms.
I was in graduate school right around that time so I, too, was fascinated by those tools. I still am in some sense, but I think now the work is taking a critical stance to some of the ways that we, as a discipline, became lured into thinking that alien form, form that’s plastic and dynamic, is the primary vocabulary that is affiliated with digital form-making.
I’m not the first to say so, but I think there’s a new generation of architects who are looking at where they were 10 years ago and saying, “We’re not anachronistic in the sense that we want to refute the possibilities of computation, but at the same time, there’s more than one way of developing form using computation.”A lot of the things in the show are unapologetically deadpan, abstract and almost dumb in a sense. I view this as a way to provide a critique of some of those other characteristics in which many of us misguidedly became really infatuated.
You ask where do I fit… I don’t know, maybe right now I’m a misfit in a sense.
All exhibition photos courtesy of Jaitip Srisomburananont, Jai & Jai Gallery, and WOJR.