Canadian Architect

Feature

On Being nARCHITECTS

Formed by Canadian Expat Eric Bunge With His Partner Mimi Hoang in 1999, the New York Firm of nARCHITECTS Is the Latest Recipient of the Canadian Professional Prix De Rome. a Recent Interview Discusses Their Past, Present and Future Prospects.

February 1, 2006
by Nadia Meratla

Interviewer Nadia Meratla

Despite playing the game of architecture on one of the most brutal fields with fringes of ample and aggressive talent, things are going very well for nARCHITECTS. Canadian Eric Bunge, recipient of the 2005 Canadian Professional Prix de Rome and Mimi Hoang have cultivated a very substantial credo in both New York and on the international stage. In a city where loft renovations can be the pinnacle of independent success and even established, highly reputable firms toil to obtain ground-up commissions on sacred, saturated Manhattan turf, nARCHITECTS have surpassed both hurdles. The following conversation is a candid account of elements of their progress and progression in a harsh contemporary architectural context where their calibrated dynamic seems particularly well suited.

Was your intention to be in New York fundamental?

EB Both of us have worked in several different cities, so within the context of the younger architectural community that moved from city to city–movement that you can track from London to Barcelona to Hong Kong–New York is one point in that line. I guess the bigger question is why the US? This has a lot to do with our own relationship having met each other at grad school within the US which is, we think, an interesting place for architecture close to Montreal.

Did you consider any other countries?

MH We’re always thinking of other countries; we still are. We talk about Canada all the time, that’s number one on the New York versus something else list; it’s always New York or Montreal or Toronto or Europe. The grass is always greener on the other side, so we always look to up our colleagues in Canada who we feel are young but are doing interesting buildings. We also look to our friends in Spain, and the grass is really green in Spain. The number of public competitions and commissions that young architects get there we think is amazing.

What is the distinctive role of each partner? Do you collaborate in parallel or do you have distinctive roles?

EB In a way we both do everything. It’s hard to map exactly, we both have different strengths.

MH We have different obsessions and it cannot be categorized in terms of whether someone is more technical than the other. We’re both interested in technology, details, clear concept, diagramming concept. We each have our own idiosyncrasies. You should probably ask the people that we work with–they could probably answer that more clearly.

About the role of a marriage in a partnership, is there anything you’d like to say on that dynamic?

EB Not so much. I mean, many partners don’t even reveal the fact that they’re married. We don’t have that hang-up. We’re fine with that identity. It’s definitely one of the conditions that allows us to work a lot on things together all the time, so there’s an intensity to the collaboration that comes out.

What is your connection to Canada and what kind of influence did your Canadian roots have on you?

EB Being Canadian defines me as always being different here, but I guess New York has so many cultures and identities that it gets lost and you don’t feel necessarily unique. So the connection to Canada most importantly is family and friends, the politics and the social outlook, and also the education. My formation at McGill was quite different from an American formation at the undergraduate level.

MH I think McGill was a huge part of your formation. You have a very crystal clear memory of the culture of McGill from the particular professors but also the culture of a certain kind of making of ideas.

EB Now I’m teaching at the University of Toronto and travelling up there every two weeks for the Urban Design Studio. In terms of particular influences, we are still in touch with the Canadian architecture scene and there is definitely an influence at that level of architectural culture. It’s great because it doesn’t really get out that much and with the exception of some firms, Americans aren’t really that aware of Canadian architecture. And yet in Montreal alone there are like ten fantastic firms doing very good projects.

Do you have a most influential Canadian project or architect?

EB We like Mario Saia. We admire his work a lot. There are so many it is hard to name names, because ultimately you’re going to leave someone out.

MH Adrian Sheppard is a huge influence in your life. I am also really impressed with Saucier + Perrotte’s most recent work.

EB More than academia I think what Adrian Sheppard gave me was very much a love for the culture of architecture and a passion for knowledge about architecture, his generous, young flexible mind, his ability to still be surprised, and his engagement with young people.

What is the biggest difference in the architectural climate between Canada and the US?

EB Number one: the clientele–private versus public projects. Number two: the size of the projects. I think New York has been a very interesting place for younger architects but that has only really been in the last five years. Prior to that, maybe the largest firms were doing 90% of the work and maybe only because the discussion about design has been somehow foregrounded which privileges younger or other groupings of architects to take on a bigger role. If you talk about the actual architecture itself, I think that Canadian architecture has a much less complicated relationship with Modernism than American architecture. I think there’s an academic side to American architecture that on the one hand is thrilling but which also is quite disturbing. I think Canadian architects, without generalizing too much, tend to be much more in touch with materials, and because they’re working so much with public projects there is a relationship to modernity that has to do with “publicness.”

Do you have a particular mantra?

MH We definitely enjoy not having a specific methodology right now. There are three special elements that we are interested in somehow reworking or reinterpreting with every project. One is site, whether physical or conceptual, another is program, and the third is emerging materials. I think we’re interested in rewriting the program and rewriting the site as a way to get beyond the kind of problem-solving mindset that in architecture is sometimes quite tongue-in-cheek, but at the same time addresses and is grounded in real issues. For example, our P.S.1 competition entry looked at the multiple and complex identity of P.S.1 as a museum, as a former school, as a community space for art, and as a party venue, and we came up with fictional users and did these video animations mapping out a fictive trajectory that these users might take.

Do you feel pressure to reinvent yourself with each competition?

EB I don’t think we feel that pressure; we are always excited to have at least one material or tectonic or structural invention and that’s what excites us. When we built Party Wall, that was our first interactive installation. We’d never done one before so that was a real risk.

MH Also, we get bored–this is not the most lucrative strategy, but we don’t want to have the kind of practice where we’re churning out very similar types of projects.

EB We’ve always been consciously moving horizontally in the kind of materials and programs. We don’t feel the need to have a recognizable formal or stylistic expression. In fact, we are quite critical of some architecture that relies too heavily upon that. We want to be more fearless and go out there and try new things.

Is there a particular project that generated a mo
re significant amount of momentum to where you are today?

EB It depends how you define momentum. P.S.1 certainly in terms of press. In terms of actually getting clients, we haven’t seen a direct comparable relationship between publicity and commissions. Actually, I guess the Switch Building perhaps as we may have a new building [in the works].

Relative to a lot of the architects you’re compared to, for example in the recent New York Times article about young architects on New York’s Lower East Side, it seems like you’re much more media-savvy and present on a general level.

EB We don’t feel that, plus we look up to so many people from that article. Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis for example are also very media-present.

In terms of networking how do you guys get new work?

EB We don’t actively look for new work and we wish we knew how to; that’s a mystery to us.

So I guess your work is generated by the momentum of other projects?

EB Yes, and by chance. Actually, the majority of them are by word of mouth.

Is that how you got the Switch Building project?

EB Switch Building was complete chance. It was a walk-in from the street. Luckily we hit it off with the client and within three days we had the contract, and within two weeks had a schematic design. Since then, we haven’t had that kind of luck. It was complete luck, we just happened to be at the front. We get walk-ins all the time, this one just happened to be a really good one.

Do you find that being young architects is a marketing asset? I know in New York a lot of residential projects now are using architects as a marketing strategy. It seems that now it’s boosting real estate values. Is that the case for the Switch Building?

EB I am sure that’s the case for the client but we haven’t got a project directly from it. I think the prefix of being young is mostly a challenge actually. Unlike other countries like Spain. We have friends in Barcelona who are our age who are building ten times the amount of work we are. Relative to the world scene, we feel it takes a long time to find a built project.

Are you very conscious of the image of nARCHITECTS? You certainly have an image in architectural culture. Are you aware of that and do you cultivate it consciously?

EB I guess we’re obviously aware. But for us we’re just panicking about the next project and the next paycheque. I really think that ultimately all of that is so much less important than the actual work.

MH And trying to always do work. I guess what we have become conscious of, and what we weren’t conscious of so much when we were younger, is that we’ve become a little bit more careful about the kind of work we take on. We try not to do bread and butter things. We’ve been approached a lot to do the design of something without following through to construction and we always say no because to us it makes no sense. We invest a lot of ourselves and we absolutely want to be there for construction.

What is the significance of the Prix de Rome to you? Many people claim there is a kind of hex to the Prix de Rome that will curse you forever to not build…

EB Well, they changed the Prix de Rome and I think [they did so] to dispel the curse! So the way we structured our proposal was to choose a topic that really interested us, mostly one that we wanted to learn a lot more about–which is looking at energy and architecture on various levels architecturally and culturally. This will allow us to travel to many different places, [experience] various cultures and make comparisons. Also, to get to see a lot of wonderful architecture: Niemeyer… we haven’t been to Japan or Brazil or Morocco…

What is the research component?

EB We proposed either a book or an exhibition and at the very least a database at this point, of devices that different cultures have used to regulate light. So at a very banal level–skylights, building envelope, verandas, roofs, walls. We hope to use this as a bridge to meet architects and academics to talk about these issues internationally, and we have got additional funding from Davis Langdon & Seah International Academic Foundation which is a British international firm that provides various kinds of consulting including sustainability consulting. They’re giving us case studies to work on as well, some of their buildings in Singapore and four or five continents. In addition, they are giving us technical support. It’s more like a two- or three-year course. We hope to give something back and ultimately we hope to think of ways to organize architecture, not just in terms of sustainability which is a bit of a buzzword. We want to learn how climate or environment can be used as an architectural medium, not just a condition to mediate.

It seems you have all the ingredients in the trajectory of a successful architect: the Harvard diplomas, the Architectural League’s Young Architects Forum Prize, P.S.1 Young Architects Program Prize, etc. It seems you already have this natural trajectory to somewhere great. What is the next step?

EB We’re just trying to buckle down and build as much as we can. We’re not doing as many competitions because we do have a few projects under construction and we’re trying to build and learn as much as possible.

MH Switch Building is our first ground-up building, residential with an art gallery. For us, the ideal progression would be towards more public buildings. If it looks as if we have an easy ticket, for us it’s like having a daily heart attack thinking where are we going next.

nARCHITECTS operates out of a building on the Lower East Side that is essentially a cooperative of young, talented architects. They are striving to establish themselves in a neighbourhood that has become rampant with young, talented architects. Furthermore, within a city that sweats work ethic in its sleep, this is hardly conducive to the sous-underdog in a country that cultivates large corporate firms as dominant institutions. These young players are all talented, articulate, original, deserving, intelligent and highly motivated. The distinctions arise for no apparent specific reason. However, nARCHITECTS are surfacing like cream despite intrinsic resistance. Critical timing with market shifts, playing the international economy from an international stage to take the local stage, eloquent media darlings manipulating their image as practitioners while concurrently teaching, researching and collaborating. Certainly there are rules, formulas and stages to development, but at a certain point it becomes clear that intuition, desire and talent for the game within its constraints and systems are architectural elements that elude definition, but nonetheless cultivate success.

Nadia Meratla is a graduate of the McGill University School of Architecture. Formerly with Saia Barbarese Topouzanov architectes in Montreal, she is now working with Gluckman Mayner Architects in New York.




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