Project Nissan Studios, La Jolla, California and Farmington Hills, Michigan

Architect Luce et Studios

Text Sheryl Boyle

Photos Paul Rivera/Arcphoto, Luce et Studios

How does an architect communicate with her client? For most, the process involves discussions and meetings, sketches and models, which then evolve towards a set of construction drawings and finally, a real building. For Jennifer Luce of Luce et Studios based in San Diego, California, the process also involves art. Luce is originally from Ottawa and studied architecture at Carleton University. Her passion for architecture and art is fuelled by an understanding of materials and detail that is made visible in her exquisite buildings. From the metal lace veil faade of the Extraordinary Desserts building to the remarkable wood, glass and metals of the Burton House project, the idea of art and architecture intermingle.

Two of Luce et Studios most recent award-winning projects that best exemplify the role of art in architecture are the Nissan Studios in La Jolla, California and Farmington Hills, Michigan. At the Nissan Studios in La Jolla, Luce employed several art installations which she inserted into the existing building. These installations created a dialogue with the designers at Nissan about the conceptual approach to the building even before the project arrived at the conceptual stages of design. This project is the home of a large group of designers for Nissan Design America (NDA), who create the leading-edge designs that provoke imagination and intrigue each year at auto shows across the world. The client, to be sure, understands design. The question of how the design process would proceed was as unique as the building type itself, and Luce was up to the challenge.

Several art installations initiated the design process in La Jolla over a two-year period. Initially, Luce had been hired to provide an interior design approach for a new studio in the courtyard of the existing building originally constructed in 1980. As they began their work, the process became more intriguing and elaborate. “We understood that the studios needed to reorient themselves to promote improved visual and verbal communication,” says Luce. The trust that was required for these two groups of designers to interact was developed through the language of the art installations.

The first installation was entitled Unveil and much like the 350Z roadster that Nissan was about to introduce to the world, the project was about bridging new thresholds. The intervention was installed in the Nissan Studios entry court and lobby, which architecturally severed the building, breaking up the communication of the studio from one side to the other. Digging through the Nissan archives, Luce found hundreds of drawings and sketches for the conceptual development of the 350Z. After transferring these images onto vellum, they were sewn onto a 50-foot translucent quilt which was then hung as a veil in front of the life-size prototype of the car. The car itself was placed behind a stretched sheet of glistening white lycra to allow its sensual forms to press out into the space but yet conceal the actual body of the car. This game of revealing and concealing allowed the designers to reconsider the courtyard space and open the programmatic dialogue between the design and production sides of the studio.

The second art installation was entitled Looking Forward–Looking Back and was revealed at a meeting introducing the architects to the 57 Nissan designers in the lobby of the existing building. The architects documented each employee by marking their spot on the floor with an X and measuring the level of their eyes from the floor, conceptually mapping their own individual perspectival vantage points. Each spot was then marked by positioning a stock automotive rear-view mirror hung from the ceiling at the eye level of each designer. The rear-view mirror conceptually collects the image of the past while simultaneously allowing the viewer to see what is ahead, and served as a metaphor for the design process that lay ahead at Nissan. In addition, the attention to each individual designer and the presentation of the collective created the ground from which discussion could begin regarding private and public space.

Luce then tied together the contents of their vast library and their exterior courtyard as spaces of inspiration and relaxation by producing the installation entitled In-formation Landscape. While working on the schematic design, the architects created a rubber planting bed three feet wide by 75 feet long. The bed is planted with 1,000 blades of bright yellow petals clipped to a metallic stem. Each blade is inscribed with fragments of text from library book titles and video clips giving the coloured petals a sort of pollen that can transmit imaginative ideas. This mechanical flower bed, situated in the public realm of the studio, “represents the infiltration of ideas from the outside world that informs Nissan’s process.”

The final installation for the project took place during the design development stage of the process, and opened a dialogue on porosity. A large palette of aluminum car body colour strike-offs were pulled out from the Nissan archives and transformed into a colourful translucent faade for the glass lobby space. The pattern and spacing of the panels allowed for visual connection between the spaces yet afforded a new lens that transformed both sides of the space. The strategy informed ideas of communication in the design of the spaces as well as colour and light.

While this strategy allowed the architects to present ideas to the designers at Nissan and to inform the design process over time, Luce describes the ultimate moment of success to be the moment her firm received a DVD as a gift. One of the employees at Nissan had created a short film about his personal impressions of the mechanical garden and had articulated his thoughts to the architects in yet another art form–film. The dialogue with art had moved from one of proposition and contemplation to one of active art discussion, and had clearly created a common ground for the designers of architectural space and automotive space to inhabit.

The final built project for Nissan created such an impression that Nissan further employed Luce et Studios to design their facility in Farmington Hills, Michigan, where the art of materiality and car design took another step forward. This studio had traditionally been the site where the designs from La Jolla were finessed into their final form. The architects took this attention to detail, materiality and light to create a sensuous architecture that allowed for seamless collaboration between engineers and designers, from concept to prototype.

Luce et Studios produced an architecture that mediates the industrial and the sophisticated. With great attention to the control of natural light, essential in viewing form and colour of the car designs, Luce worked out design spaces such as the presentation room which opens itself to the loggia via a 35-foot-wide, 20-foot-tall sliding door. This room contains the leading-edge technology to connect Nissan studios across the world and a screen that can project a full-size car design into the room. The interior walls are lined with bleached oak indigenous to Michigan, while the exterior is clad in California redwood, bringing the two distant studios together.

Materials and art installations throughout the project highlight those used for the automotive industry such as felt, metals and recycled rubber as functional yet artistic material interventions in the daily spaces of design. The studio design process culminates with a space in which to view the final prototype in natural daylight, yet which is concealed in secrecy from the outside world. The egg, as it is affectionately called, is a courtyard space that formalizes the event of allowing natural light to transform the body of the newly designed car for v
iewing and final revisions. It is an oval space consisting of a double-layered, perforated metal skin that spirals 30 feet into the sky. Full visual access to the egg from the adjacent main interior modelling studio provides a striking view that connects the artistic conceptual beginnings of an idea with the detailed finished product, analogous to the path which Jennifer Luce is so eloquently remapping in the field of architecture.

Sheryl Boyle is the Director of the Materials Laboratory and Assistant Professor at the Carleton University School of Architecture. Pal Rivera’s photography can be viewed at

Client Nissan Design America Farmington Hills

Architect Team Jennifer Luce, Peter Bernheim, Amy Larimer, Mauricio Lusso, Sharon Stampfer, Matt Shrader, Sally Harris, Aaron Anderson, Stover Jenkins

Structural Wallace Engineering

Mechanical/Electrical Albert Kahn Associates

Landscape Claude Cormier–Architectes Paysagistes, Inc.

Interiors Luce et Studio Architects

Contractor Turner Construction

Powerwall Consultant Eds

Architectural Metals A. Zahner Co.

Lighting Leni Schwendinger Light Projects

Area 35,000 Ft2

Budget Us$12 M

Completion March 2005


Client Nissan Design America La Jolla

Architect Team Jennifer Luce, Mauricio Lusso, Lindsay Bresser, Sharon Stampfer, Amy Larimer, Peter Bernheim, Matt Shrader, Michio Valian, Sally Harris, Aaron Anderson, Christopher Puzio, Wei-Anne Tang

Structural Nowak & Wiseman

Mechanical Vann Engineering

Electrical Empire Electric

Interiors Luce et Studio Architects

Contractor Kelchlin Construction

Powerwall Consultant Eds

Area 25,000 Ft2 Renovation; 9,000 Ft2 Addition

Budget Us$5m

Completion July 2005