Jesse Reiser and Nanako Umemoto by Andrew Benjamin

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Jesse Reiser and Nanako Umemoto have already produced a body of work that has exerted great influence on the practice of contemporary architecture. While that work reflects the current fascination with form generation that developed with the incorporation of animation software into the practice of design, their interest lies far more in the relation between materials and forces. Not just the potentiality of materials or the inescapable hold of gravity, forces can be understood as involving the urban field and programmatic conditions. Reiser argues that in an “idealist architecture, such as Mies van der Rohe’s, geometry seeks to transcend the accidents of matter. What we are doing is releasing potentials within matter understood as an abstract machine.” While abstraction looks like it stands opposed both to matter and to architecture’s need to be specific, this is not the case. To allow for abstraction is to allow for a conception of form generation that resists the impulse for instrumentalization on the one hand and simple idealism on the other, focusing instead on the potential inherent in materials and forces. Potential can only ever be realized when that in which it inheres is initially understood as abstract. In arguing against idealism, Reiser identifies what is unique to the firm’s undertaking. Many architects committed to the computer remain distanced from a sustained investigation of material possibilities. For Reiser and Umemoto, the choice is not between the computer on the one hand and tectonics combined with drawing on the other. In their work, not only does the implicit geometry of material inform tectonics, not only are materials able to register forces, but these elements cohere in the production of architecture.

All of these elements come together in Reiser and Umemoto’s recent work. In the East River Corridor Project in New York, for example, their concern was to analyze a site in such a way that a generative potential would already be at work in the object’s organization. While this is simply a description, what it allows is an easy transition to a discussion of materials. In other instances, what is always central is that the productive potential lies in the quality of the object and not in an ulterior concern that is brought to it. In their built work, competition entries, publications, and sustained pedagogical commitment, Reiser and Umemoto are at the forefront of innovation within the practice of contemporary architecture.

Andrew Benjamin How do you understand the relationship between architecture and materials? If there are changes in the materials, how do you adapt the architecture to them? Or do you think that the architecture should determine the materials?

Jesse Reiser Well, it’s an interesting question. The popular conception of the development of architecture relative to the development of technologies and the material developments that accompany them acts more or less as a baseline for any serious practice in architecture, which is to say that at least we have a modernist framework. There is a general acceptance of developments within material technologies, but typically those get incorporated into models of design that are already fairly known. In other words, many times you’ll simply see the same modernist organizational principles acquiring a new material sheath.

AB And so those materials are not exploited for their potential. They are in some sense restricted by the same old envelope or deployed in the same old way.

JR Right. The material becomes more or less coded into the architecture, and the way it is deployed becomes symbolic. The internal developments of the material wouldn’t necessarily be exploited. What I find more interesting than the material innovation per se is the way in which we as designers can begin to harness the abstract potential of the material systems—meaning that it’s not the use of a new material in a building that is of greatest interest to me, but rather that the matter itself, as a dynamic substance and principle, can actually inform the way we begin to conceive of how buildings can be organized. So it’s not entirely about the literal use of the material, although at the end of the day that finally has to happen if you’re talking about an actual building. It’s more about how we begin to understand the relationship of matter and force in a design process.

AB Okay, let’s take that point a step further. What is an abstract potential? I understand that it’s a possibility that is there in the material, but I think this opens up questions that have to do with experimentation and research and architectural theory. So tell me a bit more about what an abstract potential would be.

JR In the design process, you have to find a kind of currency within architecture, some vehicle to express change in the development of a project. And that currency is generally manifest for us in the way that geometry and materials work with each other. So in contrast to a more classical way of thinking, in which a geometric diagram defines the lineaments of a building, here we are looking at the way in which matter and force can inform geometry and actually begin to develop a notion of organization within space that’s based on those issues.

AB Is this development and organization only possible if one uses computers and specific programs, such as animation or CAD software? How much of this has been realized only because it’s possible with a computer?

JR Well, these kinds of issues have become thematic to a generation because of the advent of the software and the computer. But there is more to “computing” than the actual boxes sitting in our office. One of the things that we find very interesting in our practice is that we can make models that are actually physical analogues that compute themselves; the model is equally a kind of computer. That doesn’t mean that we’re rejecting the computer. Far from it; we use computers every day in our practice. But we find a very productive relationship between physical modeling and certain kinds of modeling that index forces in a literal way and how those inform our practice and the design we’re making. What I mean by indexing is that we set up models that are sensitive to external forces, gravity among them. Using these models allows us, first of all, to understand the structural capacities of the design we are generating and, more importantly, to register a wide range of influences, both programmatic and organizational.