In architectural discourse, the notion of separation — such as distinguishing function from form, exterior from interior, surface from frame — is a routinely accepted practice. Yet this differing treatment of ideas often leads to a disconnect with the concepts around which a project is initially centered. “Transformers,” a current exhibition in Hartell Gallery in Sibley Hall, seeks to reinterpret, rethink and recreate such traditionally accepted divisions.
Frame and ornament are the focal points of the exhibition, created by asensio_mah architects, a practice established in 2002 by visiting critics Leire Asensio Villoria and David Syn Chee Mah in the Department of Architecture. Through experimentation with varying transverse curvatures, they created a synthesis of frame and façade. The result is a focus on the role and application of tectonics, and on defining and describing complex geometries by using simpler typologies.
Mah says their “interest[s] in play and investigation with tectonics and the way of making” have been their primary foci in architecture and design. They value experimentation in both their built projects, and their design studios and theory seminars at Cornell. They believe there are certain things that one can only experience through speculative investigation. Out of this arises creative reflection on normative ideas and practices, such as the exhibit’s rethinking of the traditional façade condition.
Though the exhibition itself investigates one feature of architecture, it addresses the treatment of myriad conditions which correlate to Asensio and Mah’s architectural practice, as well as to their academic work. It is a culmination of thought that represents the underlying theories behind their designs. In addition, it draws from ideas behind a speculative work of theirs, a pool pavilion recently built for a client in Spain. Asensio stated that the conflict between quality and budget brought forth desire for a compromise that would not undermine desired aesthetic qualities. Out of this arose an inspection into modest materials and methods, expressed in their exhibit with the usage of simple yet elegantly crafted modeled curves.
The exhibition is comprised of a triad of composite curves with a common geometrical relationship. Each of the three prototypes is changed through variance in scale and degree of curvature, which in turn changes the level and number of curvatures. The resulting models describe how a façade can begin to exist as a boundary condition, and produce various perceptual and experiential effects at the same time.
The overall rethinking of the frame and its relationship with façade is an issue that relates back to Asensio and Mah’s investigation of part-to-whole relationships. Each curve in the exhibit is precisely calculated; each section of curved layers is one element in a progression of systematically produced geometric analyses. The overall product is what Asensio calls “a blending of layers that come together to create a smooth and refined bulbous form … a creation of wholes.” This shape may then be applied as any number of possible surfaces, such as a wall, a roof or even a topography.
Because Asensio and Mah maintain such careful control over their geometries, they are able to use tectonics to not only produce a specific shape, but also to create certain spatial and visual effects. The façade they deal with is not only treated as a periphery or a vertical plane; it serves to inform larger ideas such as programmatic, functional and performative spaces. While the exhibit only begins to explore the relationship between frame and ornament, the spaces imply a larger relevance.
Describing and defining complex ideas through simple relationships is central to the pair’s theoretical research and practices. The discipline they use in their process of investigation creates seemingly basic forms that are, upon further inquiry, quite intricate. Mah noted that in principle, all three forms have the same geometric relationship, as they only vary in their degree of curvature. Yet, the angles and depths of the curves produced show a complicated working methodology behind this controlled system.
The application of calculated transformations on display show how Asensio and Mah contemplate and implement architectural ideas into their work. The resolution and merging of discrete parts in a logical and sophisticated manner, with the creation of these three “protoframes,” represents an innovative way of architectural thinking. It is a way of working that can only accurately be described as simply complex.
Leire Asensio Villoria and David Syn Chee Mah’s “Transformers” will be displayed in Sibley’s Hartell Gallery, today through Sunday, March 23rd.