November 21, 2010

Student Artist Spotlight: Jack Becker and Andy Linn

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Being a fifth-year architect is tough. You lose all your friends, you start forgetting about oral hygiene and moms get uneasy when you’re around their kids. Jack Becker and Andy Linn are battling these inevitabilities, and even though it’s an uphill battle, they’re doing their best. And that’s all we can really ask. When we sat down at Koko, however, they had actually remembered to brush. So with that hurdle cleared, we decided to have a little chit and chat about their ongoing work in Mumbai. That’s right, you bastards. India. A studio that the two gentlemen are taking has them designing an “extension of the city,” a living space that will eventually put roofs over the heads of Indians of all socioeconomic backgrounds. Up next is finding Bin Laden, followed by finding a cure for gonorrhea. I am a little suspect about the order, but whatever. It’s what men do.

Sun: So what are you guys working on right now?ANDY LINN: We’re given a program as if they were a client asking us to design something—JACK BECKER: It’s basically going to be a small city inside the larger city based on our understanding of India and Bombay … That’s basically the task of the studio. You could certainly disagree with the message it’s sending — that students in Ithaca could design housing for a country halfway around the world.

Sun: Jack, don’t interrupt. It’s rude.A.L.: Thank you, Graham. But yeah, that should be reflected in your design, that disagreement. J.B.: It’s definitely challenging as a design exercise, which in itself can be rewarding for students. On an ethical level, however, I think it’s a little presumptuous to assume students from our background can design this kind of subset housing.

Sun: Especially in that kind of setting where the social structure is such a carefully codified issue. But you did get to go over to India and check out the site, right? J.B.: Yeah, it was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had. I had never been to Asia, really, and it was an amazing place.A.L.: Yeah, I didn’t get my visa processed in time.

Sun: You lazy son of a bitch.A.L.: No, I had to send it to Houston since I’m from Georgia. Their fault entirely.

Sun: I had to drive down three hours to D.C. to get America’s approval to go to Europe, whole thing probably took a half hour. Large pile of bullshit, the whole process. A.L.: At the Italian consulate in New York, people come out crying all the time. There’s so much administrative stuff you have to have in order.

Sun: Nothing quite like a crying Italian. So how did actually going to the site affect how you approached the rest of the project?J.B.: I don’t think anything can prepare you for the intensity of the experience. You come into a place like that with preconceived notions and expectations in terms of an understanding of urbanism, but you don’t know how it feels until you’re standing there in this entirely foreign setting.

Sun: Are either of you planning on working internationally after you graduate this year?A.L.: A lot of architecture students work abroad for a year or two after undergrad with the understanding that they’ll come back to grad school afterwards. It’s part of our licensing requirement to become an architect, to work for two or three years before you can get licensed.

Sun: So it sounds like it’s a very structured progression despite the artistic intentions of — ooooohhhh man. I love food that moves, this looks amazing. What is that?SERVER: Steamed egg for everybody!

Sun: Nothing like a steamed egg, shakin’ and shimmyin’. So how do you think creativity factors into that kind of rigidity?A.L.: Well, it’s rigidity in terms of your technical responsibilities — we have to make buildings safe for people to live in — but the design of those buildings is completely up to the architect within the financial constraints of the project.J.B.: And you say rigidity, but I think it would be naïve to think that there are no imposed constraints on the art itself. Every artistic process is governed by rules, self-imposed or otherwise.

Sun: So how does that come into play with what you’re working on now in India?J.B.: We’re designing an extension of the city, so it’s not just a straightforward structure. You’re not just drawing what looks good on a page or what’s compelling in terms of space and volume — you’re designing how a city is going to work. A.L.: We’re arranging relationships between different forms within the city, there’s almost no discernable shape or form at all.J.B.: It’s not a shape that you feel or see when you’re on the ground, you know, it’s not tangible — the Manhattan grid, you can see and understand it when it’s laid out on a page but it’s not the grid you feel when you’re walking around. The urban form of a city looks a certain way on a diagram, but that’s not what makes it work — it’s just one of many factors. A.L.: The spectrum of the project we’re working on right now has to reflect that. It’s going to include the entire socioeconomic spectrum, from the poorest people to the very upper class of India. That’s something you don’t design for in architecture but we have to have an understanding of that in order to move forward.J.B.: The thing is, in India that’s how urbanism works. In a single 50-foot plot, you’d run the entire gamut of class in India. They don’t have the sort of stratified zones you get in a lot of U.S. cities. In American cities, you have entire districts that would be classified as ghettoes…A.L.: But in India you’d have that at the foot of a building and an upper class contingent up at the top of the same structure. So we’re designing for all kinds of income, which has kind of taken the place of the caste system since that became illegal.

Sun: How does that measure up against more conventional projects that you’ve worked on, like stuff you did this past summer working for European firms? How did the experience of an American education transfer there?A.L.: I think the processes and design are the same. I was working with an office that’s doing Milstein Hall, and I was designing in Rotterdam for an exhibition in Venice, so I got to install it there too. It was really interesting to see that in three very different places in the world the design process is so similar.J.B.: And on the other end of that, I was working in a small experimental studio in Copenhagen and I’d still agree with the fact that there’s always a similar approach to architecture. I was working with people from all over the world…A.L.: But our studio at Cornell does too.J.B.: Yeah, exactly, so it’s not necessarily a Dutch or Danish practice.A.L.: The architectural community is very international, more so than any other field that I’ve encountered.

Sun: Why do you think that is, Andrew?A.L.: Well, for the same reasons we’re doing that studio for Mumbai. When you’re designing spaces for other people you need to understand how exactly they live. People are more willing and open to moving around in the world when that’s on the line.

Sun: That was gonna sound creepy for a second there. Good recovery.A.L.: What?

Sun: Never mind. Going back to the integration of creativity into a structural process, how do you see experimentation factoring into the need to provide people with a space that fits their specific needs? I think it’s one of the only art forms where you have a really delicate balance between personal and professional preference…the definition of experimental architecture is different than any other form of artistic subversion, because you still have that general responsibility to create a structure. J.B.: Some people would say it’s impossible to subvert the rules of architecture, because at that point it would stop being architecture. It’s generally about following rules, and the ones that people do choose to subvert don’t fit that conventional definition. It would be like putting weird spaces next to one another or finding strange ways of moving through a building — but the building’s still there. But that’s also a reason you could choose not to call it art, because there’s really not much room to defy it as a discipline.

Sun: But it’s still an aesthetic process. As long as taste and a subjective process exist, you can pass judgment on it as art. Okay. I gotta go to work, which is disappointing on so many levels. Enjoy your steamed eggs.A.L.: I’m gonna.

Original Author: Graham Corrigan