servo los angeles: in flux
Known for their internationally exhibited installations focusing on the ephemeral attributes of electronic media, servo los angeles is now segueing these interests into a focus on architecture’s relationship with the environment. Founding partner Marcelyn Gow’s interest in the environment goes far past the standard discussion in architecture of louvered facades and recycled materials to an interest of how architecture can integrate synthetic ecologies with the fluctuating materials found in nature. I had the opportunity to delve into more detail with Marcelyn about these topics and how they relate to both her current and past work.
Thaddeus Zarse:Your firm, servo, was established with four separate partners located in New York, Los Angeles, Stockholm, and Zurich at a time when architects were beginning to be interested in the idea of the “network.” Knowing that the office has changed structure since its inception, did you find this experiment in networked firm structure successful? How did it affect the work and ideas of the office?
Marcelyn Gow: Servo began its collaborative practice at a time when digital technology was actively transforming the way architects design and share information. The network practice took advantage of the fact that digital modes of communication and fabrication enable a rapid exchange between collaborators in terms of input into the design process. In some cases, multiple partners became involved in shaping a particular project early in the process and at a certain point during design development one partner would take responsibility for the realization of the project. We have continued to work in this fashion. My practice, servo los angeles, collaborates closely with servo stockholm, headed by Ulrika Karlsson.
We are working on a forthcoming exhibition, “Aqueotrope,” in the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) gallery. The project reconsiders the green roof typology by creating an immersive roofscape that is comprised of three-dimensional ceramic tiles with differing degrees of porosity. We have been consulting with ceramic producers both in Los Angeles and Sweden to test out several approaches to the fabrication. This enables us to engage with different forms of expertise in different cultural contexts. The same kind of exchange is occurring with a pavilion project that we are currently designing to be installed in Stockholm.
TZ: With this forthcomingexhibit, “Aqueotrope,” and some of your other newest projects, such as “SHolm House” and “Hydrophile,“ the work seems to have a strong interest in ecology and microclimates. As much of the design world pushes for more sustainable models of practice, your response seems different than most. What prompted this change in the work (or is it one) and how do your ideas differentiate your work from others in the field?
MG: In the recent projects (“SHolm House,” “Hydrophile”) we have taken our interest in the coexistence of tangible matter and more evanescent substance or matter in flux within architecture, beyond working with electronic media into a context of exploring the entropic potentials of the interaction between organic and synthetic matter in architecture. This shift is inspired by recent discussions centering on a more conscious and resilient administration of energetic and material resources in the production of habitable environments. In response to this we are exploring how the design of architectural environments that have the capacity to embrace fluctuating matter possibly breeds a new strain of architecture. We are looking at the potential effects that energetic exchanges — specifically the transfer of heat, moisture, sound, and light through an architectural medium — may have on more extensive ecologies. The attitude toward states of balance and the lack thereof is relevant in this work not only in terms of the statics of bodies in space but more importantly in an ecological sense. Imbalances become active as the impetus of design innovation. In some instances this fluctuating material state is engendered through contamination, synthetic architectural systems become informed by the integration of organic substances such as vegetation; in others, through endowing material with sensing and actuating potentials, physically programming it to envelope and channel more evanescent forms of matter like sound and light. The current use of digital technologies for design, information processing, and fabrication introduces an unprecedented level of precision into our transactions with matter. In this climate of assumed extreme technological precision, there are inevitably aspects of our environment which elude control, that compromise and exceed the firmitas of inert substance. These aspects may be biotic as in the case of vegetation or climatic as in a gradual engagement with the surrounding atmosphere through the filtering and exchange of air.
Our approach differentiates itself from one in which architecture has historically tended to suppress the agency of matter in flux to one that engages with it; from control over, to complicity with, fluctuating systems.
TZ: The built work of servo to date consists mostly of installations, many of which deal with user interactivity and responsive environments. As you move into more traditionally-scaled architecture projects, how do these ideas translate into this larger scale of work?
MG: We have always taken into consideration the extent to which the exchange of information affects the material properties or organizational qualities of a space, and the extent to which this exchange is sometimes more immaterial in nature. In our early exhibitions we explored the material capacity of communication and how the flow of data reflects itself in the architecture. The spoorg project, installed at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture in Los Angeles (2006) for the exhibition “Gen(H)ome,” is an example. A cellular network of modules attached to the interior and exterior of glass facades and functioned as a light and sound modulating system by filtering sun light and creating an ambient sonic environment in response to external light levels. In more recent work like the Hydrophile Hydrodynamic Green Roof project, the ephemeral attributes of sound or light in the responsive projects is taken further through looking at other forms of ephemeral matter; for example, the flow of water across the ceramic roofscape into the green roof substrate as well as the vegetation in the pocket gardens of the roofscape that is constantly in a state of flux due to its growth and transformation.