On a recent trip to New York City, Modelo spent some time in the Manhattan office of e+i studio with founders Eva Perez de Vega and Ian Gordon. While there they described their backgrounds, what brought them to New York, their dream projects and where they believe the future of architecture lies. Full interview below:
On their beginnings:
Ian: It’s been a long history, actually. We grew up in Rome, where we met in high school. I thought I was going to be a skateboarder or a painter, and Eva knew early on she was going to be an architect. Then she went to Spain and I went to North Carolina. We stayed in touch through all that, and eventually converged in Spain. She was still in school, so I traveled to Spain and spent some years freelancing there and learning Spanish. We then moved to New York with a home base here. I had experience in two chunks: one was corporate, and the other was design-focused. In between was grad school at Columbia University.
Eva: We decided to come to New York when we started because it seemed like the perfect place for people who come from different backgrounds and don’t really feel like they fit into a particular location. In Rome, which is where I was born, we were part of the international community; studying with people from all over the world. So for me going to study architecture in Spain, was a bit of a culture shock, as was North Carolina for Ian. So New York seemed like the right home for us. As soon as I arrived I started working for Reiser + Umemoto, those were some very intense and very formative years. While there, I was also introduced to teaching, which was something I didn’t anticipate enjoying as much as I do. Now we both teach. Ian at the time was working at Perkins Eastman and then Studio Daniel Libeskind.
We both have a passion for architecture, but have parallel passions that have contributed to forging the way we approach our practice. Ian was a sponsored skateboarder in Rome and I was a professionally trained dancer. While in New York I went back to the dance world and I started collaborating with dancers and choreographers and really that’s how it started. I was doing research projects that mixed choreography with installation and working with a lot of the dancers I had trained with. Then that took off and we got more and more interest and dance companies were contacting us. In 2007 we did a project called Choreographing Space, an architectural installation and performance series supported by a grant from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. An organization that emerged after 9/11 with the mission of revitalizing Lower Manhattan by matching designers and artists with abandoned spaces around the area.
This was a pivotal project for us; we were contributing to the City at a critical moment and also exploring exploring the relationship between movement and built space, which is an interest that continues through a lot of our work.
In the meantime we were doing international design competitions, and in 2010 we won a competition, and decided it was a good time for Ian to join full time.
On their different roles:
Ian: It overlaps a lot because we have a shared vision but complementary strengths and different personality traits. We both like to experiment and often just play around with geometry. When you work alone it is sometimes hard to see tell if it is promising or not. So being a team and having another person who knows you and you know well, to bounce ideas with is productive. I think that the framing of the office, “e+i” already speaks to this. It’s us as a pair. We’re not interested in getting huge; we like being involved and invested in the process. We’re always pursuing ideas and projects that we find intriguing. It’s not like we only go after certain types of projects — it’s whatever will allow us to investigate our preoccupations, which mostly have to do with movement, dynamism, and fabrication processes.
Eva: Mostly the way of working is quite seamless in that I’ll work on the 3d model, for instance, — then he’ll take it, keep working, and I’ll pick it up again… It happens quite organically, but not without a lot of exploration from both of us. I don’t think we have a set role, but as a project develops the roles somehow emerge spontaneously depending on the circumstances. We both know what our strengths are, and we use that knowledge while working.
On discovering their voices as architects:
Eva: We spent most of our weekends during high school sketching in piazza’s and churches around Rome. We would spend hours this way. These early years of navigating and exploring the city’s many layers through drawing had a deep impact on both of us. We often refer back to those experiences while thinking through our projects. In some projects, like Piazza Ceramica it is more obvious, in others maybe not as apparent but it is nonetheless there as a generator.
In terms of school influences, in my case, I was always going against the grain, not purposefully, I just didn’t identify with the dominant trend of my university which was rooted mostly in rational modernism. I had to explore my natural tendencies towards non-orthogonal geometry by being even more rigorous and precise, which I think in the end was very formative. In my last year Federico Soriano who then became my thesis tutor, gave me full freedom and opened up a world for me where much more was possible. His innocent yet rigorous way of thinking had a huge influence.
And then Jesse and Nanako, partners of Reiser + Umemoto, where I started working right out of school, were hugely influential. Their vision for architecture where theory and a strong aesthetic sensibility work cohesively, I think made its mark. I worked with them very closely; it was almost a family environment. They also introduced me to teaching which is something I didn’t anticipate enjoying as much as I do, and it has become a very big part of my life. I divide my time between our Tribeca office and teaching at Parsons and Pratt.
Ian: My formative influences could be initially traced back to my Fine Arts training in Boston where I studied painting and then later during my years in Rome, which was very motivating historically and artistically. I think my interests regarding the visual and perception stem from this. Simultaneously, I was involved in skateboarding, entering skate competitions throughout Italy, and exploring cities in general. So, my interests in dynamics and movement are linked to these experiences. We continue to explore how the built environment can afford new ways of interacting and engaging.
My undergraduate years in North Carolina helped foster an appreciation of fabrication and construction. We had ample opportunities and sufficient space to build full-scale building mockups, and be engaged in the wood shop building things. So, I trace back my learning to building things myself to these years.
I later moved to New York and began working first at Perkins Eastman, where I gained greater office and field experience, working primarily on school projects in the New York area. Then later at Studio Daniel Libeskind working on a wide variety of high profile projects. My graduate years at Columbia shifted my thinking and process to a greater emphasis in working with the digital.
On their design philosophy:
Eva: For us the built environment should be informed by the way it is used and interacted with, encompassing the user as an active participant in the design process. We often conceive of projects by first mapping out movement patterns and possibilities of use. I remember one of my early professors being so outraged because his clients selected awful curtains for a project he designed. We are not interested in doing the kind of architecture that can’t absorb some ugly curtains- we are interested in proposing work that can evolve through use and a sense of performance.
Ian: We are very interested in work that engages the public, is site specific, and explores issues of fabrication, digital and material craft, movement and aesthetic spatial experiences. We also enjoy bringing in the logistical constraints of fabrication, assembly, transportation of materials, and budget into the design process, as they have often proved to be positive creative forces within projects.
On their dream project:
Eva: We’re always interested in projects that engage the public and have a cultural dimension, because they tend to allow us to explore issues of movement and public interaction. We have worked on a series of galleries and exhibitions, and it would be fascinating to take that to a larger scale — perhaps something museum-like with a component of dealing with large masses of people interacing with the spaces. We like looking at different types of movement through spaces. We often conceive our projects by looking at the movement that might happen in it, by the kind of affordances that a space can have through movement. I don’t know if that’s a dream project. It’s simply an interest we’ve had and would be a continuation of what we started.
Ian: Yeah, something like that where there’s movement and engagement with the public. Surface continuity is also a recurring preoccupation. We draw things and ask ourselves how these levels can connect and what kind of new experiences are afforded by that connectivity. We’re not so much interested in segmentation. We can work with that, but there’s always a preoccupation with mixing it up for providing a new, novel, cross-breeding.
On their design process and tools:
Ian: We do modeling heavily in Rhino, but also do a lot of hand drawing. In Rhino, it’s a mixture of Grasshopper and scripting. I like to experiment with other plug-ins, as well. We do tinker cross-platform with Maya, Max but mostly Rhino. The reason I’ll port over to another software for other meshing algorithms or other capabilities and then bring it back because Rhino is good at some things and it’s still developing at others.
Eva: Rhino is a powerful program which we use at different stages of a project. We sometimes just sketch ideas in 3D directly but also go back and forth between computer modeling, hands-on material experimentation, model making and hand-drawing. I like to tinker with materials and explore cross-disciplinary techniques of making, both physically and digitally. It’s a way of exploring ideas and seeing if something new and exciting can emerge from the process of making.
Ian: I like not having to use a single software. I like being forced to use other tools because other applications have different capabilities and it’s actually more inventive to be cross-platform.
On the future of architecture in the next 5 years:
Ian: I think there will be a lot more of a democratic connection to production, meaning fabrication and being more directly connected to the tools. Basically the machining, 3D printing, all those tools are more digital craft — but you’ll be able to engage with the production.
Eva: The idea of digital craft is something we’re really interested in. There’s the misconception that dealing with the digital is quick and easy, but there’s a high degree of craft involved. We’ve noticed that in last year’s we’ve been practicing, possibly also because of the scale of the projects we’re working on which are relatively small, we have a very direct relationship with production. In some projects we communicate directly with a 3D model with the fabricators, a highly crafted model that conveys how we envisioned it to be built. It is a very productive way of working, but not everyone is trained to do this, yet. So a product like yours that focuses on communicating directly in 3d is really relevant to where we are heading in architecture.
We are also very excited with 3D printing. We have a line of 3D printed accessories for the body that mostly emerge from our architectural projects; it’s this idea of migrating patterns from the architectural to the body scale. I think 3d printing is going to go far quite quickly and it won’t just be for the small scale. I’m excited to see that happen in the next five years. The possibilities are hard to imagine. Hopefully we’ll be able to test them.