Recently, Modelo met with the founders of the up-and-coming Brookline-based firm Gunadi Lamere Design (GLD — pronounced Guild). Cynthia Gunadi and Joel Lamere described their approach to design, the genesis of their firm, and their most recent work “The Grove”, one of four pieces selected for the Boston Design Biennial.
On their beginnings
CG: We were both in the same class at GSD when we started in 2002.
JL: Our first studio together was with Preston Scott Cohen, who ended up being a very influential character in both of our educations and might even speak to our trajectory. We both worked locally at different firms. I worked at Anmahian Winton Architects, she worked for Hashim Sarkis Studios. I started teaching here [MIT] in 2007 and basically right when that happened, an installation project cropped up that just seemed right for us to work on together. It was right up both our ideological alleys, so to speak. We took some research that we had been doing for a long time and put together “25-Arch Folium” in Baltimore. From there, we’ve picked up other installation and small-scale work.
CG: That was definitely the first project that gave us a forum for practicing together, though we had talked about practicing together for a while, and were looking for the right opportunity.
JL: The firm is just the two of us, and it is augmented by a bunch of great students that I have access to. They’re crucial. They’re basically the best students: very skilled and without hubris. They’re pretty heavily involved, which connects really closely to the ethos here at MIT. People here like to get their hands dirty, to actually try things, to verify how things go together materially. Our practice GLD is meant to be a play on the idea of a kind of medieval guild, of the craft. How you materialize things, locally and physically, has to be embedded in how you conceive projects. All of our projects have one material investigation that drive the entirety of the project to some degree, whether it be folding or inflating.
CG: Sort of serendipitously, the kinds of projects that have come our way are of the scale where we’re able to put ourselves in those investigations and capitalize on the maker culture here and the access to fabrication resources.
JL: And the tinkerer culture. We don’t assume anything is inherited. The tools that we use, the fabrication processes that we use — we still believe in invention here. Our whole premise is to take a set of tools, understand them as a set of constraints, then try to push them towards the edge of their capacity. And the same thing with the material palettes we choose.
On their roles in the firm
L: I think the roles are pretty clear. I am on an academic track. So if my time is split 50% between our practice and teaching, then her time is spent more between our practice — and that is a completely overwhelming sphere — and the management of our practice too. I think you’re much more likely to be the one answering the emails and organizing things, who keeps administratively everything together. But the overlap is the important stuff. We design together, we make formal decisions together, we argue about details and processes together. When I said it’s half and half, it’s probably not that. Most of our time is in that common sphere, and we both have the peripheral responsibilities.
CG: At the same time there’s sort of a fluid trade-off of things, too. You step in occasionally to do some administrative stuff, I step in occasionally to offer some sort of academic framing of the project. There’s a lot of give and take. I don’t think we would ever become a firm where we have those roles so concretely defined. We can look at as an academic track versus licensure track, but I think that’s a little misleading.
JL: We’re blessed to be working at the scale where firm structure doesn’t matter that much because we can communicate so openly between ourselves. It’s so easy to not have hyper defined roles because we’re always talking together. I’m sure structure will start creeping in once projects demand a rigid structure.
On their influences
CG: He mentioned Scott Cohen. I would add other critics we had at the GSD. Nader Tehrani was a huge influence on us–we both had him for studio, he was my thesis advisor, and he was chair for MIT when Joel started teaching.
JL: We wear some of our influences on our sleeves. The combination of those two as fathers, in a certain way, is pretty descriptive of some of the things that interest us. Scott Cohen’s commitment to geometry and formal narrative on the one hand was always tempered for us by the desire for material investigation. Nader Tehrani’s project in digital fabrication and the capacity for digital fabrication to return certain kinds of power to the architect and the design side. Ideologically, we sit right at the intersection of those two people, but at the same time we are a younger generation. So the way that we work and operate may not be like either one of those at all, but we might share some of their values. We’re much more likely to work less explicitly in pure geometric form and more in simulated environments that try to deal with the physics of forms.
CG: We also need to credit the firms we worked for before starting GLD. Our time in those firms was hugely important for us. Nick and Alex do impeccable detailing, which I see reflected in the way Joel designs as well. And Hashim was a huge influence on me–he’s a brilliant thinker about design and the built world, and his practice operates at all scales, so I got to work on everything from small residential interiors to urban master plans and learned so much in the process.
On how teaching and practice affect each other
JL: I think they’re integral for one another. We are doing these small-scale, experimental projects not solely for the sake of the production of objects, but also for the sake of shared bodies of knowledge that are a discursive enterprise. And that is almost completely parallel to how one imagines teaching. They thread together perfectly on that front. Another thing is that my students are integral both to how we do things and how we keep up with the world. They’re the next generation and the demands they place on me and us all the time are remarkable. They grew up steeped in a culture of computational environments and scripting that for them is second nature and that for us, we actually have to learn. Teaching demands that you are embedded in the current set of operations, at least when you’re fortunate enough to be teaching at a place like this where the students are amazing and the other resources are great. You just can’t fall behind. You can’t rest on a means of operating that you were taught. We couldn’t still draw in the way that we drew at the GSD, it wouldn’t make any sense anymore.
On their recent Design Biennial Project “The Grove”
CG: The call was for an architectural installation in a public space — a broad, open-ended call. We knew we wanted to go in the direction of furthering some research on shell structures and inflated molds. We brought this proposal that involved a canopy with hammocks, and it was much more of an inhabitable space. Then we were told this was too much of an enclosure, that they had envisioned more of an art object. And we were like, “We’re architects, we want to create spaces!” With a lot of back and forth we finally came to this idea of creating a spatial experience that can’t be defined as enclosure. This idea that you could put your head inside and engage with a space that is completely surprising and other to what originally seems like an art object was really appealing to us.
JL: Even though it was a bit painful for us at the beginning getting rejected on our other proposal, it totally benefitted the project in the end. This is a much stronger project than if it was an explicit space. I think there’s something even more pronounced about the fact that you can’t occupy it. There is a kind of beheading, or reheading, that happens when you put your head into one of these things, and it’s so much better than our other versions of this project.
We did have a set of biases both materially and procedurally that we wanted to continue to pursue. One of the barriers to entry for fiberglass to become a more common material in architecture is the conventional mold-making process and the limitations of it. The mold limitations, the scale limitations, the expense limitations, and the non-variability limitations. We’d been doing work and research into the idea of inflatable molds. Basically you make a balloon first, and then you can put fiberglass around that balloon. A balloon that is actually tailored out of a very heavy-duty material, like vinyl, that allows you to produce, quite easily, complex geometries and forms. It’s much like making a pair of jeans. You can take this vinyl and sew it into any number of shapes and then when you inflate it, that produces a rigid object that you can then cast around. It can be quickly and cheaply produced, and produced very variably because there isn’t much preciousness in a mold that you just sewed together. That’s one line of research that we knew we were going to pick up on. Research, for us, has to be to some degree about transferability, the premise that this stuff will actually find its way into architecture. It’s not meant to produce a one-off. We’re hoping that other people are excited about the idea of inflatable molds, and that it finds its way into other projects as well. It’s a very viable way for us to overcome one of the limitations for fiberglass composites becoming more ubiquitous in architecture.
On their tools:
CG: We almost exclusively use Rhino with Grasshopper and Kangaroo. For this particular project, the challenge was that the simulation of inflation is actually incredibly hard to do well. When we were trying to figure out how to get those booleans to work between the inflated shapes, we had to simulate, intersect, and project those intersections back to the un-inflated shapes to actually produce a mold with those lines inscribed, so they would end up in the right positions when inflated. We were very nervous about that.
JL: That’s one of the scary parts about installations, generally. You don’t get to make it twice. Unlike a building, where you can make a mock-up and let it sit outside for six months while all the other stuff happens. Here, the first time you make it is supposed to be the only time that you make it, and so this weird problem of simulation versus physicalization was out there until basically the last day. The simulation is totally crucial here.
On Collaborating with clients
JL: It depends a lot on audience. There’s something about 2D drawings that allow you to bracket so many concerns. You show a 2D drawing, and it presents a singular and unambiguous reading. You give a section, and people understand. If you show them a 3D model, certain audiences see too many things in it. It feels too real already. It feels not abstracted enough to be a description or a line or a piece of rhetoric.
CG: It’s still a rare thing to collaborate in 3D. What’s good about what you guys are doing is that you’re opening up an avenue to break down that barrier, but we’re not there yet. Ease of access has a lot to do with how we collaborate now. Drawings happen to be, right now, the most accessible form of communication to us. 3D models have a lot of information in them right now and for us, certainly they house the information. We design in 3D and then extract our drawings from it because it’s so much more powerful and useful to work in three dimensions and then go back to 2D to edit whatever information we’re communicating. I do think that if we ever get out of this moment of fabricating everything ourselves and start to collaborate with external fabricators, it would be an incredibly useful thing to trade information 3-dimensionally, rather than constantly stepping back to 2D every time we want to have a conversation.
On their dream project
JL: I love what we’re doing now. Our projects are scaled to a place where we can have tons of control over the outcomes, and because of that scale they can be super experimental and all exciting work and investigation. At the same time, there’s our hope about transferability. That transferability can’t just be to other installation-scale things, it has to scale up. It has to become architecture, it has to take on the many exigencies which are true of architecture: structure, occupation, fireproofing — all these constraints that actually enliven all the experimental work that we do. So for me, the ideal project would be one that isn’t yet huge in scale but actually demands us to try to press this experimental work through more conventional architectural processes. Maybe the ideal project is a small performing arts center.
CG: I don’t know if I can come up with an ideal program. I agree with scale, I think that scale is something that if you get too big, suddenly the constraints of the economy become a limitation that too often dilutes what excites us about design. Unless you were really fortunate with your clients and the budget, that would be hard to go to. I would echo a lot of the things that Joel just said. The ideal vision of our practice would be to maintain both an ongoing thread of research and installation work — small-scale work that we get to fabricate ourselves — but then alongside that, to have the reciprocal larger-scale projects that allow us to press some of what we’re learning from installation work into buildings.
On the future of architecture and GLD
JL: I would say one of the major thresholds that is important in architecture at this moment is the simulative environment as an ethos rather than the purely digitally modeled. It is a form of communication across disciplines that have a say in a project. As we were mentioning before, we couldn’t have given these shells for Grove to a structural engineer through any conventional mode because it had to be simulated to be produced geometrically. I think that kind of thinking about embedding more materiality in the way that we model is part of the next five or ten years. That would be one prediction that I have. In that sense, GLD is kind of on top of that because we’re super interested in it. Almost everything we do is embedded with explicit geometry and implicit materiality, and the behaviors of all of those things tying them together. That’s not just for experimental purposes, but for thermal performance, structural behaviors, and so on. It’s more about simulation and reciprocity and parametric relationships than it is about explicit modeling of any kind. That’s part of the next five to ten year threshold. I think we’re all tired of a certain kind of piecemeal digital moment where everything is a parametric sized panel that then gets numbered and aggregated together. I find that a little bit tiresome at this point and I hope that all of us in the discipline that are interested in questions of form are moving onto different investments and interests. Five to ten years from now… we’ll hopefully be four or five performing arts centers in.