Last week, Modelo posted the first half of an interview with IK Studio’s principals Mariana Ibañez and Simon Kim at their Cambridge office. Ibañez and Kim run the six-person architecture and design firm together in Cambridge and Philadelphia where they are involved as both practicing architects and educators at Harvard GSD and University of Pennsylvania School of Design. Mariana and Simon were gracious enough to answer our questions thoughtfully and completely, so we’ve broken their interview into a two-part post. This is the second post of the two, so please be sure to start from the beginning before reading this post!
On IK Studio’s unique approach to design
MI: We do the occasional museum competitions, library competitions, and things like that. But in terms of what we have built, I think that it’s more on the side of physical computing, responsiveness, adaptiveness, which is also very central to our work and our agendas. I don’t know if it can be a single typology or type of work, but I think it’s that collection that defines us. Having said that, Simon and I both have years of prior experience designing and delivering buildings.
SK: We’re good designers, but we struggle — as we should — with the robotics and engineering. But we love that aspect of it. I feel like we’re at the cusp where someone’s going to give us a museum, and we’re going to design the thing and it’s going to be this really strange, immersive environment that’s never the same way twice. That’s the part that I look most forward to.
MI: Well, a beautiful, immersive environment. *Laughs* We have an inside joke, this back and forth, between the strange and the beautiful. I was thinking, we’ve been doing all these self-driven projects for a number of years that operate from the urban scale to the architectural scale, sometimes to the artifact scale. We look at them as a way of understanding urban context, and that is done usually through a series of responsive connections. Those projects are not built, but when you look at the architectural results, you can easily understand them as pavilions, for example. We understand that every architectural project is not only immersed in a context, but it’s also building its own context. These projects are trying to do those two things.
On their dream project
SK: Before we were able to practice in the US, we made our dream projects. We’ve produced our own projects and we designed them; we create these synthetic worlds into which we inject a few parameters to see what happens. We also produce full-on public performances and events. We’re never lost for a job- we just finished the pilot project for Opera Philadelphia where we remade the Orpheus and Eurydice Opera with mechatronic objects . That was our foray into soft robotics. If you’ve never done it before, it is frightening to get into but since we are designers at heart, nothing scares us that badly. The less you know, the better it is for you in some way because you can just naively jump in and make it work (with very smart engineers). That’s what architects are good at: synthesizing and making things work, and we’ve been accepted into a conference based on that project.
MI: We work a lot with performance artists, so we’ve done a number of set designs and nonhuman performances.
SK: The Masque, the City of SURA, the Minister for the ICA, these projects have been important to us.
MI: Our recent work was part of this conversation about pavilions at Columbia University last week. It’s interesting because one of the questions that the moderator asked was, “Pavilions seem to be very popular at the moment. Every young practice is trying and building pavilions. What’s the role of pavilions not only in practice but in contemporary architecture?” In a sense, the answer is in being able to build something and build it quick and to test ideas… For us, even though the pavilion is in itself its own thing, you can also use it as a means to prototype at another scale. In these projects, even it it’s something small, we still understand it as architecture and all that comes with it.
On the next 5–10 years for architecture and IK Studio
MI: There’s always going to be an aspect of architecture in the emerging technologies we see now that will continue. The social needs and pressures will always drive a certain aspect of the profession. In terms of progression, the Internet of Things and Human-Nonhuman Interaction is going to change architecture quite dramatically. We definitely see ourselves as part of that investigation. Everything will talk to everything else, including the spaces and all the elements that make up those spaces.
SK: But again, to make it meaningful is what we are good at. You can have a layer of technology overriding everything, but then to create meaningfulness from that, in terms of species of spaces and tactility of objects in environments… that’s the critical thing. Not only that we can merge sophisticated media and electronics into cities and buildings, but that we’re able to do it well — for the production of culture, for new social exchanges. Otherwise, it’ll be a Google engineer that’ll do it.
MI: I think that a lot of innovation in architecture might come from a Google engineer, and that would be okay, too. The difference between adding a layer of technology and the Internet of Things is a very fundamental principle, that it is not about that technology or the layer of technology. The two of them are not separate anymore. It will still have the same cultural and social pressures that conventional architecture has right now. And where do we see IK Studio? We want to see it growing. I am super interested in continuing work that could be experimental and related to other forms of occupation, like performing arts, etc. But we want to build buildings. I want to think about what the museum or the library or the housing or the offices of the future might be, so hopefully that’s what we’ll be doing. All over the world, if I may add.
SK: In five years — because we’re laying out the steps now — it’ll be a division of IK interactive, IK products, IK architecture, again that expanded, augmented field that we just discussed. I want to see us be just successful enough that things are still risky, that we can still have that chance of trying things that are unknown in outcome. Yet unencumbered by a salary from an institution.
On advice they would give their younger selves
MI: Having your own practice early, with regard to talent, hard work, connections — all of these things. There are certain aspects that are less discussed in the profession that are how to run a business. Even if you’re doing the most experimental work, you still have to buy the materials, manage the office, etc. Definitely get informed earlier about how to do these things. I wish 10 years ago, I spent more time learning about these business aspects. Experience managing projects isn’t the same as experience managing an office. Start early. It’s good to have experience working for others, but the moment you have the opportunity to have your own thing, start early. Some advice I would want to give others, because I think it worked for both of us: if you admire an architect or an institution, do whatever it takes to go and learn from them. Because then if you have the chance to have a personal relationship or experience, it really helps you learn how you would like to do things in the future.
SK: I’ve always enjoyed the fact that not everything I do is necessarily cautious because I just go for it. Of course, having the infrastructure and support to take this position cannot be minimized. But back to advising my past self… do not be afraid to put yourself out there. It’s not selling out to self-promote, it’s just smart. Being cool and withdrawn is fine if you’re Nick Cave, but it’s not the best way to run a design office.
MI: Intellectually, it is the exposure to a lot of people both inside and outside your own profession that brings in opportunities. The things that happen, sometimes by chance, can only happen if you’re out there. You have to be out there, even if you aren’t outgoing. We always looked at the types of practices we were attracted to, but you can learn from everybody. We’re a lot more open minded about what we learned from all the people we surround us, and their different forms of practice.