Kelly Bair is principal of Central Standard Office of Design. She is a graduate of University of Colorado at Boulder and the UCLA Department of Architecture and Urban Design. Her work has been exhibited in Los Angeles, Toronto, Ann Arbor/Detroit and most recently in the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial. In 2015, she co-founded BairBalliet with Kristy Balliet of Balliet Studio. Kelly is also co-founder of Possible Mediums, a collaborative of four Midwestern architects and educators interested in shaking up the context and format in which architecture is taught, produced, and engaged. She is an Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Architecture. Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to learn more about Kelly’s unique approach and design philosophy.
On becoming an architectural designer
I grew up around asphalt machines and wallpaper books. My father owned a roofing supply manufacturing company and my mother was an interior designer so I was around both the design and industrial sides of the building industry from a young age. However, growing up in Detroit, I wasn’t privy to the type of architectural resources that often influences one’s decision to become an architect. If anything, it was the absence of architecture that piqued my curiosity in the profession. I have great memories of riding in the back of my parent’s (of course American made car) looking out at Detroit’s vast and relatively empty urban landscape. I found the lack of a physical building presence liberating in that it allowed me to fill in the blanks of fictional pasts and speculative future scenarios.
On discovering her voice as a designer
I moved to Los Angeles in 1999 to launch my architecture career after graduating from the University of Colorado. Once I arrived unexpectedly fell into a position in the entertainment industry as a set designer, using my architectural skills to design and fabricate temporary stage sets for live music, television, and film. This was a pivotal shift from the more technical and sustainability-based architecture I had been taught in school. While set design requires much of the technical precision that architecture demands, the invention of strange environments that often seem impossible in the world as we know it takes precedence over many of the logistical aspects that architecture often gets bogged down with. Returning to the architectural profession a few years later and ultimately during my graduate studies at UCLA, I looked to fuse real-world problem solving with the imaginative as a way of developing my own voice in the profession.
On her collaboration with Kristy Balliet
Kristy and I teamed up for the Venice Biennale project after working closely together for years on Possible Mediums- a collaborative project with co-founders Adam Fure and Kyle Miller. Launching into this new working relationship in the form of a speculative architectural project, we thought we would use the Chicago Architecture Biennial opening weekend as an opportunity to launch our project-we were in the same city for 48 hours so it made sense to jump right into it. While the conceptual premise of the project was born that weekend, our conversation kept reverting back to one question: what are we? Like two people just entering a new relationship we felt the need to brand ourselves relative to each other-as individuals as well as in our new form as a pair. We kept resisting words like firm, office, or even collaborative. Finally we landed on the term ‘joint venture’. While we both have our respective intellectual interests played out through our individual firm’s work, we thought our joint venture offered a chance to produce a third project responding to a specific prompt-in this case a proposal for a site in Detroit. In our short venture so far we’ve found that while some of our overlapping interests are what brought us together it’s our differences that are coaxing out something new and productive for us both.
On her design philosophy
Perhaps as a carryover to working in the film industry, I still maintain a deep interest in special effects. In architecture, I’ve found that some of the most spectacular effects come from mundane source materials. My work places common elements (i.e. common profiles, primitive shapes, basic building components) in unwieldy environments in an effort to coax out new formal languages, spatial experiences and unforeseen events. I look for ways in which the latent phenomenon in our environment transforms our perception of these things. To test these ideas I’ve designed a few static pavilions that do not physically move, but employ external environmental phenomenon such as light levels, air quality, and temperature, in order to morph the initial design intent and produce unexpected and continually changing effects.
On the Thick Air Project
The Thick Air project is an installation built in 2013 that, despite its small size, has come to embody the design philosophy of the office. Working with the minimum footprint and maximum height requirement for the project, a need for temporality, and an extremely low budget, the project looked to produce the perception of a dense mass despite its lightweight material makeup.
The project organizes 72 neon pink inner tubes in a tightly packed and vertically stacked semi-circle. The tubes offered a primitive building block with ready-made shape shifting qualities, morphing from a two-dimensional circle when flat to a torus when inflated. Using software to organize the tubes numerically produced relationships between the parts that allowed them to be read as a whole. However, once installed on site and subjected to a variety of uncontrollable external influences such as light, temperature, and crowds of people, the project flickered between figure and field, solid mass and translucent cloud, and an adjustable interior space for one or many.
On the future of architecture in the next 5–10 years
The expected answer to that question is technology. While I suspect that’s where major innovation in the building industry will go in the next 5–10 years, I would hope to maintain a dedication to tackling the disciplinary problems of architecture through expanded modes of representation and communication. More specifically, how might architects employ current technology and more expedient modes of communication to reach broader audiences, produce new medium(s), and generally become more relevant to those outside of our discipline.
On the future of Possible Mediums
We’re in the final throws of editing a Possible Mediums book that will be published in 2016. Kristy and I see our current collaboration as a continuation of the Possible Mediums ethos, which is about multiplicity and overlap between like-mined designers as well as odd bedfellows. We see our Venice Biennale “joint venture” as one way in which Possible Mediums lives on.
On the future of Central Standard Office of Design
Recently, I’ve made an intentional decision to “scale up”. While earlier work used the installation scale to test ideas and a build a body of experiments, more recent work has been invested in how these ideas could be applied at larger scales and towards more far reaching effects. One way I’m looking at this scaling up has to do with rethinking conventional building methods to coax out new formal and material effects. A current research project titled Ancient Nuevo looks at a 5,000 year old building method called rammed earth. Often considered a vernacular building method and used mainly in temperate geographical regions, the conventional way of using rammed earth literally indexes the material of the site such as dirt and other ground material. The research looks to transform the vernacular aesthetics of the method through custom coloration, addition of metallic aggregates, and gradation material effects from material to immaterial. Every Road Will Lead to Nowhere, Pyramid Scheme House and Cut/Fill all test different applications of the research. Pairing this ancient low tech building practice with contemporary prototyping technology and visualization software results in new effects at the scale of building.
On advice she would give her younger self
Don’t listen to an undergraduate university admissions director if they tell you that you won’t be successful in architecture because you have average test scores! I honestly believe the only requirement to becoming an architect is ambition and curiosity. With an internal desire to seek out what interests you in the discipline and the drive to develop expertise within it there is no limit to how far architecture can take you.