Kristy Balliet is the principal of Balliet Studio and an architectural designer and assistant professor at The Ohio State University’s Knowlton School of Architecture. She is the co-founder of BairBalliet and the co-chair of the Possible Mediums Project (a series of events showcasing design investigations based in speculative architectural mediums). From 2011–2006, Balliet was an assistant professor at The University of Applied Arts, Vienna in Studio Greg Lynn. While there she was the co-creator of the IoA Sliver lecture/gallery series and published the collected work of the studio in Visual Catalog: Greg Lynn’s Studio. She is a graduate of Philadelphia University and the UCLA Department of Architecture and Urban Design and has practiced architecture in Philadelphia at Erdy McHenry Architecture. Kristy is currently editing the forthcoming publication Massive Attack, IoA Sliver Lecture Series-Selected Friends and Enemies. Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to learn more about Kristy’s unique approach and design philosophy.
On becoming an architectural designer
I became interested in architecture rather young, around 12 or 13 years old. I was drawn to it via mechanical drafting, which was offered as part of our art and vocational sequence in school. I was a very active child, but when I came across the precision that drafting required — while also allowing you to create or replicate things — I was fascinated by the mix of creative and attentive qualities it required. That was my first glimpse into the world of architecture.
When I began high school, I had the guidance to take all of the drafting courses offered within my high school, culminating with architectural drafting my senior year. At that time, architecture to me was very vernacular — I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, so I understood architecture as houses and barns. However intuitive my initial connection to architecture felt, it was also naive. My understanding of the depth and complexity of architecture has continued ever since, a constant revelation of what architecture is — and can be.
On discovering her voice
I decided to study architecture at Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science (now Philadelphia University). It is a relatively small program, but at the time, it was also a very new program that attracted an array of young designers living in Philadelphia. I was part of one of their first graduating classes. I am grateful to have been exposed to a full spectrum of what architectural designers looked like, how they talked, what they represented. It was exciting to be a student at a school that was still finding its voice. It allowed me to recognize that architecture and how people pursue it is very broad and constantly changing. This constant change also influenced my decision to return to graduate school a few years later. The field had taken a digital turn, and I wanted to advance the conversation. At that time, UCLA under the leadership of Sylvia Lavin seemed like the perfect fit as it prioritized design and the engagement of technology and critical studies. The school was an instigator, and I knew I wanted to be there.
Outside of school, I underwent two key developments. And while they were different experiences, together they set up a foundation for my own design voice. Right out of undergrad, I started working for my thesis advisor Scott Erdy in his office, Erdy McHenry Architecture; I was their first employee. When I left seven years later the office was 13 people and building significant work. I gleaned a lot from how we developed designs, setup the office and engaged the community. Along the way, I was given the chance to discover my own voice and ambitions. It was a tremendous experience to contribute to that office.
After seven years at Erdy McHenry, I made what felt like a giant leap, taking a job teaching with Greg Lynn in Vienna, Austria. This shift in focus felt uncertain at the time. But moving from practice into a studio teaching environment not only ended up being a natural progression for me, but it allowed me to position myself within a school — within a city — that’s deeply invested in architecture’s history and culture. I ended up teaching with Greg in Vienna for five years. The work and conversations we were having there naturally ended up developing my interests as a designer. In this case, that included a major focus centered on the relationship of mass and volume in architecture.
On discovering her voice as a designer
In 2011, I moved back to the United States and accepted a position at the Knowlton School of Architecture at the Ohio State University. I had tremendous support, but also for the first time a lot of autonomy. In 2013, I started my own practice, Balliet Studio. Through several speculative projects, I became fascinated with the idea of looking at architecture primarily through the lens of volume: how architectural materials — walls, floors, grounds — collectively give us volume in architecture. The main design driver within my practice is looking and thinking about architecture through the lens of volumetric relationships. Whether that’s room to room, atrium to larger building context, outdoor room to indoor room — these questions of the relationships between inside/outside, one room to the next become primary questions within my design projects.
On the Possible Mediums Conference
Right around the same time I started at Ohio State, a few of my colleagues and contemporaries from graduate school also took teaching positions in the Midwest. As we began to talk to one another and visit each other’s schools for reviews, we discovered that we were all invested in shifting and advancing design and the use of technology. The Possible Mediums conference came out of a year-long discussion between Adam Fure at the University of Michigan, Kelly Bair at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Kyle Miller at the University of Kentucky (now at Syracuse) and me. We focused on how to generate and motivate conversations at our respective schools that centered on design, the development of new mediums and ways of working within architecture.
We got the idea to hold a collective conference centered on contemporary design and its associated techniques. We began by connecting the conversations we were having at our schools. Then as we started to develop the conference, our interests and scope evolved and we looked to challenge what an architectural conference even is. Some of it was healthy naiveté: we wanted to instigate a different sort of conversation. We started to think about our colleagues and friends both within our own schools and those teaching at other universities beyond the Midwest who shared design affinities. This included colleagues who were experimenting with traditional mediums of drawing, modeling, figuration and projection but were working with these things in new and innovative ways. We invited these people to come to Columbus, Ohio in February 2013, not just to talk to us about their work but to offer workshops and have conversations with students from all four of our universities.
The result was an incredibly unique live experience — a hybrid of intimate seminars, dinner discussions and technical workshops, ebbing and flowing over the four-day conference with deliberately curated rhythmic “pauses” for more structured conversations. We were very fortunate to have the support of Ohio State, which essentially opened up the entire school (Knowlton School of Architecture) to us for those four days. Every major conversation was held in the main space, fostering a literal and figurative open environment where people who were not even a part of the conference could walk through — had to walk through. It made for a boisterous architectural science fair that still allowed the breathing room for intimate conversations, and it has developed relationships between students and schools that still exist today.
On the future of Possible Mediums
It will continue in the work of those that are interested in experimenting with how mediums and representation drive their work. We’re currently working on a Possible Mediums book scheduled to come out in late 2016. After this, the future is open for the project. For example, one offspring is the design proposal that Kelly Bair and I put together for the upcoming 2016 Venice Biennale under the joint venture BairBalliet. We see it as an opportunity to test and enhance multiple architectural projects on a singular site in Detroit. Possible Mediums initially was about exploring the common ground among large groups of people, but also parsing out and even wrestling with our individual differences, teasing out the nuances. Kelly and I have similar design and representation interests, but our primary motivations differ. She prioritizes flat, figural profiles and I begin with volumetric layering. Both extend the impact of architecture through the use of minimal materials that have maximum effect.
On projects that represent her focus on volume
I have worked on multiple projects that prioritize volume at different scales, from installation scale to urban proposals. Inverted Icon is a speculative mixed-use project for the old Hudson Department site in downtown Detroit. The proposal connects three buildings and associated programs (hotel, speculative mid-rise office building and a creative incubator) with a single large volume. The volume is captured within an articulated mass and both holds them together and also separates them spatially and physically. The proposal was specific to Detroit, which at that time — and probably still today — didn’t need generous gestures of open outdoor space. In fact, this particular part of the city very much needed in-fill and a certain level of density. By swallowing this large volume inside, it both fills out the site and connects disparate masses and programs. The clarity of the section of that project — the relationship of how the volume reaches its arms out to the city and then punches the mass at the perimeter — has set the tone for how volume can both connect spaces and create necessary distance and separation.
Another project, Graphic Weave proposes a lightweight, volumetric installation for Chicago. It uses minimal surface to capture a connection to urban spaces beyond. The installation takes a closer look at the traditional enfilade, a series of aligned volumes, and excessively multiplies the rich thresholds affiliated with this architectural device. The contemporary enfilade connects and releases volumes from view, tactically employing scale, medium and choreographed patterns to create an assembled figure.
On the future of architecture in the next 5–10 years
The future of architecture is going to require a lot of crossover conversations. The last decade asked young practitioners to develop expertise in new digital tools, moving between the two-dimensional and three-dimensional required new approaches. This resulted in singular ambitions in relation to geometry, affect or material qualities. In the next 5–10 years, designers and architects will be able to prioritize multiple ambitions sooner, introducing a more complex set of questioning. Architecture is going to get faster and more confident at managing complex questions and audiences at the same time, as opposed to needing to focus on one or two.
On her aspirations for the future
Maybe they’re linked to the answer above. I plan to continue to develop the set of questions within my own work; to develop multiple architectural projects within a singular project. The upcoming Venice Biennale project sets up a productive tension from the beginning, engaging a design process that embraces the back and forth negotiation of how to start, develop, and ultimately create a project that has multiple ambitions. It’s incredibly important for young designers to figure out their project early in order to begin mingling with other projects and possibilities.