When considering architecture, I find it difficult not to revert back to that well-worn Le Corbusier trope of a “machine for living.” The Modernists gave us a legacy of sleekness and functionality in the field of design, taking inspiration from a systematic approach to production where every part incorporates itself seamlessly into the overall whole. Within this model, it is impossible to separate form from function, and in recent years, this binary has manifested in the innovations brought to the formal compartmentalizing and hybridizing of our 21st century live-work-ways. The work of Ann Arbor-based architect and founder of Alibi Studio, Catie Newell, unpacks functionality to reimbue space with a sense of experiential wonder. Her installations investigate the materiality of volumes, and cultivate a relationship with the ephemeral that relates to practices of landscape architecture as well as urban planning. Newell refers to her process as creating inhabitable textures—remixing the material and spatial constructions of spaces to draw attention to the volumes themselves as liminal, tactile essences.
Newell founded Alibi Studio in 2010. Even though it is not an official firm at this point, Alibi was created on the platform of collaboration, and emphasizes a collective practice involving open discussion sessions and the random mashing of skills. Newell has cultivated a rotating cast of characters who are involved with Alibi’s projects, and this holds true for Second Story, which opened last week at Extension Gallery in Chicago with assistance from Lauren Bebry, Katie Schenk, Grant Weaver, Chuck Newell, Lisa Sauve, Carolyn Newell, Maciej Kaczynski, Drake Tolliver, and Cheyenne Pinson. Last week, Newell and I had an ongoing conversation about her practice, Alibi Studio, and about Second Story.
Discussed: Urban salvage, fleeting aspects of texture, skinning a house, sillways, throws and pulls.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: What brought you to Michigan?
Catie Newell: I came to Michigan as the 2009-2010 Oberdick Fellow at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. Prior to that I was working as a project designer and project coordinator at Office dA in Boston.
SMP: What prompted the transition? How have your interests shifted and/or been actualized since relocating to the Midwest?
CN: Firstly, I had been working for about 4 years at Office dA, and loved it. But needed to take a risk to start doing my own work. The fellowship was a way to have project based funding and to see if teaching was a path I wanted to follow. Secondly, I did my last years of grade school in Michigan, so I was familiar with the area, and a bit tuned into Detroit.
My work has definitely been sparked and facilitated by working specifically in Detroit and this region of the Rust Belt. There are aspects of the material and spatial conditions here that have resonated with my own work and interests, and taking me in paths I could not have predicted.
SMP: Something that draws many artists, architects, and designers to the area is the accessibility of salvaged or repurposed material, which I’ve heard referred to as “new natural resources.” Beyond that, Detroit has this profound history with craft and the processes of making that, I feel, infuses the creative sensibilities of those working here. I’m wondering if through your architectural work you’ve also been able to articulate a relationship with craft, either through material, making, or both?
CN: I am not entirely sure how you are using the word craft here. I do however think that making is at the root of my work. Clearly I find an interest in built work, and as importantly, work that I can physically build. Therefore the realities of making add constraints and interests in the work. Ideas are often work through strategies and logics that respond to exsiting conditions, material applications, and performance over time.
I think that the Detroit area is very much so embedded in the realities of making. The history of production and fabrication demonstrates a population of makers. Often for me, it is the intelligence and creativity that can be found in actualizing a project that gives it resonance, strength, and the unexpected twist.
SMP: Sorry! I should have been more articulate… I was thinking of craft as Glenn Adamson defines it—as an approach to making organized around material experience that is more conceptual rather than categorical. What I’m getting at, is that your process involving the physical rendering of materials seems to diverge from the tradition of the architect in his/her studio digitally conceiving of these impossible projects. I’m wondering if you can elaborate on why this process appeals to you?
CN: For me the root of architecture is in the creation of space. I find that for me that necessitates an on-the-ground, through the dirt way of working. My sensibilities lie within how volumes come together. Ultimately, sometimes that most powerful aspect of a space is something that can’t even be drawn amongst our conventional architecture standards. This would probably most specifically apply to our explorations of illumination and intentional darkness, but could also include the more ephemeral or fleeting aspects of a texture, accidental resonance with a space, or an unexpected, but necessary, response to a situation on site.
Salvaged Landscape is a work I did [in partnership with Detroit's Imagination Station] that reappropriates the material and volumes of a house that was hit by arson in Detroit, Michigan. The work can be seen in an interesting way as a curation of the demolishing of a portion of the house. This was a necessary maneuver given the fire damage. I tapped into this moment by creating new masses and volumes within the house, utilizing the materials that of course used to create the house in the first place. The burnt material was collected and sorted, and placed piece by piece back into the house, using the stable portions of the house as the literal formwork for the piece. In accumulation, the work makes new spaces within the house, as well as an larger inhabitable texture of beautiful, dark black, and shimmering wood, bulbuous and no longer of perfect geometry.
SMP: I like your description of the affect of the ephemeral within our everyday interactions with space. Particularly within the context of Salvaged Landscape, which is, in essence, a landscape– unlike (permanent, enclosed) architecture, built to be liminial, and activated through the natural elements and bodies moving through it. I’m wondering how you negotiate the ephemeral, or this “unknown” aspect of the design process, when planning your projects?
CN: There is an aim to capture the ephemeral, but there is also the openess and embracing that I won’t be able to predict all of the affects. Instead, I remain aware and willing to change midstride, grabbing on to what are the unexpected and accidental resultants, seeing them for their spatial presences and overwhelming effects. This happens at all stages from mock-ups and tests, to remaining quick on my feet during the entire process of making. Even after the project is at a stable moment it still has the chance for surprise. Grabbing on to that as a design opportunity keeps me excited, challenged, and never sure (in a good way) what will come next.
SMP: Not to return to your use of reappropriated material, but Salvaged Landscape seems to express this ephemeral-ness further through the use of the charred wood– subverting what is destructive in order to give a second (or third, or fourth) life to a structure. Is this a concept you are bringing to Second Story as well?
CN: There is definitely an underlying discussion of repurposing material. There are two very different ways this is happening: one in the concept of the work, and the other in some of the process. As for the concept, one of the main drivers behind Second Story is actually to reconsider the repurposing, or reconfiguring, of the existing volumes. In this sense, the expression of the volumes is what is being reused. In given it a new life in location (both geographically and even in elevation) as well as the new volumes that are created by distorting an altering what could be considered the skinning or casting of the house to make new volumes for a very different occupation.
One could compare the reuse of the materials that made Salvage Landscape as a way of conceivably altering the exact volumes of the house. In this case densfying the volume (though maintaining the exact same materials). As for Second Story the volume is captured and agitated amongst what was once its enclosing boundaries. This time they are set askew to one another, opening up space present in the house (example: the wall thickness because a room, and the window sill becomes a passageway — that we call the “Sillway”.).
To speak directly about material reuse. There is another aspect of translating these volumes that continues to occur as we move and reconfigure the house. We’ve of course had to transport it on formwork that will allow it to hold its shape and to become suspended in its new location. This formwork has also had many lives where the form of the exterior skin, once utilized, was reconfigured to be the formwork of the interior skin. Within this process we have watched the print or ghost of the existing house come and go in mass or implied volume repeatedly.
SMP: So, if I’m understanding this correctly, (and tell me if I’m not!), in Second Story you’re displacing and then remixing volumes for sake of reimagining the experiential qualities of space. Could you speak a bit more to the more logistical aspects of this project? What will viewers see when they enter Extension Gallery?
CN: Displacing and remixing the volumes is an appropriate way to consider the installations relationship to the original house. The resultants of this maneuver provides new volumes and space otherwise once unoccupiable. So there is an ‘other’ occupation that emerges. This happens with moving the volumes from a second story height to ground level (thus the ability to inhabit the exterior volume just beyond what was once the wall to the outside), pulling and expanding open what was the windowsill into a passage way (the sillway), and slipping the volumes to create a room out of the former wall thickness. The installation in essence removes the mass of the wall thickness, creating a negative space that is now both visible and occupiable.
Logistically, the original house (Spencer’s Funeral Home) was evaluated for its existing volumes. The portion of the house that was chosen as the base for the installation provided dimensions that on this translation would maintain an appropriate and intimate scale to the human body. After this volume assessment, a geometric pattern was established based on the verticals and diagonals existing on the house. Maintaining these existing angles prompted working parametrically with a pattern that could wrap strategically around the house, permitting what are vertical maneuvers on one face to hit corners and become diagonals, and vice versa. This allows for the manipulation of the pattern (and each rod) to have a base logic and structure that moves cleanly around the space. This pattern was then flattened to allow for its construction. This as the base pattern is what remains as the flat surfaces tracing the existing volumes. After contributing to the base pattern, the acrylic is bent again out of plane to stretch and agitate the atmosphere (referred to as the “throws.” There are densities and lengths set for these moves around the space. Zones that are quite close to the base plane, and those that ‘throw’ quite far. The final alteration to acrylic, the ‘pulls’, stretches the acrylic down to whisker allowing for a flee of the material and its own capturing of space.
Second Story suspends from the ceiling of the gallery. Dramatically lit from several angles, the transparency of the acrylic in compliment with the reflection, refractions, and shadows embraces the space of the gallery. The volume hangs as a ghost trace, though manipulated of the Flint house, offering new occupations and relationships to this translation. Holding the room, occupants are encouraged to move in and around the space, changing their relationship and occupation of the volumes, and visual experience of the resultant.
SMP: Does this relate to your notion of inhabitable textures? What do you mean by this phrase?
CN: As architects, we are inherently interested in inhabiting spaces. Acknowledging a context and manipulating volumes, the core investigations of our work employs alteration, and amplification of existing spatial conditions as a means to both inhabit a space through a construction, as well as allow for human occupation within the texture. In other words, while textures focuses on material sensibility, volume and depth, assembly, and tactile qualities, it is within the depth of the work and its interstitial, occupiable spaces it moves beyond just simply being textured. The implication is that there are scales to the texture, both micro and macro; the macro scale is inhabitable, the micro is tactile.
Architect Catie Newell is a founding partner of Alibi Studio, and on the faculty of the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. She received her MArch from Rice University, and a BS from Georgia Tech. She was recently awarded the 2011 Architectural League Prize for Young Architects and Designers.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo is a curator and writer. She is currently the Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow at the Cranbrook Art Museum.