Strolling along the sun-dappled promenade beneath the Magnolia trees of the Giardini, the smell of jasmine blends with the sea air and I almost forget that I’m in Venice, the impossible city of crumbling brick labyrinths held together by rusting building ties, miles of frayed clotheslines, and the rapturous sighs of 50,000 lovers. It’s the first day of June and this normally serene public park has become a construction site where the sparrow songs are accompanied by an orchestra of saws and hammers backed by toolbox percussion as architects from 30 countries prepare their national pavilions for the 14th Annual Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale. In the heart of the Giardini, the U.S. Pavilion, a 1930 neoclassical brick structure designed by Delano & Aldrich, is in the midst of a transformation. Its staid facade and doric portico has been obscured by reflective vertical blinds and its entry court is filled with an enormous conference table around which a dozen architects, educators, and researchers are discussing Henry Russell Hitchcock’s 1947 article “The Architecture of Bureaucracy and the Architecture of Genius.” This is OfficeUS.
For this year’s Biennale, curator Rem Koolhaas challenged the 66 national participants to address a common topic, “Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014.” In response, the Storefront for Art and Architecture in collaboration with the journal PRAXIS, and a research team at M.I.T, have created an ambitious exploration of the organization, production, and influence of the American architecture office. Curated by Eva Franch i Gilabert (Storefront), Ashley Schafer (PRAXIS), and Ana Miljački (M.I.T.), OfficeUS consists of three fundamental components: a repository of 1000 projects built by American offices working abroad over the last century, a selection of 25 thematic issues that have emerged in architectural discourse over the last century, and a 100 person office run by eight on-site partners. On June 1st, the press preview was still a few days away, and while the curators and partners discussed history and planned the week’s events outside, a dozen workers inside the pavilion hustled to finish the construction and installation. But already, OfficeUS felt like – well, an office.
Two weeks earlier, I had some doubts about OfficeUS. I just didn’t understand it. And I wasn’t alone. At a May 14th discussion in New York to introduce the project, curator Eva Franch and OfficeUS partner Manuel Shvartzberg asked the audience, “what would you do the first day if you were one of us?” The question was intended to provoke discussion but in the moment it sounded more like they were asking for advice – no, seriously, what would you do? In the discussion that followed, there was a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of ideas and a lot of “…but I don’t know exactly what that means.” Audience members seemed confused as well, questioning Franch about the issues that should be addressed by this “office”: student debt, the cost of building, unpaid labor, and the fact that it’s almost impossible for young practitioners to start an office these days, yet with three curators, eight partners, 90 volunteer “outposts”, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and prizes, OfficeUS was going to open their doors as a well-equipped 100 person firm. Like a seasoned politician, Franch answered questions without really answering questions while displaying an uncanny ability to speak in soundbites: “technology is not a game changer, but a way to change the game.” While I was impressed by the vast repository assembled by the three curators with help from students and researchers at Columbia, Ohio State, and M.I.T., the discussion did little to enlighten me and I flew to Venice without a clear idea of what OfficeUS was. An ironic corporate practice? A utopian think thank? A performance? Would they even produce architecture?
Yes, as it turns out. That’s the plan anyway. After just a couple hours in the Giardini, the project started to click into place for me. What had seemed like disparate elements of a byzantine project coalesced when the curators, partners and collaborators gathered together for the first time in their new office, designed by New York architects Leong Leong, furnished by Herman Miller and HP, branded by Pentagram, and completed well before the June 5th press conference thanks to, as everyone made endearingly clear, the enormous efforts of project coordinator Irene Chernyakova.
To run this experimental collaborative office, which aims to combine the best aspects of corporate practice with the freedom of the avant-garde, the curators selected a diverse group of young practitioners from a competitive open call: Arielle Assouline-Lichten of the Brooklyn-based multidisciplinary firm Slash Projects; Manuel Shvartzberg Carrió, founding partner of Matterberg Architects currently earning his PhD in architecture history and theory at Columbia; Matteo Ghidoni, architect and editor-in-chief of San Rocco magazine; Mona Mahall and Asli Serbest of M-A-U-S-E-R, an “undisciplined” trans-media design studio based in Stuttgart and Istanbul; Curtis Roth, recent Howard E. LeFevre ’29 Emerging Practitioner Fellow at the Knowlton School of Architecture at the Ohio State University; and Daniel Fernández Pascual & Alon Schwabe, aka Cooking Sections, a research-based practice who prepare edible maps of geopolitical territories, including the first OfficeUS project – a dinner inspired by the InterContinental Tamanaco Hotel in Caracas (1953).
During their 25 week stay in Venice, the partners will examine the historic development of the discipline by remaking or responding to buildings in the OfficeUS repository, be it with a rendering or recipe. “You can look at some of these moments and find forks in the road,” says Miljacki, who led the M.I.T. research team with associate curator Michael Kubo. “Or you take them fully into the contemporary and say, here are the lessons we learned, how would we do this today?” 25 key issues—”intercontinental comfort”, “crude ideals”, cultural capital”, to name just a few—are a non-prescriptive structure to guide the partners in their analysis of the economic, environmental, and cultural factors that have shaped their historiography of American architectural exports. “It’s not about correcting the past,” says Assouline-Lichten, “it’s about using the ideas that exist in the repository as a driver to create new architecture.”
Like the global corporate practices in the repository, the partners will draw on the talents and expertise of local experts in “outposts” around the world. “We’re trying to build a networked office that actually works,” says Manuel Shvartzberg Carrió. “This is a prototype. If you want to have the kind of workforce a corporate office has, without everything else that a corporate office is, can you do that with a simple multiplicity of agents? We can see whether this structure really works in terms of communication, the flow of information, and coherence.” Echoing concerns raising during the May meeting, I suggested to Franch that it’s too easy to see these 90 networked outposts as unpaid interns – a practice that has recently faced a lot of criticism. If this is a chance to prototype a new model of practice, shouldn’t OfficeUS address one of the most important issues facing the discipline today? First of all, she makes clear, the outposts “are not interns. And they are not unpaid.”
“I like to think of it as a movement, in which people who are, let’s say, inside a corporate office because they need to get accredited and they need to pay their loans back, so they need to work within the system to get where they want to go. But they also want to work on projects that address issues that that office doesn’t allow. We are that space. We don’t have the financial capital to contribute to their, let’s say, student loans. But we have the intellectual capital to contribute to their constant contribution to the world of ideas.”
Franch has a penchant for polysemy and what she calls “flickering messages”, so while “Office” means both the space of practice and the relationships between the workers, “US” stands for the United States and the collective pronoun “us”. Such linguistic gamesmanship helps supercharge her projects with meaning, but also threaten to obfuscate what they’re actually about. What became clear though, is that collaboration and generosity are absolutely critical to the success of the OfficeUS. At various times, Franch compares it to a book club or community garden. Roll up your sleeves on a Saturday morning and spend a few hours getting your hands dirty planting tomatoes. At the end of the day, you’ve made the neighborhood a little prettier, learned something new, and you’ve got the fixings for a homemade salsa. Franch is engaging and wide-eyed as she talks, speaking quickly, in paragraphs, with her hands, referencing Thomas Moore and Foucault and Hitchcock and others. Her enthusiasm and optimism are both genuine and contagious. “Everyone here, including me obviously, we believe in this. It goes beyond money, it goes beyond time, it goes beyond – it’s just passion.” When pressed slightly about the payment issue, Franch admits that well, “it’s not an office, per se.” It’s a fair but frustrating answer, because while OfficeUS might not be an office, it’s not not an office. In fact, you can commission them now by visiting their website at officeus.org. I wish you would! A real commission will challenge the partners to more deeply engage with, or subvert, mundane but essential issues questions of protocol and office management.
On June 5th, the tenor changed in the Giardini. The normally empty coffee bar was full and the grounds were crowded with cool and beautiful people who all began gathering in front of the American pavilion for the official press conference and opening of OfficeUS. Due to the hum of the crowd and some sound problems—including a Madonna head-mic nearly toppling Franch’s signature towering hairdo—some of the project’s complexity may have been lost in translation, but when OfficeUS officially opened its doors, it was clear that visitors were steeping into a modern, functional design office. Architects Leong Leong, who previously collaborated with Storefront on the 2012 exhibition Past Futures, Present, Futures have reimagined the traditional program elements of a corporate office—reception, studio, library, model shop, break room, conference room—as a single, fluid, dynamic workspace tied together with smoky Plexiglas tables and wall-size mirrors, using illusion to allude to the fact that the office is much bigger than the eight people working there. The tables also serve as vitrines, displaying the partners’ tools, books, models, and the physical objects donated to OfficeUS by firms represented in the repository. For the architects, the desk was a curatorial device and “an interface between the public and the office,” but, being in Venice, with pieces of Saint Mark just a short vaporetto ride away, I couldn’t help but keep think of the desks as reliquaries holding the remains of the saints and sinners of the profession. Wrapping around the workspace, the repository is a chronological grid of binders holding the details of 1000 American projects and 200 American offices, with drawings and photos and even office manuals donated by many of the represented architects. It’s an office library, it’s a public exhibition, it’s an overwhelming matrix of data that visitors are free to peruse, read, interpret and misinterpret. Some people strolled slowly through the office looking closely at the projects and flipping through the binders, others just careened through the pavilion to the next glass of prosecco, still others–hey, look! It’s Helmut Jahn!–made a beeline for their own projects; a few visitors are looking at the 3D printers and wondering about the space – “Do you think they’ll actually do any work here?” – “I’d love to work here,” and some are talking about the wall of projects as evidence of American imperialism.
This last possible reading worried some of the larger corporate firms represented, who didn’t want to be cast as villains. In fact, the curators see these offices as the protagonist in a series of complex historic narratives, and expressed their sincere interest in learning from the organizational systems, business models, and protocols of offices who have helped shape history. “What if you tweaked those protocols and changed the way the office ran,” asks Ashley Schafer. “Would that change the work that you get?” At some point, the avant-garde has needs the rest of the troops for the war to be won. “I always say there are two ways to make a revolution,” says Franch, “you can throw stones or you can build with them. With the stones that we have here, instead of throwing them and saying ‘you’re not doing great things,’ I’d rather say, ‘ok, how can we assemble them differently’…..If we are to really think of architecture as a discipline that is not only constructed by the self-proclaimed avant-garde, but is produced by everyone who is practicing, we really need to start bringing those people into the conversation.” That conversation will benefit both parties, bringing a greater degree of professionalism to the avant-garde–there’s even an office manual!– while making corporate offices more conscious of the historical value of their architectural production. So far, it seems to be working. OfficeUS might be the most rigorous, the most architectural project that has ever been connected to the Storefront for Art and Architecture.
After three days of discussion with an all-star cast of architects, writers, and researchers, the Vernissage ended and on June 8, the first full day of work began for the partners of OfficeUS. The amount of effort that has already been expended by the curators, partners, and entire OfficeUS team—just naming everyone involved would exhaust my wordcount—is admirable, and it’s incredible that so many ideas came together to form a singular, cogent vision. As an installation, a performance, a provocation, as a true Gesamtkunstwerk, OfficeUS is impressive. But it’s too early to cast a final judgment because it’s just getting started. With all the trappings and then some of a professional design office and few of its limitations, this post-corporate global design office has every opportunity to develop new modes of practice. It’s time for the partners to roll up their custom-made uniform sleeves and start remaking history to define an agenda for the future – whatever that means. Will they discover a new way to practice architecture? Define a critical theory of the office? Will OfficeUS continue as a movement or a collaboration beyond the biennale? Whether it is or is not an office, per se, the ultimate success of OfficeUS will depend on the work they produce. After spending a week with them, I think that work will be good. And I understand why Franch started referring to the project almost exclusively as Office “us” – it was hard not to get caught up in it all. As I flew out of Venice on a plane full of exhausted American architects, I looked down at the Giardini and it occurred to me that while stones might best be used to build, OfficeUS might be a stone thrown into the Adriatic, rippling out to rock some boats.
Originally written for Architect.