Critically-acclaimed architect and professor Florian Idenburg visited Taubman College this past Tuesday, Sept. 25 to present a lecture entitled “Open Structure — Open Form” as part of the school’s ongoing guest lecture series open to the public. Idenburg, born in the Netherlands, received his masters degree from Delft University of Technology in 1999 before going on to oversee the Japanese-based firm SANAA’s U.S. operations from 2000 to 2008. The focus of Idenburg’s lecture starts here, in 2008, with the establishment of his New York City-based firm SO-IL with partner Jing Liu.

Now able to laugh about the financial crisis happening at the time, Idenburg begins by introducing us to his first major project: the “Pole Dance” exhibit for the Museum of Modern Art PS1’s Young Architects Program back in 2010. The project, an interactive exhibit in the courtyard of the MoMA PS1’s Long Island City location, called for a structure capable of offering a variety of activities to the public. This is where Idenburg’s notion of “open” structure comes in.

“Work is incomplete without participation or interpretation,” he said. Most spaces we interact with on a daily basis are the realization of static architectural drawings. This results in the architect being the director and us inhabitants the actors. Now, this sounds worse than it is — surely if we trust doctors to administer appropriate medication for our gravest illnesses, for example, then we trust architects to design adequate spaces. However, the digital era we live in allows us to break free from such immutability in design.

Idenburg’s “Pole Dance” is a cartesian grid of pliable 15-foot poles that support a rope net. On top of the net is a variety of colorful balls that can be bounced around and maneuvered through holes in the net by swinging the poles. There is not much else beyond this. However, the presence of the balls suggests play. Naturally, people began swinging the poles around like mad men, testing the capabilities of the structure and through this inventing their own games. Within weeks, a pole dancing group was performing shows there. Shortly after this, an app was introduced to participants that allowed them to create a collaborative soundscape that used accelerometers to transform the motions of the net into sounds. The exhibit, left up for interpretation and interaction, was truly “open.” Idenburg had established a set of field conditions that had sprouted into a seemingly boundless bud of human creativity through collaboration and experimentation. 

“Pole Dance” was among two examples of open structure, his “Bad Thoughts” exhibition design in Amsterdam being the other. The second half of Idenburg’s lecture then appropriately discussed his notion of “open form.” Interpretation is again the essential element here, this time in the interpretation of ambiguous forms. 

Exemplary of this is Idenburg’s Kukje Gallery in Seoul, South Korea. The clients of the Kukje Gallery essentially asked the firm to design a white cube so as not to impose on the art or the surrounding neighborhood. Knowing that it would be the future home to some of Korea’s most influential works of art, however, Idenburg sought to create a form that was just as in the vanguard as the main works themselves. The underlying form of the gallery was to be a 16,000 square foot concrete cube with one semi-circular extrusion and one rectangular extrusion. To provide some ambiguity to this clean yet rather drab form, Idenburg decided some sort of veil was needed to hint at its true forms while never truly revealing them. 

In an instant, digital drawings can be stretched, trimmed, copied, offset, referenced, rendered, etc. Drawings — formerly diagrams that gave us a basic understanding of buildings — are now fluid and changeable pieces of data. Thus, as a finishing touch, Idenburg, after much experimentation in the office, modeled the building to be draped in 500,000 chain-linked metal rings. This detail not only compliments the cobblestone streets beneath and gives the building a sort of lightweight airiness, but also allows for different interpretations of the building’s form from all angles. 

In the digital era, the building is finally as changeable and adaptable as its inhabitants and the environment that surrounds it. The gallery is truly emblematic of the capabilities on 21st-century design.

The lecture was well received by an audience largely comprised of Taubman students and staff, and Idenburg took questions at the end related to his thoughts on sustainability, office creative processes and future directions. It’s visionaries like Idenburg that are shaping our environments and therefore our consciousness on a daily basis. His projects are expressions of the capabilities of today, and emphasize the need to embrace the digital for tomorrow.

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