Down to the Details

Grimshaw Architects’ long and fruitful engagement with industrial design is celebrated in an exhibition at this month’s Milan Furniture Fair.

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The lobby of the Queens Museum in Flushing Meadows, New York. At this month’s Milan Furniture Fair, Grimshaw Architects collaborated on an exhibition with Poltrona Frau. The show included an augmented-reality app—first introduced on the cover of Metropolis in October 2012—that brings 2-D images to life. Download the app here.

Lead photograph David Sundberg, Esto, altered by Grimshaw for augmented-reality application; all other images courtesy Grimshaw

Shortly after he joined Grimshaw Architects, Andrew Whalley was tasked with putting together an exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in London. Titled Product + Process, the 1988 show was decidedly counter-current—a parade of pragmatic, largely industrial structures Grimshaw realized in the UK in the face of surging postmodern fervor. Featured projects included the transparent building the then 15-person firm designed to house the Financial Times’ London printing facilities, and a flexible, easily reconfigurable factory Grimshaw built for Herman Miller in Bath. But it wasn’t the selection of projects that caught the public eye. “We asked our clients to take apart pieces of their buildings, and then rebuild them for the exhibition,” says Whalley, now deputy chairman of Grimshaw. “This wasn’t a typical show of architectural drawings and models.”

Grimshaw’s nuts-and-bolts display at RIBA eventually led to several major public commissions, including the Waterloo International Terminal—the London terminus of the new Eurostar Chunnel train. Today, the firm designs airports, museums, concert halls, and even biospheres, with 350 people employed in offices in New York, London, Melbourne, Sydney, and Doha, Qatar. Yet Grimshaw remains loyal to its brick-and-mortar roots, a fealty evident at Elements, an exhibit staged by Grimshaw and Poltrona Frau in Milan during this month’s Milan Furniture Fair. “The purpose of this exhibit is to highlight the link between smaller pieces of industrial design and our larger architectural process,” says Whalley, who once taught design innovation at the Royal College of Art. “Within these small components, you can often see the concepts that drive bigger buildings.”

Grimshaw visualized the concept for a new generation of wind turbines in 2010. Scan the image of the Aerogenerator X with your Elements app and watch the blades of the turbine rotate.

Housed in a former bell foundry in Milan’s central Isola district, Elements is an edgy assemblage of nineteenth-century industry and twentieth-century imagery—a stark brick shell speckled with light tables, design elements, and scale models in wheeled flight cases, and an ingenious cell phone app that generates dynamic 3-D models of Grimshaw projects. The app was originally developed for an October 2012 Metropolis article about the city of the future, for which Grimshaw contributed a speculative twenty-first-century transit hub drawn from its broad experience and best practices. With the help of augmented-reality technology developed by Urbasee, Metropolis and Grimshaw created a cover for the issue featuring a futuristic train station that “popped up” when viewed through a smart phone loaded with the Urbasee app (download it here). A later, more robust iteration of that technology is employed at Elements.

Grimshaw is the fourth architectural firm invited into the Milan spotlight by Poltrona Frau. In previous years, the Milanese seating manufacturer presented works by Oscar Niemeyer, Daniel Libeskind, and, last year, Zaha Hadid. This year’s show documents Grimshaw’s evolution from industrial design to complex urban buildings, and showcases the seating projects the designer has realized with Poltrona Frau. “Of course we like to present the products we create together with our design partners,” says Kurt Wallner, Poltrona Frau’s worldwide managing director for contract division. “But we also were the first company in the world to invite world-class architects to design a chair for a specific project. We want to show people that we really live this relationship with architects.”

Grimshaw and Poltrona Frau first teamed up on a seating project for the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC), a facility that Grimshaw built in 2008 at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. The end product—a sleek curved maple seat with leather cladding—offers the same acoustic response whether EMPAC’s 1,200-seat concert hall is full, half full, or empty. “The EMPAC chair sticks out from any other chair we have developed,” says Wallner, an Austrian-born engineer who came to Poltrona Frau from Daimler. “Because Grimshaw comes from an industrial design background, we have a unique and different way of working together. We spent a lot of time on this chair. But working together, we were able to design a seat in perfect symbiosis with the venue.”

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