Q&A: Meet the Winners of Architectural League’s 2015 Emerging Voices

We speak with recipients of Architectural League's 33rd annual award program about their scale of practice, what inspires them, and what's next.

Otaared, one of several 3D-printed wearables designed by Emerging Voice Neri Oxman and the Mediated Matter Design and Research Group at MIT Media Lab

Courtesy Neri Oxman

The Architectural League’s annual Emerging Voices awards program is a unique distinction in the field, recognizing emergent practices with distinct points of view and affording them a platform from which their ideas can reach a broader audience. The award looks to young or mid-career firms and individuals who have a significant body of work, both built and academic, and are based in North America. Already in its 33rd iteration, Emerging Voices has amassed a notable list of alumni, including Steven Holl, Stan Allen, Jesse Reiser & Nanako Unemoto, SHoP Architects, and Tatiana Bilbao.

This year’s eight award recipients represent a cross section of innovative practices working across disciplines of architecture, urbanism, and landscape architecture at all scales. The designers, who each held lectures at the Architectural League over the past month, share a preoccupation with environmental concerns and an innovative approach to working with materials. For those who couldn’t make it to the Architectural League in person, we caught up with the winners to get a glimpse of their scale of practice, what inspires them, and how they position themselves in the field.

Jorge Ambrosi and Gabriela Etchegaray, AMBROSI | ETCHEGARAY
​Benjamin Aranda & Chris Lasch, ArandaLasch
Manuel Cervantes Cespedes, CC ARQUITECTOS
Alejandro Guerrero and Andrea Soto, Atelier ARS°
Neri Oxman, Mediated Matter Design and Research Group at MIT Media Lab
Brian Phillips, Interface Studio Architects
Roberto Rovira, Studio Roberto Rovira
Elizabeth Whittaker, Merge Architects


Benjamin Aranda and Chris Lasch, ArandaLasch
New York


Courtesy ArandaLasch

How would you describe your practice?

Dry. You either like it or you don’t.

What sources do you draw inspiration from?

We are inspired by people that make significant achievements through simple means. A weaver from Arizona who brings his community together by making baskets. A farmer from Vermont who built his own camera and proved that no two snowflakes are alike. These people teach us that you don’t need much more than determination and simple tools to make a difference.

What would you say are some of the biggest challenges of establishing a practice right now?

We’ve been doing this for ten years. Our challenge now is to grow in a smart and sustainable way as we enter this exciting phase where we start to realize our early research through buildings. Scaling up the work is one thing, but scaling up the office is something equally critical.

What are you currently working on?

In order of difficulty—a newborn son, a wedding, a store in Miami, a theater in Gabon, a museum in Bali, furniture, teaching, and a five-year-old daughter.

How do you feel to be included in this group of designers?

This is a coveted award. It’s one of the only in the profession that recognizes mid-career architects that have built a body of work but are still developing their voice. It awards that sweet spot in an architect’s career when they’re just hitting their stride. It’s a tremendous honor.

Quasi Screen, Las Vegas, NV (2014)

Courtesy ArandaLasch

Floating Table (2014)


Jorge Ambrosi and Gabriela Etchegaray, AMBROSI|ETCHEGARAY
Mexico City, Mexico


Courtesy AMBROSI|ETCHEGARAY

How would you describe your practice?

We conceive architecture as a lens through which we see and live. We seek to achieve an architectural language that expresses clarity and structural simplicity that is in harmony with nature.

What sources do you draw inspiration from?

We draw inspiration from artistic and natural phenomenon in order to accomplish a self-discovery in emotional terms. We also find it rewarding to learn from and/or find ourselves in projects that are related to our practice.

What would you say are some of the biggest challenges of establishing a practice right now?

At a moment like this, where we receive strong influences from all over the world, the main challenge is to maintain clear objectives for our work without losing the course of our practice. It is also important to remember context and local advantages that may enrich a project.

What are you currently working on?

We are mainly working on private houses and real estate developments. We have also created, together with “Papalote Museo del Niño,” an outdoor museography that is currently under construction. Concurrently, our office works side by side with Grupo Mexico mining company to design cultural and sports infrastructure for local communities in and around Mexico City.

How do you feel to be included in this group of designers?

We feel very excited and honored. We find in these recognitions a positive incentive to continue with our practice. We are sure that this could not have been possible without the trust, support and opportunities that have given us our friends, clients, family and team, so we are sincerely grateful for them as well as for the Architectural League’s interest in our work.

Buhos House, Las Águilas, Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl, Mexico (2011)

Courtesy Luis Gordoa

Alfonso Reyes 200, Mexico City, Mexico (2012)

Courtesy Luis Gordoa


Manuel Cervantes Cespedes, CC ARQUITECTOS
Mexico City, Mexico


Courtesy CC Arquitectos

How would you describe your practice?

Rational, functional, and concerned with architecture’s role in changing communities

What sources do you draw inspiration from?

Site, culture, and economy

What would you say are some of the biggest challenges of establishing a practice right now?

The global economy is a huge challenge for small firms, as are the velocity and budgets of developers. In Mexico, there is a lack of opportunities in the public sector projects because we don’t have a good system for public competitions.

What are you currently working on?

We are working on several transit-oriented development projects in both Mexico City and Guatemala City. We’re also working on a housing project in Mexico City, as well as a few residential projects along the beach and in the countryside.

How do you feel to be included in this group of architects?

I’m honored, especially because there are two other Mexican firms among the winners that, I think, are following in a long line of great Mexican architecture.

El Mirador House, Mexico (2013)

Courtesy Rafael Gamo

Villas Finestre, Ixtapa Zihuatanejo, Mexico (2011)

Courtesy Yoshihiro Koitani​


Alejandro Guerrero and Andrea Soto, Atelier ARS°
Guadalajara, Mexico


Courtesy Atelier ARS°

How would you describe your practice?

Our work should be understood as the implementation of a way of thinking about the architectural project, in which the memory of architectural forms, the history of architecture, and its compromise with the city are its basis. For us a good building is one that is a clear record of a relevant tradition—buildings in which we can observe the beauty of life through their interaction with nature, light, gravity, materials, and forms. The fanaticism of formal, philosophical, environmental, or any other “ism” seems just a passing fad. Good architecture will always transcend that momentary emotion.

What sources do you draw inspiration from?

We do not recognize clear limits between theory, criticism, history, and the architectural project—we understand all these activities as simultaneous reflective processes of our discipline. For us, the word “tradition” has a seminal importance. We reconsider modern architecture—not as a nostalgic revival of a supposed heroic modernity, but as a conceptual and constructive platform on which to develop new types of architecture. In order to get deeper into the subject of tradition, we have developed the word “Intertectonicity.” Derived from the term intertextuality, which concerns the relationship between different texts or of the co-presence between them, intertectonicity describes the relationship of likeness in form, structure, construction materials, and language between buildings of the same or different periods, revealing a wide vision of the architectural issues.

What would you say are some of the biggest challenges of establishing a practice right now?

In a country like Mexico, where there is not a culture of architectural competitions, you have to get commissions from private clients. In fact, private commissions are difficult to achieve due to unfair competition present in the market, because many architects initially work for free just to get the commission. It is very difficult to establish a practice today in Mexico.

What are you are currently working on?

We are currently working on the construction of a small building called TID at ITESO University, as well as in the new Cultural Department Building that comprises a larger set of buildings at the same university. We are also about to start construction on the Storms Observatory House in Tapalpa, a countryside area surrounded by mountains. The industrial project of Novasem—a very large landscape project of open spaces and buildings with different programs and scales—will be under construction for probably two more years.

How do you feel to be included in this group of architects?

It’s very important for us to be part of the Emerging Voices program and to have the opportunity to talk about our work in an institution with such a remarkable tradition of architectural and urban culture. We feel honored and happy.

Study and house in Mar Chapálico, Mexico (2013)

Courtesy Onnis Luque

Offices for Levering Trade (2013)

Courtesy Daniel Maldonado


Neri Oxman, Mediated Matter Design and Research Group at MIT Media Lab
Cambridge, Massachusetts


Courtesy Noah Kalina

How would you describe your practice?

My group is concerned with nature-inspired design and design-inspired nature. We conduct research at the intersection of computational design, digital fabrication, materials, and synthetic biology and apply this knowledge across all scales, from the micro-scale to buildings. Our mission is to invent, design, and implement biologically inspired fabrication technologies that enhance the relationship between the designed object and the environment. We refer to this approach as “material ecology,” and it considers computation, fabrication and matter as inseparable and harmonized dimensions of design. Our early work focused on nature as a model for computation and form-generation, while our current work looks into nature as a model for digital fabrication.

What sources do you draw inspiration from?

We are inspired by all things natural—the growth of trees, the remodeling of cancellous bone, the formation of the glass sponge, the swarm intelligence detected in an ant farm, the formation of planets. In all of these examples, and many more, we seek the logic of formation rather than the description of form itself; in particular, we look for forms of logic that are often concealed. We then translate these phenomena to the building scale. For instance, from the cancellous bone, we have been exploring variable density concrete printing where the distribution of concrete is informed by a given distribution of structural load.

What would you say are some of the biggest challenges of establishing a practice right now?

I think the main challenge for every young practitioner remains the tension between innovation and buildability. Especially today, when advances in digital design become more integrated within practice, it becomes challenging to draw the line between the passion to learn and the desire to build. At which point one must decide if one is more of a wanderer or more of a builder? Another challenge is that it has become too easy to build almost anything. Although the building industry has been relatively slow to adopt new technologies, such tools and technologies are enabling architects and designers to freely express themselves without any particular relation (or commitment) to materials or the environment. We seem to have detached ourselves from the wisdom of vernacular architecture, the craft of building, where materials are chosen according to specific environmental criteria, where technique comes at the service of design rather than the other way around.

What are you currently working on?

Wanderers is a project we are working on in collaboration with with the Silver Lab and Stratasys. It began with the observation that synthetic biology allows designers to manipulate the functions of microorganisms, which could then be made into useful products. To explore this, we set out to design 3D-printed wearables that use synthetic organisms. One such wearable, Mushtari, was produced by Stratasys for the recent Euromold show and is the first demonstration of a photosynthetic wearable. It has been redesigned to house synthetic microorganisms that fluoresce bright colors in darkness, produce sugar, and manufacture biofilms. These functions augment the experience of the wearer by altering color, creating food, and producing biological tissues such as insulation for the body.

How do you feel to be included in this group of designers?

Humbled. Mostly because Mediated Matter is a research group—likely the single academic group amongst this year’s list of designers—operating in an academic setting while also taking on commissions. Every day when I wake up, I think about how best to balance research and practice. When research gets in the way of practice, it is likely due to challenges relating to scale. When practice gets in the way of research, it is likely due to oversimplifying complexity. But when research and practice go hand in hand, there is really nothing quite like it! Buckminster Fuller called this form of research-based practice “anticipatory design.” I think of my group and the work that we do as a form of predictive practice—making the future more present. I am honored and thankful for the recognition of what is, and what is to come.

Gemini Chaise Longue (2014)

Courtesy Michel Figuet

Otaared, part of Wanderers series (2014)

Courtesy Neri Oxman

Mushtari, another design in the Wanderers project

Courtesy Neri Oxman

 


Brian Phillips, Interface Studio Architects
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


Courtesy Interface Studio Architects

How would you describe your practice?

We really take buildings seriously. While much of twenty-first-century practice has gone the way of boutique installation, fabrication, and non-building pursuits, we remain optimistic that small, urban infill projects that power private development in cities can be platforms for innovative design. Our process insists that the pragmatic considerations of projects are investigated and amplified to the point where they get interesting and become radicalized. This often results in value being found in unexpected places—higher density, better energy performance, achieving “more for less”—because we don’t start from aesthetic considerations, but performative ones.

What sources do you draw inspiration from?

We have been very inspired by Philadelphia as a laboratory for innovation. I like to characterize Philly as one-part Detroit and one-part NYC. It’s a bit broken, but remains an exciting, entrepreneurial place for young people, and it has enough big economic drivers to keep it from failing. This high-contrast urban condition is inspiring without end. Making work that reflects the deep context of a place is very interesting to us.

What would you say are some of the biggest challenges of establishing a practice right now?

We started on the front end of the last recession. We have learned a lot about how to be nimble and efficient in a tough economy. A challenge now is that there are a lot of projects happening, but fees remain low and expectations are through the roof. I think there needs to be a bit of a practice reset where we find a way out of the “whatever it takes” mode of the recession into a mindset that emphasizes what architects need to do great work. That kind of work needs to have palpable value for clients. Proving that is always one of the biggest challenges of a new practice.

What are you are currently working on?

We do a lot of urban housing and have a number of interesting projects under construction. In Philly we have a 40-unit conversion of a former six-story warehouse to apartments. We have a 31-unit rowhouse project in Chicago in its final phase. On the boards we’re studying a tall apartment building in Center City Philadelphia, a creative hub for a major publishing company, as well as a summer pop-up program designed to float above existing parking lots.

100K Houses, Philadelphia, PA (2008-2012)

Courtesy Sam Oberter

Roxbury E+, Boston, MA (2013)

Courtesy Sam Oberter


Roberto Rovira, Studio Roberto Rovira
​Miami, Florida


How would you describe your practice?

Our studio operates at the intersection of landscape architecture, art, and technology. We view landscape’s inherent impermanence as a strength and try to explore its potential through our work. City and environment are at the center of our practice because they imply indeterminate processes, dynamic relationships, and transformation. We are interested in both long-term, visionary proposals and in incremental, tactical solutions. Our work strives to engage the in-between, the ephemeral, and the passing, and we embrace a mode of practice that alternates between art and design as essential methods of inquiry.

What sources do you draw inspiration from?

We can’t think of a more exciting time in history to have an impact in pushing the human condition forward. The three billion people that live in the subtropical and tropical bands of the world are without question a limitless source of inspiration, because they represent a broad spectrum of globally relevant challenges. Nowhere is the reward of diversity more apparent than in places like these where the juxtaposition and, at times, collision of city, nature, and culture translate into so many opportunities to experiment. Here, we see not only very real challenges such as sea-level rise, economic disparity, and resource scarcity, but also the opportunity to devise new futures.

What are you currently working on?

We are currently working on the Wynwood Greenhouse Park, which was the first-place winner of an international competition here in Miami, in one of the city’s more vibrant art and design neighborhoods, but one without much public green space. Done in collaboration with Nick Gelpi, an architecture colleague at Florida International University, and Jim Drain, an artist and former classmate at RISD, the project proposes an open and flexible destination for design, music, art, events, and play, while creating a habitat for native butterflies and flora—all housed inside an ultra-thin structural frame which echoes the scale and type of neighboring warehouses and single family homes.

We are also doing a park in Oranjestad, Aruba, which faces the newly renovated branch of the Amsterdam-based Gerrit Rietveld Academie. The park design is based on Rietveld’s seminal Red-Blue Chair and on Aruba’s wind-swept landscape. It creates a public space which will naturally function as the school’s outdoor plaza and classroom.

The Ecological Atlas Project (EcoAtlas) is an important ongoing project for us, which creates visually intuitive mappings of ecosystems, such as seasonal migration of birds and butterflies or the changes of wildflowers and trees throughout the year. The EcoAtlas conveys a more intuitive understanding of natural pattern and aims to serve as a comprehensive design and visualization tool. In many ways, this is at the heart of the studio’s identity—bridging art and science through an architectural project that aims to be both functional and elegant.

How do you feel to be included in this group of architects?

This is a remarkable group of people whom I greatly respect, and I am deeply honored to be among them. I look forward to continuing to see their influence on design for years to come. I especially appreciate that landscape architecture is so greatly represented among this year’s Emerging Voices since it is unquestionably critical in addressing the problems of the twenty-first century. As an educator and landscape architect, I always strive to practice and teach in interdisciplinary ways and to seek those opportunities and collaborations that move the discipline forward.

Wynwood Greenhouse Park Proposal

Rietveld Park Proposal

All renderings courtesy Studio Roberto Rovira


Elizabeth Whittaker, Merge Architects
Boston, Massachusetts


All images courtesy Merge Architects

How would you describe your practice?

We are motivated by the desire to innovate through the process of making. Whether we are engaged with small-scale work, such as restaurants or furniture design, or large-scale multi-family housing projects, we are always interested in how the fabrication and execution of the components in our work translate into a compelling new reading of place and context. This conflation of thinking and making, problem solving, and “problem finding” is ultimately how we engage with architecture as a craft. We are concurrently obsessed with how our work may socially choreograph a given site or known typology. We look for opportunities to actually complicate or erase boundaries and to insert social programs where they otherwise may not exist. What has evolved is an approach to architecture that seeks to democratize space at multiple scales through a direct association with craft and the social realm.

What sources do you draw inspiration from?

My students, my peers, my colleagues

What would you say are some of the biggest challenges of establishing a practice right now?

I think one of the biggest challenges of establishing a practice today has to do with gaining and then proving your experience with larger-project clients. The smaller projects are always obtainable; however, the same handful of large firms in Boston, for example, are consistently getting the bigger projects in and around the city. There is a remarkable pool of talent and firms that have actually been practicing for well over ten years that now have the experience and staff to take on larger-scale projects. But I am encouraged that there has been recent interest in larger firms collaborating with smaller offices to win projects, a development that has had the effect of allowing for a broader voice on these commissions.

What are you currently working on?

On an urban scale, we are beginning the schematics for a neighborhood renovation in Southeast China, in an area they refer to as an “urban village.” Closer to home, we have a few housing projects in Massachusetts: two-to-four small townhouse clusters in Boston and two multi-family buildings containing 30+ new housing/condo units in Hyannis Port, Cape Cod. We’re also working on a Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Park in Iowa and the renovation of a black box theater in Chelsea, Massachusetts.

How do you feel to be included in this group of designers?

I am thrilled to be included, especially in this year’s group. There is an incredible diversity of work and backgrounds represented this year. I am very pleased to have my work discussed as part of this collective.

Grow Box House, Lexington, MA (Expected 2015)

Marginal Street Lofts, East Boston, MA (2014)

Categories: Design

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