Design Miami/ Veterans formlessfinder Interview Jonathan Muecke on his New Commission for the Fair

In 2008, Design Miami/ began commissioning early-career architects to design the entrance of its Miami tent—and since then, the commission has become a launchpad for up-and-coming talent in the industry. In 2011, then-emerging architect David Adjaye lured fairgoers through a triangular wooden pavilion; shortly after, he was commissioned to design the Smithsonian Institution’s $360 million National Museum of African American History and Culture. The following year, fairgoers craned their necks to see an inflatable canopy by Snarkitecture—the architecture and design duo who’ve gone on to collaborate with everyone from Beats Studio to Kartell—and last year, Bronx-based architecture firm formlessfinder sculpted 500 tons of sand in front of the tent before going on to design a new office for Darren Aronofsky and a bookstore for Comme des Garçons. 

Last year, Artsy arranged a conversation between Snarkitecture and formlessfinder to discuss their respective commissions, and this year, we continue the tradition with a chat between formlessfinder’s Julian Rose and Garrett Ricciardi and this year’s featured designer, Jonathan Muecke, a Cranbrook grad with a Herzog & de Meuron internship under his belt. Below, the three put their heads together to discuss their respective practices, both toying with value and scale, and Muecke’s forthcoming design, which will welcome fairgoers into a giant circular pavilion with primary colored walls and a translucent ceiling, where reflected color and light will offer a moment of respite during the excitement of the fair.

formlessfinder: Jonathan, from what we’ve read, you went to architecture school—and from what we’ve seen, you’ve put a lot of focus on designing at the scale of objects and furniture. In that sense, the Design Miami/ commission seems to be something both new and old for you in terms of scale, architectural space, environments, etc. Is this something that you’ve always been interested in or something new that’s come as a result of this project?

Jonathan Muecke: Scale is a principal part of my practice. I am particularly interested in a scale that is shared across architecture and objects—the moment when things are between scales. In that regard everything is the same scale—the pavilion, the objects—and I am able to work on both with the same ideas. This scenario requires a strengthening of the external and outward relational qualities of objects, and perhaps the weakening of the same qualities in architecture. I sense in your practice a similar interest but with different terms.   

ff: The way you describe this approach to scale or scale-lessness across size and discipline is incredibly interesting. For us it’s most directly addressed with materials, and in our TENT PILE (2013) pavilion, where sand operates both at a structural scale (literally a foundation) and a purely material or detail level (grains for sitting on or holding in your hand).

One thing we’re always interested in, that may be an overlap with our practices, is some kind of ambiguous use value. For example, you can present a user or visitor with a piece of architecture, material, or space where the function is not so obvious, and as a result it gets used in new and/or unexpected ways. Some of your furniture and design pieces seem to have similarly ambiguous use value—can you speak to that?

JM: I understand this ambiguous notion, primarily the freedom it grants. I am also careful with this notion—too ambiguous and you lose presence; too precise and you lose potential. This is very interesting territory and I am interested in this idea linked to an architecture where use is something other than program. I remember visiting your pavilion and being compelled by the thought that the pavilion was permanently half full—half occupied by itself.  

ff: How does this [approach to scale] potentially shape your approach towards audience/public and interaction/experience? You specifically mention creating a space for “reflection,” which is made by a very clear enclosure. This seems interesting in comparison/contrast with our tent-like space, where we wanted to create open spaces and opportunities for physical interaction and play.

JM: The pavilion is an experiment. It was developed in a way to forego polarizing notions of interior and exterior, object and space, in favor of a universal circumstance. Color and scale and shape were tested until they balanced, so that one was not more dominant than the other. For the observer the pavilion is a combination of interdependent characteristics—formulated but never fixed.  

ff: We’re very interested in the way color is taken on differently by designers as opposed to architects. Tell us about color. This seems to play a major role in your commission.

JM: Color is used in the pavilion in very basic ways, in complementary pairs and in  primary pairs. In the complementary, color develops space. In the primary, color develops object. The pavilion [counterposes] these two ideas—simultaneously expanding the pavilion and collapsing the pavilion.   

JM: What have you done post-pavilion? 

fF: After the pavilion we’ve had the opportunity to expand into new territory and also our operation a bit. The focus for us is always in trying to bring experimental components into realizable architecture. For us, it’s important that we get to work through our core ideas related to “the formless.” If there’s a current obsession at the office right, now it’s with bundles and compression. We’ll get to share some of this new work soon.

JM: In architectural terms, a pavilion is somehow beside all other work.  

ff: Your comments on the pavilion typology are interesting. It has all the potential of architecture without many of the constraints—a chance to experiment with space, material, and construction without any mechanics, electricity, and plumbing. TENT PILE was the first time we were able to bring this together all at once, for which Design Miami/ deserves great credit—bringing to life the work of younger architects and designers. It’s definitely a rare opportunity.

Guess we’ll get to see it very soon, but [we] wanted to ask if you could tell us a little more about your project and also the design and construction process? We imagine you’re right in the thick of pulling the final pieces together.

JM: Yes, we are awaiting the arrival of the rolled steel plates that form the two opposing arcs of the pavilion. These steel arcs are the pavilion, somewhere between their scale, color, shape, and distance.    

Jonathan Muecke’s commission is on view at the entrance of Design Miami/ 2014, Dec. 3rd – 7th.

Images of Jonathan Muecke and his commission by Gesi Schilling, courtesy of Design Miami/. Portraits of Julian Rose and Garrett Ricciardi and images of TENT PILE courtesy of formlessfinder (image #7 by James Harris, and image #8 by Roberto Tovar).

Explore Design Miami 2014 on Artsy