“Drift” Meets “TENT PILE”: A Conversation Between Snarkitecture and formlessfinder

Last year, an inflated, floating environment hovering over the entrance of Design Miami/ lured visitors to the tent like a beacon of white light. At the hands of Snarkitecture, the collaborative practice between Daniel Arsham and Alex Mustonen, the traditional fair tent was reimagined and transcended—as it has been each year since 2008—as part of Design Miami/’s annual commission of emerging architecture practices. (Past commissions include Aranda\Lasch and Moorehead & Moorehead.) This year, the doors that open the fair are dwarfed by a 500-ton pyramid of sand sheltered by an aluminum canopy, titled TENT PILE, and behind this seeming mirage sits formlessfinder, the New York-based architecture practice of Garrett Ricciardi and Julian Rose. As the torch is passed from last year’s inflatable facade to this year’s empire of sand—perhaps the lightest and heaviest commissions to date, respectively—last week, Artsy arranged a conversation between Snarkitecture and their successors, formlessfinder, to discuss this year, last year, and their practices.

Snarkitecture: Hi guys, how’s Miami? Congratulations on the commission and looking forward to seeing TENT PILE in person. Curious to hear how things are shaping up now that we’re a week away from the opening of your installation at Design Miami/. How much has the design evolved since your initial concept? Have you run into any unexpected conditions that have arisen more recently?

Formlessfinder: Thanks Alex. That’s a great first question that gets right to the reality of taking on a commission like this. You want to be ambitious, ideally to even work on the border of impossibility, but you also have to deliver the project on an absolute deadline and on a very tight schedule. There were major challenges in terms of complex construction logistics (particularly for moving and installing the sand), code requirements (especially wind load requirements, which no doubt you ran up against as well!), but we were fortunate to work with an incredible team all the way from the material supply (Alcoa) to the aluminum fabrication (Neal Feay) and engineering (Robert Silman Associates) and installation (the incredible Design Miami/ Team and EMTK Productions). The design evolved, of course, but with a formless design there isn’t really a rigid, fixed concept as a starting point—our approach is so grounded in the material realities of the project and the physical processes of construction that engaging them feels like an extension of the design process. The roof truss and the membrane developed in response to wind load calculations, and the retaining wall changed as we began to understand the sand load and stability of the overall structure in more detail. One of the most interesting challenges for us was that the wall had to tie together very precise elements and very imprecise ones: a 500-ton pile of loose sand that was put in place with a giant earth-moving machine literally called a “sand shooter” [that] runs into an aluminum truss that was CNC milled to a tolerance of less than  .001”. It’s almost hard to believe they can coexist in the same project, but this play between precise and imprecise, loose and fixed, is something we’re very interested in.

Snarkitecture: One thing I really like about your project is the very basic material choice of sand. As a mutable and shifting material, its formlessness seems appropriate for your practice and this project specifically. In this instance, it seems to be acting as a material that appears to be undesigned—that the form of the pile is simply determined by the angle of repose of the material. Then as you move around it there’s the reveal of the section cut and a play between natural form and built structure. I’m interested in how you think of these two moments and how they relate to your exploration of the formless.

Formlessfinder: The short answer is that we aren’t trying to create a completely formless architecture; we’re more interested in what we think of as introducing moments of formlessness into our projects. In part this is because we’re still very interested in architecture itself—things like program, structure, etc. These things can be transformed or inflected by the formless, but we’re not sure if something that was completely formless could continue to function as architecture. To give a very literal example: For this project, when we began studying the size of the pile that would be necessary to hold up a roof at the height we wanted, we realized that it would have filled the entire site—we had to cut it in half just to create a space for occupation.

Snarkitecture: There’s a woodcut from Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark that shows the ocean chart used by the crew to guide them in their search for the Snark—instead of a map, the chart is a white expanse of nothingness. This image, and the story of an impossible voyage of an improbable crew to find an inconceivable creature, offer an explanation for the origin of Snarkitecture. We’re never quite sure what it is or how to find it, but we look for clues as we move forward by experimenting, often failing, and occasionally succeeding. The name of your practice—formlessfinder—suggests a similar search for an ineffable architecture. Have you discovered something with TENT PILE?

Formlessfinder: Well, we certainly hope so! But the thing about discoveries is that sometimes you don’t know you’ve made them until much later. In some ways this project is completely new, and in some ways it builds on ideas about loose materials that we began experimenting with almost as soon as we began collaborating. But your description of Snarkitecture’s working process certainly resonates. We came up with the “finder” part of our name because we think of our practice as something like an app or a search engine—you never really know what’s going to pop up when you input a question.

Snarkitecture: Do you consider formlessfinder an architectural practice? And, Garrett, I’m wondering how much your background in the school of art at Cooper Union comes into play in your collaboration with Julian.

Formlessfinder: Absolutely, in fact we would go so far as to say we want to practice architecture unapologetically. We know so many people our age who are trained as architects but are now trying to do something else, maybe they design video games, or work on special effects, or are pursuing art practices. This doesn’t necessarily mean we’re interested in the so-called professional practice of architecture, or that we’re not aware of the productive potential in architecture’s interactions with other fields (both of our backgrounds are in art, and without a doubt this informs the day to day conversation in our studio), but our interest in the formless is fundamentally about exploring possibilities we see within architecture itself.

Formlessfinder: First, we’re curious about how your Design Miami/ Drift pavilion fits in with or has maybe influenced your practice. We really admire your project, and even though this might sound odd, we see the two as related. Drift Pavilion is probably the lightest DM/ commission we’ll see, and TENT PILE is the heaviest, but they both are directly informed by the fact that they are temporary structures—yours through the use of inflatable elements, ours by leaving the sand loose. There aren’t many opportunities for young offices to realize this kind of experimental project, and it’s obviously incredibly valuable, but it’s not always clear how to get from these kinds of projects to large scale, permanent buildings. Is the temporary/smaller scale experiment something you want to continue to do, and/or does it inform other projects you find yourselves working on now, a year later?

Snarkitecture: Experimentation has always been central to our practice, so in some sense I don't anticipate that we’ll ever give up the types of projects that give us the space we need to continue researching this idea of making architecture perform the unexpected. There is also value for us in projects that allow us to do this more quickly, whether it's through temporary structures or smaller objects. That said, we are moving more towards larger scale and more permanent work while still making room for the other projects we find value in. A year later we’re still very grateful to everyone at Design Miami/ for the opportunity. It’s a valuable commission and we’re happy to see them continue it at this larger scale of the entrance pavilion.

Formlessfinder: And our last question is similar to the one you asked us about our art backgrounds—essentially, we’re interested in how you position yourselves between or within the two fields. The “snark” in your name seems to imply some kind of distance, maybe not critical per se, but certainly ironic? Especially given our own backgrounds, we see this tension as a fascinating part of your project, and we’re interested in hearing more about how you think about it. And then one more related question, which is that we’re also wondering if design is an important category for your practice, along with art and architecture? We’re curious because, in part through our experience with DM, we’ve realized that design can be interesting to throw in the mix, because it’s closely related to both art and architecture, but its connections are informal and flexible, in contrast to the notoriously contested boundary between art and architecture.  

Snarkitecture: We see Snarkitecture as an unknown that floats between and around the disciplines of art and architecture. I do think it’s fair to say that we are more interested in what we can do around architecture, and how we can use it as a starting point to reimagine and manipulate. The tension you mentioned is an important part of this—people not quite sure what to make of our projects at first, but ultimately finding an invitation to engage and interact. For us it’s a result of a collaborative process in which we are attempting to make architecture perform in unexpected and memorable ways.

The “snark” aspect has certain implications for some people, but we’re much more interested in the world Carroll built around this word. The unknown or inconceivable as an idea with some darkness and weight, in contrast with a lightness of play, humor and curiosity.

In response to your question about design, we never really planned to end up there, but it’s been a great platform for our work. It’s a world that readily lends itself to the idea of functional objects that we’re exploring in parallel with larger architectural projects.

formlessfinder’s TENT PILE is on view at the entrance of Design Miami/ 2013, Dec. 4th – 8th. 

Look for work by Snarkitecture at the Wallpaper Handmade exhibition from December 4th–8th.

Explore Design Miami/ on Artsy and Artsy’s Editorial Highlights from the Miami Art Fairs.

Images: TENT PILE courtesy of formlessfinder and Design Miami/, Drift courtesy of Snarkitecture.