Xten architecture is a California and Switzerland based practice lead by couple Monika Häfelfinger and Austin Kelly. Recently joining the open source architecture platform Paperhouses with the Box House, Austin Kelly spoke with Paperhouses founder Joana Pacheco about architecture, sustainability, construction and working internationally.
Read on after the break for the interview.
Paperhouses - Xten is an international practice, based in Switzerland and the USA, founded by an international couple, Monika and Austin. What is the internal dynamic of a practice in two continents?
Austin Kelly - We're essentially based in Los Angeles at this point, with an office of 20 architects here designing and coordinating most of our work, whether in California, Europe or the Middle East. Having an associate office in Baselland however, has been very helpful to the office. We did some early projects there, and we have also made several competitions through the Swiss SIA competition system. We travel and work in the associate office several times a year, especially to coordinate construction activities, material selections, specifications, etc for projects in Europe. We currently have a villa under construction in Madrid that has been like this. Our approach towards architecture is also somehow a mix of Swiss rationality and pragmatism with wild West Californian creativity. It keeps things interesting.
PH - Is there an essential difference between working in the US or in Europe? Other than managing the distance, what makes one place harder or easier than the other?
AK - Not really, no. The official hours are a little more civilized in Europe, but then we are on the telephone to the LA office until the early hours of the morning most of the time, so it all evens out.
There is one thing that we see in Europe more than in the US: the Architects collaborate with the fabricators in a much more open way that they do here. In designing anything — a decking detail, or glazing detail — there is a meeting with the fabricator/ installer and a set of criteria are agreed upon. Then the fabricator makes shop drawings and mock ups for the architects approval. There are very few detailed architectural drawings — these all come from the fabricator. We try to bring this working directly with the trades sensibility to the US with mixed results… typically the GC wants to see detailed drawings from the architect before they will allow their subcontractors to begin the process. It wastes some time, certainly some money.
PH - The Nakahouse (AIA awards) was designed on the foundation of another project, a 1960s house. I understand it has the same footprint or square footage. How did you reinvent the old and what remains of its memory?
AK - This was a wreck of a house hanging into a cliff when we found it. Due to city codes, we couldn't add square footage or height to the house. So we shored up the foundations, strengthened them, and then set about reconnecting the stepped floor plates that made up the original house, the walls were all new, the roof angles connecting everything together were essentially new. We were able to add decks, and a rooftop terrace, and exterior stairs, so we used these elements to wrap around the building, creating a single articulated object from what had been the disconnected forms of the previous house. We unified the exterior with the black epoxy plaster, integral drainage, dark roof, and we created a total contrast to the interior by painting it all in glossy white paint. The memory of the original house is there in the floor plates, but it’s like a x-ray.
PH - The preexistence helped keep the costs down to $250/sf, which is very surprising. You told the Architectural Record that if one is willing to spend the time to really understand structure, “it's astonishing how little you can build for in L.A.”. That is a very interesting statement, particularly to our audience. What factors influence cost without limiting design?
AK - Residential architecture in Los Angeles uses predominately Type V wood framing (2x4,s and 2x6’s), with glulam and parallam beams, sheathed in plywood. It's a very economical and effective building system for the climate. It is very good in earthquakes, because it is flexible. Neutra, Schindler and Gehry have all exploited it at one time or another. And because it is very cheap and accessible it is also very democratic, just about anyone can build out of wood, a hammer and nails. To make the wood strong enough to resist earthquakes, shear walls are used; a percentage of every major exterior wall needs to be a sandwiched in plywood with some speciality hardware. In XTEN houses, we integrate these walls into the design from the beginning, building a volumetric expression of the architecture with them in the case of the Nakahouse, or recessing them and allowing cantilevered horizontal planes to become the space defining elements of the house.
PH - In steep contrast with work developed on an existing foundation there is Paperhouses, a design developed for a generic environment and with no foundation. How do you approach the issue? What guides the design at that point?
AK - We are always interested in how a building can relate to its landscape. Even if we don't know the landscape, we can imagine many possibilities for the boxhouse, and designed it to be shaped and configured by its surroundings. Each direction of the boxhouse has one specific opening, a window, a folding glass door, a terrace, and this creates a special feeling of how it relates to the landscape. These openings can adjust based on the conditions of the site — more open if it is in the country, more closed if it is an urban condition. The sizes of the internal rooms, or boxes, can also adjust larger or smaller based on specific family requirements. There is flexibility built into the design.
PH - You speak of flexibility as a site anchor, which is very interesting. I understand it as the capacity to absorb the environment rather than impose on the environment. Is there a consequence of this strategy in terms of the environmental performance of the building? How does your practice think about sustainability?
AK - That's an interesting way to put it, that the architecture is designed with a capacity to absorb the environment. We think about the relationship between the architecture and its immediate environment from the beginning of a project, and in different ways. The site is like a puzzle, and we are searching and testing to find the perfect relationship between the building(s), the circulations, the sun and wind, the trees and views, the geology, the structure… all these things come into play. We think about the sustainability first in the passive sense — what are the most basic things we can do in siting the building, creating the openings and overhangs to protect the building, etc. Then we incorporate the technologies — but these often come at a cost and not every time does it make financial sense to integrate these systems.
PH - Paperhouses is a "to be continued" project where every site, owner and intervenient adds a piece of his mind and reality. How do you see this virtual collaboration as a) design practice, b) from the standpoint of the artist in you and c) imagining for a second that you are not the architect/initiator, but the user/the next person in the creation line.
AK- We like this idea very much. It is a little like Breton’s game. We designed a system, with the intentional that the system can be changed.
PH- The Openhouse is all about transparency... LA is on stage. Many people have argued that contemporary architecture is all about the object. Your architecture is very sculptural. What do you look for when you design?
AK - We look for the spaces between things, for the interstitial spaces, and the charged void that happens when you have multiple volumes in space, in section, in different spatial relationships to one another and to their immediate surroundings.
PH -That is a thorough investigation of form. What is the role of the computer and virtual simulation in your design process?
AK - We use several 3d modeling programs extensively and all the way through the design and construction process. In the beginning it is site modeling, environmental modeling. Then it is more technical and having to do with coordination between engineers, etc — we are moving into BIM and Revit now for this. And then even in the construction process we are 3d modeling details and field conditions to test different options.
PH - Finally what do you think the role of the architect is individually and as a group?
AK - We see our role as architects in a specific cultural setting, to create an architecture of our time. We believe that architecture should create a frame for human beings, and that everything one sees and touches should have a quality of concept and of craftsmanship that imparts dignity to the experience of being in and around the building. As far as social or environmental issues go, the architect can do the best they can in whatever situation they find themselves in, trying to make the best performing building environmentally, and the most socially relevant buildings possible.
Joana Pacheco studied architecture at the Architectural Association in London and worked in Portugal and New York before founding Paperhouses in 2012.