Small Projects, Wide Reach: Hilary Sample on the Benefits of Maintaining a Purposefully Small Office

Small Projects, Wide Reach: Hilary Sample on the Benefits of Maintaining a Purposefully Small Office
MOS Architects, "Selfie Curtain" – 2016 Istanbul Design Biennial. Image © MOS Architects

In the seventh episode of GSAPP Conversations Amale Andraos speaks with Hilary Sample, an academic and co-founder of MOS Architects alongside her partner Michael Meredith. They discuss the lasting influence of ORDOS 100—a collection of villas built in Inner Mongolia by emerging and renowned practices—on the firm’s thinking, the role of representation, and how Sample's practice pursues an inclusive way of working and thinking – while maintaining a purposefully small office.

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GSAPP Conversations is a podcast series designed to offer a window onto the expanding field of contemporary architectural practice. Each episode pivots around discussions on current projects, research, and obsessions of a diverse group of invited guests at Columbia, from both emerging and well-established practices. Usually hosted by the Dean of the GSAPP, Amale Andraos, the conversations also feature the school’s influential faculty and alumni and give students the opportunity to engage architects on issues of concern to the next generation.

GSAPP Conversations #7: Hilary Sample with Amale Andraos

Amale Andraos: Hi, Hilary. Thank you for joining me today. I think one of the aspects of your practice with MOS is that it is redefining practice and how architects today can engage in thinking about architecture across scales. Clearly you've become a kind of model for the next generation of architects and for students alike. Do you want to tell me what you're working on right now that's exciting? And what has been your thinking in terms of creating a practice that is both engaged, but also engaged with the discipline at a more in-depth perspective?

Hilary Sample: Thanks, Amale, for having me join in this conversation. I think we are coming up actually on ten years of having the office, so that's a fair amount of time. And in a way I think we’ve stayed pretty true to our beginnings, when we started around a big table. We still sit, relatively, all together around that table. We're about five people plus Michael [Meredith] and myself, so we’re very small – and purposefully small. I think there's not a specific ambition to grow in terms of numbers or these things that American offices tend to be categorized by.

For better or for worse, I think American offices tend to start with single-family houses. There's been a shift in that now, but when we started our office we were really working on just one project and then started to think about how we could take that into other aspects like making objects. And while we've gotten some attention recently for things like books or the Selfie Curtain, these types of tangential projects have always been part of our thinking, our work and interests, and of how we could start our office through these different scales even if we were only actually building at one scale - at that time a house. That’s something we're thinking about continuously, and working through this different set of objects, of representations, helps us to reframe architecture for ourselves.

MOS Architects, "Selfie Curtain" – 2016 Istanbul Design Biennial. Image © MOS Architects
MOS Architects, "Selfie Curtain" – 2016 Istanbul Design Biennial. Image © MOS Architects

And coming out of a period where we're facing all these different camps – there's been such a fragmentation of the discipline – we didn't want to have to pick or choose. And maybe not falling neatly into one category creates certain problems for a practice, but we tried to be very inclusive in our work and in our thinking. In the same way that we try to make things and be a creative office, it's also about producing a certain kind of culture within that office. This is as much of a project as the work itself, that we can support those different explorations. And then, hopefully over time these things come back and reinforce each other into something that we've liked to talk about lately, which is the body of work in the office.

AA: I think that's really visible through your latest monograph, Selected Works. And what's interesting about the book is the work of course, but also the office part – the office manual, which clearly indicates an interest of a new generation of architects in not only practicing, but designing the creative practice. This is the moment when we have to rethink what the office is.

So when you declare that you don't really have the ambition to grow so much bigger and you resist the pressures of the market to be a certain scale, either too small or too big, it is already an act of design of the practice, which I think is really interesting. It takes a very strong position to declare, "This is where we are now." Even if the pressures are moving you in a different direction.

It always seems to me that you're re-assembling architecture. You're collecting all these pieces and putting them back together in a new way. So it's very inclusive, but it's not an expansion that moves you away from architecture. It's an expansion that then folds itself back on itself to re-enter architecture on your own terms.

And one of those terms, both in your practice and in your teaching, has been the question of representation as a hinge to reenter the discipline. Do you want to talk a little bit about representation in your practice, but also how you're bringing that as a main focus here at the school?

HS: Yes, we also talk about this together all the time in thinking about the school and our own practices. Probably one of the most important moments in the office's work had to do with ORDOS 100, this project that you and Dan [Wood with WORKac] were also a part of: a collection of houses in Inner Mongolia that were essentially clientless. And it was also a very large-scale project, much larger than anything we had worked on in our office, at least in terms of a house.

MOS Architects, "Lot No. 6" – 2008. Proposal for Ordos 100, Inner Mongolia. Image © MOS Architects
MOS Architects, "Lot No. 6" – 2008. Proposal for Ordos 100, Inner Mongolia. Image © MOS Architects

And without a client, at this big scale, we had to reconcile those things and produce an architecture out of it. One of the ideas that came out of it was to make a video and invent characters that would live in the house. We constructed this life around these characters to give a reason for why we would be designing something, because it was not given to us. This is usually not the typical case, it was much more of academic project in some ways.

And from there we really started to push further on this idea of a variety of representations. This is something that was very different from our training in school and undergraduate, where there was a certain set of figures we were to look at and a certain way of drawing. It was very limited before the computer and I always like to say we're self-taught in that sense.

I think that idea of coming to different technologies on our own produced a certain ethos and a certain culture. And maybe today it's not that different in some ways for students, partially because there are so many choices. At your core you still have to have a sense of curiosity and a sense of wonder, but also a sense of pursuing something very specific - even if you change your mind later. These things are not necessarily so prescriptive and taught, but emerge in combination with global experiences, which I think ORDOS was for us. So it was interesting to think about representation through a global project somehow, if that makes sense.

AA: Yeah, it makes sense in that we were given a so-called desert declared as a lack of context. But of course there were so many other contexts that were layered: the existing context, the desert, the ecology, predicting the people who were going to live there, and then the context of all these architects together and their conversations. And I think that the kinds of constructions that you built around that project, using representation as a hinge between discourse and practice and as a way to reenter the project was really interesting. And this idea of who the subjects are that you're constructing through your work has been a thread that the scale figure book is now making really visible. Who are these scales that architects are putting in their buildings? Suddenly it's no longer just about the buildings, but about these figures.

You lead the Housing Studio here [at Columbia GSAPP]. It is always so interesting to continue to think about housing today – housing having constructed so many different subjectivities – and to invite students today to think about housing globally. You travel with the students and you compare typologies and scales and different contexts – cultural but also geographic and environmental. And through the lens of housing this conversation has started to result in really interesting ways to enter various cities and contexts.

And so in the same way you use representation and invite the students to use representation as a hinge between discourse and practice, it seems to me that you're using housing to create a new hinge between architecture and the city – but no longer just the city, but different cities and different contexts. You were in Mexico for the last housing trip [in November 2016], and I was on the other side of the so-called wall at the time of the elections, and it probably was a really interesting moment. I wanted to hear a little bit about how you think the students are re-engaging this question of housing today.

MOS Architects, "An Unfinished Encyclopedia of Scale Figures without Architecture" – Nicholas Hawksmoor. Image © MOS Architects

HS: The Housing Studio here at Columbia GSAPP is one of the oldest ones as a curriculum or pedagogy within the school, and within architecture very specifically. It's not something that is placed into urban design or urban planning, because of course housing can operate at that scale of thousands, of tens of thousands of units like in The Netherlands, for instance, which has a national housing plan. So you have to defend housing in a way for architecture because it does have that capability to be on such a large scale. If you reduce it down to something small, it becomes a single-family house and that's a whole other kind of disciplinary problem.

So for me it's exciting to think about housing in those terms, of having to hold this ground between these two incredible ranges in terms of density, politics, economy, culture, and the representation of those things – which are also things that we look at in the studio.

At the school it’s been taught for something like 45 years, and it came out of two exhibitions at MoMA in the late '60s, early '70s. We have incredible faculty who have been doing research on housing for a long time: of course Richard Plunz and Gwendolyn Wright, just to name a few. Reinhold Martin at the Buell Center is doing other projects around it. So there's not only housing happening in the design studios, but I think we have incredible support for housing that can be explored beyond the studio. These things are fantastic to reinforce each other and certainly have been helpful to me as a teacher in thinking about the studio’s direction.

MOS Architects, "An Unfinished Encyclopedia of Scale Figures without Architecture" – Lina Bo Bardi. Image © MOS Architects

And doing housing in New York City, we can't escape an incredible history of housing here within Manhattan. From some that are not necessarily so positive – if we think of NYCHA and the condition that it's in right now including all of the deterioration and the problems as an organization – to other more contemporary projects that are being built in the city and try to serve as new models. So we have those two spectrums of housing, one very optimistic, one pessimistic, and it can be very tough to work between them.

But ultimately New York is a place that imports many models and types, and so I wanted to look further at the influence onto the housing situation in New York. To parallel that and also reflect the incredible diversity of our student body, I asked that we start to look beyond New York for examples. And that led to thinking about housing as a global problem, not just a New York problem. But also to look at these two simultaneously, which then inherently produces a variety of differences in politics and economics and culture and so on for the studio. And these things are very interesting for the students.

We spend a lot of time looking at examples and precedents and going out in New York and seeing projects, but then also taking trips. So on November 9th we were in Mexico City, the day after the election, and it seemed like a very surreal moment. But we saw an incredible range of projects and started by looking at Luis Barragan's own house. I thought that was very important for the students, to see a project that they would study by someone who is also a landscape architect, and to get a sense of what that means in terms of a relationship to a house.

MOS Architects, "An Unfinished Encyclopedia of Scale Figures without Architecture" – Alvaro Siza Viera. Image © MOS Architects

And then we also had an incredible experience of visiting Mario Pani's housing project, one of the first social housing projects in Mexico City, where the residents have now taken over and essentially manage the property. It's all connected, something like 800 units, in the form of a zigzag. And we walked through the whole building – they have planter boxes with plants, residents are growing rosemary and things for their garden, it is the delicate everyday experience up against a massive project. So it's something very real, but brutal at the same time. And this kind of incredible dialectic that housing can produce was so compelling for the students.

AA: I've seen some of the results in the students’ recent work. Not only is there so much invention in terms of representation; it's more playful, there's an attention to detail, to the human scale, and a sort of anti-spectacle tendency which is quite refreshing. There's tremendous invention, for example a handrail that is separating the stair from the living room.

I think the students are really re-engaging that level of reality, and projecting themselves. There isn't the sort of abstraction that housing has at times produced. I can't help but think that it's somehow a result of your pedagogy and the kinds of relational thinking and experiences that they are living as they travel to Rio or Mumbai and also get a sense of what housing means today across these various contexts.

MOS Architects, "An Unfinished Encyclopedia of Scale Figures without Architecture" – Louis Kahn. Image © MOS Architects

We're coming close to the end of the spring semester and are graduating a new year. I wanted to hear your thoughts and words of wisdom for your students who are graduating, and what we hope to give them here at the school as a toolbox of thinking and skills to engage in new ways to practice and other ways to approach architecture. So, what are you telling your students now?

HS: Well, one of the things that I think is so important about the school—and what I think the students look for when they come here—is this sense of being global citizens and being part of a collective. Even though we're in this incredible culture of individuals and individuality, with the idea of constantly taking selfies. And that was one of the things about the Selfie Curtain for instance, that we were interested in how all of a sudden this collection of figures could become a place of interaction with friends. It wasn't just about yourself alone, let's say, but referencing and experiencing something with other people.

At the heart of the Core, which is the primary thing I am teaching at the School, is that the students are thinking about how they are part of a collective, not just an individual. I think that’s been a big shift for the practice of architecture. It’s of course about finding your own identity within that, but also about how you really exist within a much broader realm – making architecture on one hand for yourself but also for others, and to think about that as a way forward.

We draw buildings, but we also draw people. But to give that kind of very important sense that architects are and should be responsible somewhat for a complete identity as an architect. And now more than ever we have the power to be global, not so much in creating work that is a spectacle in itself—I think we're beyond that—but in how we are as individuals in the field and how we produce a unifying collection, aggregation of ourselves. That's part of our role going forward at this moment in time I would say.

AA: Thank you so much Hilary. I'm looking forward to seeing the work of your practice, but also the students' work. And I know that it's always really exciting to see this commitment to thinking through architecture across these areas.

About this author
Cite: AD Editorial Team. "Small Projects, Wide Reach: Hilary Sample on the Benefits of Maintaining a Purposefully Small Office" 17 May 2017. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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