Architecture is inherently defined by its cultural and environmental context. From the climate crisis and questions of exurbanism to architecture’s role in rural and remote communities, broader conditions shape how we design. Embracing these dynamics, architect Lola Sheppard of Lateral Office has created a body of work that directly responds to the demands of the 21st century. Through critical and deft interventions, she is exploring new typologies made possible by an architecture that brazenly confronts today.
Lateral Office, founded in 2003 by both Sheppard and Mason White, is an experimental design practice that operates at the intersection of architecture, landscape, and urbanism. The studio describes its practice process as a commitment to “design as a research vehicle to pose and respond to complex, urgent questions in the built environment,” engaging in the wider context and climate of a project– social, ecological, or political. In an interview with ArchDaily, Lola discusses how designing across the public realm, infrastructure, and the environment can shape architecture and community.
EB: Can you tell us more about Lateral Office and its mission?
LS: Since our founding, we have been interested in exploring the breadth of architecture, the emergence of new typologies in the face of changing cultural and technological realities, and the discipline’s intersection with urbanism, landscape, and infrastructure. We foreground design-research to broaden the issues that architecture engages with the intent to expand the agency of the profession. We are also interested in examining typologies and territories that have been overlooked by architects. Early in our practice we pursued questions of logistics and exurbanism (when this was primarily covered by theorists, but not designers). And, more generally, we explored the design opportunities of infrastructure in public realm.
Our long-standing interest in architecture’s relationship to environment and extreme conditions led us to architecture’s role in the Arctic. More recently, we expanded this to look at the role of architecture in rural and remote communities, where geography and climate are central in shaping culture and economy. These conditions provoke us to think strategically about a network of interventions that might have larger impact than a singular building. Within Lateral Office, we have used numerous format and platforms—books, exhibitions, conferences, urban installations, design-research work—to explore these questions. Sometimes a building is just not enough.
EB: Why did you choose to study architecture?
LS: I come from a long lineage of architects – my father and my grandfather. My father practiced and taught for forty years at McGill University in Montreal, where I studied. More strikingly, his father’s life was spared during the second World War because he too was an architect. While he was interned in five different concentration camps, the Germans employed him to draft buildings. My father and grandfather lived in an era of immense architectural optimism, when architecture was seen as socially transformative. So in some ways studying architecture was already chosen for me. It was talked about at the dinner table every night, and it was all around me.
Today, despite my unfailing belief in the importance of architecture, it seems as if society and our political leaders fail to recognize the critical role architecture plays in cementing a strong environmental and social contract. Design and the public realm are under-valued, and so often tied to capitalist and corporate interests. Our practice was then born out of a desire to be able to ask questions fearlessly, like when we were students, to test the limits of what the discipline could reasonably engage in.
EB: You have a diverse background in teaching and as an architect. What do you believe is the relationship between academia and practice?
LS: For Mason and I, teaching, research and practice are deeply intertwined. Some of our design-research pursuits originate in our practice and some originate in teaching. Teaching is an effective platform for us to provoke disciplinary questions, to push students to explore new geographies, new modes of analysis and documentation, new ways of spatial storytelling, and to take risks that can be more difficult in the professional world. We are often exploring similar territories–whether geographic, scalar, or methodological—within our teaching and our practice, although we never bring a specific professional project into a studio syllabus. It is always more effective to teach in a manner that the project belongs to the student, not to the professor. It is important to the education of the architect that they bear the burden of responsibilities for their design decisions. There is also an immense amount we gain from teaching, learning from the next generation and how they think and work. One aspect in which teaching and practice overlap is through travel. I have taken students on design-research travel to Nunavut, the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Newfoundland in Canada, and Greenland. Travel, and engaging with local residents, community leaders, and understanding firsthand local conditions, landscape and culture is an important education opportunity not only as architects but as design citizens.
EB: What are some recent projects you’ve worked on?
LS: We are working on a wide range of things right now: a book, an exhibition, design-research projects, a few building projects, and a traveling urban installation.
Our Impulse seesaw project has gotten far more attention than we ever anticipated and has been presented in every continent and over 40 cities world-wide. We are developing some temporary installations that attempt to respond to public space in the era of COVID.
In terms of design-research projects, we recently completed work on a project entitled Boom/Bust: Speculations on Architecture and Degrowth for the Oslo Architecture Triennale,which focused on rural Newfoundland, an island province in the Atlantic. We spent months speaking to community members in towns that had experienced dramatic cycles of economic boom and bust, as well as researching various economic catalysts that provincial governments have attempted since the 1950s. We then developed a set of spatial and programmatic typologies that leveraged existing social and economic practices, arguing for a “steady-state” architecture rather than the dependence on economic growth.
We are also working on several projects in partnership with Indigenous groups in various communities of Canada – Iqaluit (Nunavut), Yellowknife (Northwest Territories), and most recently, the Michipicoten First Nation in Wawa (Ontario). These projects are really changing how we work, learning from traditional knowledge, and reaffirming our belief in collaborative design processes in order to shift the historical legacy of architecture as a colonizing force to be instead a tool of cultural empowerment. We are also working on a new book, which consolidates several design-research projects, looking more closely at the notion of “spatial milieu.” The book explores the role of research as a tool for constructing new narratives for architecture’s environment, the potential of seriality in design thinking, and the importance of multi-scalar thinking.
We are also working on a new design-research project on housing in the Arctic. It’s a collaboration with the Arctic Design Group at University of Virginia, and should be ready, after a much-needed pandemic delay, for the Venice Biennale opening in May 2021.
EB: What type of projects do you enjoy working on most, and why?
LS: We began our practice with some fortunate early success in design competitions, but soon found that we took more interest from self-generating projects, which would be more speculative and reactive to current events and unattached to capital. When we generated the project ourselves, it gave us the ability to choose the duration, format, and criticality of our approach. Of course, this requires funding, and we have also had to be creative about pursuing research and arts grants that give us, and our collaborators, the freedom to determine the parameters of the project. Increasingly, we are working with community partners and other design collaborators, particularly in remote and rural communities. This has been very satisfying, as many of our community partners have long been overlooked, so we can have a social impact through design-research and elevate the cause of our partners. Equally, we can explore formats for working that are inclusive and participatory, which has made work more open to use and interpretation. This is exciting and keeps us alert for opportunities.
EB: In your office, ecology and landscape are often intertwined with architecture; what does your design process look like?
LS: We typically begin with expansive research with the intent of uncovering hidden truths. Many of our projects are interested in the extrinsic forces—economic, cultural, social, logistical or other–that shape architecture, and much of our initial research originates outside the field. We would argue that architecture is complicit with ecology. The embodied energy, material narratives, and ultimately architecture’s ruin demonstrate that. But also we are interested in the larger understanding of worthwhile dilemmas such as electronic waste, rural economics, or northern infrastructures. For instance, in States of Disassembly:Speculations on Electronics, Toxicity, and Territory, we spent several months researching how e-waste cycles work globally, where the legal loop-holes were, what informal innovations were already happening on a programmatic level, and so forth. This exposed a “toxic colonialism” within the waste stream that sends waste “out of sight”—often to economically compromised nations. The research revealed opportunities to intercept e-waste at the original source, and imagine new building typologies, new economies, and even new types of cultural infrastructure. We think this could allow greater visibility, appropriation, and participation of culture in e-waste and architecture has the potential to help make that transition.
EB: Practicing in Toronto and teaching in Waterloo, how does the local region influence your work?
LS: Toronto has provided us with an excellent home base—both culturally and in terms of our ability to teach full-time at strong but very different institutions. However, very little of our work has been grounded specifically in Toronto, not least because the city is largely committed to a rather conventional understanding of architecture. We have had more traction and interaction in my home city of Montreal, which I think is one of the best cities in North America for architecture–committed to the built environment as an important cultural act, not simply an economic product. I do think we are very much a Canadian practice, but perhaps not specifically a Toronto practice, in what that would conventionally imply. This question about local or national influence is also something that we explore in our projects and work: What does local (vernacular) architecture and spatial practice mean today, in an era of powerful globalizing forces which tend to erase particularities of place? Waterloo Architecture, where I have taught for 15 years, is a hidden gem as an institution. It has a strong social and cultural conscience, producing remarkably thoughtful and articulate students. As a co-operative school, our students work for two years during their undergraduate studies, in firms all around the world. And we have been lucky to hire remarkable students from both Waterloo and University of Toronto within Lateral Office.
EB: Are there any project types you haven’t had the chance to take on yet, but would like to?
LS: We are currently working on two community health and wellness projects with Indigenous partners in the Canadian North. They are starting to move forward, so it would be wonderful to see these projects when they are built.
But current events are calling for new roles for architects that should also be explored. It is looking increasingly ignorant to return back to business-as-usual after the radical transformation of our world from authoritarian regimes, pandemics, and the urgent social upheaval of the Black Lives Matter movement. 2020 is looking like a critical line in the sand for the design professions, since even Architecture is not insulated from these urgent issues. We too will want to find a way to respond both systematically in how we operate, but also in the scope of design-research projects. We are working through some of this now, hoping to find a balance between urgency and relevancy. There is probably a more immediate set of responses we as spatial designers need to grapple with, and then longer term ones that examine a more radical rethinking of the city, and its collective infrastructure.
EB: As you look to the future, are there any ideas you think should be front and center in the minds of architects and designers?
LS: Given current world and local events, perhaps the question is what should we not be looking at? The discipline is in a perpetual tug of war between an introspective and disciplinary isolationist position and an expansive view that seeks to embrace knowledge and problems from other disciplines. Recent events have crystallized architecture’s need to expand its agency and potency.
We’ve just finished writing an essay looking at the current state of the “activist tradition” in architecture, looking through the lens of the past sixty years (to be published in the next issue of Perspecta). The activist tradition can be understood as the use of spatial practice to expose injustice and foster socially inclusive and politically motivated design. It also asks: who has the privilege and the voice in the activist tradition? As the profession expands its gender, racial, cultural and demographic representation, a wider range of voices are participating on behalf of those under-represented in spatial and aesthetic discourse. In politics, activism is understood as the use of direct, often confrontational action in support of a cause, whether social, political, economic or environmental. In architecture, how action is practiced is as varied as its motivation: it can serve as a means of circumventing traditional power structures of client-architect, as a means of giving voice and agency to under-represented groups, or to catalyze attention and discussion to important urban or environmental issues, often denied the social and political benefits of architectural innovation. This legacy of activism in architecture seems more pressing than ever.
We have been incredibly fortunate to have an amazing team of collaborators who lead our research and work. Lateral Office is currently comprised of partners Lola Sheppard and Mason White, with Kearon Roy Taylor (Associate), and interns Irina Rouby Appelbaum, Haiqa Nisar, and Sam Shahsavani.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on July 2, 2020, and updated on December 22, 2020.