As teenagers, the founders of New York architecture studio SO-IL, Jing Liu and Florian Idenburg, reflected on the history of the built environment around them. When Idenburg was 16, he wrote an essay about the ethical conflicts in the professional life of his great-uncle, the iconic Dutch architect Hendrik Petrus Berlage – a man, Idenburg explained to me, who sympathized with socialism and visited Russia, but also builds ‘massive hunting castles for industrialists’.
Liu was a boarder when she became sensitive to her material surroundings. Liu cites his hometown of Nanjing, a waterway city in an agricultural region of China (and former capital), as a major influence on his aesthetic setting. When she moved to Tokyo and then London for school, she remembers the respective energies of each cityscape and how different they were from where she grew up. Liu recalls the beautiful old neighborhoods of Tokyo, but also the sprawling, dreary concrete suburbs hastily built after earthquakes and World War II. Liu recalls the majestic and massive stone buildings of London, and the feeling that such imposing architecture “could weigh too heavily on you”. “I’ve always loved the world-building quality of literature and writing,” she tells me. “And I realized that the material life around you – the architectural and urban environment – has this same capacity to build a world where you become a subject and a part of this world.”
In 2008, the year Liu and Idenburg founded SO – IL (an acronym that stands for “Solid Objectives – Idenburg Liu”), architecture, like almost every other professional sector, was devastated by the financial crisis. In their 2010 design for the MoMA PS1 Young Architects Program, pole dancing, Liu and Idenburg offered a design-oriented corrective to the palpable pessimism of the time. The project was a mobile facility – the reasoning being that in times of recession there was no point in designing a commercial or residential space. Based on a single design and built by trial and error on site, the installation was structurally unpredictable and collapsed several times before the opening date of the exhibition associated with the program. Playful by design, pole dancing was driven by the belief of Liu and Idenburg that a global economic crisis offered an opportunity to experiment with a new paradigm for urban architecture, one characterized by new technology, interactivity and the exploratory use of daily materials. pole dancing transformed the empty PS1 backyard into an immersive, multi-sensory summer playground. “We designed the exhibit to be like a game, except there were no rules,” is how Idenburg describes it.
The installation included a series of interconnecting nets and poles, inflatable pools, sandpits and yoga balls. Museum visitors spontaneously began arranging the balls by color – greens, blues and oranges dotted the space – and invented other DIY activities involving both the materials provided and the space itself. . With the help of structural engineers and sound experts, SO – IL installed poles with accelerometers programmed into them, generating sound waves when visitors shook them, volume controllable and even viewable via a iPhone app (Liu and Idenburg were fascinated by emerging artificial intelligence technology). PS1 pole dancing certainly gave New Yorkers an idealistic outdoor party (the original SO-IL proposal promised it would be both “calming and fun”), but it also marked the start of the type of community-driven, interactivity-driven design that would become the studio’s hallmark.
Around the time pole dancing was commissioned, as was a project for Kukje Gallery, located in one of Seoul’s oldest neighborhoods. With this project, SO – IL needed to address the tension inherent in creating an art space that was not only a classic “white cube”, but also, in a way, true to architectural history. of the local neighborhood. They arrived at the site with a “large-area foundation” already constructed, and were tasked with integrating a very restricted structure into a neighborhood full of hanok houses: delicate traditional masonry constructions with handmade tiled roofs. According to Liu, the studio decided to work with a similar “assembled material language”. After careful consideration, a mesh was designed to cover the entire gallery: 510,000 metal rings (enough to create a soft, almost elastic quality) assembled by a group of artisans in Anping, China.
Kukje’s success allowed SO–IL to start making a name for themselves as a a formidable force in designing architectural spaces for art. In 2012, the studio was commissioned to design the first Frieze New York, then in subsequent years, the Tina Kim Gallery in New York, the Jan Shrem and Marina Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at the University of California at Davis, the K11 Art and Cultural Center in Hong Kong, the Beeline in Lisbon and, more recently (completed in 2021 and 2022 respectively), spaces for Fondation Amant in New York and Site Varrier in France.
While SO–IL’s commitment to civic spaces and housing (both in New York and internationally) remains less well-known, it is as notable as the studio’s work in the art space. For a project called ‘Transhistoria’ with the Guggenheim, New York, and their ‘stillspotting nyc’ series in 2012, SO – IL partnered with local writers and performers in Jackson Heights, Queens – a neighborhood of 138 languages and home to immigrants from all over the world – to create civic tours based on lived stories of migration, displacement and community history. Performers told these stories to small audiences in everyday settings, such as benches in public squares, hospital waiting rooms, apartments and rooftops. Then in 2016, SO-IL built Las Americas: a 60-unit affordable development in downtown Leon, Mexico, a city known for its sprawling public housing bureaucracy, and historically building poorly resourced communities away from the mainstream. center and its services. With two open courtyards and no two units facing each other, the complex offered its tenants not only home ownership, but also privacy and a sense of dignity.
SO–IL’s newest art space, for the kurimanzutto in New York, which opens in November 2022, is something of a marriage between their interest in art and civic potential. A gallery that started life as a stall in a Mexico City market in 1999, kurimanzutto has a community-focused philosophy that shares much with that behind SO-IL. The new gallery space is deliberately permeable and inclusive, and recalls not only its origins in Mexico City, but also the many other spaces they had used to present exhibitions of their artists. The building will have a large central exhibition space, with additional areas for refreshments and reading, and a bar for socializing, as well as a viewing room and back offices. “We really want it to feel like a space where objects talk to each other, where people feel they can form relationships and friendships and connect with each other,” Liu tells me.
Underlying kurimanzutto’s design is the inviting and immersive quality for which SO-IL has become known in its art, civic and living spaces. But even at this point in their careers with their signature aesthetic and ethical principles, Liu and Idenburg agree that they most enjoy working from a place of experimentation, much like where they started from. “We have a lifelong curiosity and excitement about things we don’t know about, and how to explore new areas, new ways people can engage,” Idenburg says.
Main image: SO – IL, pole dancing, 2010, MoMA PS1, New York. Courtesy: Iwan Baan