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A CONVERSATION WITH: LATERAL OFFICE

MASON WHITE LOLA SHEPPARD MATTHEW SPREMULLI

KERB 21

PG. 53

LATERAL OFFICE

How did Knowledge Clouds come about?

LS We should put it in context and say that its part of a suite of projects that has been ongoing now for three years. We have been looking at the role of infrastructures and networks in the north, how there are some cultural resources that might be shared among the pioneers and first communities. Knowledge Clouds came out of an observation that Canada, as a circumpolar nation, is the only nation that doesnt have a university in its north. The reasons for that are multiple: partly political, but largely there isnt the population to sustain one or more permanent campuses in the north and so the project began as a question of Could one rethink the university in the context of geography, climate, and because of the meeting of many very different and unique cultures? MS What is interesting about the Canadian North is that you have a lot of different stakeholders that are bringing knowledge and trying to gain knowledge for different reasons observation, scientific knowledge along the lines of development, and resource extraction. Part of Knowledge Clouds is the ability for all of these different stakeholders of knowledge to have some kind of platform or infrastructure, to find common ground and collaborate. By having a moving campus or moving faculties in temporary locations, you are able to collaborate with these different stakeholders at different times; these meeting grounds become sites for the cross-pollination of knowledge. LS Part of the project started to be about imagining new forms of academic curriculum that would be a hybrid of academic knowledge and on the ground knowledge: knowledge that comes from either the Inuit or from researchers measuring the ice or observing mammals. So, in effect, theres a curriculum itself that would bring together different modes of learning.

Right: Photograph of campus cluster with animated model showing the changes in environmental conditions: the movement of wind, the accumulation of snow, the freezing and thawing of ice. Photo by Jesse C. Jackson

CONVERSATION:

PG. 54

UNCHARTERED TERRITORIES

KERB 21

PG. 55

LATERAL OFFICE

There are so many other places that you could intervene, why was it so import to have a degree-granting institute in the north?

MW - There is an aboriginal culture and innumerable cultural anthropologists and environmental scientists, as well, occupying this remote landscape. The fact is, you have these powerful contradictions of extreme science, people at the top of their fields, studying ice flows, sea mammals and all kinds of patterns. And then there are people who have occupied that land for thousands of years. So theres this powerful friction, but a friction we were hoping to try to excite and find synergies between. The idea of local knowledge and the idea of a gathered database of knowledge I think there is a likeness between these two that has been overlooked. MS There are so many people bringing different agendas. It makes sense that there is a local knowledge base and a degree knowledge base that is from the north and for the north. Its something that a lot of other northern-polar countries do for similar reasons. The powers of local knowledge are a way to balance new interest and knowledge coming in with speculation for the future.

In the interview for Landscape Futures, you speak about designs that can aggregate and disaggregate as necessary, that these sorts of designs that can shift across scales. How did you determine that this was the most appropriate approach?

MW - This idea of aggregating and disaggregating a form of practice that relates to dynamism or, more broadly, the ability for the design to adapt and respond to change it might be pragmatic, environmental or weather-based responses. Aggregating and disaggregating is an alternate approach to planning, whereby planning has specifically been an idea of finite or fixed designs. Were interested in design systems and elements that can be combined in various ways to provide a general strategy; this plan can then become malleable and adaptable. But I think the terms disaggregate and aggregate are really acknowledging an alternate practice, a planning-based practice. LS - Because were interested in this large scale, I would argue that one needs to start to think about something that can transform and respond or even risk megalomania. If you operate at a huge scale, either youre building massive things and I can see failed projects in that realm or you find an alternate way of thinking about how you can engage. The territory of the whole northern Arctic in the case of Knowledge Clouds means you need alternate tools to engage and respond to sites of that scale.

How might this insight into the Arctic inform other projects in your practice that are not related at all to the Arctic, like parks and urban infrastructure?

LS This idea of network, architecture and infrastructure working at a territorial scale underpins many of our projects. The network for infrastructure can respond and react to programmatic demands, climatic conditions or demands of its users. MW We have a real interest in where the site of a project begins or ends. I think thats a genuine question for the studio; theres something very simplistic about that question that it almost sounds as if it is at the very foundation of design questions to ask. We are humbled by the fact that landscape architects take an interest in our work, as were all trained as architects, but the overlapping interest in landscape architecture and the respect we have for the discipline has come out of this general initial investigation of h. The Knowledge Clouds project embodies that powerfully because it has site-specificity in the enclosure of the structure. These labs or classrooms can be adjusted to be site-specific; also, the site could be described as predominantly a route of travel from a departure to a destination, including the various regional campuses themselves. LS - Another thing that has interested us is the idea that a structure or intervention might have an impact beyond its immediate context. You can operate at a territorial scale without necessarily building bigger or more. Through these kinds of networks, physical or ephemeral, quite small interventions can start to engage and transform how a much larger territory operates.

We were wondering how you balance a consistency of practice in which theres an expectation of what you are going to do and what is going to be produced.

MW - Were ten years old as a studio. Our ambition for the studio, which was never named after our identities, was to embrace a kind of flat and horizontal form of practice. The studio wasnt about individual identities. I think that the innovations have come out of the initial impressions that were there from the very beginning of ititiating a design collaboration in that wonderfully awkward, nave way. Were now working under a more structured practice that was really critical. Its like looking back at an awkward finger-painting and discovering an idea in them that youre still not finished with. I think consistency comes out of recognising those foundational questions, and innovation comes during improvement upon articulating a response to a question. Innovation isnt change for the sake of change; rather, its understanding the question being asked in a more profound way. MS - When youre confronted with issues of program, like specifics of site and climate, it forces you to adapt, and thats where a lot of our innovations come from. Were very flexible, very plastic. LS - All of our projects start with a lot of research, and part of this research is defined by accidents and loopholes or the places where the system either doesnt work or where theres actually opportunity within the system thats overlooked.

Below: View of classroom unit being air-lifted to site, to form a cluster of teaching classrooms, marking a temporary campus. The deployable, mobile university capitalises on the technology of airships to airlift equipment for the northern mines.

When you describe the Arctic, you reference it as this idea of a new frontier. How do you identify these new territories?

MS Our projects are posing questions in their most honest way. Through projects and research, were asking much larger questions like How do we interface with our environment? This is what were exploring within our work. Its less about this is how we should interpret things for our environment, but more about the new potentials if we expand our scope of design what new horizons maybe this draws back to your question of new territories. We are actively seeking these overlaps of things that may be left behind in a kind of systemic research. Were looking for interesting experiential researchbased overlaps that produce new territories. LS - From the start, we have been interested in working in these territories that have been overlooked by design professions. There is a freedom to say that noone really knows what to do in this context, so we could almost say the rules of engagement are still being written and thats a powerful place to be operating. MW In a way, there is a form of detective work being done in the design-research work in the Canadian North. Another interesting idea that weve been drawing from lately is that the designer is also one part detective, one part scientist. LS One thing we are very conscious of recognising is when a problem has a spatial or architectural implication or when its really an issue of policy or legislation. If we take the project Caribou Pivot Station, an early observation was that certain caribou species were disappearing for assorted reasons. Some of the responses might be, well, you need to change the policy or you need to change the environmental pollution happening in those regions, and those are, of course, outside the scope of architecture. What were interested in is this role of detective, extending the role of architects and how we might pre-empt the project rather than come in at the tail end, which is the traditional model.

How do you set about finding your work? Do you follow your heart and find someone who will pay you for it, or do you find a brief and then turn it into something that you are interested in?

MW - Design competitions were a really fruitful early investigation for the studio. They were useful for their deadlines, but then, broadly speaking, they fit under the categories of design in the public realm and design related to infrastructure. Responding to those terms more directly is what matters. The glory of trying to actually win the competition was a false hope so we gave up. I think there would be some the Reykjavik urdban design project was one in which we were shortlisted from a very large group, and we were able to move forward and develop a second phase and that was a valuable operation. But I think, lately, weve found it more fruitful to generate our own work. The downside is that there is no deadline to it.

Mason, we came across your article Disciplinary Thievery and it reminded us of when we were trying to get a spatial understanding of the discipline of landscape architecture. Can you explain the diagrams you used to locate disciplines?

MW - About five years ago, there was this interesting envy happening within the design disciplines of other disciplines. Lets say, architecture wanted to be more landscape-y, landscape seemed to want to be more urban design-ey, and urban design wanted to be more architectural. Also there was a openness by which the term architect was being ascribed to many different kinds of people. In very a popular medium such as the newspaper, an economist would be called the architect of the Euro or something to that effect. In North America, you can be sued if you call yourself an architect without actually carrying that licence. This brought up the possibility that there was this internal feeding happening within the various disciplines. I was trying to write about this as a useful thing rather than a problem, but that it is a really truthful opening up or acknowledging of the possibility of the role of an architect. Through the diagrams, I was trying to locate the term infrastructure. It seemed like a tug of war between urban design and landscape and, in some ways, architecture. Of course, being an architect, I was hoping to lay claim to the territory of infrastructure, that an architect did have a stake within infrastructure and its design investigation.

Previous page: View of classroom cluster showing units raised to provide protected entry and offer space for equipment storage. Above: Map of proposed mobile Arctic University network showing classrooms moving in response to community needs, as well as curricular opportunities to pursue studies in the field. Opposite page: Section of classroom showing integration of local and imported building technologies.

Lola and Matthew, did you have something that you wanted to add, leading on from the last question? How might design continue on its current trajectory do you envisage a grand shift?

LS I think, across those camps mentioned by Mason, there will be a shift, but I think it will be very slow. For architects, maybe the role and the sites where architects intervene I dont know to what degree this is wishful thinking and to what degree I fully believe this will happen I think theres a kind of generation of young architects being trained in school that are asking some really good questions. My profound hope is that they bring this curiosity and willingness to engage in issues that are challenging, in terms of scale and complexity. We havent been teaching for enough decades to have a sense of how different that is from ten or twenty years ago, but I remain optimistic that there will be a shift in the bulk of things that architects tackle. I sort of think we have no choice.