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Azure January February 2023 issue cover

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SO–IL has gone from strength to strength. The firm has just completed the Amant Art Campus and is now topping off a multi-family residential building, 450 Warren, set to open this spring. The two projects, which are its first buildings in Brooklyn, where the practice is based, continue the unique experimentation that began when Jing Liu (b. 1980, Nanjing, China) and Florian Idenburg (b. 1975, Haarlem, Netherlands) opened shop in 2008. (The name of the husband-wife-duo’s practice stands for Solid Objectives–Idenburg Liu.)

These works in New York follow other major successes in the U.S. and beyond, including Kukje Gallery—K3 in Seoul (2012); the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at the University of California at Davis (2016); and the Las Americas social housing development in Leon, Mexico (2021). Another stellar feat, the Site Verrier cultural centre in Meisenthal, France, is anticipated to be finished later this year. Their first monograph, a manifesto entitled Solid Objectives: Order, Edge, Aura, was published by Lars Müller Publishers in 2017.

Liu grew up in China and left with her family for Japan at the age of 13. She attended high school in the UK, then the Tulane School of Architecture in New Orleans. Idenburg studied architecture at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, from which he earned a Master of Science in Architectural Engineering in 1999. He then worked for eight years at SANAA in Tokyo, where he was in charge of the design and realization of two acclaimed museums — the Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art and the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. That is where he first met Liu, who interned there for six months, while still a student. They reconnected in New York, while he was overseeing the completion of the New Museum and she was apprenticing at KPF. The duo’s first major project, Pole Dance, won the prestigious MoMA PS1 Young Architects Program competition in 2010. And the rest, as they say, is history.

so il architects - Jing Liu and Florian Idenburg
Jing Liu and Florian Idenburg. Photo by Vincent Tullo

Over a virtual meeting with architecture critic Vladimir Belogolovsky, Liu and Idenburg discussed their early experiences, how they seek to expand architecture’s boundaries and possibilities, and why they refuse to believe in a universal truth.

Opening image is of Site Verrier de Meisenthal. Photo by Iwan Baan.

Vladimir Belogolovsky: Both of you worked at SANAA in Tokyo with Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa. What drove you to their work?

Jing Liu

I was still a student when I went there as an intern, purely intuitively. I had discovered their work in a magazine in 1998: Here were these two Asian architects on the cover. Their work was completely different from what I knew at the time — the canon of 20th-century Modernism. I was intrigued and wanted to check it out.

Florian Idenburg

I studied at Delft University of Technology. The office of Rem Koolhaas was just 20 minutes’ drive away and anyone who was graduating wanted to work either for OMA or MVRDV. That was the time when diagram architecture was quite popular, which was very much based on rational and analytical thinking – and not what my interest was, which was more about an intuitive reading of architecture. So, when Sejima came to the school to give a lecture, and she talked about intuition and sensibilities, I felt that I still needed to learn everything that I could not learn in the Netherlands. So, I won a Dutch government scholarship to study in Japan, for which I had to study Japanese for six months. Once there, I realized that everything I thought was true was untrue. Because all the decisions they were making were against my rational training and approach. What I learned most was that there are many ways in which one could look at the world.

Any examples of what you had to unlearn?

FI

The first project I worked on was the Almere Stadstheater and Music School. To make thin walls between classes seemed counterintuitive to me. At the same time, the office was working on the Kanazawa Museum of Contemporary Art, and the sequence of exhibition spaces there was completely unconventional — every room was like its own building. I realized that it is by going against your initial assumption that you produce architecture.

How did they explain their intentions?

FI

They didn’t. [Laughs.] In Japan, a conversation is a kind of performance between two people and the idea is to keep it going without ever letting the ball drop, like playing ping pong. Many things are referred to without being explicit.

Kukje Gallery—K3 in Seoul, South Korea. SO IL Architects. Photo by Iwan Baan
Kukje Gallery—K3 in Seoul, South Korea. Photo by Iwan Baan

The desire to “solidify ideas” informed the name of your practice. Could you touch on what your solid objectives are?

JL

The idea was to come up with an agenda-based name for our practice. We didn’t want to name it solely after our names, as in the case of MVRDV, nor to just state our agenda, as exemplified by OMA. Also, we did not want to have a single agenda. So, the idea was to come up with a name that would have a double meaning and continue to evolve. Thus, SO–IL can be read literally as the word “soil” because all our projects are grounded, and it can open up to reveal other meanings, including references to our names. And the notion of solid objectives was our way to state that we wanted to be a lot more pragmatic about our work than many architects of, let’s say, Peter Eisenman’s generation. Yet, we did not want to be as rational as what Florian experienced in the Netherlands. We wanted to reduce the gap between academia and practice, between theory and the real world. Solidifying these objectives was our starting point.

FI

It was the time when the Dutch approach of being hyper rational was quite prominent. Koolhaas’s S.M,L,XL came out when I was in my second year of university with the idea that, as an architect, you can operate “within the real world,” rather than against it, which was the position of many radical architects before that moment; it was quite appealing to me. Yet, personally, I was searching for a hybrid model, which explains my desire to go to the East for a while. I was looking to discover the tactile and experiential qualities of architecture. So, the word “solid” in our name refers to the notion of solidifying ideas, which can be fragile and delicate – the intention was to realize ideas, not just theorize in a vacuum.

SO-IL Architects - Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at the University of California at Davis. Photo by Iwan Baan
Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at the University of California at Davis. Photo by Iwan Baan

The phrases typically used to describe your work include “ambiguous forms,” “multiple readings,” “a notion of veiling,” “mystery and intrigue,” “transient and momentary,” and so on. For your 2017 manifesto, you chose three interesting descriptors: order, edge, aura. I am particularly interested in the word “edge.” Could you touch on its significance?

FI

The edge is the space in-between. It is a zone that can be ambiguous, particularly if it is not a hard line. The idea is always to negotiate with the world around us, not simply start from scratch with a tabula rasa. Just like in Japanese dialogue, the point is to engage and exchange ideas, even without being very specific. So, our interest is in this edge condition where there can be multiple readings and interpretations. We want to be the opposite of a diagram. Instead of reducing everything to a single universally understandable meaning, we are interested in creating opportunities for everyone to see things differently.

JL

And we are interested in destabilizing order and debating meanings. We want to get away from the cartesian grid, from the universality of 20th-century Modernism. We don’t believe in a universal world order of any kind. We like to disrupt the existing order: to soften it, to ripple it. We want to identify the edge conditions in order to discover our limits. We want to play with the context. The edge is always informed by both what’s inside and what’s outside. And we work both from inside out and from outside in. There is a desire to discover something else but through a response to what’s either inside or around. We want people to wonder and be curious — Why does this or that look different? We are being opportunistic in our projects by trying to look for new ways to do things. It is at the edge where architecture begins — by questioning, speculating and searching for opportunities.

FI

Yet, it is never about a façade.

JL

It is about identifying the limits. The look is not very important. What’s important is the figure. And we try to critique the surface and negotiate the space between the public and the private, between its thickness and its depth.

You have said, “The world we live in is a pool of knowledge that we draw from.” What do you mean by that?

JL

We have both lived in so many different contexts, cultures and times, as so many others have also experienced. For me, it was the opening of China in the 1980s, the recession in Japan in the 1990s (following the burst of its bubble economy), then my more pragmatic years in Britain, the expectation of the Y2K crisis in America, and then September 11. So, there were so many transitional changes that had to be negotiated during my formative years. Thus, for us a project starts with gathering an enormous amount of information to distill, but not to simplify. We resist the reductive approach. That’s where the complexity comes into our work.

FI

I would add that before there were such things as Google Earth, Google Translate or English language signs in the Tokyo Metro, there was still a depth to different local conditions. And what our practice tries to do is to resist this global flattening and reductivism. We are opposed to architecture turning into an image. We try to maintain the depth and richness of specific places and cultures. We see beauty in the complexity.

You’ve also said that you bring both expertise and naivete” to each project, and question “some of the most basic assumptions.”

FI

Our experience of working in various places and cultures gives us an incredible amount of insight into how things are done differently in different contexts. For us, it is natural to contrast and compare. We question how things are done all the time. We simply ask, Why?  This encourages us to question things even further. We bring worldly expertise to our projects.

JL

We like the unknown and are not afraid of working in new places where so many things can be out of our control. In fact, we purposely avoid working in the same places. It is the unknown that we embrace and that’s what guides us.

SO IL Architects - Murmuration, at Atlanta, Georgia's High Museum of Art. Photo by Fredrik Brauer
Murmuration, at Atlanta, Georgia’s High Museum of Art. Photo by Fredrik Brauer

How do you wish to expand on what architecture is and can be?

FI

What we try to avoid is simply producing instructions for our contractors. It is all about the process and on all kinds of scales and in many different relationships. That’s why we work on installations and collaborate with artists. We want to get engaged; this will only make our work richer. It is not about our skills to draw a set of instructions.

JL

And we try to be hybrid by not relying only on building systems that are predesigned and available by various suppliers. We work on bringing either new materials or new labour techniques to improve what’s available. But not everything gets reinvented; we try to find the middle ground.

You have said, “We need to put more pressure collectively on clients, cities, and industries to commit to doing things differently.” What do you mean by that?

JL

I feel architects’ commitments need to change urgently. Architecture has become so much more complex on all levels, but it is driven by a focus on expertise. We, on the other hand, want to remain generalists. We want to keep negotiating between different disciplines and areas of expertise that are becoming increasingly specialized and systematized. Also, so many clients are reluctant or lazy to make a real effort to improve certain conditions. But taking risk is important and we need to do it collectively!

Why are you so fascinated by curves and double-curves, in what you refer to as “pliable geometry”?

JL

Curves and double curves are hard to do. We use them because they help us to slow things down. Straight lines are easy and are too fast.

SO IL architects - K11 Arts and Cultural Center in Hong Kong. Photo by Kris Provoost
K11 Arts and Cultural Center in Hong Kong. Photo by Kris Provoost

I don’t want to be too obvious, but curves are also more expensive.

JL

At whose expense? [Laughs.]

FI

We have done projects where curves were deemed too expensive, for instance, for a market-rate apartment building in San Francisco. And yet we were successful in using them when in an affordable housing project in Leon, Mexico. It all depends on how they are done — sometimes, they are very expensive and other times they cost just as much as straight lines. We have done them both ways. In Mexico, it was just a matter of rotating bricks on site; for K11 Art and Cultural Centre in Hong Kong, the client was able to afford to fabricate the glass tubes for the façade – they are nine metres tall and one metre in diameter, each weighing two tonnes.

You mentioned that while working on the Kukje Gallery in Seoul, your inspiration came from medieval armour that you saw at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Could you talk about your inspirations, design process, and whether your idea of veiling is recurring in your work?

JL

We watch a lot of films, which helps us to reimagine how to see things. There are so many inspirational ways to tell a story, for example, in how to stitch multiple perspectives together, how the camera moves, the lighting conditions, experimenting with new textures, and so on. We love to see art because artists invent their very individual languages. We analyze conceptual ideas and formal expressions. And I feel that this is more than inspiration for us. In a way, it is more like collaboration, whether these artists know we are collaborating with them or not. [Laughs.] These are the directions for us to break away from what is expected.

FI

For us architecture is about producing a new kind of reality, a reality that’s unknown. And that’s what cinema does. How do you tell a story that helps us to imagine another reality? That’s one direction. And the other direction is about how to discover material orders. We work with ordinary materials, but we try to organize them in ways that are unique. We may develop a different sequence for an uncommon assembly. And we are very curious. We may find interest in how agricultural netting is used or we may look at the skin of an animal, or materials used in the maritime industry, or any industry exploring new ways to express a surface.

Veiling has to do with our resistance to reveal something. We use it to spark curiosity and we like the effects it produces. We’re after mystique. And we use many techniques, but because Kukje Gallery was one of our earlier projects, it is true that we relied on ideas expressed there a number of times. I’ll assure you that we are not planning to keep draping buildings with chain-link mesh again and again. That’s not our interest.

Las Americas social housing in Leon, Mexico. Photo by Iwan Baan
JL

And Kukje is not only about veiling, wrapping and draping, but also about stretching – such as we did in our Murmuration installation in front of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, where the stretching technique is used as part of the structure, which is elastic. So, our interest lies in various techniques, whether they produce double curves or not, but the idea is to bring attention to the tectonics of our architecture.

FI

Let me stress another point: Kukje was not designed as a form that we would then need to figure out how to build. It was a process of trial and error, in which the form was found. We are not shape-makers. We are not interested in achieving a particular double-curved form. We work the other way around. We are more interested in the process to find our form. The materials themselves give us a hint. What we do is closer to the techniques of Gaudí or Frei Otto. We are interested in the materials and in the gravity forces they produce.

When it comes down to it, what would you say your architecture is about?

FI

It is up to you to interpret. The idea is not to produce a single narrative.

JL

Yes, it is up to you. Just like our name, you can read it in so many ways.

“It Is At the Edge Where Architecture Begins”: A Conversation with SO-IL

The Brooklyn-based firm behind the just-completed Amant Art Campus in New York and the upcoming Site Verrier in Meisenthal, France, talks to us about their solid objectives.

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