Five Things We Learned From Phillip K. Smith III

Five Things We Learned From Phillip K. Smith III

Architect-turned-light and land artist Phillip K. Smith III muses on the value of endless experimentation.

Whether it’s hundreds of angled reflectors casting shifting shadows in the Sonoran Desert or glassy-surfaced panels merging earth and sky on the grounds of an Italian palazzo, Phillip K. Smith’s installations betray his background as an architect: They’re all meticulously planned, precisely executed and explicitly site-specific.

After the 2008 recession, the California native decided to turn from designing homes to creating “memorable experiences,” which he has been doing – via the media of light and reflective surfaces, in settings both urban and remote – to growing acclaim. Azure spoke with Smith, who’s based in Palm Desert, last spring in Milan, where his palazzo project, created with the fashion brand COS, was a Design Week hit. (The installation, called Open Sky, is pictured below.) In Smith’s view, architects can learn much from artists – and vice versa.


1 Both art and architecture have a responsibility to soothe.

What I try to do with all of the environments I create is open people’s eyes to the beauty around them. For Milan, I used nature the same way painters use paint on canvas, making the sky a material in the work through reflection. By doing so, by bringing the sky right down in front of them, I wanted people to slow down and connect with it, then emerge inspired and refreshed.

2 Even the best-planned projects can incorporate spontaneity.

I did a piece – one of my glowing light pieces – based entirely on the colours of sunsets. The hues were projected through precise parameters, but nothing could tell us what the colour of a sunset would be on a given day. So I’m interested in facts and figures, but insofar as they create experiences that aren’t about facts and figures.

3 You still have to do your homework.

Before I start any project, I immerse myself in the setting, day and night. I’ll have a sketchbook, in which I record notes, document thoughts. Afterward, we transfer things into a computer, into a 3D model. It’s then that we set latitude and longitude and model the whole space so we know exactly what will happen within that space.

4 Light can be as physical as any building material.

I’ve used natural light and LEDs. I’ve done pieces that are just light, that combine light and reflection, that are just about light and shadow. Light can change right in front of you. You have to hang out with it to fully appreciate it.

5 Embrace experimentation (even well into your career).

Milan was exciting because it was my first international project and the first in an urban context. I like being challenged by different sites: cities, deserts. I would like to be able to say how light and land conditions are different in Peru versus Milan versus Australia. I can’t wait to see where it will all lead. 

This story was taken from the September 2018 issue of Azure. Buy a copy of the issue here, or subscribe here.

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