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Dreams in Theory, Public Space, and the Future: in Conversation with Architensions

By October 12, 2016Art

Get inside the minds of Alessandro Orsini and Nick Roseboro, two prolific Brooklyn-based architectural designers as they prepare for their studio’s first solo exhibition at The Java Project.

Architensions” — as they identify themselves — unifies urbanism with architecture in our increasingly disjointed metropolitan landscape. Their new book, Forma Urbana, reimagines various cities around the world. In a show entitled “Fifth Dimensional Cities,” five of their conceptual buildings will be showcased as physical models and drawings. I sat down with the duo to discuss their creative process and work in Greenpoint’s most original professional community, Java Studios.

Angela Dizon: First off, does your holistic approach to architecture stem from your collaboration or from what you’ve both been doing individually?

Nick Roseboro: I would say both. We have different approaches. My background is music and design more than just architecture and my music comes from a more holistic approach and I feel like we’ve been able to take together, merge our different backgrounds and come up with something different.

Alessandro Orsini: I agree, my approach would usually come from the phenomenological aspects of architecture that are necessarily linked to the human experience. All those aspects like natural light, water, wind and other elements like that.

Dizon: In this exhibition, what are the five cities in which you imagined models and “urban drawings”?

Roseboro: The book has an “urban drawing” for each project in a different city, the models instead come as a design tool during the process — Bamiyan Valley, Afghanistan, Jyväskylä, Finland… Then there’s Aarhus, Denmark…

Orsini: San Giorgio in the north of Italy. In the Bolzano province which is a very peculiar place because it’s primarily German [speaking] but it’s in Italy.

Roseboro: Then there’s Girona, Spain.

Dizon: They’re all over the world. Of all the buildings in this group, which of those would you most like to see materialize?

Roseboro: You go first because I have mine.

Orsini: In terms of an idealistic place to work, basically…

Roseboro: I have my answer. I think the Bamiyan project would be the one that I would love to see forward and be built mainly because of the region, the people who need a project that is a cultural center, highly symbolic, a symbolic place, the Bamiyan Valley where the two Buddha were destroyed in 2001 by the Taliban. That region has a rich culture and I think it’s a very misunderstood part of Afghanistan. That project is a modular project, it can change based on program and it becomes flexible for the people. That project, for me at least, is one of the ones that I wish was starting to be built tomorrow, definitely.

Orsini: My answer is a little bit different. I will answer from you completely detached from any project we have ever done. I think I would love to see one of our works built in Italy, not because I’m Italian but because I think Italy is still the place where the architectural debate is at the forefront. When you actually get a building there, you can actually experiment a lot. The idea of commissioning Architecture with a capital A is still very vivid in that country and not related to real estate exploitation. It happens not that often and for only a few selected, […] but it’s still a very interesting place to build. There’s a lot of historical layering, anywhere you can possibly build and so the restraint and the stimulation from the sites is very interesting.

Dizon: Since the studio seems to be inspired by the social climate and needs of a city, what is the social climate like there?

Orsini: It’s very difficult. It’s a country where the new and young are often mistreated. They give commissions to super famous architects or the ones connected politically at the higher level, but there are incredible resources in terms of material, cultural background. It’s such a bad thing that the country is not in very good shape in this particular moment.

Dizon: It’s hard to separate urbanism from architecture for your studio but if you had the freedom to design a city for people to someday inhabit, would you take that opportunity? What basic features would that city have?

Roseboro: That’s difficult.

Dizon: It’s kind of against everything you guys do, but in the spirit of your show, of theoretical designs, I just wonder.

Orsini: I think we are witnessing a couple of examples where that particularly didn’t work out. I think a city is very much related to the experience and the memories of a person and so I don’t think it will work to basically build a city from scratch and bring people in.

Roseboro: If tomorrow, someone says you can develop this city, we would probably counter that with, “Okay, we would do a research into the possibility of a city but people need to be involved.” There are people who say, “Just give me the thing and I can work with it. […] These are the rules, I’ll follow the rules.” They’re able to be controlled completely by environments that are given to them. In a sense, architecture does affect us [like that]. […] I’ve stayed in one of our projects and I was like, “Wow, this floor is a little rough. I’m not used to this. In New York City, I’m used to wood.” The tactility, the roughness of the floor changed how I walked around the house so I mean, it’s kinda difficult to, on that scale, think of [designing a city]. I don’t think we’d be ready for that but I think we would be ready to research the possibility of coming with a skeleton — not actually the full city — but specific aspects of the city and slowly but surely commissioning other architects and urbanists to join because I think it takes more than just a singular [person].

Dizon: The reason I asked that question is to see if there are ideals that you two strive for when you’re thinking about cities and what they necessitate.

Orsini: I think our focus is public space integrated with architecture. Architecture these days is basically made through “one-off” buildings maybe with a peculiar shape that an architectural magazine now calls “striking” which is not an architectural term. In reality, I think that all these experiments are not necessarily successful, and not necessarily beneficial to the urban fabric.

Roseboro: Unfortunately, great architects that have learned the basics of architecture […] were theoretically moving in a different direction, experimenting, and were able to become famous and build incredible buildings that can be seen as shapes or flashy and because of that, the people learning from them are trying to do that without being rooted in the basic of architecture. So now you have buildings just curving, going in all places gratuitously and unfortunately this is teaching the public that architects are these rich snob people who build crazy buildings. Look at the World Trade Center site, the original master plan was beautiful and it changed into something completely different. […] Luckily, there’s public space. I sat there for lunch recently. I was actually in awe to sit down and actually to be in a public space in New York City that wasn’t Central Park.

Orsini: I think it actually diminishes the site. I think it’s the problem that New York City always had. It’s exacerbated recently. Everything is loud. Basically using architecture as a real estate tool, a vehicle to make money.

Roseboro: In a sense, it’s both. I was speaking from the point of view of a person. I ate there, I talked to someone from out of state, never been here before, they didn’t go to the mall. They just sat in the park and they were talking to their friends. […] You have Central Park as the quintessential public space in New York and because it’s there, we don’t have to create more public space anymore, which is not true. People don’t think about larger parks like Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx which is a beautiful park that people don’t go because it’s too far, etc. […] We’ve talked to people in the city who are trying to advocate for more public space but it’s very difficult in a developer-driven market.

Dizon: Given the lack of public space today, do you envision the buildings in this exhibition as things of the future, the past, or even the present in an alternate universe?

Orsini: We can think of the “urban drawings” as representing an ideal picture, whether that’s the future or the present tapping into the past. I think we can always aim for that. I think once we start dreaming that that could be an ideal picture, I think more people will be inclined to actually give back to architecture going back to a debate instead of choosing a set of trends that everybody tend to follow.

Roseboro: We know that some designers use cut outs of magazine to replicate exactly what the clients want, without filtering the content through a new design vision.

Orsini: It’s really about returning to a pure way to practice architecture and also have a place for confrontation, debate! Confrontation and debate in architecture has never been a bad thing. It was actually a way to advance the profession. It always happened. […] Right now, I would say architectural debate is non-existent. We have trends, we follow the trends. If you follow the trend, you get published. If you don’t follow the trend, you get ignored.

Roseboro: What really makes — and this is coming from me, not coming from the architectural community, coming into it — I see that the people who come from the basis of architecture, and are good, go with it as well, meaning that they don’t fight the system. I think it starts to mess up the younger generation. There will be a change we hope. I think the people that stay theoretical and take inspiration not only from magazines but from literature, from music, from art — which is what we do, we like to think in a different way, it’s part of observation. We observe and simulate and come up with something different.

Dizon: You’ve been at Java Studios since the beginning. How has being around the community contributed to your ideas about public space, urbanism, architecture, etc?

Roseboro: It’s been absolutely terrible. [all laugh] Joking, joking…

Orsini: It’s very interesting to be around a community of people who are actually professional people. It was a little bit different from our previous office. It was very confined; we did not have any interaction with anybody. In the search of a new space, we were coming across a lot of interesting loft spaces but their function was unclear. Instead, Java Studios provided an environment to meet other professionals in many disciplines. Not a lot of architects here, but photographers, people in fashion, artists, who are here to produce work and only work. So, I think it was a very, very interesting platform. We saw the gallery, The Java Project from the very beginning. I think it was very interesting once a curator, Dakota Sica, got involved and then it grew in the artist community. Openings are very interesting. Artists are very interesting. Given the fact we use [inspiration] from all these disciplines, for us it is a very good thing.

Dizon: Is there a specific person here who inspires you?

Orsini: Not a name, but definitely a lot of stuff we see around. Also, we have a lot of conversations.

Roseboro: It’s not even about looking at piece and then being inspired. It’s “Okay, we’ve been looking at this for hours. We need to have a pin-up.” So we have a pin-up and invite people to look at it. People who don’t know anything about the project can come and say, “Oooh, why would you put that there?” And we go, “Hmmm… that’s a good idea…” or “No! It needs to go there.” We like to present our work on a regular basis when we’re in a competition stage or even a commissioned project so we are involving their experience because we all experience things [differently].

Orsini: And it is important they are not architects. They’re from many other disciplines. This is something that I pull from my time at Steven Holl Architects where Steven would bring up people that were absolutely not necessarily architects. I think we have the luxury to recreate that environment at Java because they’re very interesting people [here]. As Nick said, we often have pin-ups in the conference room and show the project, engage in a debate. They’re very, very fruitful.

Dizon: There’s actual debate?

Roseboro: Yeah! I think sometimes today people are scared to question themselves. It’s wrong, you’re exchanging ideas, you’re going to bump heads but it’s good because it pushes you. It makes me go home and be like, “Gee, maybe they were right… Let me sketch this and go, ‘Hmm. You know what, this project is not working at the moment. Let me create some music instead.”

Dizon: Are you two hoping to inspire debate with this exhibition?

Roseboro: I hope so. We welcome it. I definitely want people from other disciplines to criticize and to scrutinize and really try to understand where we’re coming from.

Orsini: But also we want to show people that it’s possible to practice in a specific way. It’s possible to still be theoretical and at the same time produce built work. It’s possible to follow your own trend instead of the globalization of the trends in architecture. Also, the fact that the models in the exhibition are primarily handmade. There are a countless number of hours that we put in those models. Although we absolutely engage in the use of CNC or the use of digital fabrication in our work, we still think that a drawing and a model — when it’s properly done and it’s done by hand — assume a different type of meaning and texture. Our urban drawings we are producing in a limited edition set of art prints. It’s really, more than anything, witnessing the dedication that we give to our work.

Opening night for “Fifth Dimensional Cities” will be on Tuesday, October 18 from 6 to 9PM. Come by for conversation, discussion, and to lose yourself in innovative, theoretical cities from around the world. The show will run through November 2.

Interviewed and Written by Angela Dizon.

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