words Mark Rappolt
Avant garde architect Greg Lynn's designs are inspired by Costa Rican tree frogs, jellyfish and B-movies. Quite colourful aren't they?
Greg Lynn's latest architecture project is shaped like a mutant flower and decorated in lime green and ruby red. With his curly hair and handlebar moustache, Lynn looks like he's on his way to a Village People convention, but he's trying to decide where to buy a batch of Costa Rican tree frogs, some exotic butterflies and a school of jellyfish. He's found a Dutch website that can DHL the first two and knows a zoo in Vienna that can supply the last. That's pretty much the picture you get after only a few minutes talking to him. Needless to say that Lynn is not your average architect.
We meet for breakfast in a hotel in Amsterdam. The mutant flower is called the Ark of the World Museum and it's an eco-tourism and cultural heritage centre in Costa Rica, the moustache is very distracting and the animals will be part of a show of Lynn's work at the MAK Gallery in Vienna this September. But if you've heard of Lynn before, then it is most likely to be because he's the guy who's into computers and blobs. And, true to form, he has just ordered a very blobby eggs benedict.
Lynn is a 39-year-old architect and theorist (he holds degrees in environmental design and in philosophy), and his essential idea is that the potentials offered by digital technology require architects to rethink some of the fundamental principles of their profession. "Architecture is one of the last modes of thought based on the inert," he once wrote. Thanks to computers it can be more complex, constantly mutating to take account of multiple environmental factors in the same way as a ship's sail responds to the wind. Architects should stop thinking about boxes, loosen up and start thinking in terms of more flexible forms like blobs.
All of that, particularly his rather engaging ability to fuse discussions of difficult philosophers like Leibniz and Descartes with easy-to-understand B-movie science-fiction imagery, got him nominated as one of Time magazine's design innovators for the 21st century (which the magazine modestly promoted as a list of future Einsteins). It also got him a load of computer-obsessed architectural groupies, many of whom didn't quite understand the full extent of what he was on about (most people don't) but, like all of us, liked the sound of something radical, provocative and new.
"When I first used the term it was completely technical," he explains. "The term Blob modelling was a module in Wavefront software at the time, and it was an acronym for Binary Large Object - spheres that could be collected to form larger composite forms. At the level of geometry and mathematics, I was excited by the tool as it was great for making large-scale single surfaces out of many small components as well as adding detailed elements to larger areas. At a conceptual and technical level, I loved it and I do not expect this kind of nerdy involvement with the details of my profession to be shared or understood."
Given that one of his recent books was about stuff like an "integral isoparm approach to openings in spline surfaces" that last bit is not surprising. Lynn is, without doubt, a total geek. So in a way you could say that his success is proof of just how uncool architecture really is. It's a profession in which it is really easy for the geeks to inherit the earth. And recently Lynn has been a very busy man indeed.
Commissioned last year, the Ark of the World project is due to be completed in 2006. Amazingly, Lynn sees its garish colour scheme as part of a solution to what he describes as his "problems with colours". He has based it on the colour of tree frogs (hence the animal presence at his MAK exhibition) and taken a little advice from his brother, who knows about paint technology because he works for Trek (the bicycle products and accessories company). It's the kind of bizarre fusion of bestial aesthetics and cutting-edge industrial technology that only Lynn could come up with. The end result looks like a cross between some sort of Pokemon character and the kind of greedy man-eating plant monster from The Little Shop of Horrors. B-movie aesthetics (some would simply call it bad taste) are very dear to Lynn. "It created very mixed reactions from people whom I trust so I decided we were on to something," he says rather gleefully of the Ark's colour scheme.
"Unfortunately, taste plays a big part in the field of architecture," he later complains. "And beauty, elegance, luxury, quality and acceptance are all important values for clients. If you begin with these concerns you end up with the worst kind of tasteful design. I try to start somewhere else, and when it comes to hooking into a popular imagination I would rather be connecting with B-movies than a lifestyle magazine readership."
Perhaps, then, it's not surprising that Lynn has yet to produce a great deal of built work other than the Korean Presbyterian Church in New York (completed in 1998). But with a little help from the painter Fabian Marcaccio he did manage to make an art installation for the Wexner Center showcasing the potential of computer-managed fabrication which was inspired by Arnold Schwarzenegger's Predator. It looked like the shed skin of some alien squid and wasn't at all beautiful in any conventional sense.
Such is his affinity with Hollywood that in 1998 Lynn moved his office, Greg Lynn Form, from New Jersey to LA in order to have better access to the technologies of the film industry (as well as those relating to the aerospace and automobile industries). At one point, the Sci-Fi Channel was discussing broadcasting his architectural animations as part of its daily output. "Just as I am a film groupie, there are reciprocal architecture groupies in the film world," he points out. One of those is Imaginary Forces, the award-winning multimedia design outfit, best known for things like the title credits to the David Fincher film Seven.
Together with a gang of Lynn's like-minded contemporaries from the world of architecture - Reiser & Umemoto and Kevin Kennon Architect from New York, London's Foreign Office Architects, and Amsterdam's UN Studio - he and Imaginary Forces teamed up to form United Architects, one of the seven teams invited to compete for the World Trade Center design at the end of last year. "It was an amazing opportunity to communicate with a broad audience," he says with enthusiasm. "This was a chance to say what architecture should be, and decisions that would make the scheme more competitive needed to be placed second. Many of our worst cynical fantasies were realised I must say, but I don't think that the project was about a commission; it was about what a group of architects stood for. It was a real privilege and one that I do not expect ever to be able to reproduce."
Nevertheless, in Lynn's words United Architects "are still together and aggressively looking for projects that can keep us together". He's in Amsterdam to plot their next move at UN Studio's office. What he likes best about the team is that within it, each member can work on their own specialist area. So Lynn gets to be the guy who works with computers; he knows the others will take care of things he's not so fond of. Such as landscape design, transportation design, diagramming, structural engineering, interactivity, etc. Things that most architects worry about a lot.
Although he has a number of architectural projects on the go right now - including a radical transformation (with the merest hint of blobby aesthetics) of a 500-unit housing block in the Bijlmermeer district of Amsterdam - the work Lynn is most proud of is not a building at all but a coffee set for Alessi, which he describes as "the most sophisticated thing we've been working on". Launched at this year's Milan Furniture Fair (along with 21 other quite hideous coffee and tea sets designed by well-known architects), Lynn's set has a bizarre, mutated flower form not a million miles away from that of the Ark of the World. The design exploits some recently deregulated military technology (developed to manufacture the wings of stealth fighter jets) in order to produce a series of precision-made titanium vessels that can be assembled in up to 50,000 unique sets. It's the kind of project that Lynn expects architects to be doing more and more of in the future. "As variation and customisation are more integrated into mass production, distribution, supply and marketing, we have to design collections of objects rather than one-of-a-kind subjects," he explains. "Curiously, architects are the best-equipped professionals for this task, as we have been - for a longer time than any other field I know of - using mass-produced, off-the-shelf components to make one-of-a-kind buildings. Industrial design companies and car companies are approaching me all the time about consulting with them on exactly this issue of variation."
The coffee set is a fully realised experiment in the kind of mutated animate form that Lynn has been exploring for years. But his real challenge remains to translate its success into architecture. And with his Embryological House project - a long-term experiment in mass-customised housing (a DNA-like universal housing type that is able to adapt and respond to particular local conditions) driven by animation software and enabled by digitally controlled fabrication processes - he's already looking to do that next.
But Lynn's vision of the future goes far beyond that. His science-fiction story A New Style of Life features a house that is a living organism (with a case of indigestion), trousers that are grown from frogs, a jacket (which you care for as you would a plant) that ends up mating with some crocodile-skin shoes, and coffee processed from the rectum of a marsupial. "Why invent a silicon chip to regulate carburetion in your car engine when a smear of rat brain is far more sophisticated? Why invent a night vision lens when an anglerfish eye has already done the job?" he exclaims halfway through his tale. Visitors to the MAK Gallery are getting off lightly, for now. The frogs, butterflies and jellyfish are merely there to reflect themes of voluptuousness, iridescence and translucence in Lynn's work. But if he has his way they'll be your shirt and trousers next.
Greg Lynn: Intricate Surface,
MAK Gallery, Vienna,
From September 10 to November 16