words Justin McGuirk
portrait Richard Nicholson
Aranda/Lasch may be the only architects around to use a pseudonym. Under their own names, young New Yorkers Benjamin Aranda and Chris Lasch enter architecture competitions and design experimental furniture. As Terraswarm, they look for code.
The code that determines everything from the flocking patterns of birds and the uniqueness of snowflakes to the shape of molecules. In short, they are nerds. But their work should come with a warning sticker-cum-disclaimer: this may be of profound significance to the evolution of design and architecture.
“We developed Terraswarm as a way to not do architecture,” says Aranda, nursing a beer in a London restaurant. “It became Aranda/Lasch later when this way of not doing architecture produced all these tools for making it.”
One of the duo’s pieces, a concertina-shaped steel screen, is on show down the road at the inaugural Design Art London collector-fest. But they are also in town to present a collaboration with artist Matthew Ritchie – a giant sculptural installation to go on the roof of the South Bank Centre later this year. “Matthew had this idea about working from a model of the universe,” says Aranda. To produce that model, the pair worked with two physicists who have a new theory. “It’s not about a Big Bang, it’s about a series of Big Bangs – a cyclical universe,” adds Lasch. This is a rare interjection from him. Aranda is the practice’s garrulous front man, issuing an excited stream of explanations. Lasch, the outfit’s programming whiz, is laconic and slightly circumspect – either he feels the futility of trying to put the universe’s ordering principles into words or he doesn’t think I’ll get it.
In its 2006 book Tooling, Aranda/Lasch divides its projects up into a sequence of phenomena observed in nature: spiralling, packing, weaving, blending, cracking and flocking. Each one is studied, turned into an algorithm or a simple principle and presented as an offering – a lesson in how things might be done differently. Sometimes the meeting of mathematics and basic natural processes leads to odd juxtapositions, like “computational basketry”. But weaving, the duo explains, uses a binary logic in which the warp and the weft are no different from the ones and zeros of computation. In 2005, the pair collaborated with a Native American basket weaver, giving him algorithmic patterns to play with that he understood intuitively. “He didn’t know the code or the math, he could just read the pattern,” says Aranda.
Code – the universal language that enables Aranda/Lasch to collaborate with physicists, engineers and basket weavers – suggests that there is an innate logic in everything, a series of fundamental laws. The trick is in what you do with it. Entering an ideas competition for a new gateway to Las Vegas in 2004, the practice proposed a ten-mile-long spiral of entertainment-studded highway rising into the sky. A compact twister city to be enjoyed at the wheel of your car, the project used the logic of the spiral to extend the highway without going anywhere. The Camouflage View screen of the following year borrows the moiré effect of zebra skin to hide a picturesque view of the St Lawrence River in Quebec. Folded, mirrored and perforated, the screen blends into the forest, partially disappearing and taking the view with it. There’s a certain perversity to these projects, an ingenious execution tied to questionable motives.
Aranda met Lasch in their final semester at Columbia University, the breeding ground of America’s digital avant-garde in architecture. But they didn’t want to be architects. They set up Terraswarm as more of an urban research practice. Their first work together involved strapping a camera to a pigeon. This was in late 2003, just before the advent of the Google Earth craze. “The idea was for us to make our own satellite,” says Aranda, “but one that would have tremendous difficulty in doing what these other mapping techniques could do, which is staying on the grid.” The images were warped by the pigeon’s flying motion, crude impressions that were more metaphorical than strictly useful (see pages 7-11). “We really wanted to see, in a sense, what a flock sees – we wanted to get inside a flock. It’s a dynamic behaviour, one you can code. You can simulate a flock on the computer but you’ll never get a perfect picture of how things really work. And realising that was a watershed moment for us. Like, wow, we’re never going to understand any of this stuff.”
The practice veers between the academic and the glamorous, supporting itself with research grants on the one hand and selling expensive limited-edition furniture at the Design Miami collector’s fair on the other. Aranda and Lasch like to maintain the distinction between the two sides of their work, producing at least one Terraswarm project a year. Often, it will combine an exploration of natural states with the observation of the city. In early 2007 they took over the largest video billboard in North America, which happens to belong to the Fresh Direct grocers in Queens, New York, and used it to display what looked like a giant screensaver. They replaced the advertising feed with an algorithm that runs through a sequence of RGB (red, green, blue) colours, pushing each one to its maximum saturation. For a two-mile radius around the billboard the city glowed in deep reds, blues and yellows.
“The algorithm is basically a kind of dance around the colour wheel,” says Aranda.
“Or a march,” pipes up Lasch.
“You look at the city closer when it’s changing colours – you look at the temperature of the environment, and every colour seemed alien. It happened to be at a time of night when the Fresh Direct shifts would start, with everyone coming into work illuminated by these radical colours. Really we were taking a portrait of the opening shift of a company.”
This was clearly not architecture and yet it had a profound impact on the city. It demonstrated the potential to change the environment without building anything. “In hindsight, Terraswarm projects seem to be about getting inside of things – a flock, RGB space – it’s a media practice,” says Aranda. “Aranda/Lasch is about making tools for projects; with Terraswarm we find it more interesting not to make new things but to explore the relationships between things.”
Compared to their peers in Los Angeles, where umpteen digital architects are mining cell structures and insect wings for forms and structures, Aranda/Lasch is more interested in processes than patterns. Instead of starting with a material, the practice goes one step further back to try and understand why that material assumes its particular state, and how it might be improved. In one project, it proposed that a better way to build a log cabin is to stack the logs and then cut them. In its 2005 proposal for PS1’s annual summer pavilion, it designed a grotto made up of “boulders” that were mathematically generated using cell-structure algorithms and packed together in a non-symmetrical way. It was less showy than Hernan Diaz-Alonso’s winning installation but a stronger work of architecture.
There are other ways in which Aranda/Lasch differs from the new breed of parametric designer. The most obvious is in how the work is produced. Given that most of it is generated by some elaborate computational process, you’d expect the duo to be rapid-prototyping its results. Yet its Quasi table – based on a non-repeating crystal structure known as a quasi-crystal – is hand made out of individually shaped blocks of wood, and its Camouflage View screen was held together by tape before being set in concrete. “It’s more interesting for digital work to be fabricated through real means,” says Lasch. “A 3D print is kind of a shortcut – there’s no tension, no contamination with the real world.”
The practice also has a rare disdain for efficiency, the holy grail of so many data-crunching architects. “What we try to do is produce complexity, and that’s not necessarily efficient,” says Aranda. “What complexity does produce, however, is opportunities. It’s a way to re-examine the brief – what was a log cabin in the first place?”
Of course, the idea that complexity is inherently interesting is the kind of thinking that leaves people languishing in academia. The danger of this form of investigative, geometric practice is in fetishising the mathematics – to try and compute everything through invisible but universal laws. Aranda/Lasch has so far avoided this by grounding its work in culture and history. Its PS1 proposal updates the grotto, a romantic construct of 18th-century English landscaping. The log cabin project reinterprets a classic American typology, while the Quasi chair mimics a Louis XV armchair with the crystalline structure of manganese – an element discovered the year that Louis died. “We seem to go back to historical models,” says Aranda. “You can use computation to mix up the formal readings of history – reconsider tropes that the history book had closed. And that’s just another kind of information, along with site data or the client’s whims. The one that produces the most conflicts is the richest.”
Computers may have liberated the architect’s artistic urges, facilitating a language of formal abstraction and mannerism, but they also have the potential to ground form in elemental processes. Aranda/Lasch is constantly searching for more versatility from the natural world. “It’s not biomimesis,” says Lasch. “We’re not trying to extract some innate truth – these things aren’t more true because they’re more natural. They’re just patterns that are out there, and it’s our ethic to absorb them.”
This is an architecture of the open source generation for the information age. It’s less about personal technique than shared ideas and universal principles. The premise is that scripting, or the writing of code, can produce space, and even without building anything can alter the architectural environment. Scripting may be the only new paradigm that can lead architecture out of the endgame of modernism. And so while Aranda/Lasch is in the margins now – nerdy and dilettantish – it also belongs to a crucial next generation.
images Johnson Trading Gallery