Here at The List, we’re ever-curious about the culture of design, so who better to survey about the field’s current state than those currently working at the top of it? In Need to Know, we pick the brains of best-in-class creatives to find out how they got to where they are today—and to share an insider’s perspective on the challenges and highlights of their particular perches in the design world.
Through the direction of founding principals Michelle LaFoe and Isaac Campbell, OFFICE 52 Architecture is, quite literally, letting the sun shine in. And through the prismatic, thoughtfully detailed structures they design, O52 is creating mesmeric, kaleidoscopic-colored spaces in the process.
This artistic bent—arrived at through rigorous research and ambitious experimentation—is informed by LaFoe and Campbell’s experiences as an artist and complex building designer, respectively. Perhaps the fullest expression of OFFICE 52’s abilities, both ideological and tactical, is its award-winning Scott Hall structure at Carnegie Mellon University, itself the inspiration for LaFoe and Campbell’s 2017 book called Form and Dichroic Light.
Surface caught up with LaFoe and Campbell to learn how they established O52, arrived at their unique architectural perspective, and more.
How did your upbringings influence the way you experience, create, or think about design?
Michelle LaFoe: As early as 5 years old, during summers when growing up, I visited my grandparents and sketched with my grandfather William Garver at various industrial sites, train yards, and in his studio in Tulsa, Oklahoma. We would take our folding stools, sketchbooks, pencils, and watercolors and oil paints and have great fun. He was an artist, and also worked with Bethlehem Steel as a production illustrator. Now his artwork is in the Philbrook Art Museum. When he visited us in Houston, we would sketch silos and other industrial landscapes and the ship channel area. He taught me how to look and see the world around me.
Isaac Campbell: As a young child, my family spent a year in France, where my father, who is a history professor, was researching a book. For the last few months of our time there, we lived in Paris, close to Notre-Dame. From our apartment, I could see the nave of the cathedral, and spent many days after school with my painter-mother at this iconic monument. Even at my young age, it showed me the everlasting power of architecture. And yes, our firm has already begun to formulate our approach for the redesign of the roof and spire—it’s quite emotional for me.
How did you get your start in the industry?
ML: Our careers began with projects that fell somewhere between architecture, technology, and art—and architecture in and of itself is an interdisciplinary practice.We are constantly working on multiple professional and creative agendas, and there are a lot of things that interest us and numerous ways to express them, with endless possibilities to create and build.A native of Houston, Texas, my design attitude is the result of a combination of educational experiences at Rice University, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, independent research at Yale University, and as a Fulbright Scholar in Italy.I have degrees in architecture, fine art, and the history and theory of art and architecture.
Architecture school was really compelling to me because there were a lot of interesting thinkers and critical intellectual debate within a structured, academic environment, and in art school, it was liberating yet quite unstructured. You had to talk about your ideas by contextualizing them in a very different way.This was good experience for real-world situations. And that led to a richer understanding of the cultural cross-connections between various creative disciplines. [This was critical] for a studio practice that is focused on playful, interdisciplinary design with social and cultural relevancy —and how to look at something in a new way.
Isaac hails from New York and attended the School of Liberal Arts at Alfred University before embarking on study at Rice University, which is where we met. Later, we both worked with AIA Gold Medal winner César Pelli, FAIA, at César Pelli & Associates (now Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects), where I was a designer on compelling projects such as the below-grade National Museum of Contemporary Art and its above-grade sculptural stainless steel entry pavilion in Osaka, Japan.Isaac worked there for ten years and became a design team leader for major projects including the Chubu Teiju Museum and Cultural Center in Kurayoshi, Japan; the New York Times Headquarters Competition in New York City; and the Art/Architectural Enhancement Program for the Washington D.C. National Airport where he worked with internationally acclaimed artists such as Al Held, Nancy Graves, and Jennifer Bartlett.
What was amazing about the Pelli studio was the breadth of creativity and experience across project types and the continuation of the Saarinen tradition of critically exploring design problems and forms in three-dimensional models while working with innovative building techniques and materials.Our studio practice is an extension of the same philosophy, combined with advanced digital technology and profound attention to climate change and how we use our resources.
OFFICE 52 was established in 2010. What was that process like? Has the practice changed since then?
ML: It’s like Apple in the garage story: Our house has two entries, so we used one side as a studio office when we launched the practice, and that’s the etymological source of our firm name, which is the address location. We were busy in 2010, yet in 2011, we were suddenly sprinting when we won a national competition for the commission to design Scott Hall at Carnegie Mellon University. Within less than two weeks of winning, we had to find larger industrial office space to accommodate more employees and additional model-building capabilities.
Having worked in a variety of building materials (glass, terra cotta, brick, wood, pre-cast, concrete, metal, and steel) as a medium for exploring spatial ideas provides opportunity for us to create intuitively poetic spatial experiences. We now express ideas not just in compelling large-scale building projects, but also in smaller, more playful projects such as gallery installations inspired by saturated color and natural light. As such, alongside client-based work, we recently began a series of independent design/research projects at the scale of the architectural installation, for which we look in-depth at relevant topics that interest us, such asupcycling and plastic, wood and natural light, and the perception of and play on scale in relation to the world around us.
What project of OFFICE 52’s are you most proud of?
IC: There are two projects, really:Scott Hall and Tykeson Hall. Each presented a distinct set of design challenges.For us, architecture is the overlap of building and art. This is the heart of our work.Architecture must creatively solve the functional requirements of a project and meet its prospective needs of budget, schedule and constructability.However, it is the rigorous application of concept, narrative, and metaphor expressed in materiality and spatial composition that provides cultural meaning and evokes personal connection. This is the difference between building and architecture, and how one negotiates the challenges presented for a creative solution is part of the design process.
And we are also very excited about our new book, Form and Dichroic Light, with a foreword by César Pelli, FAIA, an introduction by Michael J. Crosbie, FAIA, and was published by Leete’s Island Books with Peter Neill at the helm.We designed the book, which includes essays of our own about the competition win, the design and fabrication process for the project, and images of the finished building at Carnegie Mellon.
What advice do you have for young professionals in the field?
ML: Travel and learn to see, look at all around you and understand that design applies to all scales— museums, urban planning, exhibits, products—done to one’s utmost ability, with a sense of craftsmanship, detail, and the idea that anything is possible.
How, if at all, does the Pacific Northwest influence manifest in your designs?
ML: The innate beauty of the Pacific Northwest, and the Oregon landscape in particular, continually astound us—an incredible quality of light, color, and landscapes that are unlike anywhere else in the world. We try to capture that sense in our work here.Our studio is also in Portland, Oregon, a city long-famed for its environmentally friendly culture which supports energy-efficient ideas and projects.
There is also a sense of freedom on the West Coast that is palpable—a pioneering spirit, you might say—which embraces and reinforces our mode of working.The culture of outside-the-box thinking, entrepreneurship, and creativity has had a profound impact on our thoughts about what is possible. This is reflected in our current design work, as well as a series of large-scale projects Isaac planned and designed at Stanford University, namely their new Science and Engineering Quad and buildings and the LEED Platinum Knight Management Center for the Graduate School of Business, just after we moved from the East to the West Coast.
Any new projects we should know about?
ML: This month, we just started an interesting development project in Oregon for what we call the compact “Tesla of houses.” This is something different and necessary in a country that seems to embrace the freestanding single family structure, one of the most inefficient building typologies today.
Other new projects include an upcycling research and design project and a new commission to create “Light Boxes,” for which we will look at naturally beautiful indirect light and color—much like what you want for museums, galleries, and private art spaces—with a quietude that is inspirational, yet tranquil, and to which you really want to go to.I am completing a series of architectural installations right now, with Isaac as collaborator, to rethink scale and spatial relationships and juxtapose forms we know in the world around us to activate the public imagination.We have so many ideas of our own, in addition to commissioned projects, that we decided to open up this research and architectural installation side of our practice.