For her latest installation, a constellation of reflective fractals adorned with images of activist gatherings in the National Building Museum’s colossal Great Hall, the New York architect draws attention to how physical structures shape both our society and emotions.
On her own and through her firm Reddymade Architecture & Design, architect and artist Suchi Reddy has spent the last two decades on the borders between the body politic and the built environment. The author of the book Form Follows Feeling(2019), Reddy’s longtime research into neuroaesthetics informs not only state-of-the-art AI experiments like her 2021 installation Me+You in the rotunda of the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building, but also Google’s surprisingly earthy entry into New York City’s retail environment.
This spring, she installed an immersive take on concept vehicles for Lexus during Milan Design Week; this summer, her installation Look Here opens in the Great Hall of the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. On the morning of the opening, Reddy sat down for a Zoom with Surface to talk it all over, in a conversation that has been edited and condensed for clarity below.
Let’s begin by talking about what you mean by “form follows feeling.”
I’ve had my practice for 21 years and now have been a New Yorker longer than I’d lived in India. So I’ve gained a perspective on the value of what we do as architects in the world. I have a skill and can use that skill to make people feel good. Feel better. It’s crystallized for me probably in the last decade, in terms of really thinking about how to orient design towards human experience—that’s where things should come from, and I really see it coming with an understanding that empathy, equity, agency, all of these things are important to use as tools.
How has that translated into your practice?
What Reddymade gives you is different every time because I’m not interested in questions of style, particularly. Style is a fine thing to address, but it’s something that comes out of substance. I want each client to feel like the space was made for them, so the work was about how these sets of people, families, individual people, or companies feel in their space. How do they function and how does their function affect it?
As I started having more perspective on my body of work, it became clear to me that I needed to be more strident in addressing this with my clients. You’ve got to ask people: Does this actually work for you? That led me to neuroaesthetics. I’m always reading, like, 18 physics books because physics and spirituality have a lot in common—between consciousness, vibration, and quantum entanglement. I’m trying to bring science and data into this idea of feeling and emotion. How does that direct us? My job is to figure it out in the real world.
How did that figure into Look Here?
The [National Building Museum] space is so giant that somebody might feel really small in it, no matter what. As an architect, that’s a challenge. The brief was to explicate architecture and create this kind of wondrous discovery. I love both of those things, but how do you do this?
I started thinking about fractals. In neuroscience there’s a theory that the brain is wired to recognize symmetry—that’s why, when you look at leaves in nature, it’s soothing even if it doesn’t look like a symmetrical layout, but because it can be broken down. And the building’s facets could reflect, which meant I could use perspective to understand both the building and life itself. When I did me+you, I asked people to give me a word for your future; the split second they stopped to think, for me, was the piece.
What moment might be the piece this time around?
I was thinking about how to offer people perspectives. The space is a giant rectangle but it’s weirdly hard to orient yourself in it. So I made an elliptical ramp that’s tilted. It makes you experience the space from a different angle: When you go up, you feel higher and held. Then, I added an interactive kaleidoscopic piece in the middle of the central platform, which came from my fascination with the [folded paper children’s game] fortune tellers. Those are fractals, and they tell the future, so the idea became to learn about our environment to tell the future with our environments. It’s really fun to watch—we set it up so that a kid and a parent can be on either side, or someone in a wheelchair can look at somebody else, but it’s not complete unless you have two people.
So you have to build a community for it to work—an idea reflected in the images you pass on the way up the ramps.
I put reflective images of three marches: One is the March on Washington, which is coming up on its 60th anniversary on Aug. 28, at the top of the ramps. On one side, you have images from the Black Lives Matter protests. On another, you have the People’s Climate March. You see soft reflections of yourself in them. This building has a mission to talk about architecture. But it also has a mission to talk about who we are. What is the body politic? I don’t think architecture should be silent about these things.