Interview with WOJR
M.Arch I, 2020
November 15, 2018
WOJR is an organization of designers based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Founded by William O’Brien Jr., the practice produces carefully crafted images of its projects through which it seeks to reconfigure notions of familiarity in forms, geometries, and relationships. I called William, who goes by Liam, to ask about his practice and his approach to design and representation.
PC: The theme of this issue is “Illusions in Architecture.” I immediately thought of your office because I have admittedly been deceived by some of your images, which blur the lines between photograph, rendering, and drawing. Can you speak about how you approach image-making and representation in the office?
WOJR: We make the visualizations not because we care about their photorealism, and not because we hope to fool anybody. For us, they’re important in terms of what one might call “acts of synthesis.” Within these visualizations, yes, we care about geometry, we care about form, we care about degrees of transparency and atmosphere, but equally we care about the kinds of rituals that we imagine happening within these environments that we are producing. They are, in my view, one of the best ways of really synthesizing a set of ideas, or layers of influence on a work of architecture, that typically are able to be experienced in the final built work.
We make them by adopting a cinematographer’s mentality. We will frame an image and then peel off five or seven layers of information: One that has to do with materiality, another that might have to do with the atmosphere or the light, and another that is concerned with the exterior environment that comes into the frame. That will often refer to films that we are taking inspiration from, and it’s our way of imagining what the environmental impacts of the context have on the building. Another important layer of information will be wares or objects that we’re using as a way to communicate a value set of the lives lived within.
There was one point early in my architectural career where I was thinking a lot about applying to school to become a cinematographer, and in a way I think that the making of such images, and the reliance on them as a tool to bring together different modes of architectural thinking, are my way of suggesting that the role of the eye and of the film still are an important way of thinking through whether a piece of architecture is “successful” or not, given a certain set of criteria.
PC: In academia there seems to be a shift away from photorealism because of the implications that it has for a built work of architecture, but I think it’s interesting that you see these images as a part of the process as opposed to a product.
WOJR: Totally. Just to give you a sense for the degree to which we’re not interested in the illusion of realism, we’re working on a project now which we refer to, in house, as the WOJR built thesis project. We put out a monograph two years ago called Room for Artifacts. It was at a time when we were making a lot of work but not very much was built. Now that things are being built, we want to make another “thesis project” tentatively called Artifact for Rooms. It’s a building that we commissioned ourselves. The reason I mention it is because this is a project that isn’t reliant on conventional forms of “luxury” in any way, and one of the things that we’re keen on doing is representing the likely type of craft that we will encounter in a project of such humble means through visualization. So to give you a very specific example, right now we are looking at representing the likely amount of glue that will squeeze out through the industrial grade plywood sheets that we’re using for the trusses because we know that the project isn’t going to be able to bring on a high-end residential contractor. Instead we’re going to be doing things on the cheap.
But the broader argument in being aware of such details is about what matters in architecture. I would say that it’s not at all about high-end finishes, although those are interesting to experiment with; it’s about the architectural intelligence of a project, and in this particular case, it’s about the potential raw power of a space. We’re trying to make that argument in subtle ways through the exposure of imperfections in the project to ask ourselves, “Does the project survive as a beautiful work of architecture, despite these imperfections that we’re representing?” We’re also interested in things that weather, and how we treat that less as a liability and more as an asset. So I think visualization has the ability to allow us to explore these typically underrepresented aspects of architecture. It’s that kind of realism that I care about.
PC: This idea of using the myriad of tools that architects now have at their disposal to develop a project runs in parallel to how your office uses things like parametric modeling to produce almost familiar, yet highly calibrated forms. That’s a certain kind of illusion—creating something that’s deceptively simple but in reality is quite complex. Can you speak to how you approach your projects through the lens of design as opposed to representation?
WOJR: What you’re describing as “almost familiar” is something that we talk about in the office all the time. The thinking is that we don’t need or want difference for difference’s sake. We’re not interested in alien form—form that’s so other that it has no point of comparison. That probably is the thing that pushes us away from plastic, let’s say amorphous form, and more towards a vocabulary that’s in communication with architectures of the past. Whether that be a simple proportional difference between the thing you know well, let’s say a gabled roof house, to one that is now three times it’s typical length. Another example might be: Typically houses are on the ground. What does it mean to lift that house up and treat the top of the house the same as the bottom of the house? If this object is other, because it’s lifted, how do you then augment that difference? One of the things we say all the time as a motto is, “That which is unique about a project is the lens through which all decisions get made.” We are not at all interested in trying to develop work that has an overt similarity across the body of work. Rather, every project to us is an opportunity to challenge our comfort zone, to create something unusual, to make a form which we have not made before. Although there are certain consistent values that hopefully make their way into the projects, the aspiration is that each of the projects are unique and destabilize any kind of single categorization of our work. Those terms like destabilization and defamiliarization are things that help govern the decisions that we’re making about projects, but also about collections of projects.
One other aspect that might be useful to mention is the term “artifact.” We use that word a lot because we are hoping that the work does contain a lot of layers of influence, and anybody who is willing to look long enough at the thing might be surprised by the layers of information that they can pull from a drawing or from a visualization. We hope that the project or the drawing acts as a kind of artifact from which if you are an archaeologist you’re trying to use that artifact to determine so much about a way of thinking, a value set, a culture, a ritual. We are aspirational in the sense that we hope to have all of that embodied in single objects and single drawings.
PC: Speaking of artifacts – the Other Masks that came out of the Mask House project; do you often find that these ideas that spiral off from projects are just as fruitful as the projects themselves?
WOJR: Right, in that case, all of the Other Masks are following the same principles that governed the mask that we chose for the Mask House. The “parameters” that we used to design the mask that we ultimately chose were not so specific that they did not allow for other figures or other ways of dealing with thick 2-D, or with different points of view. We really wanted to open it up for ourselves and use it as a way of expanding these notions that might ultimately impact the way we think about a facade in the future, or think about a way of access, or entry, or camouflage. We thought that it was important to make the Other Masks because the mask that we ended up choosing was just the start of thinking about those issues.
The way that we make work is assuming that we’re using the most relevant tools. When I say the most relevant, I think that’s a combination of new tools, as well as ways of making forms and figures and drawings that are reliant on tools that we’ve had around for a long time.
PC: I think you’ve talked about that in regards to your store designed for Aēsop, with the dichotomy between the crown moldings, which are simple extrusions, and the handrail which is digitally fabricated and more complex.
WOJR: Yeah, I have no allegiance to any antiquated way of working, and I also have no aspiration to be on the cutting edge, leveraging the capacities of state-of-the-art technology exclusively. It’s about the project. Sometimes it’s important to rely on state-of-the-art technology, and sometimes it’s just not. Maybe that’s not a unique position increasingly as we go further into this post-digital era, but I think it was a kind of unusual position at some point.
When I was in school, we were very much persuaded by the novelties that were enabled by digital fabrication, and it became clear after we exhausted it, that there are other ways of solving these problems that don’t rely on showing one’s prowess through the production of exuberant and alien form. I think there are a lot of young practices that are operating now in a post-digital way where they are just as fluent in digital technologies as they are in precedents that are neoclassical, classical, or baroque.
PC: In the monograph that you mentioned earlier, you chose to show your projects through three different lenses (the diagram, the orthographic, and the rendering). I was wondering to what degree that was post-rationalized or something that you were constantly thinking about as you developed the projects.
WOJR: It’s more of the latter with a touch of the former. We make drawings like that as a process of distillation. There’s one section about the most “conventional” aspect of architectural representation (the orthographics), which are ways of looking at the projects in a known scale.
The other major form of distillation is the set diagrams. The reason we make those diagrams is to ask ourselves if all else changes in a particular project, what must remain? What are we after in this project? We know that every work of architecture considers material, geometry, culture, social issues, rituals, and urban issues. There’s a whole long list of concerns that every work of architecture inevitably addresses, but I think that every good work of architecture prioritizes one or two of those to be the drivers of the Project with a capital P.
PC: It seems that the orthographics and the diagrams, similar to the images that we spoke about before, are mainly for you to build on your own understanding of a project as opposed to an outward representation of the thing. Though they may contain artifacts, each piece of representation is itself an artifact of the design process.
WOJR: Totally, and I think you hit on something that maybe I’m not communicating with enough emphasis. Honestly, we make the work for ourselves and for those who care about the things that we care about. I say that hoping that it comes across as an act of humility and not as a statement about exclusivity. We don’t care if we grow; we simply want to have the best conversation possible in the office, and with the people who care about the things that we care about. Whatever your interests may be, the more true you can be to a value set and have that permeate through the way that you work, the better and the more charged the work will be.