Collective–LOK (CLOK) is an interdisciplinary collaboration by Jon Lott (PARA), William O'Brien Jr. (WOJR), and Michael Kubo (over,under). Based in New York and Boston, their project has transformed spaces throughout New York as aesthetically and functionally disparate as the quiet corridors of the Van Alen Institute and the bustle of Times Square, where their widely photographed work 'Heart of Hearts' was installed after winning the Center for Architecture's 2016 Times Square Valentine Heart Design Competition. Consisting of twelve heart-shaped mirrors in a circle, the work both intensifies and focuses the scale of its surroundings into a space for flirtation, reflection, and play. Anna Rowell spoke to the collective about disciplinarity, context, and collective pursuits.
Anna Rowell: You’re a group of three architects who are all immersed in your own individual projects alongside CLOK, from curating an architecture gallery (Michael Kubo with pinkcomma), to founding a design organisation (William O'Brien Jr. with WOJR) to building an architectural practice (Jon Lott with PARA). How does being a ‘collective’ define your output and ethos?
Michael Kubo: The idea was that each of the three of us have, and still maintain, our independent practices: Jon and William practicing architecture, and I practicing in academia and curatorial work, amongst various other things. We all trained together as architects, but by continuing our own trajectories, CLOK has become defined by shared interests clearly relatable to our individual work. However, the work we’ve produced together is distinct from what any of us would ever have arrived at on our own.
Jon Lott: Three heads are different than one.
AR: How would you describe the work that you produce as a collective?
William O’Brien Jr.: We started by collaborating on the Van Alen project: a cultural institute and our first competition. All of our subsequent projects have followed in a similar vein. It is not circumstantial that these projects have emerged with a consistent theme: we as a collective gravitate towards projects that are more culturally orientated and engage the public in a new way.
AR: Tell us more about your most recent project, Heart of Hearts in New York’s Times Square....
WO: This project is defined by its two contexts: the institutional context of the Times Square Alliance, who facilitate the arts competition, and the physical context of Times Square.
Times Square, is, as you know, an incredibly spectacular context. So we asked the question, “what would it be to out-spectacle the spectacle of Times Square?” With regard to the institutional context, we were asked to make an object that dealt with the theme of Valentine’s day. We sought to to deal with the programmatic aspects of the brief that had to do with providing occasion for renewing vows, an opportunity to take photographs with your loved one.
We therefore used reflective material to define a space, and to reflect Times Square back in on itself. This created a ring that acts at three scales. One scale is the ring itself, which from a distance exists as an object. And then on entry, the ring is a zone that’s cordoned off from the rest of Times Square. And the third scale is what we call kissing booths. These are diamond shaped folded hearts, which allow for two people to be momentarily separate from the rest of the people inhabiting Times Square.
AR: Was it this spatial narrative of publicness and privacy that ultimately defined the brief?
MK: The brief gave us certain prescribed constraints on the site, and the history of the institution that commissioned us, the Times Square Alliance, involved working with artists to develop installations in that space. Yet we brought certain questions to the brief: publicity versus privacy, intimacy versus amplifying the spectacle of the context.
JL: We were very aware too that architects aren’t necessarily best at making objects —at least not ones that are strictly observed, so we were far more interested in making a space —a room informed by the intimacy of context perceived through the object, and potentially the erasure of object itself. This was constantly on our minds: how do architects create public works and installations, and how is that different from what an artist might do?
AR: With your work very much sitting at the intersection of landscape, architecture, and art, would you always define yourselves as architects?
WO: We would say that we’re architects first, but also grappling with issues that have to do with art and the environment, and landscape as an extension of that. I don’t think we’d ever call ourselves artists. We’re architects working in the public realm and in the world of culture and art. We’re hoping to establish a dialogue with those disciplines, but I think at the end of the day we’re architects through and through.
MK: We have interests and inspirations that come from other fields, including the art world. These very often feed into our practice, but in terms of our work, we definitely consider ourselves architects, even if the territories of the projects can sometimes migrate across.
JL: Yes, architects
AR: What about your academic pursuits – how do they line up with practicing collectively as designers
MK: I have a particular academic interest in the history of collaborative architectural practices through my doctoral work, yet our collective interests don’t really land on the side of anything you could call research, or contemporary design theory -- they’re different entities. Jon and William may answer this question differently because their academic contexts involve architectural practice more than mine does as a historian.
WO: For me, the questions that I’m asking my students to think about are the very same questions that I bring to the table when working with CLOK. I think there’s a fairly fluid relationship that exists for me between the academy and my two practices. It’s really the local contexts of different projects and whether it’s collective or independent work, that makes the solutions, the ideas, or the agendas manifest themselves slightly differently.
I would want to draw attention to Michael’s academic interest in collectives, historically, which has really been a source of inspiration for us, a way for us to ask a series of questions about what a collective is, separate from an independent practice.
MK: …Although I’d say it was never designed to be an explicit link in the sense of theory as application [to practice] or history and its actualisation in the present. Yet our sympathetic interests have made certain ways of thinking together as a collective very natural. These are parallel realms with a lot of overlap.
JL: In all these realms though, the “pursuit,” is really the same –to produce the consideration of architecture. The academy and the collective are not that different in this regard: production through a kind of cyclical discussion and reflection... a discursive practice, ultimately.
AR: How do your projects emerge as a result of these shared interests?
WO: The way we work is opportunistic in that when an occasion arises to work together we’ll jump on it and use it as a chance to have this collective discussion. Yet rarely is it the case that we are initiating these projects ourselves. In most cases, with Van Alen and the Guggenheim in Helsinki as the two exceptions, they have been invited competitions.
JL: This ‘opportunistic model’ that Liam is talking about has enabled us to pursue a particular type of content and framework. So far, all of the invitations have been this mix of the institutional realm and the public realm which makes them quite intriguing to us: this relationship between the logics of the institution and how those can be reconfigured depending on certain contextual or cultural situations.
AR: If architecture is then a form of cultural production with a social dimension, do architects have a responsibility to push boundaries and challenge the status quo? Do your works necessarily disrupt the normal behaviours and activities around them?
MK: We never begin with an explicitly critical position with regards to the status quo. We look for opportunities within any particular condition to find points of departure that can produce other kinds of publics or collectives or engagement with space in new, different, or more active kinds of ways. In many cases this puts us in the realm of institutional critique more explicitly.
Our PS1 competition was very much about both extending and subverting the triangular figure of the PS1 courtyard, which has become a means of closure from the street, through mirroring. This was meant to exacerbate the sense of internal reflection that characterizes the the narcissism of the institution and its users—yet, at the same time, to undermine that self-centeredness by creating moments where people outside could see and connect with the activities going on inside the institution. This kind of deviation allowed us to develop an unconventional form of institutional critique. The term that we used, which is really a term from Van Alen, was ‘de-familiarisation’ or ‘making strange’.
JL: We’re interested in enough de-familiarisation within space to create intrigue. If things are too familiar or if they follow the status quo then space can be taken for granted and not used differently. Whereas if there’s something strange enough or slightly unfamiliar, challenging known comforts, then there is a need to get to know it, there is more awareness of one’s environment, and therefore more deliberate use or play.
WO: I think our interest in this de-familiarisation sets us apart from a different category of architects who are interested in generating alien forms. I guess the difference I would draw between alien form and de-familiarised form is that the latter requires an understanding of norms, in order to make a calibrated departure from them. I’m thinking particularly of references we make to known architectural types. Our Van Alen ceiling, for instance: takes a coffered ceiling as a starting point, and begins to undermine or subvert or adjust it to the point where it’s teetering between something that is known and something that’s unfamiliar, as opposed to the kind of shock of alien form which digital fabrication might be more inclined to make.
MK: Many of the references in our projects relate back to existing architectural types in a certain way. For example, we thought a lot about the history of chapels in developing the circular space of Hearts of Hearts, and indeed the space was used as a wedding chapel after its opening. For Van Alen, our proposal for a detached, reflective plan as the new façade of the project plays with questions of transparency, opacity and reflectivity. It disrupts what we expect from an institutional façade in that setting.
JL: I think the ‘de-familiarisation’ versus ‘alien’ is another essential distinction going back to our conversation about ‘art’ versus ‘architecture’. We’re very interested in the scenarios that play out within our interventions, such that we produce several plans that show users within them. For Van Alen, we produced a calendar floorplan. For Heart of Hearts, we produced scenario diagrams showing the space being used in different ways. If one designs too alien an object, then the ability to use the space lessens. It then becomes more about observing the thing than using the space. We’re very interested in how de-familiarisation can afford some variations of use, but still retain familiar aspects which allow for that use to be productive, or familiar enough that it actually can be used.
AR: Were there certain freedoms in the temporality of Heart of Hearts?
MK: Architecture and temporality have a strange relationship. Van Alen is physically the more permanent, ‘architectural’ space—it will be there for longer. Yet millions of people passed through and engaged with Heart of Hearts in the month it was up. Visitors took thousands of selfies and photos and those were circulated throughout the various temporalities of social media. In this way, Heart of Hearts was every bit as ‘architectural’ as a more permanent space, and its scale as an intervention was in a sense much, much greater.
AR: By anticipating certain narratives to play out, were you surprised by how the spaces were used by their various publics once built?
MK: We have been surprised with how immediately the scenarios that we envisioned for different spaces have come true. In Heart of Hearts, all of the spontaneous public activities we depicted in our scenario diagrams took place almost as soon as the pavilion opened. It was really exciting for us that our sense of behaviours, forms of intimacy, and modes of interaction in these spaces happened even beyond what we had anticipated. That was really satisfying.
To learn more about the work of Collective–LOK, click here.