More likely than not, being married to your work is disastrous to your love life. For Los Angeles-based architects, Jenny Wu and Dwayne Oyler, it only ties the knot stronger.
Knitting, knotting and wrapping ropes are key elements in their art-meets-architecture installations, among other ordinary objects transformed to the extraordinary. From pixilating Muhammad Ali’s portrait to a giant sea anemone, Olyer and Wu are redefining traditional architectural design in both material and method.
And the design community is taking notice of the couple’s coup d’état. Oyler Wu Collaboration received the Emerging Voices award from The Architectural League this year. Currently, they are furiously constructing their latest installation, Screenplay, for the Dwell on Design 2012 show in Los Angeles.
Fabrik Magazine caught up with them to find out how they balance work and a relationship, their inspirations and what each other’s crucial assets are to the Oyler Wu team.
If Frank Gehry blurred the lines between art/architecture, it seems you’ve erased them completely. You built one residential tower in Taipei, but most of your projects are installations. What draws you to create art pieces rather than utilitarian structures?
Actually, the percentage of installation to building projects currently in the office is about 50%, but we make no distinction architecturally. Building projects in general take much longer time to design and build so we have definitely completed more installation projects than buildings. We also tend to publish more built work therefore it may seem that we do more installations. However, despite the difference in scale, in our mind our work is both artistic and architectural, and even the larger buildings are far from utilitarian. We enjoy the challenge of working at the various scales and allow the research of one to inform the other. Examples of that exchange include things like material and structural experimentation, as well as experimentation with spatial ideas.
What inspires you architecturally and artistically?
This is a difficult question for us because it is very specific to a project and the answers are never as poetic as one would expect. We are inspired by the most banal materials and seek to find new applications for. We are inspired by old techniques of fabrication that we try to apply to our work in a new way. We are inspired by the way people view and interact with a space or object, and we try to develop that experience in an unexpected way.
Ropes are a favorite design element recently, as seen in Netscape and Screenplay. What is this rooted in?
Our use of rope stems from an obsession of ours in our research in line-work. Line-work has been a topic that we have experimented with using various linear materials. We’re interested in these issues for a number of reasons, most of them related to their spatial nuances. For example, their ability to form screens, a subtle sense of enclosure, and spatial trajectories – all the while remaining porous and filled with a complex interplay of light.
We’re also interested in its structural characteristics, specifically the behavior of its tensile properties that brings a different formal characteristic to the table than say aluminum or steel. Related to that, we are currently experimenting with rope to find new ways of creating unconventional surfaces and enclosures.
What new accomplishment or discovery was made with the Screenplay installation? Was this the first time an installation had a functional element (the bench)?
In Screenplay, we have tried to find new ways of studying and experimenting with ideas that started from previous projects. First, incorporating viewing and interaction into the experience of the work and secondly, manipulation of the rope as the material to create unexpected geometry. Unlike the reALIze project, which was about creating a pixilation of Muhammad Ali’s face, Screenplay is much more abstract and plays with the two and three-dimensional viewing of a geometrical pattern. Secondly, we are using rope in a very different way than in the Netscape project. It is no longer a knitted surface. The rope is wrapped continuously around a steel frame to create three-dimensional curved planes. This is actually not the first time our installation has included a functional element. In fact, we often try to incorporate functional elements into our installations to provoke interactivity, and to encourage a more intimate form of engagement with the work. In some cases, such as our Live Wire installation a stair in the SCI-Arc gallery, the entire piece acted as a functional element.
The intensity and transitory-nature of your installations reminds me of Scottish artist Andy Goldsworthy’s work. What kinds of emotion do you experience when the project you’ve worked on for months or years is taken down?
This is definitely a tough one for us, particularly with the early projects. Taking down something that we have worked so hard on is always difficult. But at the same time, it also makes the experience with the piece much more intense and memorable knowing that it is only up for a short period.
How does this impermanence affect your mindset on future projects?
We try to fold in this impermanence into the design of the work. On one hand, we treat every project, whether it is permanent or temporary, with the same intense creative mindset. But with our more recent projects, we have made a concerted effort to design and build our installations in ways that could possibly give them a second life, whether it’s moved to another venue or reworked in a new way.
What happens to your installation after the Dwell On Design show?
Currently we are speaking with galleries and design festivals about moving it to another venue.
From your videos on your website, it seems like you are very hands-on with your installations. What take away lessons have you learned from the DIY approach?
The hands-on approach is part of our design research. We learn how to better detail and implement our designs through the process of fabrication. We also find, with this intimate knowledge of material and fabrication process, we can push the design even further, aesthetically, structurally, and conceptually.
You both graduated from Harvard with a Masters in Architecture, which must help in launching your own firm. But you took the risky route and went out on your own, moving to Los Angeles with no clients, no safety net. Any advice for those wanting to take a similar path?
Prior to starting our own office, we have both worked for many great design offices in New York. We also think it is important to not skip the step of working for good offices and really learning the complex realities of the profession. Once you have the experience, you shouldn’t fear starting your own business, but it is important to say that this is not quick and easy – or at least it hasn’t been for us. We have had to be creative about finding clients, and have invented work for ourselves when things have been slow. We would definitely encourage this for anyone having a go at it. The self-motivated work has often been the most fruitful, both in terms of its creative outcome, as well as being a catalyst for generating more work.
Since you are not just business partners, but also married, do you have fixed roles to not step on each other’s creativity? And how do you turn off work when you’re at home?
We let each other have their creative space. If one of us is working on the design, the other will not comment on the work until the other person is ready to show the work. We take turns developing the work that the other person started. It is an iterative process that has worked well for us. Being both partners in work and life, we actually never turn off work when we are home. The type of work we do is our passion and we love it. We just don’t really feel the need to turn it off. But it also means we don’t have to turn our lives off during work either…it goes both ways.
Oyler: What is Wu’s greatest strength as an architect in the Oyler Wu Collaborative?
We often say that the difficulty of bringing in someone new to the office is that they have to be good at everything. Because of the relatively small size of the office, and the role in building the projects, everyone needs to be a great thinker, designer, technician, and they need to know how to communicate and work with people. Jenny is the premiere example of that. I especially appreciate a couple of things – one, she has a way of seeing the big picture and imagining new and challenging possibilities that help to ensure there is an evolution to the work. Secondly, she is the ultimate optimist, and she sees the best possible outcome to everything. She has the kind of spirit that makes everyone around her better. That applies to a design problem as much as it does to a working relationship.
Wu: What is Oyler’s greatest strength as an architect in the Oyler Wu Collaborative?
It is difficult to pinpoint one specific quality because Dwayne has so many strengths that are critical to our practice. He has this amazing ability to think through a project, anticipate potential issues, and resolve them in the most creative and productive way. His intensity in everything that he does inspires everyone in the office to work harder, because most of us can only do half of what he accomplishes in any given day. This intensity is what propels the work of the office to the next level. In terms of our partnership, I do think our diversity as a team, which includes our strengths and weaknesses, is what makes our practice even better.
What upcoming projects does the Oyler Wu have on the horizon?
We love the back and forth influence between the installations and the larger building work, and projects on the horizon continue to challenge the limits of that strategy. The installations include ongoing discussions with a significant museum (we’ll keep the name under wraps so as not to jinx it), but this is especially exciting for us. All the while, the building projects are becoming more and more ambitious, including a house in Spain, and residential towers in Asia…both design challenges that we believe could benefit greatly from intense, hands-on experimentation.
Jenny Wu and Dwayne Oyler currently teach design at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc).
To follow Jenny’s blog about the design/construction process of Screenplay, visit Dwell.com.
Words Lanee Lee
Images Courtesy Oyler Wu Collaborative