Call and Response: The Architecture of Form:uLA Dimension Laboratory

The Kudzu vine covers seven million acres in the Deep South. Like a horror-movie parasite, it can grow a foot a day. Left unchecked it will consume anything in its path, destroying other vegetation, blanketing mailboxes and parked cars, smothering sheds, barns and even entire houses in its carpet of green. Eventually, in true science fiction fashion, the vine will feed on itself to survive.

Kudzu would seem to be an unlikely muse for architecture, especially the stand up and stay put variety. But for renegade architects Bryan Cantley and Kevin O’Donnell (who both, not coincidentally, began their schooling in North Carolina), the vine’s paradoxical nature, its embodiment of contradictory qualities—benign but pervasive, insatiable but self-consuming—serves as the principal inspiration for their particular mode of architectural experimentation.

They call this principle “mechudzu,” a hybrid of mechanical form and organic growth. Throughout their ten-year collaboration they have been exploring the ways in which mechudzu manifests itself as architectural form, function, aesthetic, and ideology.

Their Southern California practice, Form:uLA Dimension Laboratory, includes commissioned projects and built work, but most of the pair’s energy is devoted to experimental work, in the form of competition entries, exhibition installations, and independent projects. Both architects have day jobs—Cantley teaches design at Cal State Fullerton, O’Donnell works for an architect in Los Angeles—but in their after hours they pursue an obsessive, sometimes maniacal quest for what they call a “pure architecture”: an architectural language untainted by the mundane constraints of clients, costs or even the laws of physics.

As the name implies, the agenda of Form:uLA Dimension Laboratory is to explore dimensionality, to see what happens when competing or conflicting modes of representation—graphic vs. sculptural, perspectival vs. axonometric, digital vs. gestural, Cartesian vs. temporal—try to co-exist. In these collisions of contradictory forms and functions, mechudzu emerges as a mutant but highly robust architectural entity.

The motif of Form:uLA’s design language is always the machine—the man-made in its most generic form. At first glance their drawings look like overly fussy mechanical diagrams, the kind you might see in Victorian-era equipment catalogs. But look more closely, and the drawings’ hybrid parts refuse to compose. In Hybridrawing no. 030801, for example, graphic figures (Japanese kanji, planes of binary code, directional arrows) collide and intersect with modeled forms (pipes, tubing, harnesses, levers, pulleys) in a space that oscillates uncomfortably between two and three dimensions. The assembled whole is defiantly abstract: the more you try to read the drawing, the more agitated the unresolved elements become. The overall effect is disorientation, and that is the point.

The drawing is clearly not, as architectural protocol would dictate, a set of building instructions or a depiction of a particular space. It does not obey the architectural mandate to construct a more perfectly-ordered world. Instead, it is an invitation to abandon order. The drawing itself is Form:uLA’s laboratory, a fluid, boundaryless, unpredictable environment in which every idea the two architects have—deliberate or accidental, serious or ridiculous, revolutionary or merely subversive—is let loose to metastasize.

Cantley and O’Donnell’s main resource as they experiment with the collision of opposites is themselves: the two realized years ago that their partnership was one of polar extremes. As a student Cantley was a fan of the neo-classical; O’Donnell gravitated towards the organic. Cantley came from a background of art classes and learned to embrace the technical demands of architecture school; O’Donnell, a drafting junkie, had to abandon his dependence on tools to really learn to draw. Cantley usually draws vertically; O’Donnell works horizontally.

Each time they embark on a project they are testing new strategies for integrating—creating a hybrid of— their opposing visions. The day I visited the two architects in Cantley’s Fullerton studio, they were eager to show me the first results from a new collaboration exercise, a project they are calling Oscillation drawings. A single drawing—beginning with one of their typically fantastical machine forms—is passed back and forth between them, and with each pass the image is altered according to a short but eccentric set of rules: change the orientation, activate the edges of the composition, add coded text, superimpose an inset “window” into another dimension of information, etc. The mechudzu principle is at work here, as each incarnation of the drawing serves as host for the next.

The machine form mutates, like the birds that turn into fish in an Escher drawing. Transforming in a process akin to natural growth, the final form may be radically unlike its antecedents. Cantley and O’Donnell talk excitedly about doing an exhibition of several series of these oscillation drawings, where they could show five or fifteen or even fifty iterations of each image.

The oscillation exercise is itself a machine for generating new forms. It resembles the experiments of Surrealist artists in the 1920s, who used a variety of strategies to create “automatic” drawings that bypassed the conscious control of any one artist. In one series of exercises known as the Exquisite Corpse, the artists could not see each other’s contributions, and the final drawings often featured grotesque figures with conglomerations of mismatched parts.

Giving form to the grotesque is not one of Form:uLA’s stated goals, and both architects feigned offense when I told them their drawings were “scary.” Nevertheless, in my imagination mechudzu inhabits the drawings as a sentient being: mischievous, slightly manic and decidedly alien. Its animate presence is at least a cousin of Surrealist and Dada representations. The anthropomorphizing of machines, or what Dada artist Francis Picabia called the “mechanomorphic,” was one of the motifs those artists explored in their scrutiny of a industrialized, dehumanized world.

Cantley and O’Donnell’s interests are more abstract, but also more focused: they are not interested in suspending their conscious control of architectural conventions. Instead they simply want to occasionally sidetrack that control, to misdirect themselves in a directed way. The process of call and response they employ, whether working in tandem or in unison, is a deliberate strategy for cultivating accident and surprise, both fertile grounds for new ideas.

Some of their interactive rituals are old habits, left over from the days when they lived on different coasts and had to maximize their infrequent face-to-face time. During that period- –before e-mail, before digital photography-–they exchanged their drawings as scanned Polaroids, sent via FedEx and fax, and began refining the system of “distance collaboration” that is now an almost essential aspect of their work.

“A lot of how we work together comes directly out of the fact that we were 3,000 miles away,” O’Donnell explained.

“If we ever had a studio together we’d probably have to build this big concrete wall between us,” Cantley added, “just to make sure we had some interference of energy.”

O’Donnell agreed: “A cone of silence!”

The drawings, as they’ve multiplied into progressive generations of images, have given mechudzu a way to morph off the single page. And if a solitary (and flat) drawing couldn’t contain the myriad mutations, it seems inevitable that Form:uLA’s laboratory would migrate into three dimensions.

Cantley and O’Donnell’s first attempts to translate their early drawings into three-dimensional form resulted in a series of all-black models named Batman. Like the drawings, these models juxtaposed conflicting scales and incongruous functions, but they also shared another important feature with the drawings: the inclusion of seemingly random graphic elements—letters, numbers, miscellaneous characters—applied directly to the models’ surfaces. This graphic ornamentation was a very literal means of layering two-dimensional information onto three-dimensional form, and it’s a technique they continue to use.

(The project’s nickname saved the two architects from the increasingly agonizing task of explaining mechudzu to their perplexed colleagues; it was easier to suggest the black sculptures were stage sets for a new Batman movie than to launch into a defense of experimental multidimensionality.)

The models, though they were based in part on existing drawings, were also exercises in circumventing the strict correspondence between drawing and three-dimensional representation that is the professional norm, and the hierarchy of meaning that is imposed on both media. The plan and its counterparts—section, elevation, and other mathematically precise representations—traditionally serve as instruments of control, abstract but necessary precursors that legitimize built form. In turn the building reciprocates, proving the worthiness and vision of the drawings.

Cantley and O’Donnell became enamored with a simple, iconoclastic idea—do away with the plan altogether, and generate new form in three dimensions first. One of their next projects gave them a chance to explore this possibility more fully: a set of models and drawings, the first to be referred to as "hybrid" works, for a 2001 show at the 3A Garage in San Francisco. The models for that show were created as three-dimensional “sketches,” spontaneous forms inspired by the drawings but independent of them. In their notes, the architects explain:

“The drawings were rarely pure abstraction—they dealt with communicating vision through representation. But the models are pure objects. They represent nothing but themselves.”

These models are not easy to interpret, whether you see them as pure objects or as three-dimensional drawings. The hybrid forms seem both more assertive and more mysterious in 3-D; they deny their own abstraction, yet remain tantalizingly indecipherable. As I studied them, I found I was having trouble following the precise chronology of what seems to have been a series of watershed moments in Form:uLA’s history. I asked the two architects to clarify this evolution for me, and their response was a glimpse into the sublime complexity of their work:

"We saw [the 3A Garage] drawings as a continuation of a series that had begun many years prior, but were a new experiment at crafting a hybridization between two dimensions and three dimensions within a 2-D medium. Also part of that show, we created a new series of models which were informed by the new 2-D drawings, informed by our 3-D work, which were informed by our previous 2-D drawings. The four new models were a similar hybridization between two dimensions and three dimensions, but within a 3-D medium. These were our first dimensional sketches. "

Perhaps a more prosaic account can be found in the process they used to create the models for the 3A show. The gallery had little money to fund the creation of new work, and no way to insure it, so Cantley and O’Donnell decided to use a different approach, to minimize their own time and expense. They assigned themselves a charrette, a session of rapid prototyping to create the four models in four twelve-hour sessions. They decided that wherever they were at the end of each day, whatever the result of their exercise in pure gesture, the models would be considered finished.

This technique may have been new for Form:uLA, but it is a time-honored strategy in the domain of conceptual art, an ideology that insists on the importance of process over product, and idea over object. The art of conceptual art resides solely in the concept itself. The physical form—ephemera from an activity or performance, a set of instructions for an artwork, or even the artwork itself—is considered ancillary or residual.

Conceptual art, with its assertion that a perfect idea will have a thousand imperfect manifestations, would seem to be the antithesis of architecture, with its quest to fix a perfect reality through one perfect physical form. For Cantley and O’Donnell, this antithesis is the crux of their scrutiny of traditional architectural practice. They argue that built architecture is always the product of compromise: as an idea is translated from concept to drawing to model to built form, the original vision gets buried in "layers of fog."

So as they’ve developed their own tools, techniques, and investigative objectives, they have allowed chance and spontaneity—albeit an unusual kind of calculated, enforced spontaneity—to play a large role in how they work. In their hands, three-dimensional sketching seems more like play—but serious, engaged play with its own internal set of rules. The sketch models typically contain some percentage of found parts—parts from kits, parts scrounged from hardware store bins, parts rescued from scrap yards. No two parts from the same model kit can go together, nor can parts with the same original color. And occasionally a tiny plastic human figure will find its way onto one of the three-dimensional surfaces, to further confuse any determination of scale.

And within this process, they can find alternative paths to, and alternative definitions for, functionality. The idea for Form:uLA’s most recent three-dimensional project sprang from another collaborative experiment, this one on the computer. They superimposed two digital drawings, one from each of them, and extrapolated from the layering of converging and diverging lines a new composition. This became the basis for Wallmaker, a possible prototype for a series of what can best be described as robots, or what O’Donnell calls “idealistic architectural cyborgs,” each dedicated to a finite construction task.

“This one is just going to make walls.” O’Donnell explained in the studio. “There might be another one that we design that comes in and punches openings for fenestration.”

“Or one that does nothing but scribe lines,” Cantley added, “or one that makes ramps.”

By this time I was catching on that Wallmaker and its kin, as they evolve in three-dimensional form, will still be purely conceptual creatures, operating within Form:uLA’s alternative universe of hybrid dimensions. But I couldn’t resist asking, disingenuously, “Will any of these machines actually work?”

O’Donnell gave me a withering look. “It depends on how you define ‘work.’ ”

Which is precisely the point: how is architecture supposed to work? Is it a static vessel or a dynamic system, a concrete environment or a perceptual condition, a proactive or reactive agent? These questions are at the heart of Form:uLA’s practice, though the trick seems to be that the questions never get a fixed answer. In the universe of mechudzu, architecture embodies all these things at once, engaging in its own kind of call and response with the humans who imagine it, occupy it, and play very hard at trying to figure it out.