An Interview with Lead Pencil Studio’s Annie Han
This past fall I took Elizabeth Golden’s class, “Case Studies in Contemporary Architectural Practice.” Over the course of the quarter we visited nine offices of varying size in Seattle. Architects and planners gave us an inside look at recently completed projects, and discussed the challenges they faced and how the profession is evolving to respond current issues. For the final assignment in the course, we were asked to write an article on a theme related to contemporary architectural practice examining the current issues defining the practice today, and question how they will shape the profession of architecture in the future. Coming from a fine arts/art history background, I have always had an interest in the overlap between art and architecture, and chose to explore this theme further as it relates to Seattle by examining four practices and organizations that included: Lead Pencil Studio, MadArt Mad Homes, Suyama Space and Olson Kundig’s [storefront].
While doing my research, I found that the scope of architecture has recently broadened, as architects, and those in related fields, have chosen to undertake projects that question the relationship of art and architecture as it relates to space. The projects are most often installations, using a one-to-one scale. Whether temporary or permanent, such projects offer architects another way to engage with the public through the lens of design, as well as provide unique and more conceptual opportunities for experimentation and exploration that expand the possibilities of the architectural effect. Firms and designers utilizing this innovative interdisciplinary approach have transcended the conventional architectural norms and begun to reshape the practice.
In my article, I closely looked at the art and architecture collaborative, Lead Pencil Studio, which was founded by architects Annie Han and David Maihalyo who met at architecture school at the University of Oregon. Founded in 1997 in Seattle, Lead Pencil Studio is a “new voice in the emerging field created from the interdisciplinary overlap of architecture and site-specific art. Our creative output is informed by our dedication to independent research in structural typologies and the visual arts. The space, objects, and buildings resulting from this studio process establish new territories that surprise and alter perceptions.” I had the great fortune to interview Annie Han. Here is part of my interview:
Kate Murphy: How has your background in architecture, as well as sculpture, helped you pursue the projects you do today?
Annie Han: I studied sculpture, drawing and ceramics while studying architecture. I was interested in art early on and wanted to continue doing it […] I think the projects we do today continue from that direct involvement and the excitement of developing an idea through the making of it. We started Lead Pencil Studio in 1997 to determine for ourselves that it is possible to pursue a dual interest in architecture and art. We wanted to experiment and explore the possibilities of space both with and without concern for function and program in the traditional sense.
KM: Given the interdisciplinary overlap between architecture and art, how has LPS reshaped the practice and definition of architecture?
AH: I like to think that we are trying to loosen the methodology of communication about spatial experiences. We are also working to conjoin two disciplines that don’t traditionally work well together and demonstrate that it is possible to work fluidly between the two if necessary and desired. Architecture, like art or music can and should expand its medium not only in physical material and technology but also in its approach and process.
KM: How has the Lead Pencil Studio changed over the past fifteen years?
AH: We started out doing strictly architecture projects for the first 4-5 years during the day while the art work was being produced in the evenings and weekends, almost as a hobby. Slowly, the hobby art making was feeling too passive and dissatisfying and altogether felt as we were betraying ourselves and our desire. So we took an opportunity to transform some of our interests in architecture into a model for an art project in a piece titled, Inversion I in 2002. This began a long period of moving up in scale and complexity and moving more and more away from a traditional architecture practice. The latest project we’ve done was a museum exhibition titled, Extended Collapse at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art which is combination of laser scan work of NY, observations about rapid urban development, spatial nostalgia all realized in the form of installation and video. Upcoming projects are increasingly large scale and are starting to diffuse the boundaries even further.
KM: Your work is very much about the spatial conditions at the architectural scale. Can you explain the notion and use of scale in your work?
AH: I love seeing a tiny drawing or reading a sentence that takes me out of this world so that aspect is still important to us. But what we find that has no substitution is the real experience of physically moving through and perceiving space at a 1:1 scale. This is an analog way of experiencing and grounds the viewer to the human body in a way that 2d or virtual work cannot. Though we value those mediums equally, we often find resolution in seeing ideas constructed.
KM: How do your projects inform the way people see, interact and consider space?
AH: I think we find meaning in the temporality of the lived moment and that cognitive acknowledgement shapes our perception. And this accumulated perception from real experience forms our expectations and affects our behavior. People understand and respond to authenticity when it is encountered. In our work, people respond to the direct experience and the observations that have long gone unnoticed and we try to provoke an acknowledgment that space is a medium that has influence on us and our behavior.
KM: You have been quoted as saying Lead Pencil Studio’s “projects are everything about architecture with none of its function” and calling your work “architecture in reverse” – What is the role of function and how does your work redefine what architecture is/can be?
AH: Function gives purpose to buildings. Ordinary sentiment suggests that architecture without function is either a folly or shell of something past/unrealized. Because our world is lived in and around buildings we’ve grown accustomed to architecture and attached a great deal of meaning and symbolism to them. By stripping away some of the function/program we are able to look at discrete qualities that contribute to the meaning we ascribe to architecture. In our case we explore some of the ineffable qualities of light, form and space alongside social and cultural influences by isolating individual ideas or pairs of ideas in dialogue rather than making functional spaces. This is why we say that we’re working in reverse. We take an end result as a consequence of building and work from this point backwards to explore a specific idea. We find that the traditional practice of architecture has so many criteria placed on it that a freer from of exploration is de facto disallowed. Restated more simply, we’re creating functionless architecture to get at a liberated form of spatial exploration.
KM: What is your relationship with your clients, the site and the public?
AH: There is a lot of exchange between the client and us, whether the client is an individual, institution, collective or any combination thereof. A great deal of time is spent sharing our inspiration and then responding to their observations and needs. Since they are interested in supporting what we want to do next and that is usually unknown or at least unclear, there tends to be both a lot of trust and dialogue that shapes the working process. The public plays the most important role as those who experience the work and respond or react. In that way the public gets to inform the dialogue of the next work.
KM: What are some practices, artists and projects that you admire and have inspired you?
AH: I love Alberto Giacometti’s portrait paintings. They were the three dimensional drawings of space to me when I first saw them decades ago. I like Bruce Nauman’s work and his working methodology as much as I can observe as a third person. He’s main interest seem to me an exploration of ideas through any medium necessary […] I love Peter Zumthor’s work- it’s unrelenting and singular. I find Steven Holl inspiring. His current work and writing reveal the same level of hunger for a discovery, exploration of ideas and optimism as he did 20 year ago. I love Charles Wright’s poems. Elmgreen and Dragset, Katharina Grosse, Smithson’s writing, Matta Clark’s action, Liz Diller’s intellectual rigor, Kundig’s roughness, Suyama’s blackness and Perec’s playfulness. The list is long…
KM: What is your experience and relationship with the city and people of Seattle?
AH: I love the rain, the smell of decaying leaves in the Fall and all the fish smells at the market. Seattle feels like home to me, a place where I can make work anonymously without much distraction. It’s a friendly city where the privacy from being left alone is extremely valued and cultivated here. Individually, that’s great and collectively it’s devastating for a larger critical dialogue. There are many things I wish the city “was” but is not. But there are many things that are natural to this place that keeps me here.