Stephen Killion interviews Christopher Marcinkoski and Andrew Moddrell, founders of PORT A+U, and presenters at MAS Context : Analog
PORT A+U (Architecture + Urbanism) is an architectural firm and speculative research collaborative, founded by Christopher Marcinkoski and Andrew Moddrell. With a footing in both New York and Chicago, the two-man office is developing dynamic understandings of what is possible when creative theoretical thinking is used to approach very real architectural and urban issues.
Not afraid to compete on a global level, this small firm has made a name for itself by developing strong thought-provoking work. One of their best known projects, Carbon T.A.P. // Tunnel Algae Park, was the winning entry to the 2009 WPA 2.0 Whoever Rules the Sewers Rules the City Competition sponsored by cityLAB at UCLA.
I sat down with the founders at their Chicago office to speak a little more about the breath of their work, and their approach to designing large-scale architectural interventions.
SK: What is the approach of Port A+U?
CM: We see our work as “Hyperbolic pragmatism,” fantastic but yet rational work. This contradiction, between the practical and whimsical, we believe, is what gives the work its value.
We do urban design, but we don’t really like that phrasing. It is not really a well-defined discipline. Simply stated, we are interested in urbanism, and things related to the urban realm. Our work is focused on existing systems (infrastructural, ecological, economical, social) and looking at the potential embedded within those existing systems. We reimagine what already exists within the urban world.
SK: Where do you tend to sight your works?
CM: Architecture tends to have a gradient of public to private. Civic space, on the other hand, is almost always purely public. We find that to be the type of space where we intervene. We work with spaces where people interact and overlap, the public urban realm.
SK:Why the draw towards the urban?
CM: Our particular definition of urban does not relate to a particular population or density. We like to think of urban as any landscape or natural system that has been modified by humans. We are just as interested in the man living in an RV in the middle of the desert as we are in the city. We are able to design within a variety of landscapes and scales by thinking in this way.
AM: Human occupancy = Urban condition
SK: And parks, do they play a role in your designs?
CM: My experience at Field Operations has altered how I view the public realm. Public environments are the spaces that define the urban context. We are not trained as landscape architects, so a park only becomes interesting when it is tied to something else, another system, another infrastructure. It has to have demonstrated potential.
When you look at a project like the High Line in New York, it can be understood as a retrofitted abandoned infrastructure. The High Line represents failed infrastructure being reclaimed. Our practice would rather work with systems before they have failed. It is understood that urbanism is an experiment and tends to create unexpected byproducts.
AM: It is not just about developing urban efficiency. We try to make aware of the urban by-product and then we synthesize this to produce something new rather than simply fixing something.
SK: Since the scale of your projects is typically quite grand, how do you see the role of your interventions in regard to how they interact with more traditional understanding of architecture as a building?
CM: Urban areas are composed of a variety of layers, a composite if you will. Architecture is just one layer of that landscape. It is important to understand that each system and layer affects the other layers. We try to understand the potential synthesis between all these layers and how they relate to the greater idea of the project.
Large scale physical planning has lost its value in the United States. We tend to be very ad hock as a society in regard to urban planning. Our work is a physical example of how new urban ideas can exist. Architects used to think more about the urban scale. We are interested in thinking physically at the planning scale. We negotiate the planning scale but develop interventions rather than just a series of lists and bullet points.
SK: What is the role of research within your design process? Do you see research as something that adds weight to your design?
AM: That is exactly it! We are always trying to find a way to make the research an active part of our design. We don’t accumulate data to just have it lying around our studio. We always research to apply it within a project.
CM: The research is not a separate exercise, it is always happening parallel to the design itself. Our work tries to advocate speculation. We want to get others, architects and the general public, to think about cities and urban landscapes.
SK: What do you tend to research?
CM: We like to take a look at things that might seem totally benign in the urban context, without much foreseen potential. By studying these benign conditions, the potentials begin to become revealed. Design is not just a service but also a way of perception.
Urban design and architecture have become responsive professions. It is typical to be given a problem or a project from a client and then asked to respond to their needs. PORT A+U is interested in reverting that situation. We want our design and research to showcase an existing condition and showcase the present potentials. We promote an idea through our work rather than just responding to a client.
SK: And Architectural thought process allows you to approach the urban this manner?
CM: Process of creating a project is usually quite exciting, but the technic of how you get there, more often than not, is not. The strategy of how we develop our work is much more important than the technique or the process. It goes back to the idea of distilling a complex set of ideas into a fundamental idea or package.
The role of the architect is one of an orchestrator or director. We think about how we would showcase our work if we were going to present it to a Mayor. You have a minute to get an idea across. We want our work to be understood in that minute, so that when a longer conversation is created we can explain the finer details of the work/project.
SK: How do competitions play a part in your design and research?
AM: The competitions we partake typically don’t require a structured program. A good example of this was the WPA 2.0 competition. It was not a competition about algae and CO2. The brief of the competition simply asked the participants to “design an infrastructure”. We were able to take our interests, including our growing interest on algae, and embed them within the programmatic requirements of the competition.
CM: I think that is a really good point. A lot of young architecture offices use competitions to explore a medium and expand their work. We are very picky about which competitions we enter. The competition becomes a vehicle to test our ideas and develop that research into a physical manifestation.
SK: Since most of your work is speculative, what is the role of the image in regard of how you showcase your ideas?
AM: We take a lot of pride in how lucid our work is. We want our projects to be super clear in terms of the goals and outcome of the project. Our work should be able to be read and understood by a lot of different audiences.
CM: We tend to try to start each project with a super complex set of issues and rationally distill them down. We are always unpacking our ideas. We want people that have no relationship to the technologies or design pieces we implicate to understand the projects we create. If a project cannot be understood, even if it is the greatest idea ever, it is not a successful project.
SK: What is the global reach of your own work. Do you feel the globally-connected world as a giant urban environment?
AM: One thing that has happened is that projects have become much broader, in the sense of what/how you engage with a project. New topics have become important to the profession of architecture that were not taken into account 20 or 30 years ago. To be creditable, you have to be more aware of your broader surroundings.
CM:In a global world, you have architects that are embedded in a place. On the other hand, you have architects that parachute in (OMA,BIG, SOM etc.) and engage a problem in an educated manner. We fall into that second category and we are interested in drawing out the latent conditions of a place. These conditions are what give weight to the work.
There is a shift in the dynamic of the profession. Smaller idea firms can now have a much larger global impact. Not so long ago, only the firms with large overhead and an expansive team could work internationally. Now that so much work can be accessed much easier than before, it is easier for smaller firms to engage in that discussion.
SK: What do you see is the role of young designers in regard to navigating this ever-changing global landscape?
CM: The idea of young entrepreneurs is becoming more and more essential. Theoretically, the people who stick around during hard times within a given profession are very entrepreneurial. I don’t think architecture and design can be about just the one thing it has historically been about, building a building.
In architecture schools we learn how to physically and spatially represent an idea. We are taught to develop physical constructs from those ideas. It is important to architects to insert themselves, and their unique way to approach design problems, into the urban discussion. We don’t have visions of Miesian grandeur, in regard to being the sole designer of the world.
AM: We don’t just sit around and wait for the phone to ring. We are always out pursuing ideas and projects. We put ourselves at the periphery of the idea that architecture is just designing buildings. We try to understand and present the good that design-thinking can bring to other discussions. We purposely try to interject ourselves in conversations where architects have only been asked to respond to after the fact.
Christopher Marcinkoski is a founding director of PORT A+U. Previously, he was a senior associate at James Corner Field Operations (JCFO) in New York City, where he led much of the office’s large-scale master planning and urban design work. Mr. Marcinkoski is currently an Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture and Urban Design at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
Andrew Moddrell is a founding director of PORT A+U. He recently represented PORT A+U in Washington D.C. as part of the advisory panel for the National Endowment for the Arts inaugural “Our Town” initiative. He is currently a Clinical Assistant Professor teaching graduate and undergraduate design studios related to contemporary issues of urbanism at the University of Illinois-Chicago School of Architecture.
Stephen Killion is an Architectural Designer and writer currently based in Chicago. A regular contributor to Architizer blog, he has also written articles for Mark Magazine and Design Bureau. With an interest in the overlap of architecture and graphic design disciplines, he acted as images researcher and contributed original images for Float! published by Frame publishers.