The day the $1.4 million Alessi flagship store was scheduled to open on Soho’s Greene Street, a dozen or so workers were still stomping over the freshly poured epoxy flooring, heaving a $14,000 La Marzocco espresso machine into its alcove, wiring lighting into custom shelving, touching up vacuum-formed wall fixtures. (Click here for the slideshow, "The Techno-Utopias of Asymptote".) The contractors had been granted an extra 12 hours to complete the job, although the Barrisol stretch ceiling to cover the overhead bands of fluorescent light had not appeared and the coffee had yet to be tested. Outside, however, the chaos had been neatly sealed off and branded with a floor-to-ceiling window graphic and the reassuring words “Alessi by Asymptote.”
Seventeen years into their partnership, Asymptote’s founders Lise Anne Couture and Hani Rashid have achieved enough rank for their firm’s name to be writ large on Soho walls. Their architecture—characterized over the decades as experimental, bloblike, and virtual—is beginning to see its first realizations in the messy media of drywall, paint, and wires. In the last year Asymptote has reached a veritable tipping point, with clients calling from Malaysia, Mexico, and Abu Dhabi. Deyan Sudjic proposes in his book The Edifice Complex that just 30 architects—the “flying circus of the perpetually jet-lagged”—design all of the world’s high-visibility buildings; Asymptote is pushing hard for membership.
A husband-and-wife team who launched their New York partnership in 1989, Rashid and Couture were, for more than a decade, architects who didn’t build. Teaching at Columbia’s school of architecture, they became associated with its output of mutable three-dimensional amoebic structures generated on the computer, aka “blobs.” Asymptote’s much publicized 3D Trading Floor (3DTF) for the New York Stock Exchange in 1999 cemented the couple’s reputation as twenty-first-century paper architects, futurists who epitomized the thrill of architecture transformed by the information age. This characterization was reinforced by the firm’s installation work; the “Fluxspace” series suggested a fusion of physical and virtual worlds using projections and biomorphic forms and earned detractors like former New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp, who dubbed Asymptote’s 2000 Venice Biennale installation a fusion of “smoke and mirrors.” Asymptote was an easy target for the old guard. Its most high-profile project, the Guggenheim Virtual Museum, was a dazzlingly expensive piece of pixel-pushing that never opened its doors, not even online.
Sitting at the conference table in Asymptote’s spacious new offices on Varick Street a few days before the Alessi opening, Rashid has the casual nothing-can-stop-us-now confidence of a rock star whose latest release has gone platinum. In 2001 Asymptote had barely a dozen employees. In the last eight months the firm has nearly doubled in size, from 18 to 35, as it wins increasingly larger commissions: a $2 billion master plan for a retail, hotel, performing-arts, and convention center in Penang, Malaysia; a master plan for the Colegio Civil district in Monterrey, Mexico; a pair of 28-story bank towers designed for Budapest and expected to break ground in September 2007; a new $2 million Carlos Miele store in Paris; a conversion of a six-story parking garage into luxury condominiums at 166 Perry Street, in Manhat-tan; and a 60-story residential tower in Abu Dhabi. Rashid pulls the last project up on-screen as a dynamic rendering. “Parametric modeling allows us to see both form and cost simultaneously,” he says, manipulating a mouse so that the skyscraper appears to gain and lose weight on the spot.
Rashid describes the firm’s new bricks-and-mortar phase as “Asymptote 3.0.” Version 1.0 was experimentation and theory; 2.0 was virtual building.
The transition to phase three began in 2002, when it won a competition to build the HydraPier pavilion in the Dutch city of Haarlemmermeer. The brief called for a temporary pavilion that would be the centerpiece of the 2002 Floriade festival in a city overshadowed by Amsterdam and its nearby Schiphol airport. Rashid and Couture shrewdly reasoned that it required not simply a glorified tent but a more lasting icon to put the place on the map. Playing on the Netherlands’ engineering legacy of reclaiming land submerged underwater, the firm ambitiously entered a design inspired by the oblique roofs of early Swedish Modernists Erik Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz—but realized with a mutable twist: “reflective and dynamic” surfaces would be achieved by flowing a curtain of water over the roof and on either side of a glass-walled entrance. The jurors recognized a media darling in the making, awarding it first prize, a significant boost for the firm.
With less than a year to build the 13,000-square-foot structure, Asymptote scrambled to figure out how to fabricate within budget the complex curvaceous forms so easily generated on a computer. A solution was found near Munich, where Airbus used a relatively inexpensive explosive molding technique (literally metal shaped in a mold by dynamite) for making airplanes. There was, of course, a lot riding on the project for a firm fighting its way out of a digital pigeonhole. “We weren’t going to blow this chance,” Rashid says.
Rashid and Couture have adapted to their new role as architects-that-build by fashioning an omnipresent image. Speaking on the phone from the couple’s 500-year-old country home near Urbana, Italy, Couture explains that, as design principal, Rashid will often make the “first forays” in a client relationship and she, as managing principal, ensures that everything is “on track.” But she stresses that it’s important for them both to stay involved with every project on the boards. “Even though our office is growing and the range of projects is quite vast, we’re only interested in reaching a certain limit that will allow us to remain hands-on and engaged in the work.”
Meanwhile Rashid is earning the air miles and bags under the eyes as he initiates discussions with local architects with a view to teaming up on overseas projects. While the firm’s staff was putting finishing touches on the Alessi store, Rashid was en route to Budapest via the United Arab Emirates, where he was meeting project architects. The key, he says over a cell-phone connection from Dubai, is to avoid the kind of ego clash that characterized Daniel Libeskind’s collaboration with SOM on the Freedom Tower. “We’re going after firms who have super track records in getting stuff done well and don’t have pretenses to be superstar designers.”
On a landline from Italy, Couture elaborates on the challenge: a firm that has attracted clients because of its innovative atelier approach needs to sustain that atmosphere while undertaking large-scale projects that require a large staff. She finds a point of comparison in the celebrity architects one generation ahead of Asymptote. “It’s interesting to look at Zaha’s work at the Guggenheim exhibition to see if there has been some kind of effect on it as a result of the growth,” says Couture, “and in what ways does it manifest.” When asked how he and Couture will cope with large-scale projects like Penang, Abu Dhabi, and Budapest, Rashid replies, “It’s our new pillow talk: Where do we want to hold the company? But there are precedents.” He cites Coop Himmelblau, which also recently began building and staffing up after decades of producing paper and digital architecture.
Such frequent comparison to high-profile peers seems curiously obsessive, as if jostling for star status has become a postmodern architectural project in itself. Sudjic offers some useful context for such discourse in the The Edifice Complex.
Every ambitious city is seeking an icon, he argues, and to limit risk they all keep going to the same 30 architects to design them, leading to the architectural equivalent of hyperinflation. “As a result,” Sudjic writes, “form no longer follows function—it follows image.”
Asymptote, which long ago proved its ability to conjure up iconic images, has also been accused of making dazzling imagery at the expense of substance. Its 3DTF for the New York Stock Exchange, presented by the firm as an interactive architectural environment “for day-to-day monitoring as well as crisis management of all aspects of NYSE trading floor activity,” was criticized following its launch in 1999 by some interface designers as a publicity device that was more rhetorical than functional. Its Flash-based online investor environment for the NYSE—MarkeTrac, launched in 2000—seems to sit in a technological backwater, attracting the derision of bloggers for its failure to support most current browsers. Rashid argues that the 3DTF is used constantly by NYSE operations staff, including for sending messages to its networked systems after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. He says that the NYSE and Virtual Guggenheim projects were an opportunity for Asymptote to “forge into very new and exciting territory for combining architecture with motion graphics, computing, and information architecture. Our goal was never to have the last word on this.”
Like professional futurists, Rashid and Couture trade in techno-utopias. Their sudden influx of commissions, and the accompanying challenge of producing fluid-looking forms in real space, is in many ways an outgrowth of the 1990s dream of cyberspace: in the first heady days of the Internet, the popular imagination held that the digital bytes flying across networks comprised an actual environment, a digi-paradise of self-transforming buildings and identity-shifting people. A younger generation of architects talks more realistically today about how technology and networks can augment our actual messy lived reality.
But as quintessential 1990s experimentalists, Asymptote worked tirelessly to imagine that digi-paradise, producing dazzling installations on the European art circuit. After Brazilian fashion designer Carlos Miele saw the firm’s 2002 Fluxspace at the Documenta 11 show, where Asymptote projected a video montage of cityscapes onto a spinelike form suspended above mirrors from the ceiling, he approached Rashid and Couture to design his $1.3 million New York store. (They heard his pitch and quickly broke an early vow not to concentrate on retail or rich peoples’ homes.) “Asymptote’s focus on exhibitions and virtual architecture may not have seemed like the obvious choice to design a store,” Miele says, “but I didn’t want to do a conventional project. I wanted the store to reflect more than just clothing.”
Years of fabricating installations equipped Asymptote with some considerable know-how. For Miele the firm cunningly transformed a low-ceilinged room dominated by pillars in the Meatpacking District into a meandering high-gloss white walk-through version of one of its virtual Fluxspaces, against which Miele’s dresses—suspended from the ceiling on headless mannequins—hang on fishing-wire-like apparitions. The unexpected twist to this futuristic spiritualist experience comes when a large meat truck rumbles across the cobblestone street outside the store, causing the fabric ceiling to quiver. The deftness with which the curving white form enveloped the structure of the old space was enough to convince Alessi that Asymptote, despite its relative inexperience, could cope with the dark, narrow, asymetrical space it had secured for its Soho store. “I saw pictures of the Miele space before the renovation—with the pillars—and thought they had created a masterpiece,” Alessi USA’s executive vice president Jan Vingerhoets says. “I thought, If they can do that, the entrance on Greene Street is less difficult."
Yet the ease with which digital architecture morphs with a few mouse clicks is not always easy to replicate in the cold, hard world of manufacturing and construction. On Greene Street, Alessi’s products were intended to appear in an ever-changing modular display, so that with each visit, the shelving and stock (there’s ample basement storage) would have changed, like a theater set or as though someone had hit the refresh button on a Web site. Asymptote and Alessi teamed up with Vitra to develop a modular shelving system specifically for the purpose, which theoretically staff could rearrange according to the stock being displayed that week. But as intriguingly functionalist as Asymptote’s aluminum shelving system appears, it fell far short of the flexible flats of the theater set. “It’s not as modular as we thought—I had thought it would be like Legos,” says Vingerhoets, who suspects that the configuration will be changed once a year rather than weekly or even monthly. Asked whether Alessi’s planned future store openings would feature the Asymptote design or the older, less expensive one by Alessandro Mendini used in all Alessi stores to date, Vingerhoets was uncertain. “If we have to pull off a very quick one in Miami, we have the Mendini fixturing available. On the other hand, in Las Vegas it may be Hani again.” He adds, “Hopefully one day we can use it worldwide; but these are prototypes, so we might have to go back to the drawing board to see if we can make them in multiples.”
The problem with techno-utopias is that, to borrow a phrase from Le Corbusier, people must learn to live in them. The Alessi store finally opened its doors to the public on a gray, drizzly August afternoon. Asymptote’s design had admirably achieved the feat of disguising the corridor-like space by deploying mirrors and receding polygonal forms to draw the eye to the retail section at the rear of the store. Tourists meandered around the sparkling merchandise as if they were in a space twice the width. But up front, where an espresso bar was intended to pull in street traffic, the atmosphere was surgically sparse. The fluorescent lights bounced off the crisp epoxy, automotive, and metallic fin-ishes with enough glare to make one wish for sunglasses (if not sterile hospital booties). Excellent coffee notwithstanding, the design seemed to have trouble transitioning into the real world and providing a warm analog welcome.
Several thousand miles away on the end of a cell phone, Rashid, who hadn’t yet seen the space, chewed over the criticism. “I think you’ve just touched on one of my pathological or visionary ideas for the threshold. In Holland you move through a water wall where everything changes, and you’re almost mentally cleansed. The Miele store has these kaleidoscopic mirrors. There’s something really interesting about leaving the street and entering a dreamlike environment. We may have gone overboard here, but I hope not.”
Click here for the slideshow, "The Techno-Utopias of Asymptote".