Sturdy Designs from Studio Sumo

The Long Island City-based architecture firm eschews signature design in favor of an inquisitive approach

Names can be deceiving. Studio SUMO, a decade-old practice based in Long Island City, New York, does not represent founders Sunil Bald’s and Yolande Daniels’s ethnicities, nor an interest in an exotic sport. (Sumo is a combination of Sunil, and Daniels’s nickname in grad school, Momo.) But if SUMO were to signify anything related to Japanese wrestling, it would be heft—of the cerebral kind. Bald teaches at Parsons and Yale, and Daniels at Columbia, and as Daniels says, “We begin with a question, searching not necessarily for answers, but for something.” Bald adds that projects “don’t necessarily have a predestined physical manifestation.”

Designs for Josai University in Japan exemplify this tabula rasa approach. In 2000, Bald and Daniels were commissioned to design a pair of information buildings for the university’s Togane campus. One, for students, was to be located on a pedestrian route to a nearby train station. The partners devised a program according to the train schedule: A vending machine would occupy the student waiting for just a few minutes, and a magazine stand, laptop stand, and rooftop garden were meant for more patient scholar-commuters. For the second building, a 4,500-square-foot visitors’ pavilion planned for the other side of the campus, they drew inspiration from the site’s bypass-road location. Referring to the bright lights and quick thrills of nearby used-car dealerships and pachinko parlors, this design included a drive-through component as well as a scrimlike facade that, illuminated internally, acted as an abstract billboard.

Although the so-called Info/Info structures stalled, three years later Josai tapped SUMO for a 70,000-square-foot school of management on its Sakado campus. That project looks nothing like a super-size reiteration of the earlier works. Instead, the designers single-loaded the classrooms into a folded, 600-foot-long structure, and lifted it to allow a public path to run underneath. Besides exercises in individuality, the Josai series shows SUMO’s comfort with a range of scales. Indeed, in about the same period the Sakado building was designed and built, so was the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Art, an 1,800-square-foot interior in Brooklyn.

Loose connections abound through the portfolio. Formally, the Sakado project hints at a winning design in an affordable-housing competition in Miami—even though the latter’s floor plans are based on shotgun and Creole manor houses. And the 2005 MiniMax prefabricated housing prototype hints at the total-design aspirations of Flip/Flop, featuring Murphy-like zones for different live/work functions that Bald and Daniels developed for themselves seven years earlier. The legacies aren’t direct, but can be teased out.

In 2001, Bald was invited to present work at a faculty exhibition, for which he and Daniels chose to organize designs not by type or chronology, but by matching projects to descriptive words that feature the  abbreviations in the periodic table of elements. “[In] this kind of grid, things relate by their proximity and reference other elements potentially,” Bald says. It’s a fitting representation for two talents who rigorously investigate architectural solutions, but for whom many streams of consciousness will take them almost anywhere.

Founded: 1996

Design Staff: 5

Principals: Sunil Bald and Yolande Daniels

Education: Bald: Columbia GSAPP, M.Arch., 1991; University of California Santa Cruz, B.A. biology, 1986; Daniels: Columbia GSAPP, M.Arch., 1990; The City College of New York, CUNY, B.S. Arch., 1987

Work history: Bald: Practice—Pasanella + Klein Stolzman + Berg, 1995–96; Gaetano Pesce Ltd., 1994; Antoine Predock Architect, 1991–94; Academic—Yale University, 2006; Parsons The New School of Design, 2000–present; Daniels: Ralph Appelbaum Associates, 1996–98; Selldorf Architects, 1993–95; Smith-Miller + Hawkinson Architects, 1991–93; Gaetano Pesce Ltd., 1991; Academic—Columbia GSAPP, 2000–present

Key completed projects: Josai School of Management, Sakado, Japan, 2006; Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Art, Brooklyn, N.Y., 2006; MiniMax  prefabricated housing prototype, 2005; Urban Life exhibition design, Urban Center, New York City, 2003; Museum for African Art, Long Island City, N.Y., 2002; Intimate Landscapes  installation, Project Row Houses, Houston, 2002; NewNewYork2 exhibition design, Urban Center, 2001; Flip/Flop live/work prototype, New York, 1998; Femme Pissoire female urinal prototype, 1997

Key current projects: de facto/de jure installation, Amtrak Crescent  Line, 2006; Mizuta Museum of Art, Sakado, Japan, 2007; Brant Artist Studio, Bennington, Vt., 2007; Mitan Housing, Little Haiti, Miami, 2008

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