Ordinary Takeover


20 October 2014

I'm mid-tour of Ordinary Takeover, an exhibition at London’s Architectural Association (AA) by architecture practice Ordinary Limited, when the studio’s co-founder Magnus Larsson passes me a gelatinous block teeming with thin black strands, although some have clumped together to form thick, stringy cables.

“If you’re feeling brave you could touch this,” he says. "It’s made of human hair.” Just before this, he had pointed at a wooden model, a plan for a timber high-rise that comes replete with vast composting towers, and said “This whole idea kind of started with someone going to the toilet in the top floor of a skyscraper.” Upon seeing another exhibit, he began impersonating Andy Warhol, ordering Warhol's interns to eat more beetroot because he likes the way it stains their urine when they piss on metal canvases. All of this was quite unexpected (and the Warhol impression unexpectedly accurate).

Yet Larsson’s offbeat commentary is one of the best representations of the ethos behind Ordinary Takeover that I can think of. It’s an exhibition devoted not only to architectural experimentation, but also the pleasures and excitement that come with this process and the possibilities it opens up. It's a show about being excited by the sheer breadth of materials that surround us, be they human hair or the rusting that occurs if you urinate on metal. As much as anything, Ordinary Takeover is a show about being curious enough to want to see what happens when you start playing around with a material's capabilities.

Ideas for crystal architecture displayed as part of Ordinary Takeover

If you don't know, all of this is ordinary for Ordinary. The practice, founded by Larsson and Alexander Kaiser in 2011, is noteworthy for its commitment to material experimentation in all of its projects, with both directors having previously spoken about their frustration with architecture's dependence upon traditional materials (to wit, concrete). "There are many materials out there, but most practices tend to fall back onto familiar friends for obvious reasons. Which means that there’s quite a restrictive palette of materials,” says Larsson, and Ordinary’s practice sometimes seems as if it’s been formed with the sole purpose of standing in contradiction to this status quo. In the past Ordinary has conceived of cities grown from crystals and desert sandstone landscapes created from dunes frozen in place by the actions of bacteria, all funded by a combination of EU and university grants and commercial tie-ins. Ordinary Takeover, taken in this light, is about providing an introduction to the studio's ideas for broadening architecture's palette.

One wall of the space, housed in the front gallery at the AA, is covered with material samples that delve into the extremities of the architectural profession: there is casein, a milk protein that self-curls into hard white sheets (“We're proposing it for an installation in the abandoned tracks of Waterloo”); libricile, a development of the work of artist Yohei Nishimura that boils down to the remnants of books fired in kilns that flake off at the touch ("We really don’t know yet if we’ll ever be able to turn this into a structural material. Not everything can”); and nikkicrete, blocks of ice packed out with shreds of ocean waste plastic bags ("The idea is to create a factory in Alaska from these blocks, right where the ocean cleanup project is”). It’s a treasure trove of the odd and exciting, as well as a speculator’s dream as to where architecture might head in the future.

Alongside this wall area is a series of themed workbenches (ceramics engineering and glass working; wood working; polymer science; metallurgy; synthetic chemistry and biology) from which Larsson and Kaiser will work for the duration of the exhibition, experimenting with the material samples that surround them. It's a laboratory-esque atmosphere and a welcome break to the objects on plinths school of exhibitions. Encouraging interactivity and active development of exhibits in an architecture exhibition is no mean feat (particularly when they so often break down to static displays of models, drawings and personal ephemera), and Ordinary should be applauded for it. "The idea is that we’re moving our studio into the gallery and we’ll be working as architectural designers in residence,” says Larsson. "We have these materials on the wall and we'll take one down, study it and do experiments. Then we’ll see if those work or not.”

Libricile is made by placing books in a kiln

Even Ordinary's more conventional projects have a vein of uncertainty to them. Sat at the glass working bench are a series of small glass panels, stacked like a mille-feuille. “With those the idea is to make a 2.0 version of Philip Johnstone’s glass house,” explains Larsson. “The idea is to see how a glass house could actually be made from glass. Not glass and brick or glass and walnut.” Glass is a more familiar architectural material than curled milk proteins, but there is nonetheless an admirable ambition in planning to use it in isolation. The much-discussed problems with the extensive use of glazing in Mies van der Rohe’s 1951 steel and glass Farnsworth House (ventilation, energy-efficiency, basic liveability) would seem to loom large in relation to the project. “We will potentially have problems with it,” notes Larsson. "Interesting ones though. Challenges.”

But challenges are everywhere in Ordinary Takeover. The materials that Ordinary work with are unfamiliar and as a result of this it can at times be difficult to gauge the purpose or feasibility of the experiments on display. There are structures made from pure pigment and tiny human miniatures sheltering under the swollen pages of burnt books; there are models demonstrating how a pavilion might be locked into form by folding textile skins around magnets seeded throughout the material; and metal panels in various states of corrosion to determine whether speed weathering could be used to create structural elements such as window panes.1 It's difficult to tell what some of these projects might lead to or how fanciful they might be: how serious a material is snail tile (the excreta that results when you feed snails coloured paper; how serious is Larsson when he suggests dollar bills suspended in resin might be a suitable material to build homeless shelters from?

The key to understanding Ordinary Takeover is that Larsson and Kaiser don't seem to have any expectations as to where their experiments might lead either. All that matters is that they could lead somewhere. "Everything shown here is conjecturable, but conceivable," says Larsson. "It needs to be possible to make it or else we’re not interested in it. When you’re talking about things that are so out there you need to be quite rigid that it’s possible to make or else it turns into science fiction. Science fiction is fine and adequate, but when we come up with these limit-pushing projects, we try to make an actual change and that’s based on ideas of how material can be used in quite interesting ways. When we do these things, if they didn’t actually work, the argument would lose quite a bit of weight. I don’t mind people doing truly conjectural or science fiction-based schemes, but what we’re about is trying to allow ourselves to step into those territories and make them happen for real. If you’re entirely within the science fiction realm, then in a way everything is possible. You can do whatever and just tell people to put their anti-gravity boots on.”

A model of Ordinary's proposal of a modular house for Sweden

All of the projects displayed in Ordinary Takeover are in various states of development. There are those which represent conceivable buildings (a plan for a small modular house designed to take advantage of a new Swedish law permitting 25m2 houses with a maximum height of 4m to be put up without building permission; the wooden skyscraper mentioned at the beginning of this article) and those that are more likely to manifest as art installations (the casein structures in Waterloo).

At the other end of the scale are projects that represent early forays into materials to see what might be conceivable. The pigment house is part of an idea to generate a specific architectural colour a la Yves Klein’s blue, while the gel block made from human hair is an examination of how gelling agents could be combined with waste aggregates to create constructive materials. Further gel models sat close to the hair example make use of beer waste and wood chips instead: cheap, otherwise worthless cast-offs from the brewing and construction industries respectively. It’s the same basic production process that led in 2012 to Marjan van Aubel and James Shaw’s award-winning Well Proven Chair, a piece of furniture made by mixing wood shavings with bio-resin. "We really liked that project,” says Larsson. “So we took it as a starting point to start thinking about these things in terms of construction materials.”

Models exploring the idea of a house made entirely of pigment

It is important to note that not everything on display at Ordinary Takeover will one day make it into an architectural project. Just as Larsson expresses doubts as to whether he and Kaiser will ever succeed in transforming burnt books into a structural material, so too may many of the other projects on display hit dead ends and fail to progress beyond the early stages of development.

“What separates us from a large part of the architecture community is that we’re experimenting and part of that is that we might find that our experiments don’t work, which is absolutely fine,” says Larsson. "In an institution like the AA there are a lot of experiments and they all seem to work, which is somehow slightly strange. If you’re experimenting, then a lot of the time it shouldn't work and only occasionally something will. We’re not afraid of saying we’re working on something and will see if it will or won’t work.”

Later on Larsson starts explaining the properties of the nikkicrete ice blocks when he suddenly breaks off. It's an almost perfect illustration of his point. Hurrying over to the material wall he grabs a piece of bacterial skin that is up on display, rubbing its dull, opaque surface between his fingers. "Oh my god,” he says. "That was absolutely transparent at the start of the week. I didn’t know it could change like that.”