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On a hot summer’s day, in the Meatpacking District offices of New York architecture firm Lot/ek, principal Giuseppe Lignano is playing around with light blue medium-density foam blocks as if they are Lego pieces, stacking and layering one on top of another to form a tower.
He stacks them side by side, and says, “Putting the blocks together, you get the space inside. These blocks are just spatial bricks.”
What’s interesting is that these long, rectangular blocks represent the long and narrow shipping containers with which Lot/ek is so fond of building. In short order, Lignano stacks the blocks, with openings that create open spaces, and then—voilà—the volume created resembles a potential building.
It has been 17 years since Lignano, 44, and his partner, Ada Tolle, 43, founded Lot/ek (pronounced Low-Tech), and the two Columbia University–trained architects have come a long way since emerging as darlings in art and architectural circles as pioneers in creating new building forms using otherwise useless industrial objects.
“At Lot/ek, we definitely believe in reusing already-existing objects and putting them into systems that will create architecture,” says Lignano. “They are usually objects of industrial scale, used for architecture, but not only shipping containers.”
Indeed, the pair has experimented with everything from scrapped airliner fuselages and a used petroleum trailer tank (this became a cocoon-like bedroom in a New York apartment) to steel salvaged from a highway overpass. Whatever directions they’ve taken, it’s the shipping containers that continue to be a favorite material for the duo. For example, the interior space for the nonprofit art organization, the Bohen Foundation, located in the Meatpacking District, featured office spaces located within shipping containers, which were installed inside the cavernous gallery.
Lignano and Tolle’s architecture also has become a favorite of the art world, which considers their schemes not as buildings but as large-scale found-object sculptures. Moreover, their approach in reappropriating large industrial objects gained the firm a following from sustainable experts, who have applauded their taking derelict or useless industrial parts and shaping them into new, exciting structures.
But if their 97,000-square-foot building in Beijing is any indication, the practice is moving from smaller-scale projects into another level of industrial reinvention. The building, Sanlitun North, is part of a commercial complex master planned by the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, and located near the city’s Third Ring Road. Along with Kuma and Lot/ek, another group of New York architects, SHoP/Sharples Holden Pasquarelli, is designing the other buildings in the complex. The Beijing structure, which looks like a conventional building sheathed in a metallic mesh, has as its most dramatic feature windows that are essentially very large air ducts, angled in different directions so as to extend the interior spaces outward and into the central plaza.
Sanlitun North, though large, is only one-third the size of its sister project, Sanlitun South, due to be finished next year. In that 250,000-square-foot building, shipping containers will be arrayed throughout, creating discreet indoor and outdoor entrances to each of the retail spaces. In appearance, it looks as if red shipping containers were fitted uniformly into a large volume of yellow Lego blocks.
As much as these Beijing projects are a milestone for Lot/ek, the projects have lent a new dimension to the possibilities of its modular, industrial design. Recently, a proposal for a new library in Jalisco, Mexico, involved stacking fuselages of scrapped Boeing 727 and 737 airliners side by side and on top of each other, as the main building
for the complex.
Another competition the duo entered for the Hong Kong Design Institute proposed creating structures out of a highway overpass, using the elevated roadway as a ready-made roof for a new building. With each project, Lot/ek’s industrial approach has only begun to hint at what may be possible in the next few years.
“[These industrial objects] are generic, from a design point of view,” says Lignano.