The five partners of design co-operative NAU have their roots in the fields of architecture, writing, virtual design, film/production design, and event design; your projects cover all of these fields from commercial commissions to independent art projects and theoretical research. How did the structure of NAU develop? And within this structure, how do you actually work on specific projects?
Jean-Lucien Gay: The structure started to form organically with the realization that we didn’t have to all live in the same place to work together. This slowly turned into a kind of virtual platform at the crossing between film and architecture that could serve on one hand as base for collaborative projects, but also as a theoretical backbone for our individual work. With Oliver and Pia joining NAU, we were able to expand this platform and enriched it into new fields of activities. We see our structure as a kind of flexible collective that should evolve and grow; only the direction is set. The geographical separation can be seen as an opportunity; we had to develop new working methods, as we cannot all work on the same project at the same time.
Michael J. Brown: Actually, there are some advantages to not all working on every project; there have been projects where we are all involved, and then it seems like we never stop sketching! But seriously, there are no fast and hard rules, yet the pattern that has developed is for several of the partners to be involved in the concept phase, and then two partners to continue with its development. One is the lead partner, handling the client interface, organizing the local team, etc., and a second partner continuing to provide design input and support. NAU works so well, just because we have different backgrounds and design ideals, so it’s important to maintain new impulses throughout the duration of a project.
Gay: We use a lot of different software tools to keep in touch, most have pretty wide-spread use and don’t merit going into detail. Rapid communication, but also relaxed interaction become essential. We had to learn. While we generally build a team led by one of us and often associate external specialists, the form is always adjustable. Some key projects with a manifest character – I am thinking of the Future Design series and to a certain extent our academic work –need a more intense interaction between us, and tend to stretch out the concept phase where we all work together.
How may one imagine the cooperation with clients and other artists, e.g. on projects for the film industry which rely on great artistic as well as economic efforts and on complex team structures? How much freedom do you have when working on commissions in the surrounding of culturally and visually highly determined projects, like on the premiere events for “Tron: Legacy” in Los Angeles or “James Bond – A Quantum of Solace” in Berlin?
Oliver Zeller: Within those contexts I’d say we are afforded a considerable degree of freedom. Having worked in art departments and visual effects studios, we’re acclimated to designing within the bounds of pre-existing signature visuals or characters and narrative, and developing from that. Several practical requirements must of course be met, and the budget often produces the most constraint. We have a mindset that asks, “how do we give this a unique voice”, “how can we push the boundaries further” and I think this helps to establish greater mental freedom. As designers and directors we also enjoy the conceptualization phase, conceiving an ad campaign or some high concept. Actually when we started establishing our American based offshoot adNAU, dedicated to event design, digital set design and direction, we first defined ourselves as a creative agency. Combined with a penchant to do a lot of spec work and submit pitches, companies have been quite open to us putting forth ideas and concepts. Disney Special Events for example invited us to provide a full design packet for the premiere of “Tron: Legacy” that included everything from an iPhone app to guerilla tagging with lasers on international landmarks and luminescent t-shirts. Ultimately they only commissioned the red carpet and concert stage design, which was toned down once a planned concert featuring Daft Punk outside the El Capitan theater did not eventuate.
Looking at different projects like the virtual/physical spatial design e.g. for Raiffeisen Bank in Zürich, the graphic set design for a Mercedes Benz print campaign, or specific events like the ones mentioned: How would you describe the connecting underlying layer, how do these different fields influence and cross-pollinate each other?
Zeller: The virtual realm offers endless possibilities, but what becomes especially interesting is how the bleeding of virtual space into physical space can redefine our approach to architecture. At some point we may no longer even differentiate between virtual and physical, they would become extensions of each other. At this time, events specifically offer an opportunity to bridge the virtual and physical more than other fields and that’s certainly something that attracted us toward event design.
Tino Schaedler: We all design with 3D software. And in the end it is just a question of output...
Gay: That’s right... Virtual or real, the common denominator is probably the notion of narrative, creating spaces and atmospheres that tell stories. Visiting an interior like the Raiffeisen Bank in Zürich should not only be an exciting spatial experience, but an interaction on many levels between the visitor and the setting. Each CNC-milled portrait of Einstein, Wagner, or Böcklin at the walls tells a different story about Zürich, anchoring the bank deeply in the cultural background of the area. The use of interactive media enriches this experience and increases the capacity to create bridges between different realities. In the bank, the interactive table echoes the portraits conferring them a voice, as well as opening new windows on the virtual world of banking. For an interior or for an ad campaign, the design approach is similar: non-linear and multilayered. Various techniques coming from the contemporary production of numeric films can be tested onto architecture and vice versa. Influenced by cult movies from Kubrick or Lynch, we are all fascinated by the thin edge between reality and fiction. Exploring this edge – experimenting with crossbreeding techniques as well as inventing new concepts for spaces – is our challenge.
Zeller: One unrealized project, the Virtual Archive for the new State Archives in Duisburg, would have integrated virtual windows into the ground of a public plaza from where visitors would glimpse a fictitious world of archival machines processing mountains of paper. This fusion perfectly captures how these different fields can influence and cross-pollinate.
You mentioned the so-called Future Design series. What are the aims of these projects, like the Ecco concept vehicle or the self-sustaining rooftop capsule Living Roof? Are these commissioned works or mainly self-generated research projects?
Brown: The Future Design series started without our even realizing it, with requests for a few unbuilt ideas in the vein of what was once called paper architecture. The first project, which became the Stratocruiser, was for a book on dream architecture. In our dreams, architecture had little to do with bricks and buildings that just sit around. Instead it should transport people to different corners of the world, with gourmet food, beauty treatments, climbing walls, and bungee jumping along the way; it needed to have that level of vitality, and that’s how we eventually came to the solution of a lifestyle zeppelin. The Immersive Cocoon was born when CNN asked us to contribute to their Just Imagine series with an idea on what the future of video games would look like. It seemed pretty apparent that the future of gaming was all about getting rid of the video side of the equation, and throwing hand-held controllers out the window too. Instead people wanted to interact with digital space intuitively with their bodies, and have a visual experience where virtual space wrapped completely around them like real space does. When we came to the design of the 3.5 meter display dome with a control interface driven by hand gestures instead of by clicking on a button, we realized two things. First, that this device was no longer about gaming, but should become a multi-purpose portal to digital worlds. Second, and more generally, that there was a huge gap between product and architecture that we had ideas to fill. That was in some way the impetus for the Future Design series. We continued on with designs like the Ecco and Living Roof in this grey area between product, architecture, and vehicle design, primarily because we had stories to tell about how people could live in the future. We wanted to break down myths that stylish living and ecology had to be opposed to one another, and of course we wouldn’t mind if a like-minded investor saw them and wanted to make them a reality! All of our work has a certain research component to it, but the Future Design series perhaps more so. Some of the ideas on how the human body can interact with a bed, for example, eventually migrated to a design hotel that we recently completed in Berlin. In the rooms you can sit in bed and look out through a panoramic window, and then slide down into a laying position to simultaneously watch a film on a ceiling-mounted flatscreen. So the series is on one hand intended as a provocation, but at the same time serves as a vessel to capture ideas that can later inform our commercial projects.
Zeller: And with our penchant of blurring boundaries, we don’t simply stop at the design itself. That’s what led us to creating a whole commercial short film teaser for the Immersive Cocoon, even though it doesn’t actually exist.
Most of your projects include sophisticated scenographic elements as well as narrative strategies, the idea of narrative space – which however may be entirely disconnected from traditional physical/constructive aspects of architecture and from traditional design criteria. How do you develop new design criteria in a field which seems almost limitless? How do you deal with the highly manipulative impact of projects which indeed blur the boundaries between space, commercial interest, and fiction – a phenomenon which certainly is not new, but reaches a new level in such highly affective surroundings?
Zeller: It tends to stem from a mixture of the narrative and specific notion(s), which informs new design criteria for each project. Even traditional architecture has some potential narrative from the onset and I think architects like Eero Saarinen saw that, and I believe that was influential in varying the style according to what the project dictated.
Schaedler: I have been a bit obsessed with scenographic qualities in architecture since studying at UC Berkeley. In one of the classes I heard about landscape architect Lawrence Halprin and his Mo-tation system, an analogue notation system that allows to design space from a dynamic point of view. It changed my whole perspective on how space should be ideally designed. And I guess it is still a big influence on a lot of NAU projects as this notion is very integral to my design process. Especially now that we can design in 3D and straight animate cameras that simulate a dynamic perception it makes a lot of sense to me to design this way.
Zeller: It’s about establishing a dynamic standpoint. Tino and Michael wrote an article on cineplastic architecture, based on art historian Elie Faure’s 1922 treatise. Faure talks about duration entering as a constitutive element into the conception of space – architecture that centers on dynamic perception, spearheaded by the digital revolution in film and broadcast.
As you mentioned when talking about the Immersive Cocoon, part of your work with means of so-called virtual reality is the research on new steering mechanisms, like e.g. motion tracking cameras. What are your experiences concerning the reactions to these mechanisms, apart from a certain openness due to their playful character? Do we have to get used to a totally new idea of interaction with “reality”? And how do you overcome the fears that for a broader public might be connected to that, how do you ensure usability and readability?
Brown: Most of our research on new ways to interface with digital information aims at actually making it more natural for people, and in that sense the reaction is consistently positive. Even the idea of the computer desktop or the keyboard as a digitized version of the typewriter point to their 20th century origins. More specifically, most interfaces today still force the human body to conform to some sort of mechanical input device. We are just trying to flip the equation and make the machine respond to what is intuitive for our bodies; whether that is achieved through motion tracking cameras or another technology is not that important to the user. The real revolution is dematerialization of technology, where we don’t notice it any more, just its benefits. While people often fear the unknown, this shift is less about falling into a virtual reality black hole à la “The Lawnmower Man”, but about how virtual information is gradually and seamlessly overlapping the “real” world.
Schaedler: And it has gradually happened over the past decade. How much time does each of us spend daily in front of some kind of interface to the virtual world – be it on a computer, smart phone or video console?
Brown: Yes, thats right! Every time I check the weather on my iPhone instead of looking out the window or at a thermometer, or work with the other members of NAU around the world linked by Skype, I think that it’s not about getting used to a different interaction with reality. The change is incremental and sometimes unnoticed. We should give some credit to the public’s ability to absorb technological change and integrate it in their day-to-day lives. In the 1990s we saw fears of machines becoming sentient and trying to wipe out humanity manifested in the “Terminator” films. Today, IBM is brushing the edges of artificial intelligence with its Watson project, and people are happy to sit at home and root for Watson as he – not it – competes against two human contestants on the game show Jeopardy!
The role of the internet for phenomena like Wikileaks or within the upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt, and the Near East, as well as the fact that access to the web was shut down in some of these countries, not only show its positive potentials as far as a public and its capacity to act is concerned, but also leads to the quite more problematic question of who is in control of virtual spaces and virtual interchange in general. How will the growing connection of physical and virtual space, including the non-visibility of spatial parameters, change our notion not only of architecture, but of the city, of social, political space and society in general?
Schaedler: Well, this is a big question and hard to answer in this context. The aspect of control is a very interesting one, because the internet opens up a giant window to the world. And of course that presents a threat to some of the totalitarian systems in the world. The very nature of the net gives a voice and a lot of power to the individual, and in that sense it is rather democratic. It is a process with a lot of political force and will bring about more change then we have seen so far. That’s also part of the core why I think that the design of virtual spaces has extremely far reaching socio-political and cultural consequences. As much as the physical world, virtual space also needs to be developed by designers that understand these implications. I am sure that architects will soon consider the virtual as much of an integral part of architecture as the physical world. And ideally it all needs to be designed as from that point of view. Virtual spaces are still considered the ugly step child of true physical space, and unfortunately architects are reluctant to embrace this new design terrain. A few years ago Greg Lynn, film designer Alex McDowell, and Imaginary Forces teamed up for an interesting project called “New City” for the “Elastic Space” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. New City is kind of an amorphous spatial construct in the virtual world that hosts all the world’s countries and citizens. It is called New City and not New World because the virtual world is a space beyond the physical borders and limitations. We move differently in the virtual. We don’t walk but we surf and navigate. It is a non-linear space: it is a space full of information. And designers need to help to shape the parameters for these spaces. The more the virtual interweaves with the physical world the more it will be necessary to integrate it with our physical architecture. Imagine no longer needing an interface because the virtual is fully spatialized for example via holoscopic technology. It will be a layer on top of the physical architecture just like light and shadow.
Zeller: Virtual architecture can suffer from the same issue of access as physical architecture. But beyond that, the potential for access is far improved and the control afforded to the public in virtual spaces shows greater possibilities that breed interaction, which will in turn I think produce more interactivity in physical architecture. It also creates a broader role for the public in that they can more readily influence architecture. And this fits with our innate desire as a species to live in societies that strive toward freedom and our inherent drive to build. I think virtual architecture, or the influence of the virtual in physical architecture, is already beginning to influence the mass populace. Community groups, politicians, etc. are having a greater willingness to accept more diverse architecture beyond the modernist box.
Founded in 2008, NAU is a multidisciplinary collective of designers exploring the boundaries between architecture, film and advertising. NAU’s work in both the physical and virtual realm spans from built architecture to digital sets, events and directing commercials. NAU is led by five partners: Tino Schaedler is an established production designer, art director and architect; his digital film sets have been featured in numerous big productions such as the “Harry Potter” films. Michael J. Brown, head of NAU’s Berlin office, worked for Studio Daniel Libeskind, where he directed the design of several award-winning cultural buildings. Jean-Lucien Gay, head of NAU’s Zürich office, also worked at Studio Daniel Libeskind where he led the change to computer-based design practices. Oliver Zeller, a former full-time writer, turned NYC based VFX designer and director. Pia Habekost focuses on the connection of branding and spatial and event design, acting also as the mediator between art department and production on big scale events such as film premieres. The partners of NAU are teaching at various international universities. NAU has offices in Zürich, Berlin, New York, and Los Angeles. Advertising and events projects are developed under their American based affiliate adNAU.