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  • Kivi Sotamaa

AURA Transcripts

Transcriptions of my presentations at the three day Aura conference organized by Ali Rahim at University of Pennsylvania in 2007:

Participants: Hernan Diaz Alonso, Preston Scott Cohen, Ferda Kolatan, David Ruy, WIlliam MacDonald, Ali Rahim, Kivi Sotamaa, Lars Spuybroek


I will show a collection of projects and speak about a few of them, but before that I would like to make a few statements that are common to all my work. They all try to produce sensations which escape the intellect and appeal directly to the body. However, that is not to say that the work is non-intellectual, it appeals to our intellect differently. The enemy of my work would be any evidence of process, anything that tells a story and makes the project legible. Now, the political implications of this approach, which I think also Detlef (Mertins) alluded to in his introduction, will be interesting subject to discuss later on. In very general terms, I am interested in producing new architectural effects, new kind of stages for life that put people in new characters, which is where the political power of my work lies.

The predominant sensation of my work is an illusion of movement and I am constantly looking for new ideas for movements. An example of what a new sensibility of movement could be - remember David Byrne’s “Stop Making Sense”? There is a spastic dance that he does which suddenly made spastic sensibility of movement interesting and cool. It was a new sensation of a new movement. I believe people who think there are no new things in the world are wrong.

Something perhaps interesting about my work is that I am not after a singular aesthetic. An aesthetic is different from signature. Everybody has a signature, you don’t have to try to produce it, and if you write your name on a paper it’s going to be unique by its nature. And this is a little provocation for discussion for example with Hernan, who coins very specifically the [horrific and grotesque] aesthetic that he is interested in. I’m rather interested in trying to tune my aesthetic to the task at hand. I’m really, really intrigued by the difficulty of conveying an array of feelings through my work, from joy to aggression, desire, tenderness, or horror, because I believe that in any good hard rock band, you still need to be able to do a love song.

So here we go. I’m going to quickly run through projects organized according to the sensations of movement they evoke. I believe that a sensibility of the movement is embodied by the forms of these projects and that sensibility in turn produces an emotional response in the audience. The effects of the following projects range all the way from aggression to tenderness.

Spasm: Extraterrain is fiberglass furniture, inspired by manta-rays and the stealth bomber. The form of the surface is a mix of curves and folds resulting in a spastic overall sensation of movement as well as actually forcing that movement literally as you occupy it. The furniture does not adjust to you, you adjust to it.

Convulsion: This is a concert hall for Jyvaskyla, Finland, next to an Alvar Aalto building. The building is like an aquarium inside which there is a convulsion of polygonal structural elements which articulate the public spaces of the building. The wild filigree of lines creates an atmosphere for dynamic urban life.

Rumble: a couple of years later after Jyvaskyla, a large intervention in the heart of Helsinki, that consists of 6 large rhythmically organized steel structures that create changing intensities and densities of space. Intensities and densities are interesting to me as opposed to differences in type, because they operate more like our feelings. The ambition for the project was to design a provocation in the urban landscape and engage them in unusual cultural events and activities within the installation.

Twine: This bridge design essentially deploys a similar tectonic approach as Jyvaskyla or Intencities but towards producing a very different affect. Here the intertwining curves of the structural elements are flowing, sinuous and subtle.

Turbulence: Again, the same tectonic approach of linear elements articulating space, but the Chamberworks curves are wildly turbulent, wrapping all around peoples bodies, forcing them to negotiate their way through the space as if it where a dense forest.

Torrent: In all of these projects I try to involve my audience. A good example this is the design is a 2003 project for a pavilion at the Museum for 21st Century Contemporary Art, in Kanazawa. The curator Yuko Hasegawa said that she wanted me to produce a space in which people can escape from the museum, which is a little bit strange, since it is a very serene beautiful minimalist museum by Sejima. I thought that the appropriate architectural response was to create something that’s akin to a colorful exotic butterfly. The design consists of curving aluminum pipes and pleated red fabric by DuPont which create a torrent of red surfaces around a pool of “white caviar” in the center - soft lycra balls filled with microbeads. In order to enter the pool people had to find their way through the red surfaces. In the pool, you could rest on soft pillows, chill out, shielded from the rest of the museum, engulfed in this red voluptuous atmosphere.

Swirl: Vortex housing is a sensation of dynamic movement and exiting public spaces in the heart of mid-western suburbia located in Columbus, Ohio. The swirling sensation in the project is created by the choreographed effect of swirling forms together through flowing patterns on printed glass [DuPont Expressions] and laser cut aluminum panels.

Flow: Estonian National Museum competition is similar to an archipelago. The flowing “islands” become the exhibition galleries, surrounded by the “flood” of spaces surrounding them. Similar strategy of turbulent flow was used to design the spaces for this ARS 01 exhibition at Steven Holl’s Kiasma.

Drift: The NY Times Capsule explored the use of subtle drifting geometry in order to create a series of beautiful objects that have the capacity of adapting its form to its content while retaining their sensibility.

Billow: This is a design for the landscaping a shoreline in the city of Helsinki design by subtle manipulations of topography in order to create a landscape filled with program that meets the ocean in a multitude of different and exiting ways.

Ripple: The Toolo football stadium consists of three surfaces that ripple to varying degrees. The building is conceived as an extension of the park landscape and a site for a multitude of events and urban spectacles.

Hover: The most subtle of the projects I have shown so far is Multiplicities, done twice, once in Kiasma, and once in Fondazione Trussardi. In both cases it was an existing wall surface in which we introduced a deformation so subtle that it’s almost imperceptible. The definition of the form changes depending on where you look at it, what the lighting conditions are. The project is a reorigination of a cloud to a form.

What I have tried to do here is organize some of my work so you could experience a change in design sensibility in response to different situations and audiences.

Thank You.


‘One of my favorite quotes of all time, happens to be some of the same artists that Hernan showed pictures from, Francis Bacon, it’s taken from a book by Gilles Deleuze, called “The Logic of Sensation”, it says “It is a very, very close and difficult thing that some paints comes across directly to the nervous system and other paint tells a story in long diatribe through the brain”.

in 1996, when for the first time I was giving a lecture at the AA someone stood up and said “you are very, very good at making things look sexy”. I was incredibly flattered. Afterwards I realised that it was meant as a critique. But as it turns out, despite appearances, it is extremely difficult to produce something that seems sexy, immediate, that is transmitted directly, avoiding the detour of conveying a story. It’s much easier to make things seem difficult and complicated.

I’m obsessed with form - fascinated by nuances of form and how they perform, not so much in the ergonomic/engineering sense of the word but more in the theatrical sense of it. I am interested in the dramatalurgical powers of form – how architecture creates stages for life that put us into different characters. The moment somebody said that the torqued forms of my PS1 project look like Richard Serra sculpture. I thought - great! If I can take Richard Serra, which is about truth of material, war, a super-macho installation, and I turn his into a happy flowery fantasy for the PS1 summer crowds that would be an achievement. When Hernan saw the final result and said “That is the gayest project I’ve ever seen”, I was very happy. (crowd laughter)

Hernan: “That’s a compliment.”

I tend to think of projects in terms of movement, when I encounter a new architectural project, I think of it not in terms of geometry, but in terms of space and how a virtual movement might occupy it. Wolfling wrote a century ago that “painterly architecture acts through what it appears to be, that is, an illusion of movement” His idea of the painterly movement is exiting because it overwhelms the attention to the part and defies gravity therefore working against the “legibility” of the project, foregrounding more immediate sensations.

Rhythm is a subcategory of movement or related to it. It is another technique that I use in order to produce continuity over a larger whole, when you are not dealing with one single element or one single building, but one that consists of multiple parts a rhythmic continuity. The Intencities project deployed rhythmic organization of steel trusses in order to direct attention away from repetition and process towards changing intensities of rhythm.

One of the specific characteristics of form Wolfling discusses in length is lines – how a surface produces lines that either create an illusion of movement or works against it. Surface based projects such as the Extraterrain and aDrift New York Times Capsule use creases on the surfaces to produce lines that reinforce the sensation of movement. The creased lines begin and end through a gradient, like the lines of a quickly drawn sketch, as opposed to a contour line that call attention to edge, to beginning and end. Frank Gehry’s has spoken about trying to build the sketch and I think he finally succeeded when he moved to using titanium, because the reflection of the material make the quality of edge lines on the surfaces of his building appear fast and fleeting.

I tend to think of surface articulation in my projects as rendering packages. I don’t think of them even as terms of systems like apertures and panelisation, I think of them on a more generic level in terms of color, transparency, materiality, texture, bump and so on. For example, a pattern might inform both panelisation and aperture. I like to isolate the parameters of a surface on different layers and choreograph them so their interrelationships keep shifting. Here in Canberra Embassy a simple strategy of camouflage is used: The materials distribute themselves over the building incongruent to geometry which overwhelms attention to the part and creates a wealth of surprising combinations between the form and the materials. The opposite, and more commonplace, approach would be to take each one of the facets on the building skin and assign them with a distinct material. The principal of incongrunce is intriguing because produces complex results with the small amount of elements, reinforces a sensation of overall movement or formation, and makes the part and process difficult to read. Sorry Hernan, it’s such a bad image of your PS1 I took it from the web, and my point is not to say that the project is in any way bad but to illustrate a difference in strategy. Your geometrical primitives always have color applied in a hierarchical manner which makes the system, the generative process, and the species of the elements or parts clearly legible.

My PS1 projects – Flowers - is an example of the principle of incongruence put to use. The curving ruled surfaces of the ‘flower’ formations are painted with gradient colors so that they bleed from one surface to the other so that the color reflects from one surface to the other. The surfaces are perforated with patterns that run from one surface to the other, with sunlight they also create patterns light on the ground that are picked up by mounds of glass pebbles roughly the same size as the wholes. The system of pattern operates across the whole installation and is realized through multiple tectonic elements: perforations, light and shadow and glass pebbles. The Flowers create what I have entitled Synesthetic Kinesthesia - multiple systems that are incongruently organised, but aligned in their sensibility. The incongruence produces recombination and a sense of dynamic between elements [Kinesthesia] while the alignment in sensibility creates mixing associations between color, pattern and form [Synesthsia].

The enemy of my project seems to be any evidence of process, anything that makes project legible, any structural expression, anything that tells a story. This doesn’t mean - we had a good discussion with the students today - that I don’t want people to understand where the entrance of the project is, I want them to intuitively sense it. Although I wish to hide process I rely on processes. However, unlike my friends here, I’m more promiscuous in terms of my processes, I use physical from finding processes, digital processes such as particles, fluids, hair, all sorts of things; I am not driven by an experimentation of a technique but by the effects that my projects produce. How do you avoid evidence of process when using process? The project that raises the point is for a Snow Show in Finland, where there were 20 international artists and architects that collaborated. I teamed up with Brazilian sculptor Ernesto Neto. Our project was a process generated ice building – we build a giant bucket, filled it with water and let it freeze. Once the crust was frozen we poked a hole in it and the water at the core flooded out, creating a fantastic void inside. The result was sublime - so complex, that it overwhelmed any capacity to read the generative process. In other words, the effect of complexity is one way to obscure evidence of process.

The last thing I want to put on the table is representation. Deleuze wrote that that sensation does not happen in abstraction, nor does it happen in figuration [illustration], it happens at the moment of the figure - an inbetween state, where something oscillates between abstraction and representation. It seems to me that when surfaces become more and more articulated, more specific in that sensibility, they almost always start to become more evocative of something and approach Deleuze’s idea of the Figure. A number of my projects attempt to find that moment, their names, whether you like it or not, force the point; PS1 flowers, Orca, Extraterrain, Spanish Dancer. The names are never there in the beginning of the projects nor are they meant as a metaphor to justify the project. They are devices that make the work more accessible and evocative. The most literal example of my search for the moment of the Figure is a media art project entitled Roosa. It is an interactive projection using a very elaborate custom built software and webcamera. The projection is located in a private staircase of a collector and produces just an abstract lighting effect when no one occupies the space. When a person traverses through the staisr the projection goes from abstraction to an interremediate moment of the Figure, and then morphs into a recognizable young woman. It is precisely the moment in-between where the project is neither abstract nor representational that I try to capture in my work.


The things I am inspired by are not stories, ideas or concepts but effects and sensations.

If wasn’t an architect I would have become a marine biologist because of my fascination with the atmosphere, lighting effects and movement in the space of the Ocean. This video here is from Blue Planet by BBC showing dolphins surfing on waves and here’s another embarrassingly poetic and beautiful clip of a Mantaray flying through ocean while Maria Callas signs in the background.

Although I appreciate turns of plots, clever dialogues, but what I love are sensations of movement and space. Miami Vice was the first TV series that would show the reflections of a Ferrari wheel for minutes and just play music to it. Look at that! There are just a couple of words exchanged between the protagonists, and then it’s back to images of the reflections on the hood of the Ferrari for another minute or so.

Stop Making Sense by Talking Heads and Birds of Paradise from BBC’s Planet Earth are the next two clips. Both are about new sensations of movement. There’s a funny resemblance between the spastic dance of Byrne and some of the New Guinean birds that are trying to outdo each other by dancing. David Byrne made the spastic movement cool when he released this video. It’s was a completely new sensation of movement that suddenly entered main stream, it was an emergence of new aesthetic, a new possibility for movement, in a way I’m trying to do the same for architecture.

I’m simply looking for new feelings and new affects anywhere around me. I pay attention to all sorts of things; nature, fashion, film, music and design. The material I look are effects produced in other disciplines, which I then try to re-originate into my work, and architecture in general. SO, I am not interested in representing anything form another discipline but trying to figure out how architecture could produce effects that are kindred, say, to a composition by Aphex Twin. I call these sources to my work sensibility organizing diagrams or kindred morphs.

For the PS1 Flowers I looked at Jackson Pollack, David Reed, Richard Serra, Chinese ribbon dancing, bull fights, the movie Parapluis de Charbourd, Maya Lin, a bouquet of roses, and Frank Stella. For the Spanish Dancer I looked at a sea cucumber, a wasp and orchid, and a woman dancing Flamenco. For the Formations forms I looked at aerial images of dune landscapes and close up pictures of the human body. For the Extraterrain I looked at fighter jets, especially the Stealth Bomber, and various mantarays.

Naturally, I pay attention to other architects and designs as well. Here’re few of the most important ones: Tapio Wirkkala, who worked with Raymond Loewy, is one of the best designers that I know, and a master of the fluid form. Frank Gehry, Wolf Prix, Zaha Hadid all create sensations of movements through their forms; Gehry’s forms billow turbulently, Zaha designs create intensely directional flows and Prix’s designs often have a violently zigzagging movements. Greg Lynn was the first to begin working on sophistications of the surface articulations of the topological form, adding color and pattern to it.

The reason I am in the USA and not in Europe has more to do with American critics than architects. It took me a long time to turn my interest in material effects into serious architectural discourse. How to argue for example for the significance of atmosphere in architecture? How to talk about performance, not as engineering performance but as theatrical performance. Critics such as Jeffrey Kipnis at the OSU, Sylvia Lavin at UCLA and the late Herbert Muschamp at the NY Times have been a great inspirations and influences on my thinking on these issues. Herbert would always say that “it is all about the relationship between the inner and the outer worlds.”

To conclude, I’m interested in developing a sensibility towards formal and material effects, and their affect in the audience. I am trying to learn how to discuss these effects, not in a naïve, loose manner, but in a specific expert manner. For example, the way that an expert discusses the taste in wines, and is quite amazing in its precision. The wine descriptions in the back of bottles are quite poetic and ludicrous, but at the same time they are very good at using language in order to describe the nuances of effect that the wine produces. The reason conferences like Aura here at Penn, Seduction at Yale and Azul Rey in Mexico City are important is that they are an attempt to develop a serious expert discussion around material, architectural effects.


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