A Virtuoso of the Virtual: Ammar Eloueini & Digit-all Studio
By Allison Krier
Technology is nothing without creativity, and the ability to adapt technology inventively to best harness material resources is rare indeed. Digit-all Studio (AEDS), founded by the French-Lebanese architect Ammar Eloueini, synthesizes a progressive technical process with ideas on form and materiality for unique architectural and spatial outcomes. He is among a recent generation of architects whose technological approach strives toward a new paradigm for design methodology. And Eloueini’s independence from larger and corporate firms has created a spirit where experimentation flourishes. His projects have largely been limited to interiors, installations and chair designs, including a high profile series of international boutique interiors for Issey Miyake’s Pleats Please line, but it was not until this summer that he realized his first ground-up project, J-House, on a New Orleans city plot.
As an emerging architect with a fledgling practice, Eloueini experimented with polycarbonates, which, in possessing both structural integrity and transparency, can be adapted multifariously in architectural settings. They are also fully recyclable. As a medium, their rigidity establishes a base for the formation of geometric configurations. Pieces are cut from sheets and hinged or fixed together in discrete or dramatically layered sculptural formations that might be undulating, angular, or appear fractured or folded. Its adaptive capacity to either reflect or pass light through produces degrees of luminescence as well as depth and ambience depending on how pieces are layered, angled and lit. Early models utilizing this material, such as the MU Chair (2004), were simple, makeshift even, with rectilinear panels and zip ties in lieu of joinery, but nevertheless strikingly modern and chic. His installation in 2005 for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s end of year fashion show accentuated the material’s fluidity. Angular-cut pieces of polycarbonate were assembled to create sinuous and swelling panels. Inserted between massive green marble columns and amongst the other classical motifs characteristic of a grand traditional stage, the sleek, gleaming, shroud-like panels provided an appropriate backdrop for modern fashions and fed the desire for a contemporary, dazzling spectacle. These experiments and others adapting polycarbonates to various geometries, such as the installations for Le Tramway for the Pavillon L’Arsenal in Paris (2008) and for the Grand Arts in Kansas City (2005) set the groundwork for more sophisticated interior projects.
A serendipitous encounter in Paris in 2001 proved to be a fortuitous one. As the story goes, Eloueini was installing an exhibition at a gallery in Paris at the same time the Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake was opening a boutique nearby. As Miyake walked past, he became more and more intrigued by what was evolving within the gallery, and so he finally went inside, and approached Eloueini. Kismet. Miyake’s fashion designs, unlike the tailored silhouettes of traditional Western clothes, interpret the freer structure of the kimono and rely on the materiality of the fabric to create shape as it drapes the human body. He often makes his own fabrics. With his Pleats Please line, the multiple sharp strategic creases of fabric establish the silhouettes. The genius of Miyake lies in his pointed ability to conceptualize the precise manipulations to create volume and texture. Simple ideas that engender complex interpretations. Similarities between the approaches to their respective disciplines offered fertile ground for Eloueini to execute his concepts. In 2004 in Berlin, he constructed his first boutique interior for the Pleats Please line. The recurrent polycarbonate partitions provided the setting for the Issey Miyake-clad mannequins, the first time this grade of polycarbonate was used for a permanent architectural installation. Although the project offered opportunity for experimentation, part of the challenge is to toe the line and produce a design suitable for a luxury fashion brand. The design must highlight the product and not compete or distract from it. It must be viable in the commercial space, yet also be artistically challenging. A year later, Eloueini’s design for the Perpignan boutique in France opened, hewing to a very similar strategy regarding interior and materials. After the success of the first collaborations, Eloueini was enlisted for additional interiors, including stores in Toulouse (2008), the Printemps department store in Paris (2011), and the Harvey Nichols department store in London (2012).
Eloueini, currently based in New Orleans and on faculty at Tulane, was in New York in early May to participate in Columbia’s student architecture critiques. We met at the Hudson Hotel for coffee to discuss his work, ideas on process, and future prospects for his studio. Of particular interest: the overlapping concerns of fashion and architecture, including how design issues, structural and spatial among them, hinge on the human body, its shape, presence, kinetic life. Eloueini, while drawn to Miyake’s flowing yet structured garments, is also taken with the designs of Azzedine Alaia, whose garments of the 80s and 90s fit snugly over the wearer’s figure. Their elasticity accentuates the contours of the body, and while their hyper-feminine or über-sexualized qualities sometimes take center stage, at their essence is an emphasis on the crafting of form. Each piece of a garment must be cut and sewn with precision, each seam must be executed properly for the desired fit. Eloueini sees fashion as an inversion of architecture, reacting specifically to the shape of the individual body, whereas the envelope of an architectural interior as well as the exterior strategy of a building must accommodate the activities therein of a person or generally people.
My own historical studies on the connection between fashion and architecture examined the earlier years of Modernism. Many young women interested in artistic professions, which were judged appropriate for their ‘fair’ sex, were educated in so-called women’s work – sewing, dress, the home. These pioneering women inventively and adeptly translated these skills to architecture and interior design. Their expertise with textiles, and adeptness with colors, patterns and structural concepts was fundamental to the advancement of the modern interior. Women such as German designer Lilly Reich, whose fashion background and gift for exploiting the sensual aspects of materials figured significantly in her collaborations with Mies van der Rohe, made critical contributions to defining the twentieth-century interior and modern living.
Eloueini’s designs for the recent London and Paris Pleats Please boutiques make his evolution evident. These as well as commissions for other commercial projects and residential renovations showcase further examinations of process as well as fresh explorations with space and finesse with materials. With this superior fluency, Eloueini commenced to implement his ideas at a more ambitious scale and broaden his practice, a conceptual and technical sophistication that had clearly coalesced in his 2011 design for Pleats Please in the Printemps department store. Multifaceted fixtures double as storage and delineate space while providing a neutral yet distinctive backdrop. They are as much an illumination of the relationship between furniture, interior space and architecture as they are a practical retail design solution, harnessing mass production so that the pieces can be deployed for other branded environments. The fixtures are also easy to move, facilitating spatial variation. The sculptural and stylized white surface is simple, but unique as well, in its staging of Miyake’s garments and accessories. These fixtures were instrumental in another Pleats Please in 2012, within the Harvey Nichols department store.
Eloueini’s mastery of digital design tools plays a key role in his craft. That being said, computer software design programs have become the modus operandi in most design disciplines and especially in architectural practice. CAD (computer-aided design) and CAutoD (computer-automated design) are the primary programs for architects alongside animation software, reflecting visually on reality while driving efficiency in the design and production process by clarifying the three-dimensional objective. Eloueini additionally utilizes another program ignored by most in the profession, CNC (computer numeric controlled) machinery, used mainly in the manufacturing sectors. This program enables precise cuts for materials by funneling the drafting software diagrams – CAD and CAM - into a numeric system (X and Y axis as well as Z for depth), in order to establish the very specific steps required to produce exact cuts for uncommonly designed forms. By involving this program in the design process, Eloueini smartly converges concept, drafting, fabrication and materials, so that he may execute the harmonious geometric forms inherent to his designs.
Eloueini’s investigations stretch beyond mere digital maneuvering and manipulation of polycarbonates toward architectural accomplishment, enabled at least in part by his close relationship with Chicago Scenic Studios, the fabrication studio he worked with exclusively for the polycarbonate projects while based in that city. The studio’s adeptness with CNC router machines sparked a special dialogue between designer and design, and heightened the rapport between designer and fabricator.
During that afternoon at the Hudson, the optimal exploitation of materials was a recurring theme. Many architects and designers are practiced at resourcing materials, learning specs, and choosing what’s appropriate, possessing an overall knowledge of material properties, but Eloueini’s fusion of technique and artistry cultivates a truer comprehension.
Eloueini’s CoreFab chairs, developed in roughly 2006-2009, explored the capacity of animation software not so much to create an accurate virtual prototype, but to study the full extent of how digitized motion software can generate new methods of developing and manufacturing 3D objects. A digitized layering of pattern can be employed in rendering the chair form–a stylized adaption of a familiar curved silhouette, re-imagined in a technological context. Subsequently, when the design is animated and slowed to series of movie-still-like frames, subtle alterations in pattern and form emerge. The process is reminiscent of the late nineteenth-century photographic experiments of Edward Muybridge, who inspired motion pictures by dissecting each moment of a captured action and reassembling the sequence to simulate motion. Each frame for the CoreFab chair is then fabricated by means of a 3D printer. This produces a veritable family of chairs. They share the same DNA–the original construct–but slight variants occur, as they do with brothers and sisters. No two are exactly alike.
This experiment, and a resulting chair, found its way to the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) exhibition Design and the Elastic Mind in 2008, and with that, a connoisseurship conundrum arose. Which brother/sister would be the most desirable to exhibit and collect? What should be the criteria? Is the first one produced the most important or is there variation among the set that makes a particular chair more appealing? These were questions that Eloueini and MoMA design curator Paola Antonelli pondered. Which chair would go to the MoMA exhibition and be a part of their permanent design collection? Eloueini lined the chairs up in his studio and asked several friends and colleagues which one they deemed best, most captivating. Each person expressed compelling assertions. In the end, Eloueini picked the one he himself favored most, CoreFab#116_25. The 2008 exhibition was an early venture showing 3D printing capabilities. With this technology rapidly advancing and becoming more commonplace, standards for the most favorable criteria will be propelled by evolving cultural attitudes, societal needs and desires, all yet to be identified.
J-House is a culmination of Eloueini’s earlier projects. New materials and configurations are tailored for the specific site and at the desired residential scale. Designed as his own home, post Katrina, on a typical residential New Orleans shotgun lot, thirty by a hundred and fifty feet, the house stands on stilt-like foundation footprints, elevating it ten feet above ground, a requirement for a location in the Louisiana Gulf Region, nine feet below sea level. The elongated site accommodates the house and a small guesthouse, as well as a svelte swimming pool in between the structures. The prefabricated two-tube steel frame pieces were assembled on site, and each tube is rotated ninety degrees from one end to the other, enabling maximum support on minimum footprint. The arrangement of the cut steel tube pieces forms a dramatic twisting rectangle spanning the whole length of the home, with expansive windows at front and back for panoramic views. This innovative design, including a diagonally cut skylight carved out of the structure and roofline, provides for optimal natural light. The steel frame is clad initially with plywood and reinforced with a carbon fiber skin that manages extreme weather conditions and serves as an effective waterproofing agent. Additional waterproofing is added and the exterior is then finished with charred cedar planks, creating a rain screen and establishing an updated aesthetic of domestic warmth, a symbol of home intertwined with a radical sculpted form and forward thinking twenty-first century construction materials and technologies. The cuts for the steel tube pieces for this complex structure could only have evolved from Eloueini’s rigorous, multifaceted years of experience and innovation.
As Eloueini offhandedly sketched the particulars of J-House on a napkin, he shared some of the ordeals he experienced during this debut ground-up project. The building of J-House in an unassuming residential neighborhood, in an area devastated by natural disaster, where social and political attitudes lead locals to consider progressive and contemporary architecture less than a priority or even suspicious, not to mention a city government infamous for corruption and tangles of red tape, is certainly a coup and was many years in the making. The struggle for modernity and individuality often clashes with long-established norms. With that in mind, it appears Eloueini has delivered a domestic dwelling that albeit remarkably contemporary seems to be compatible in situ.
J-House has brought a raft of new collaborations and commissions for Eloueini. With projects looming in Tasmania, like the upcoming DWKK house in Marion Bay for a wealthy client, he will continue to develop. The marriage of ambition and technology is often at the epicenter of progress.
All images courtesy Ammar Eloueini and Digit-all Studio