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Immaterial Architecture

OL: When did you first discover nylon fabric, and was it love at first sight?

Quynh: Well I discovered my love of sewing as a young child. I believe I received my first sewing machine at the age of 11. Before that I sewed by hand and made clothes, dolls, and puppets. I was quite an industrious child — I always liked to use my hands. And even through architecture school I still managed to sew models and make drawings. I was fortunate to find teachers that really encouraged my interests. Then my work grew from models to full scale when I attended my first artist residency. This was  few years after practicing as an architect and for the first time I was realizing built environments economically — and with my own skills with fabric. With fabric I could cover large amounts of space with a student-friendly budget. Now I choose to use fabric as a contrast to the harder surface environment that we live in and to reassess what can be considered architecture. But I am certainly not completely exclusive to the use of fabric. I enjoy many processes. But frankly I really also just love to sew.

OL:  Tell me a little about Chapel for One. Was it site-specific or might you manufacture it again?

Quynh: Chapel for One was a bit of an attempt to explore some of my traditional and practical skills as an architect. I suppose calling the project a Chapel was the start of it but really it was bringing many of my interests to studio–the ideas of a contemplative space and a choreographed architecture and even the elements of digital fabrication technologies. The latter is a bit more of the practical approach as when I had started my studies at Cranbrook I was determined to do my work in an analog method. After years of working in front of a computer I really wanted to get my hands dirty again. But of course, I soon found out that I didn’t have to deny my inner architect, that I could use skills that I had been honing the last 5 years of working professionally (in front of the computer) in  my current work. I was really able to see the computer and digital fabrication as tools, much like my sewing machine was a tool to do certain tasks. If I did’t have those computer skills then these projects would have taken much more time and much more effort from many more people. And with Chapel for One I was also able to explore the more permanent materiality of a work, with the use of steel and stone. I felt as if I was giving myself a program for the site that I chose at Cranrbook on the Tritan Pools.

As for the non-pragmatic side of the project I was still interested in linking ideas of choreography and architecture. The stepping stone path was a way to direct one’s step and progression to the Chapel as it removed you from the land and led you over the water. It was staggered, so as to maintain a rhythm of precise footsteps. As you approach the Chapel, you’re forced to duck and humble your body through its threshold. Inside you find at a seat for one person. There you can sit and take in the sounds, the reflected light; the water is beneath you and you are directed to look up to the sky.

OL: And what have people reported feeling inside the space? What did you experience?

Quynh: I had a variety of types of feedback about the project but most commented on having a quiet place to sit and contemplate in one of the most formal of spaces on campus. I even had one person who asked if they could sleep in there for a night because they felt so comfortable in the space.

OL: Any interest in selling it in kits?

Quynh: No, but I suppose it’s possible. I think my initial urge to digitally fabricate it and laser cutting it was more about how I was actually going to build this complex shape. But because the project exists as a file, it can surely be executed again and again. Currently the Chapel for One has a permanent home at Copper Colored Mountain Art Center in Ann Arbor Michigan. It was installed last summer and this summer will be getting a new more permanent skin. They also tell me that a pond will also be built for it, so I’m looking forward to seeing that.

OL: Architecture, along with pottery, is the art that best weathers time: we have pyramids from the Old Kingdom but no music. Yet your own pieces are temporary by nature. Architecture is solid, yet your pieces float. How did your own process as an architect and artist evolve to locate you at this unlikely overlap?

Quynh: I tend to speak from the vantage point of an architect since that’s where my roots are; but I’m becoming more comfortable talking about myself as an artist. I’d practiced and studied quite formally as an architect, working in offices that did much more “permanent” work of building, but then when I took a  divergent path away from this traditional path (of building/working in a firm), I discovered that I really enjoyed those temporal and ephemeral moments and it was a way to more quickly study and do a work that responds to the immediate and built environment.

I really was interested in the experience of space and as an architect I always tried to envision how people would use the space and experience the architecture. But found it quite frustrating to wait so long to see the tested results of a building being built. I respect architecture and by no means am going away from it, I think I really carry it with me and view the world and my work through this lens. I’ve found that I don’t define architecture to be something solid — I am interested in immaterial architecture as well.

I was interested in being a bit more experimental with the questions I had for architecture. Practicing art, I was able to find a way to ask some questions through more temporal installations. So certainly I believe having the balance of art and architecture helped me question my own background as an architect. I am indeed still an architect to the core. I don’t think I can shake it.

OL: I notice your pieces are always white. Is there a significance to the choice or are you simply trying to blend them best?

Quynh: I think that I always choose white because I personally love white. But within the realm of architecture and art white does have significance: modernist white walls and also the blank slate of a white gallery. Honestly, this is not completely the reason, but it does have some bearing on my thoughts. I wish to not make white the default color but really the color that I choose. And I do think of white as a color.

But I have the strong desire to use more color, or other colors than white, and I’m looking at ways to do that with the next works. I think I am so familiar with white but that I have to work extra hard at coming to the decision of another color. Maybe this is about the desire to be precise.

OL: You’re in Germany these days. I’m always surprised by how German architecture tends to look alternately more permanent (ancient city walls) and more disposable (colorful postwar leggo-buildings) than American city architecture. Where has your mind been during this visit and what are you taking in?

Quynh: Oh it’s always so stimulating to travel and be in cultures not your own. That’s when we learn the most about ourselves, when we’re confronted with the unfamiliar and with the nuances of different cultures. I’ve been doing a lot of traveling these past two years, first in Switzerland last Spring and now I’m living in Berlin. I specifically traveled to Switzerland on a grant to see Swiss architecture and I truly have fallen in love with all things Swiss. There is such a care for design and context. I find that the architecture and the culture really do go quite hand in hand there. It was really a pleasure to experience such great spaces! For such a small country it has quite an impressive roster of notable architects and architecture. I even enjoy that they celebrate their arts on the Swiss Franc.

And being in Berlin is not like many of the other European cities that you picture, as it is not a medieval city. Berlin still feels like a very new city. It is still going through a kind of revitalization and its crawling with artists and openness. The history of the East and West divisions just over two decades ago is still a curiosity to me. What I have been thinking about is of course the architecture of the “Wall” and how it was such a symbolic divider of ideas, politics, and people. Thinking about architecture in this quite aggressive political way was extreme to me and also evokes the invisible wall that is still there in some minds. Like I say it is hard to shake the architect in me, It’s just how I see things.

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Quynh Vantu received her Master of Architecture from the Cranbrook Academy of Art and her Bachelor of Architecture from Virginia Tech in the US. Currently Quynh has the installation “Ease Labyrinth” at Grey Sheep in Berlin Germany until the end of August 2011 and will be an upcoming Artist-in-Residence at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. She will be exhibiting an installation in the upcoming show, “Body Building”, at Murray State University in March 2012.