Continuing our coverage of Chamber Gallery’s architectural exhibition “Unpacking the Cube” curated by Andrew Zuckerman, Architizer met with David Leven and Stella Betts of New York-based architecture firm Levenbetts at their studio in Chelsea to hear about their contribution to the show.
Asked to produce a series of objects reflective of its conceptual process in relation to the cube as an architectural guide and symbol, Levenbetts worked with a single shape derivative of a cube to create a series of architectural scenarios in the gallery.
Installation views of not to scale at Chamber Gallery
Entitled not to scale, Levenbetts’ contribution features the repetition of a single shape, a trapezoidal hollow form composed of super-thin, ultra-high-strength concrete that the pair has been developing for their recent work. This concrete trapezoid has been stacked and grouped in several different formations throughout the room, calling to mind seating arrangements, partitioning systems and even buildings.
Visual rendering for not to scale
“By flipping, mirroring, rotating and shifting this one shape and by scaling it up and down, infinite configurations can be made and a myriad of human interactions can be supported,” explains the architects’ exhibition statement. Indeed, the possible configurations for this shape extend beyond their physical implantation in the space, and a whole spectrum of permutations are reproduced in a series of illustrations displayed on the gallery wall. These illustrations are deliberately devoid of context or scale, calling on the viewer’s own imagination to envision the formations’ sizes and purposes.
Drawings from not to scale
For the design duo, this experimentation with the versatility of architectural forms is deeply embedded within their design philosophy, which posits that “space can be shaped in relation to a range of factors that are independent of the specificity of program.” Levenbetts’ work demonstrates an acute awareness of its surrounding environment, where the architecture is made to dissolve in its effort to deepen the inhabitants’ relationships to outside space.
“Architecture can be formed in relation to factors that are external to itself yet brought into the realm of the building through visibility, form and light,” say the architects, and their work for “Unpacking the Cube” distills and communicates this idea on a scale that is both tangible and accessible. In the studio with Levenbetts, David and Stella unpack this dynamic in more specific terms in relation to the exhibition and their practice at large.
Visual rendering for not to scale
How did you begin experimenting with the shape you developed for “Unpacking the Cube”? How did your experience in applying this concept to the parameters of the exhibition generate new possibilities in your broader practice?
The investigation of the Chamber building-block shape (a right trapezoid with a 60-degree angle open on two ends) began when we were starting to design a house in upstate New York called ‘CC02 House’ that is currently under construction. We were interested in the idea that each room would occupy this shape and that the shape would rotate and open up to different views privileging either east, west, north or south and by extension morning light, afternoon light, direct light and indirect light, etcetera.
Visual renderings for CC02, Columbia County, New York
When we started to work on the Chamber show, we worked with this same shape, but we considered it at the scale of furniture. So we began to think of it in 12-inch-high (or 24-inch-cube) sizes that would allow the pieces to, one, be able to be moved by one person and, two, when aggregated, have dimensions of furniture (12-inch stool, 24-inch seat and 36-inch-high counter). At the same time, we started to look at the pieces in multiple applications: as a wall unit and hanging from the ceiling. And then we jumped scale again and saw the assembly of pieces as building models. Hence the title “Not to Scale.”
Can you expand on your interest in blurring the boundary between architecture and environment, particularly natural environments? How is this concern reflected in your design approach?
Basically, the [shapes] of the pieces open up to the outside but prioritize one of the open ends simply by the fact that one end is wider than the other. In the case of the CC02 House, the spaces either have glass at the two open ends of the shape or are open as a covered outdoor space. So we were literally thinking about rooms outside. With the Chamber pieces, the blurring of inside and outside also extended to the ideas of where the pieces could be used. Working with ultra-high-performance concrete enabled us to design the pieces for interior and exterior use. As a result of this universal applicability, the pieces can be used as furniture, building blocks or landscape elements.
Visual rendering for not to scale
What value do you see in architecture exhibitions such as “Unpacking the Cube,” which focus on the design process as opposed to the more traditional way of presenting directly representational models?
We think that the exhibition at Chamber is really interesting in that it is more open-ended and not about specific buildings, but about ways of thinking about and conceiving space. Andrew Zuckerman is really posing the question “How can you collect architecture?” The show allows for pieces to be purchased that are not buildings, but they could be. Perhaps more importantly, they are the building blocks for how we begin to conceive of and assemble space and program and how that relates to a site or room.
Chamber is a unique and interesting gallery that positions itself as a design gallery. In some ways, Chamber is picking up where Max Protetch and Henry Urbach left off … We are interested to see where this new NYC gallery concept goes.
Installation view of not to scale at Chamber Gallery
Can you tell us a little bit about your office and your decision to work in Chelsea? How does this space inform your work?
We moved our office to Chelsea in 2001 because we wanted to be in the heart of the gallery district. And we have our office in a building with artists, designers and galleries. It is very inspiring.
Levenbetts’ Office in Chelsea; courtesy of Levenbetts
Both David and I came from non-architecture backgrounds. We were both Fine Arts majors in college and have always treated our office more like a studio. So it was important for us to situate ourselves in and among artists and galleries. In fact, that is how we met Andrew Zuckerman. He had his photography studio in the same building as us, and we began a friendship through a mutual interest in each other’s work. We frequently visit each other’s studio (we are on the third floor, he is on the seventh). This is true of other artists in the building, as well.