Modular Building at IdeasCity New York.

A Conversation with Thomas Lommeé of OpenStructures.

As the official design partner of IdeasCity New York, the New Museum's civic platform, A/D/O will present a selection of projects conceived, designed, and fabricated in our Workspace, ranging from sculptural explorations to product prototypes.

Kelli Anderson, Casey Doran Lewis, Aqeel Malcolm, and Mogollon will each present projects they've developed as members of the Workspace – making use of an assortment of design tools, including a digital loom, laser cutter, 3D printers, and CNC routers. Their work, which interleaves work in graphics, products, textiles, and new approaches to performative display, will be part of the IdeasCity program that will take place in Sara D. Roosevelt Park on September 16.

The diverse range of speakers, presentations, and exchanges will take place in three distinct arenas throughout the park. Arranged into modular structures designed by Thomas Lommeé and Christiane Högner of OpenStructures, the very architecture of the space will recapitulate the themes of urban dynamism, technical flexibility and reuse. Lommeé talked about the system during an early stage of assembly prior to IdeasCity.

Originally presented in an exhibition in Belgium in 2009, OpenStructures was released along with a website where users across the globe could download plans and contribute their additions to the system.


"It's about learning and the network effects derived through exchange, as well as making it easier for people to repair and adapt – to lower the threshold needed to design and construct," Lommeé said. "We use the 4x4 as the basic module. Then take the diagonals, and you get assembly points. That's where you drill. At first we thought: the hole has to be exactly 5mm, or 10mm, but then we realized it's not about the hole, it's about the bolt. The bolt has to be M5, M10. Then if you drill a hole that's 5mm it's tight, whereas at 5.5 it's looser – and you need that freedom for specific designs. But if you always have the same bolt, that makes for an easier exchange."

The parameters of building in OpenStructures are gathered together on A3 paper in a text they call The Manual. On the back it has a schematic of the grid, with its dimensions and matrix of mounting points, and on the front, the principles of constructing as a manifesto-like text.

"I thought, this is going to grow from the outside in. We just have to make a platform, and people would upload and post ... But I realized that's not really how it works. You have grow from the inside-out. It's a bit too complex, too difficult, to start working with it from scratch. In our studio, every three months we have two new interns. And three days a week they help us and one day a week they can build their own project from the grid – building on previous designs, or developing their own things. And those are the people that really advance it further."

As contributions developed in complexity and character, and issues of appropriation by unseemly agents became apparent, protecting the open-ness of OpenStructures required vigilance. "Originally it was about sustainability, because modularity is very much linked with sustainability. And now we're at a stage where we're thinking about how to organize an economy around it. What are the terms of use, how do you partition ownership,” Lommeé recalled finding the right balance twisting his forefinger and thumb, as if homing in on the right frequency on a radio dial: “The grid is an open language – like HTML. But each designer can choose how to protect his or her design. It was a very broad definition ... Now we're in the process of refining that: how do we make it open enough that it allows for procreation, but how do we also keep it closed enough to protect against misuse."


Like Enzo Mari's Autoprogettazione, a system for self-made furniture without cuts or joinery, OpenStructures has a raw, just-enough quality: "They’re both very rough and very honest. [Mari], like us, also wanted the user himself to start building. And I think that's why you end up with the same kind of aesthetic, the same kind of vocabulary."

Within the context of the New Museum's IdeasCity platform, the main concern was efficiency and deployment. The commission in New York had specific requirements: it needed to accommodate 300 people, and be assembled in six hours.

"IdeasCity was looking for an infrastructure that had the flexibility to adapt to different kinds of situations, to adapt to different sites. For example, in one place they might need forty modules of one type, and somewhere else they might need one big conference infrastructure. The best context is where there is a big need for adaptation, and in circumstances where things don't need to be too precise. Modularity works well for simple objects, but less well for objects that need to be hyper-specialized. A racing bike, for example, you don't want to be modular. But exhibition spaces, for example, are perfect. A lot of simple objects that have a short lifespan, that can be easily adapted and taken apart and stored."

With precursors including Marcello Nizzoli’s plan for the Italian aeronautics exhibition of 1939, and Joseph Müller-Brockmann’s flexible modules for exhibits proposed in the 1950s, grid-based systems for interior design have an historical resonance with architects and graphic designers alike. Lommeé isolated his main influence as Ken Isaacs, an American whose modular system was more explicitly democratic and came more from a Whole Earth Catalog-inflected place in the burgeoning do-it-yourself ethos of the mid-century counterculture. Isaacs, who was Head of Design at the Cranbrook Academy of Arts in the ‘50s, developed a matrix-based system to build "living structures" – he published its manual in 1974, How to Build Your Own Living Structures.

"A lot of designers were making modular systems, but [Isaacs] made manuals. And for him, the manual was really the design itself. As I say, design the kitchen rather than cooking the meal. Society is pushing us in the direction where we don't have to do anything anymore. We don't have to be able to read a map anymore. Maybe in some years we don't have to drive a car anymore, it's all done for us. And I'm not sure that's making us happier. With this project I'm also trying to go against that. It's facilitating improvisation."

Designs, OpenStructures conference structure - for Ideas City NYC by Thomas Lommée & Christiane Högner with assistance from Lola Conte & Clémence Althabegoïty. Images courtesy OpenStructures.

Lead image by Iwan Baan courtesy Ideas City.


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