Formlessfinder Wants to Save Architecture From Itself

Formlessfinder hopes to free architecture from its biggest overarching obsession.

formlessfinder Design Miami pavilion
The firm shot to fame with its pavilion for Design Miami 2013. Instead of digging sand out to lay a foundation—as anyone building in Miami invariably has to do—the architects piled 500 tons of it to cantilever an aluminum roof. Photos courtesy formlessfinder, unless otherwise noted

“We like architecture,” says Garrett Ricciardi, with real sincerity. “We want to save architecture.” But from what? Ricciardi is one half of New York–based formlessfinder, the experimental—you might say radical—architecture firm he founded with Julian Rose in 2011,  just after the pair completed a joint thesis at Princeton University. Their project, which laid out the blueprint for Ricciardi and Rose’s subsequent collaborations, advanced a daring proposition: to liberate architecture from the constraints of form.

“The basic idea of the formless is about freeing up architecture to make it about what we want it to be about,” Rose says. “The idea is that form has sort of gotten in the way,” he adds, before checking off a laundry list of offenders: parametricism, digital fabrication, blobs, minimalism. Where form has “always served to limit and control,” the formless, as the architects have come to define it, is subversive by nature. It’s an operation rife with uncertainty, producing “messy, equivocal, and, most importantly, generative” results.

Their project’s claims were substantiated with choice bits of critical theory and excursions into art history. Ricciardi and Rose also devised several typological, structural, and material studies or “formless” processes, which they arrayed in the catalog style of McMaster-Carr (hence, the “finder” half of their assumed name). Some critics, however, failed to see the architectural applications. “We wanted to wear ‘I Heart Architecture’ pins to our final pin-up,” Rose recalls, as a way to preempt the anticipated criticism. “Our project can be misread, can be understood as critical in the wrong [sense], as critical of architecture,” he says.

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A giant mound of sand served as the sole structural support for the Tent Pile, the entrance pavilion designed by formlessfinder for last year’s Design Miami.

Things changed this past December. If there was anything of substance to take away from Design Miami, it was Ricciardi and Rose’s Tent Pile, a 500-ton mound of sand dumped rather unceremoniously on car-park blacktop. The sand, collected in a pyramid-like heap that knowingly echoed Robert Smithson, acted as a shapeless structural support on which the architects floated a razor-edged, trussed-roof aluminum canopy. Visitors snapped photos of themselves racing up the beachy incline, losing their drinks and sandals in the process. What might have been a puzzling academic exercise a few years ago was now trending on Instagram.

The architects had effectively reinterpreted a quintessential element of the city’s midcentury modern architecture—the cantilever—through paradoxical deletion. “If you’re building a new building in Miami, you are essentially digging into sand to create a false bedrock to anchor the structure,” says Ricciardi. A cantilever the size of Tent Pile would have required extensive concrete pourings, not feasible for a temporary installation. In place of the steel and concrete, Ricciardi and Rose introduced lots and lots of sand, the sheer accumulation of which obviated the need to excavate and lay a foundation.

formlessfinder's Julian Rose and Garrett Ricciardi
Julian Rose (left) and Garrett Ricciardi (right) met in graduate school at Princeton, where they collaborated on their final thesis. The project would become the basis for the formless strategies the duo now champion. Portraits by Soohang Lee

Tent Pile realized just one of a series of strategies the duo developed while still in grad school. The novel methodologies ranged from simple load tests to full-scale building proposals, with historic architectural precedents anchored to each. “We see ourselves as being very traditional in a disciplinary sense, in that we’re very invested in tectonics and representation,” Ricciardi says. In one project, the taut, vertical columns of Le Corbusier’s Dom-ino House are reimagined as sagging piles of “raw matter” including boulders and pebble aggregate. A design for a self-avowed “object-building” wrapped a giant Venturian duck (containing an auditorium space) in a crinkled, Gehry-esque “bag.” (“You don’t know you’re in a duck when you are.”) The architects’ entry for the 2011 MoMA PS1 summer pavilion was situated somewhere between the two. Called Bag Pile, the design arranged giant geotextile containers packed to the gills with loose materials into (vaguely) familiar architectonic devices like arches and vaults.

“Architecture is about some very fundamental things, like how can you hold something up with something else, and how can you put two materials together,” Rose says. This willingness to experiment with materials points to what formlessfinder calls “alternative efficiencies,” a concept the duo believes holds great promise for the practice and understanding of architecture. With Tent Pile, for instance, the truck driver who delivered the sand to the Design Miami site chuckled when Ricciardi and Rose placed their order—a measly 20 trucks’ worth. At the time, he had been working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to ship some 400 trucks of sand a day. Similarly, when researching materials for the MoMA PS1 submission, they were rebuffed by a supplier who said the geotextile was sold only by the acre. “Architects think they use a lot of material, but there are certain operations in the world that use so much more,” Rose says. “There are systems that are insanely efficient and cheap that architecture isn’t really tapping into because it sees itself as being separate.”

formlessfinder 2011 proposal for MoMA PS1 YAP summer pavilion
One of formlessfinder’s early proposals—a structure made of enormous bags of construction materials—was a 2011 finalist for MoMA PS1’s prestigious Young Architects Program.

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