Interview: Architect Garrett Ricciardi Thinks About Materials in a Whole New Way

Meet one of the brightest young minds in the world of architecture.

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Complex Original

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Good design communicates a clear message, whether it's raw and in your face or minimal and understated. It should evoke a reaction from the viewer and make him or her understand what it is conveying. It is an exercise in form and meaning, working to improve the world with what it sets out to accomplish.

Garrett Ricciardi, one of the architects behind the firm formlessfinder, is exploring the possibilities of form and function by creating architectural experiences that provoke responses from all who encounter them. We sat down with Garrett to learn about his background and how it sculpted his beliefs in creating designs from the materials around us. Check out the full interview with a young architect who is questioning all the systems of architecture and rewriting them as he creates his own solutions.

Interview by Brett Golliff (@bgolliff)

Where are you from and what do you do?

I’m from New Jersey, and I studied Fine Arts at Cooper Union for a Bachelor’s [Degree] in Science and Arts, which is a small school in New York City. I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, but it’s a very small program that only has three schools. One is in Fine Arts, one is in Architecture, and the third program is Engineering. It’s a small collaborative school where all those disciplines come together.

Then, after studying mostly sculpture, I had a fellowship to the Whitney Museum of American Art and had an art studio practice mostly exploring through concepts and the history of design practice, interested in architecture and American industrial design. I started, from there, working for a man named Vito Acconci, who was working between the disciplines of design, art, and architecture. That’s really where I got interested in architecture.

[Acconci's] interested in products, so we were working on different scales, from public works to designing a strange spoon or new idea for tableware. That kind of opened me up to the possibility of actually making designs. Really, I was interested in things that could be built on a large scale and that could interact with public spaces. I like that scale, so that’s why I was interested in architecture. I went to architecture school and my current design practice is in collaboration with another designer named Julian Rose. He, too, is from an art background, so we hit it off right away because we’re two people getting interested in design and architecture but both have a creative background in the arts, which, in our minds, let us think about architecture in a different way.


Is that rare, in architecture, to have a fine arts background?

I think there are a number of architects with an art background, and I think a lot of them come from more of an aesthetic practice. Our interest was a little bit more theoretical, probably, because of the art that we were interested in and our education and what we had learned. That was an opening for us to say, “We do like it. We’re certainly interested in the aesthetics of things, but how could you bring theory into this and rethink maybe aesthetics that haven’t even been though about in architecture?”

So, you’re challenging a lot of parameters then within your style?

I think from the beginning that was part of the idea—What new ideas can we bring into architecture?—pretty much on the perspective of challenging known ways of building and take new ways of how things look.

In a way, architects are really challenging the way we build buildings. It’s not about creating a new office building or anything like that, but rather creating the way we inhabit and function within structures. Is that a good way of saying it?

I think that’s a great way of saying that. I think function is definitely something [that’s part of it]. You may look at what we make and say, “I don’t know if these guys are interested in function at all.” We’re very interested in function in the same way an industrial designer would say, “Well, I don’t want to just design a spoon that functions like every other spoon," or with shoes, “I don’t want to make an experience that everyone already knows,” but instead, "How do I rethink materials or the shape or the engineering of those materials that we have to make a spoon or shoes in a way that the user has a completely new experience?" We’re always looking into how materials can make the experience of architecture something new.


You’re bringing in a lot of materials that aren’t necessarily man-made and forming them into something else. How have you applied that process to your projects?

One of the areas of materials that we’ve become experts in is working with loose materials—things that you would use in the construction of buildings, usually not for the inhabitable space. You might use dirt or sand in the foundation of your building, but then you would cover those things up for on-sale or cheap materials. A recent project we did was in Miami. They have a lot of difficulty because there’s a lot of sand there, and they have to add all sorts of additional structures or foundation work to buildings to even make them work in sand. Instead of working against that or seeing a loose material like sand as a nuisance, we inverted that and we took the sand and used it to help make the building we designed stand up. Instead of using concrete, we used sand, and sand has all sorts of recreational uses so it became a place for people to relax on or play on. Kids were building sand castles literally out of the materials that hold up the building.

This project was on ArchDaily a few months back, and it was really unique and inspiring in the sense that it was so raw. It was just so pure and to the point. What was the overall impression of the people who saw it?

I think when you make challenging designs and you show off materials and the process used in a different way, you always get the full range. You get someone who says, “I don’t get it,” or “I could do that,” or “It doesn’t make any sense.” Then on the other hand you have people that are studious, and they say, “Wow, that’s new and I’ve never seen it.” And then you get people who have a background in design, and they appreciate it in a different way, but throughout the whole range of responses, I think as people used the structure, they started to understand that it wasn’t a gimmick or wasn’t trying to do something for the sake of it but that the sand part of the structure. It was really integral to making the new building experience. I’d say through that project, we were very happy with the response. We certainly see the full range of response, but that comes from doing anything new, like new sneakers that come out or new cars that come out.


Can you describe the process, as well as the challenges, of creating a proactive look?

Usually when we start a process, and this comes a little bit into the name of our firm, formlessfinder, we work from a lot of found processes and materials. A lot of architects now might start with either a shape they like or a form that they like, and I think what we’re trying to do is start from the material and the process and say, “If you really look at those materials in their natural state, what type of new architecture can come out of it?” So, many times, we don’t even have a sort of image in mind of what will come out of it. I think that’s more of our process. When you don’t know what’s going to come out of it, it’s usually unexpected. We certainly understand the history of architecture and aesthetics, and we want things to look pleasing in the end, but maybe unexpected at the same time.

So it's a little bit of form follows function, and then once you know the rules you can kind of break the rules, correct?

Exactly. I think that the way you put it is pretty perfect. When you start using materials that are typically thought of as architectural materials, then you’re going to end up with things that don’t conventionally look like architecture. That's always the unexpected part of our process. 

Can you speak on anything you’re working on or are inspired by right now?

There are a couple of areas and new projects that I can’t mention by name because there’s a sticking point until you sign the contract for that press release, but there are two directions we’re currently working on with this project. One is a more experimental direction. It started working with a number of interesting physicists from the University of Chicago. These are people who studied, for the last 30 years, the way loose materials can make structure. But they’ve always worked at a very micro scale, understanding what a grain or a teaspoon of sand does. So we’ve started exploring some kind of research projects with a number of scientists who studied the materials that I’m now interested in. And then on the other hand, we’re actually designing a bookstore in New York City for a fashion designer and a magazine, so we’re getting into retail and primitive projects at the same time.


Can you speak on the global impact of architecture? Sneakers, for example, have such a global interest. No matter where you are, somebody will always react to your footwear and want to know what you’re wearing. Do you have a similar feeling about architecture, or is it more of a regional thing?

I think architecture is always trying to deal with both of those things. It’s such a global practice now, and a lot of that has to do with technology and the way things get made. For example, no matter where you’re building a facade, a lot of those parts come from very specialized manufacturers, so you may need to source things from Germany or Italy or China for a building that goes in North or South America.

Even the production side is global, and I think that has architects working in a lot of new and interesting ways. You just have to think globally in architecture. And then on the local side, you’re always going to have some kind of local concern. Buildings at some degree need to fit into their surroundings, so there’s always that local side. I think through our work one thing that we’ve tried to emphasize is that instead of a local style—like this type of building fits into Southern California and that type of building fits in to Florida or France—through looking at materials, we always find an interesting way to make architecture that’s always local. So, for example, in working with a material like sand or gravel, those materials are found all over the world, so if you build structures with them, they always feel appropriate.

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