interview with gillian shaffer lutsko

Gillian Shaffer Lutsko, image courtesy of the architect.

Gillian Shaffer Lutsko’s works center around the question of how architecture should respond to the most pressing issues of our time: the ongoing climate crisis; broader understandings of individual and cultural identities; worsening economic inequality; and the societal and cultural impacts of new technologies on space and visual media. Her research has been supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ford Foundation, the Future Architecture Platform, and the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union. Gillian holds a Bachelor of Architecture from the Pratt Institute and a Master in Architecture from Princeton University, where she received a certificate in Media + Modernity. She is currently the Citizen Architect Fellow at the USC School of Architecture and the founder of the Los Angeles-based collaborative, slCollective.

LUCIJA ŠUTEJ: Your practice spans across the roles of a designer, architect, researcher and educator – what was your first introduction into the field of architecture?

GILLIAN SHAFFER LUTSKO: My grandfather was a draftsman who emigrated to the U.S from Romania with stops in Paris and São Paulo along the way, ending up in North Hollywood, California. He always had rolls of paper and drafting supplies around the house. He also hoarded construction supplies in a backyard shed for future projects.

In the summertime, when I would go visit my grandparents in the mountains near LA, there were not many toys to play with. Instead, we would draw elaborate floor plans on the paper and I would enact scenarios with paper dolls within the drawings. It was my grandfather’s dream to be an architect. It always sounded like a quintessential American story to me that my Romanian grandfather and my Brazilian grandmother emigrated to Los Angeles and he ended up working on the construction of Disneyland.

LŠ: During your studies at Pratt you also participated in ANCB Metropolitan Laboratory, run by Berlin-based Aedes Architecture Forum. The latter is an esteemed institution established by Kristin Feireiss facilitating dialogue on contemporary developments of architecture through close collaborations with different studios and universities globally. Has their approach to understanding and presenting architecture translated to your work as a curator and architect?

GSL: I would actually say I was influenced by Dagmar Richter, who led the program and was chair of Pratt Institute’s SoA at the time. We spent a lot of time together, both while I was a student and while co-teaching the program after I graduated. I was influenced by her radical pedagogies and ways of thinking about informal cultures and flexible space planning as an instrument for design. It was my first time working on an urban project, designing for actors and agencies, while also thinking about public space in its relationships to film, theater, art and music viewing, festival programs and the rituals of each as a paradigm for informal urbanism. This “event architecture” reorders our perception of the city and the institutions which democratize the urban condition.

At the same time, I also met a close friend and mentor – Alex Schweder – who works within architecture and performance art to investigate the relationships of occupying subjects and occupying objects. In “Your Turn” Alex and his partner, Ward Shelley, lived on either side of a 23 ft by 23 ft wall with interpenetrating elements of domestic activities. Each activity causes a reaction and interferes with the ability of the other to do activities simultaneously. Architecture is a spatial practice of relationships and concepts that affect us; it is not necessarily bound by its medium alone.

LŠ: How has your work in architectural offices in Berlin, Tokyo, Boston, and New York City influenced the formation of your office -slCollective?

GSL: Working in office environments has both taught me different skills and given me a wide range of perspectives on how architecture is practiced around the world. At J. MAYER H. and Laboratory for Visionary Architecture (LAVA) in Berlin, I worked mostly on competition teams and on projects for international clients, (sometimes I worked on writing). In New York, I worked between archival processes for an online platform, renovations and interior-focused projects in the city as well as speculative design competitions.

In Tokyo, Junya Ishigami + Associates was much more focused on craft and techniques of making – building things by hand as an instrument for design and translation into building. More recently, in Boston, at Höweler + Yoon, I worked through the drawing set of a cultural building built in Shenzhen, China and also led a team that conducted research and development on the future of work, adaptive reuse and resilience strategies for a tech company (kind of timed perfectly before the Covid pandemic as it imagined all the scenarios that played out).

Each office was a different example of practice, working in different cities and countries, and each project brought its own insights, both about design (conceptual and technical expertise) and about the business of how to deal with clients, project types, timelines, budgets, etc.. I wouldn’t say any one office shaped my work more than another or how I wanted to run the office, but collectively my experiences definitely informed my vision for slCollective.

LŠ: To what extent have the research and teaching at institutions such as USC Architecture, UCLA Architecture & Urban Design, Princeton, and Pratt Institute left impact on your practice and work?

GSL: For me, teaching has always been an opportunity for research. Universities are a vibrant place for pushing forward new ideas, developing discourse, and productive conversation. At the same time, teaching comprehensive core studios, like the long-span studio I just taught at USC, renewed my focus on the craft of building, detailing and structure. At UCLA Architecture & Urban Design, I co-taught a year-long graduate urban studio on the future of Los Angeles urbanism in the year 2050, which definitely informed the Salton Sea master planning.

I think the profession and academia go hand in hand. The profession advances through radical ideas incubating within academic institutions, but we also need the profession to really go out into the world to actualize projects and deal with the tangible constraints of realizing projects. These can be painstakingly difficult, but concepts do not really live until they get tested in practice.

Shaffer Lutsko Studio Final Review (2022).

LŠ: You are the founder of sl Collective – a practice operating on the intersection of architecture and design. Could you tell us more of its formation and mission?

GSL: I see the studio as a new model of practice that represents a more collective approach. A model where my collaborators and I can work and share as independently or closely as needed, across projects, scales, countries, technologies, and construction platforms. Through design-research we address important environmental and social issues while finding new types of projects and opportunities to build in. Since we are all academics and driven by design research, the projects often develop through research then interdisciplinary partnerships around the same concerns in our built environment. At the same time, we’ve also been fortunate to work on more typical architecture projects (residential and institutional commissions, etc.).

Proposal for Porte de Namur Addition, Brussels, Belgium. Credit: sl Collective (2020).
House for an Ambassador. Credit: Gillian Shaffer (2018).

LŠ: Could you tell us more of your current project in Salton Sea ?

GSL: Over the past few years I’ve been working closely with policy groups, scientists, community organizations and indigenous tribes to develop climate resilience for the Salton Sea at a master plan scale. Through this work we are attempting to visualize changing climate patterns, and associated social and economic impacts, while transforming public spaces to reflect values of shared resources, knowledge and responsibilities.

The project is inspired by Frederick Law Olmsted’s seven-mile long “Emerald Necklace” across Boston, and envisions a new mode of urban development which combines socially programmed “charms” and urban elements along a path connecting Albert Frey’s North Shore Beach and Yacht Club to the State Beach Recreation Area. The spaces created are flexible, reconfigurable and dynamic. New structures are simple and easily constructed, even off-the-shelf. Materials are humble, durable, and largely renewable or recyclable. Modular elements reflect community needs and institutions—from recreation to entrepreneurship, culture and the arts, energy, recreation and play, infrastructure, and environmental protection.

LŠ: The Salton Sea project will also be translated into an upcoming exhibition in Los Angeles.

GSL: The upcoming exhibition “The Limits of Visibility” is a presentation of the Salton Sea work and will be on view at the Lindhurst Gallery at USC in September 2023. It will include a 1:1 scale mock-up, urban and architectural drawings, physical models, representations, and overall exhibition design that my close friend and collaborator, Paul Ruppert, and I (along with some fantastic interns!) have been working on with support from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Coachella Valley Masterplan Site. Credit: Gillian Shaffer Lutsko (2022).
Coachella Valley Master Plan Research Team LiDAR Scanned, Credit: sl Collective (2022).

LŠ: Your varied and diverse practice encompassing theory and practice is also extended to the exhibition formats. Do you see challenges in architecture exhibitions in terms of translation of works and communication to the audience?

GSL: Yes, definitely. But also the gap in translation can be a productive means for abstraction. While working on the exhibition for this Fall, we are often thinking about how to bring the audience into the atmosphere of the project through representation. What are the qualities of the desert? How do we bring the multifaceted context of the region – ecological collapse, the issue of resource depletion, the repercussions of lithium mining, and the public health due to dust emissions – into the exhibition through models and drawings?

The project exists within intersecting urban conditions, and in the space of the gallery we aim to communicate exactly what that is and how design fits into the context. I think there’s also beauty in the intersection of telescoping scales – the scale of the exhibition, the scale of the site, the scale of the region, and as a prototypical urbanism for other areas facing desertification, scarcity of resources and technologies as it relates to the environmental crisis. Bringing that sense of shifting, unstable ground into the exhibition, and into the design, is one of the key challenges of the project.

LŠ: Would you consider working more actively as a curator as well?

GSL: Not explicitly. Although, when working on past exhibitions I suppose I have also played the role of curator. I always feel that how material itself is presented is as important as the material itself. I’ve noticed a lot of parallels with my design work: thinking about how visitors move through the space, mediating subject and viewer, detailing vitrines, abstraction and atmosphere.

Americas Foundation Construction. Credit: private client.
Americas Foundation Construction. Credit: private client.

LŠ: What other projects are ongoing in the studio?

GSL: We’re also working on a library and administrative office building in Mexico that is part of the Americas Foundation’s educational campus. Many of the buildings were originally built by the client in the 1970s with architectural references to Gaudi and Felix Candela’s concrete shell structures. It’s been a fast-paced construction, with a lot of challenges regarding the reliability of the site and craft-labor. We also took a short break to design metalwork for the amphitheater directly next to the library (the library will have a viewing deck that looks out to the stage for performances). It’s been rewarding to work on a project aiming to promote the visual arts, dance and music, and there’s also a lot of design freedom compared to similar projects in the US of same size, scope and typology.

We also have several ongoing residential projects at the moment. We’re very excited to be working on a new-build house in the Coachella Valley, and also we’re in the middle of construction on a house in Los Angeles. The city is in the midst of a housing crisis and therefore it’s a critical time to talk about densification in LA neighbourhoods through various housing types. This project builds on a single-family home (previously zoned as a duplex) by adding, subdividing and extending the former skeleton. We’re hoping this model will become more widely adopted in LA and that LA will reach higher density with more walkability.

LŠ: How do you see the current trend of architecture following the almost ‘fast fashion’ concept of aggressive building followed by demolition in 15 years – what changes do you see as vital?

GSL: This is on my mind a lot. Living in the US, you see lots of cheap stick-built construction that masquerades as architecture and you wonder how long all these developments will stand. On the other hand, building beautiful concrete buildings often results in large carbon dioxide emissions and extreme water usage.

Given that the fundamental problems are related to zoning, permitting and the societal demand for well thought-out, sustainable construction. I do think that circularity is the place to start. Re-circulate products and materials, and think about the whole construction lifecycle: where the materials are sourced, how they are brought to the site, and how waste is disposed of.

LŠ: How do you see the future of sl Collective?

GSL: Foremost, I hope we keep growing and getting exciting projects. We like wearing several different hats: design-research, materials and construction assemblies, while building at different scales and contexts. It’s difficult to predict where things are going given the climate crisis, the housing market, and the future of work that we saw in the pandemic. My feeling is that young firms these days have to be creative and think outside the box about these issues to find opportunities to realize projects, so we try to avoid being too dogmatic or rigid in our vision for the practice.

LŠ: Which contemporary architecture offices do you admire and why?

GSL: I thought I’d highlight some firms I love here purely for their design work: Sandy Attia and Matteo Scagnol of MoDus, Barrozzi Veiga, Anne Holtrop, LCLA, Buchner Bründler, Inches Geleta, and Sean Canty. As much as we’re focused on confronting real world issues, I also love design for great design’s sake.

It’s always inspirational to see beautiful work, especially when it gets built to a high standard and brings our attention to space.

Planetary Dust Circulation. Credit: slCollective, 2020.