Thinking outside - and inside - the box

H÷weler + Yoon marry innovative architecture and art

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Liza Weisstuch
Globe Correspondent / May 15, 2008

On a recent evening, architect J. Meejin Yoon sat in her Leather District loft sewing mats of turf together. "I just have one more stitch," she said.

Several squares of grass, each about the size of an album cover, had arrived in a cooler a few days earlier. Yoon had dutifully sewn them together to create a large panel, part of a vertical garden installation called "Parti Wall, Hanging Green" to welcome the American Institute of Architects conference that begins in Boston today.

Sewing wasn't the only work being done in the loft, which serves as architectural studio, office, and living space for the couple. Her husband, architect Eric Höweler, was taking a call from a client in China. Two other architects toiled at computers - one on a design for a home in Virginia, the other on a new glass installation in a building in Washington, D.C. Cardboard models, plastic mock-ups, circuit panels, and presentation boards lined with intricate graphics were stacked, stuffed, and suspended around the room.

Just how many projects does their firm, Höweler + Yoon Architecture, have in the pipeline right now? "I don't know. I lose track after 13," Yoon says with a shrug.

Given the scope of their projects, losing track is understandable. Some are small in scale and sublime. Yoon's designed everything from furniture to a dress based on a Mobius strip to a layout for an art exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum. Others are houses or mixed-use complexes, like a 30,000-square-foot building that will be built near the Shenandoah Valley, and a boutique hotel on the Rhode Island coast. Höweler was part of Diller Scofidio + Renfro when they designed the new Institute of Contemporary Art, and has several skyscrapers to his credit.

At just 35, Howeler and Yoon are rising stars on Boston's architectural scene. And with a reputation for thinking beyond the confines of traditional buildings and working with a variety of technologies, they are happily blurring the lines of architecture, design, and art.

"As much as the city is strong in preservation and more traditional form, it also has lively firms on the cutting edge - and they work internationally. Eric and Meejin are part of that network," said Susan Hartnett, host city convention director for the Boston Society of Architects. "We want to make sure people coming to the convention see the new Boston as well as the beloved old Boston."

The couple established Höweler + Yoon in 2005. It spun out of MY Studio, which Yoon started in 2001 and still maintains for their smaller exhibitions and installations. Some of their works are commissions, others are proposals, and others are, as they put it, "research."

"Sometimes we invent projects because we think a project should happen in a certain space," Yoon said.

"When no one is coming to you to do something, you find something to do," said Höweler.

A proposal for "Loop," an outdoor interactive installation at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York, for example, became the inspiration for a prototype of a rocking chair that makes as much use of negative space as it does surface.

Yoon, also an associate professor of architecture at MIT, was recently awarded a grant from Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in Fine Arts that will fund the publication of a collection of proposals for small projects related to the Big Dig. "Everyone is doing landscaping and there are all residual elements - ramps, stairs - that are left over that no one wants to deal with. It's an exercise of thinking of a residual site - like a lot - as landscape."

Broad thinking about landscape is central to "Parti Wall, Hanging Green," a collaboration with nine other architecture and design firms in the Boston area, that's on display through mid-June. The project involves a series of grassy panels suspended on cables down a brick wall of The 1850, a recently renovated building on Wareham Street in the South End. It's essentially a vertical lawn and, since more greenery equals more carbon offset, it's also a rallying cry for urban environmentalism.

Höweler and Yoon met in 1990 when they were undergraduates at Cornell. She received a master of architecture degree in urban design from Harvard's Graduate School of Design, then studied urbanism in Korea on a Fulbright scholarship. He continued at Cornell for his master of architecture degree then went to New York and worked for Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, then Diller Scofidio + Renfro. They married in 2002.

Sure, Yoon says, they fight all the time, and they admit that working on so many projects together may not be the most time-efficient practice. But they believe their individual skills and interests inspire each other to think more creatively.

Höweler, for example, has worked extensively in designing skyscrapers, and wrote a book, "Skyscraper: Vertical Now," published in 2003. Yoon doesn't have her husband's breadth of experience building towers, but her distance allows her a fresh approach to the process. The many works Yoon has created through MY Studio reveal her intrigue with public spaces and multimedia, which lends itself to playful riffs on technology and urbanism. "White Noise White Light," an installation constructed at the base of the Acropolis for the 2004 Olympics in Athens, involved a grid of fiber-optic stalks equipped with sensors that were activated when people passed, and bent and hummed in response.

The whimsical "White Noise" secured Yoon a commercial installation in Washington, D.C. But it also caught the attention of Anthony Pangaro, principal of Millennium Partners-Boston, who's overseeing the restoration of 179 Lincoln St., a building constructed in 1903. Pangaro first learned of the couple in "Design Life Now," the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum's 2006 Triennial, which was exhibited at the ICA last fall.

MY Studio's projects were selected for the show (selections were made before HYA formed), and Pangaro was impressed by the new media elements of the work. He commissioned the couple to design an installation for the building's six-story lobby. A series of woven, illuminated fiber optics will draw the eye up the historic atrium.

"We're anxious to have art that understands the architecture and acts with an understanding of the building," Pangaro says. "We want art that respects the building and at the same time shows itself off."

Brooke Hodge, curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, was part of the panel that selected MY Studio for the Cooper-Hewitt Triennial.

"We really liked how they're using new technology and creating spaces in public areas that the public can engage with," Hodge said. "They have a capability to think beyond the traditional building. They're definitely a firm to watch."

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