SO-IL’s office in downtown Brooklyn sits two floors up an unassuming building in a section of the borough deep in the throes of a development boom. Construction cranes rise beyond the broad windows of the studio’s open-plan space like flowers springing out of cracks in asphalt, their reds and oranges in high relief against the flat grays and browns of rising residential and office towers.
The area’s eclectic mix of squat storefront business and gleaming new high-rises is neither trendy-gritty nor corporate-shiny—it dovetails nicely with SO-IL’s overall ethos: a mix of hardy practicality and a willingness to push boundaries.
"We started the firm in 2008, right before it was clear how big the financial crisis would be," explains Florian Idenburg, who, along with his wife, Jing Liu, established the practice that fateful year. (SO-IL was once a portmanteau for "Solid Objectives – Idenburg Liu", but now stands on its own.) Idenburg had been working at SANAA, the Japanese studio led by the Pritzker Prize-winning duo behind New York’s New Museum building on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which opened in 2007.
After meeting in Japan, where Liu worked for international firm KPF, the duo decided to start their own business, quickly bringing aboard Ilias Papageorgiou, a student of Idenburg’s at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Papageorgiou became a partner at the firm in 2013.
It wasn’t long until SO-IL clinched its first high-profile, if small-scale, project: In 2009, the studio won the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 Young Architects Program commission to design a temporary summer pavilion for the open-air courtyard at the institution’s satellite gallery in Queens. The group’s cheekily named entry, "Pole Dance," won them fans inside and outside of the industry.
The scheme, a grid of 30-foot-tall poles connected by a net canopy, engaged several senses: each pole emitted a tone that visitors could control via an iOS app; brightly colored exercise balls rested in the net overhead and on the ground below for sitting, throwing, bouncing, and rolling; guests could splash around in a large inflatable pool at the center of the pavilion. And did we mention that the ground was covered in sand? It was hard not to be charmed by Pole Dance; it was downright fun, a jungle-gym writ large and an unpretentious meditation on how we use spaces in our cities.
With Pole Dance, says Idenburg, "We really realized how much joy is lacking in urban space." The pavilion, which encouraged play and interpersonal interaction, offered a course corrective of sorts. "Obviously beer works, as well," Idenburg adds with a laugh.
Liu adds: "We came of age as architects in a time when architecture was used as a medium to deliver things: community bonding, star-power...a sustainable future. Of course, all these things are important, and we think about them when we design, but we also felt people weren’t talking enough about the intrinsic values of space. [Pole Dance] was an opportunity for us to speak to that."
After the success of Pole Dance, work for the firm marched along. Fashion designer Derek Lam—for whom SO-IL created a sleek studio and workspace—became a client. Bicoastal production company Logan turned to SO-IL for its New York office and got a flexible workspace partitioned with milky, translucent stretched fabric walls.
And the commissions for cultural institutions kept coming, as for the 2012 Frieze Art Fair in New York (for which SO-IL devised a snaking, 1,500-foot-long tent) and an exhibition of Meissen porcelain in a museum in the Netherlands, where SO-L’s pyramidal display cases, made of glass in psychedelic shades of pink, green, and blue, were a hit.
With each new project, the principles guiding the group’s work—a disavowal of an identifying "style"; an interest in blurring the like indoors and out; a commitment to designing for context, rather than creating stylish white elephants—became more clear. SO-IL’s website, though, remains remarkably free of the mission statements that have become a hallmark of other firms’ sites. "I think we have an unspoken message," explains Liu. "In the end, we want our work to speak for the mission."
And it does: SO-IL’s 2012 building for the 15,000-square-foot Kukje Gallery, in Seoul, South Korea, for example, has an undeniably novel shape. Its protruding forms are cloaked in a chainmail-like stainless-steel carapace. But there’s a good reason for its odd geometries: To maximize the usable exhibition space inside, SO-IL pushed the building’s non-gallery spaces—including an entrance and stairways—to volumes connected to, but separate from, the main structure. (A theater and educational space lie below ground).
"We knew we couldn’t do something singular and diagrammatic," Idenburg explains. Instead, "We tried something that negotiated the program and the context," which, in this case, was a low-rise Seoul neighborhood of traditional, tile-roofed structures set along winding alleyways.
That push and pull between program and context also informs the firm’s largest completed work to date, the 29,000-square-foot Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Museum of Art at the University of California, Davis. The museum, which opened on November 13, is the school’s new home for fine arts education and exhibitions, including 5,000 objects spanning several disciplines.
Created in collaboration with Bay Area firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (of Apple store fame), the low-slung, precast-concrete museum’s three volumes are capped and connected by a swooping white-metal canopy that acts both as a shield against the sun and defines the building’s boundaries, angling slightly downward at the front of the site, creating a human-scaled point of entry.
Cultural institutions are so often, by design, hermetically sealed from their surroundings. In designing the Manetti Shrem Museum, SO-IL hoped to offer a way—as with Pole Dance—to think differently about how a museum engages with its community. In a flat, agrarian landscape, the building is a hyper-visible hillock, encouraging students who may not even have had previous interest in the arts to come by and check it out, Papageorgiou argues.
In the coming months, SO-IL will get to work on a number of projects, including a furniture collection for Knoll, which debuted at this year’s Design Miami Design Curio program in Basel, Switzerland; a performing arts center, studio, and exhibition space for France’s Alsace region; a gallery and studio for an Egyptian-born, Harlem-based artist; and an affordable housing project.
"All of these projects are opportunities to gain more knowledge as people, and not just specify pre-existing things," Idenburg says. "Architecture should be accessible—and not just to the super-wealthy."