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House No. 5, Element House—Photo by Florian Holzherr

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MOS Architects Finds Inspiration in Video Games and Vernacular Design

What they're after is the "vaguely familiar"

For the last decade or so, Zaha Hadid and the kind of computer-aided parametric design she has embraced and made famous were arguably what was considered cool and exciting in architecture. But as young U.S. architects striking out on their own during this era, Michael Meredith and Hilary Simple decided to, well, run in the other direction.

Instead of chasing dramatic swoops and otherworldly forms calculated by the computer, the pair's New York City-based firm MOS, founded in the early 2000s, went in pursuit of the "vaguely familiar"—that is, architecture that makes use of what's already in the world, as opposed to introducing, in Meredith's words, the "shockingly new or spectacular." How exactly the firm has delivered on this approach over the last ten years is on full display in the new book, MOS: Selected Works.

Inside the Element House
Photo by Florian Holzherr

To no surprise, going after the "vaguely familiar" means doing business with vernacular. Here at Curbed, we love tracking charming new takes on the traditional pitched roof house. And in the Element House, one of MOS's most striking new projects, the gable form gets a decidedly modern, surreal spin. The cluster of silver volumes, commissioned by the Museum of Outdoor Arts and set in a New Mexico desert, also feature kooky "chimneys," which actually serve as light tunnels.

A playful study in form, the off-grid Element House is at the same time an exploration of all the big, practical ideas percolating in design currently, including energy efficiency via prefab, structural insulated panels, rapid and flexible construction through modular design, and sustainable features like passive solar heating and cooling and recycled water systems. This boundary-pushing dance with vernacular surfaces again and again in MOS's portfolio, whether the project is a school, private residence, or large-scale installation like After Party, the winning design for the MoMA PS1 Young Architects Program in 2009.

What's especially fun about MOS is that though the firm is all about playing with the traditional, it doesn't shun technology, either. In fact, the studio tends to use video game physics engines to advance its architectural form-finding—a process Meredith describes as kind of like "knocking blocks over" and looking for casual relationships between loose elements.

If it isn't immediately obvious through their built works, this approach for sure comes through in their marvelous architectural drawings. We thought many of them, including those shown below, were immediately reminiscent of the gorgeous architecture-inspired game Monument Valley, which had a similar combination of gradient pastels and complex geometries. Meredith says they get that a lot.

House No. 9, Collector's Retreat, from above (Courtesy of MOS)
House No. 9, Collector's Retreat, Wormseye view (Courtesy of MOS)
Housing No. 1, MoMA Foreclosed, Axonometric view (Courtesy of MOS)

As is the case with their buildings, these drawings also put a dynamic spin on tradition. Meredith explains how the distortion-free axonometric drawing, for example, originally served as an early computer of sorts, from which 3D measurements can be taken directly. "We don't need that anymore, we have computers," he says. "What draws us to axons now is that it kind of is like video games—it's one way we engage in a space or world."


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