For Jorge Ayala and his team at [Ay]A Studios, architecture has shifted from executing large-scale commercial projects (buildings, for example) to investigating the essence of how digitally constructed pieces can inform and enmesh with the biology of much smaller items. As a clothing designer, for instance, Ayala creates pieces that investigate the role that clothes themselves play on the human form – as he puts it, "trying to understand the economies of the body itself and also its relation to space."
For his newest piece, Cabinet of Post-digital Curiosities — currently open at the Archilab 2013, Naturaliser l’Architecture Exhibition in Orléans, France — Ayala has gone even deeper into exploring natural forms. The installation is a collection of "torsos," as Ayala calls them, that look like newly discovered remains of long-dead animals. Arranged with a naturalist's eye for careful categorization, the 40 pieces create an evolution of animal-like sculptures complete with organic-looking skin, bone, and protuberances.
Looking at the wall of Ayala's Post-digital Curiosities is similar to paging through a journal of famed German naturalist Ernst Haeckel. Though the individual pieces aren't actual animal specimens, they're arranged with such specificity that it's almost impossible not to imagine them having once been alive. Through his marriage of digital and analog techniques, Ayala is offering a critique of the way modern architects have been fabricating their works. "3D printing technology isn't democratized enough that everyone has access to it," he says. "Therefore it was a matter of finding novel ways of fabricating with a low-tech approach." In keeping with that method, each torso has been assembled painstakingly with a wide variety of materials from around the globe to achieve his aim.
We caught up with Ayala on the eve of the exhibition to talk about his architecture studio, the catalyst for his new way of approaching the medium, and what it means for the future of architecture.
How did you move from traditional architecture to clothing design and more conceptual installation artwork?
I graduated from the Architectural Association in London in 2008 and I had a few work experiences in England, and then in China. I was doing master planning and fully onto the construction of a project, when I started thinking I would like to start my own practice. It got to a point where I realized it wasn't what I wanted to do in my aim to becoming an architect. That's what brought me back in 2010 to Europe. I realized I wanted to go onto the human scale. I think the massive scale of city design or landscape design somehow has these connections with the human scale, I think it's just a matter of how to export certain protocols.
What interested you about clothing? How does 'the human scale' relate to your work in that area?
Clothing and, let's say, accessories require the same degree — or a higher degree — of precision than architecture. On the aim of trying to find a line of design, [Ay]A Studio got started in 2011. That's where I started this architectural kickstart point and met the expression, 'the human scale.' It's also when we started developing the entire spectrum that is related to fashion: catwalk structures, ephemeral structures, and obviously clothing as well. [When we started] this was back in the middle of 2010 and in the middle of the financial crisis. Friends, colleagues, and acquaintances were questioning where I would be able to get clients. So the logic from which we've been operating over the last few years was trying to define the parameters and constraints of our research, and trying to fit with an agenda that relates to contemporary needs in terms of clothing design and our society.
Your new exhibit seems much different than your work with clothing. Why did you decide to shift toward these more biologically inspired pieces?
There are these moments in an architect's career where the work shifts, and I really think The Cabinet is this important shift of our work. Previously, after graduating from the AA and having these precedents in design — having Rem Koolhaas and Zaha [Hadid] in the academic courses — we didn't see the potential to keep developing these sleek, highly barometric surfaces that everyone started to do. At a certain point I didn't feel those were the questions what we were after.
Where did the idea for creating the forms seen in the exhibit first come from?
The resolution to shift in the work came with the fabrication. The kickstart point of the Cabinet of Post-digital Curiosities was formed like any other practice, which was manipulating these formal resolutions in digital 3D. There was a frustration when working with these animal torsos that we didn't have the ability to 3D print them. This frustration yielded the construction of the torsos into a physical instance where we were like, okay fine, we're working with high-end software that allowed us to create spatial complexity be aren't able to produce them. A manual, hand-made approach that is kind of opposed to rapid prototypes. It's opposed to the rapidity of society — rapid growth, rapid foods, and rapid celebrities. We can produce having a digital base, but you can produce it without the financial or academic connections that you may lack. That production informed the production more than if it was just the monochrome resolution of 3D printing. That's how this whole cabinet started.
What's the process like for creating the torsos in the exhibit?
We have these catalyzers, which are the original forms, which are like five species. Out of those we did these molds, which are laser cut, and out of those molds we were able to play with inducer material, and chemical material like resin, epoxy, synthetic latex. Each of these physical tests informed the outcome, if there was to be an outcome. We weren't seeking this sleek, super accurate shape. We left that behind for the sake of giving ourselves a chance to go back to physical production, which has more to do with testing different types of materials.
It's interesting how the installation really does look like a biologist discovering new life forms and cataloging them for the first time.
It's actually really funny. When the organizers of the exhibition first came to my studio they thought that it looked like this cabinet of curiosities, in the sense of the Renaissance where there were these rare objects that people were collecting — you didn't really know their nature, you didn't really know where they come from. They really thought that the studio was like this 'cabinet of curiosities.' Those curiosities were actually these post-digital instances, these renders were the provocations to producing our stuff.
Considering that these forms were made with a more analog approach, what is your general opinion of 3D printing for other purposes?
We're obviously highly supportive of all these technological evolutions. For the narrative of Archilab, Naturaliser l’Architecture Exhibition they are trying to show where things are going and what it means to be an architect. With our approach, we're just trying to give a different option.
What were the biological references that inspired the pieces for the exhibition?
There were two main directions. On one side they were insect-like. We wanted to see microsystems that would inform the torsos. For the other one, we tried to make it fit on a human scale. Early on we tried to get these surfaces that were totally sterile (if you see the exhibition, they're the last row and the third row from the bottom up)—they were sterile. Didn't have any provocation on them. Although they were aesthetically appealing, they weren't able to respond to any surface interaction. Then we started using materials that were more flexible and more elastic that could inhabit those surfaces. We have the microsystem, which is the overall torso, and then we have the more organic.
Do you think that your clothing will now start to incorporate the techniques you used Post-digital Curiosities?
Yeah, absolutely. There has to be a genetic connection to the works we're creating in the studio. With our clothing we've been trying to question the role of clothes — it's why I don't like to use the word 'fashion.' The way people use it is about trying to meet commercial expectations. If we're honest, there are people who are already doing it, and they're doing it really well. Our clothing has this architectural kickstart point that realizes all the architectural knowledge that I have. For the third collection, which is what we're currently preparing, we're going to incorporate this experimental latex organicness. With the clothing, we've never sought to do sculptures that hang on the body. When we developed the brand, it was always [with] the aim to do things that were wearable.