Buildings Are Toys Are Buildings

Excerpted from Objects Models Worlds, monograph forthcoming 2020

On Mass Vs. Graphics
Joe Ledbetter / Tom Wiscombe

Tom Wiscombe I’m really excited about our ongoing project together  — to think about what happens to architecture as a toy or a model, but also to think about a toy or model as architecture. One of the things that interests both of us is the relation between mass and graphics, and how graphics can be used to alter the reading of mass. Some graphic moves can reinforce boundaries, while others can create ambiguity. We both sometimes use fake reflections or shadows across objects to these ends. . . when did you start doing that?

Joe Ledbetter  I’m really excited about this project as well. It’s challenging and a bit out of my wheelhouse which makes it all the more thrilling. I know I’m still trying to wrestle with the idea of architecture as a toy and a toy as architecture. Where do the definitions overlap? Maybe definitions are too limiting? In any case, I can’t wait to really tackle this together.

I began playing with artificial highlights and shadows when I first began to work in 3D back in 2004. I stumbled across this idea as I was trying to replicate 2D characters from my paintings into designer toys. I instantly found it created a really unique and interesting look —  something that stood out from the crowd. Holding the toy in my hands, it seemed superimposed because it somewhat defied reality and the nature of light and the physical environment. It felt subversive against nature in a playful way.

Architecture however is an entirely different animal. You really have the opportunity to play on these massive scales and work with the sun, different times of the day, seasons, weather, hard shadows, etc., not to mention taking into account the angles at which people will see and experience the structures. You get to dictate how people view your work to some extent, though at the same time you can’t control when they will experience it. The variables seem a bit overwhelming to me. How much are you thinking about creating natural and artificial shadows, reflections, etc. while you’re designing? Are you thinking a lot about how natural shadows will cast? How much do you leave it up to chance and let the environment do whatever it’s going to do?

TW  I totally agree that objects are so much more intriguing when they defy reality, or are as you say, are “subversive against nature.” Architectural design software reached a point about 20 years ago when it could perfectly recreate natural shadows, and that always bothered me. What is the purpose of mirroring reality as we already know it or modelling things we can easily predict? When I was a kid, I remember loving off-world sci-fi scenes where there were 10 moons or 3 suns, casting multiple shadows and reflections, and destabilizing “earthiness.”

So yes, at some point about 7 years ago, I started thinking about how to remove a building from its relational atmospheric network and put it in an alternate one. We invented what we called the “light studio” which was a kind of miniature digital stage where we lit digital models using all artificial lights. We used grids of fluorescents, fields of starlights, and even strange illuminated objects just out of the scene  —  all with the intent of defamiliarizing the way architecture reflects its context. We eventually took these shadows and reflections and physically embedded them into the architecture as different materials and facade types. When the building is built, you get the feeling that it is not quite meant for this world although it may exist in it.

It’s interesting that you began to anticipate 3D toy designs in your paintings, and that those shade/shadow effects somehow remained in the actual 3D object. What was a kind of strategy of increasing realism becomes a technique of speculative realism. It is a kind of magic trick, where at first you think you are seeing a figure with some features graphically emphasized, but you then realize that the graphics are actually destabilizing the figure, making it vibrate. Architecture is really hard to make vibrate like that! It is so big and there are so many cultural projections on it, and of course there is gravity that always keeps it pinned in place. Do you ever use fake gravity?

JL I’ve found that I have become more interested in defying gravity the longer I design toys. I suppose the limitations of gravity have always been a challenge for people throughout the ages. I love finding new ways to balance a toy or give the illusion that the figure is jumping or even flying. I’ve always felt that a static pose can often be quite boring.

Some of my favorite examples are my charging Ram, the “Pelican’t” and my Wolfgang figure who is leaping in excitement. A more recent project involves a stack of characters hitching a ride on a scooter. Here I am trying to create the sense of weight and movement, all while balancing an impossible stack of creatures. But none of that is using “fake gravity,” which I suppose is the opposite of defying it. By “fake gravity” you mean emphasizing and exaggerating weight and gravity’s effects?

TW  For me the term “fake” implies a world of imagination rather than scientism where things follow known laws. I love the idea of gravities pulling massive and tiny things together but not the idea that it is a universalizing force pulling architecture into low, bottom-heavy structures close to the ground. That inadvertently sets everything into a hierarchy, and mirrors the quality of the earth as a bunch of matter sedimented around a point. I prefer quantum “spooky action at a distance” to gravity — all though they are both technically “laws” of physics, SAAD seems almost impossible. SAAD creates weird communications and mirroring effects between things that make the world seem animate and mysteriously ecological. I also love that the term “fake” adds a funny, lighthearted quality to “gravity” which is something very heavy and dark and serious, as in dark humor.

When I look at your Wolfgang figure, I see you not only defying gravity, but creating a kind of alternate physics. His tongue is heavy and hits the ground, but then his leg is weightless but poised and his skull and eyes are literally able to penetrate the shell of his body. The laws of gravity and recoil and magnetism all seem to be in play, and operating differentially rather than uniformly. It’s one thing when, in cartoon reality, Wiley Coyote tries to catch a flying anvil and his arms stretch out, but another when you make physical models like you do with everyday physics operating in the background. It’s a lot like how I try to “defer” landing in my architecture — through illusion and sleight of hand. I love the way you do that in your stack-of-figures piece, by setting it on a puffy cloud of dust (with stars). Great move. While rationally you know it’s a structural device, you just don’t care because its precariousness is what drives the imagination.

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