PRINT September 2013


the Krabbesholm studios

In this era of the unprecedented intersection of art, architecture, and design, cultural institutions are often on the front lines of exchange between these fields, whether operating as incubators for new forms of hybridized production or as the last bastions of traditional disciplinary distinctions. Michael Meredith and Hilary Sample, founders of New York–based MOS Architects, have repeatedly crossed professional divides and engaged artistic practice in their work—both in direct collaborations, such as in their 2004 design with Pierre Huyghe for a puppet theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, or in the design of work spaces for artists such as Terry Winters, whose studio they completed in 2008. Here, Meredith and Sample discuss the opportunities and challenges offered by a recent commission to design new studio buildings for Krabbesholm School in Skive, Denmark—spaces specifically intended to cultivate the transgression of boundaries.

MOS Architects, Krabbesholm Studios, 2012, Skive, Denmark. Photo: Per Andersen and Kurt Finsten.

KRABBESHOLM SCHOOL offers courses in a range of subjects—art, architecture, photography, graphic design, fashion, industrial design—and their interconnectedness is a crucial part of the school’s identity, literally embodied by the campus layout. So it was clear from the beginning that our design for Krabbesholm’s new studios would have to address the idea of interdisciplinary practice. Throughout his long tenure, director Kurt Finsten has commissioned an amazing array of structures by both artists and architects: a guesthouse designed by Jorge Pardo, a pavilion by Dan Graham, a small exhibition space by the Japanese architecture firm Atelier Bow-Wow, and a photography studio built as a collaboration with architects from Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles. For such a small institution—typical enrollment is only 114 students—the presence of so many high-profile projects may seem surprising, but Krabbesholm plays a prominent role in Denmark’s cultural scene. It’s really something like a community college, bridging high school and university, and many of the architects in Denmark have passed through the school, as have numerous Danish artists and designers.

Our most immediate problem was to insert our studios among so many strongly individuated structures. While we admired the projects and appreciated what they did collectively for the identity of the school, we were wary of being drawn into a trend that seems to be more and more common among cultural institutions: a kind of campus-as-collection logic, where the buildings become less a set of spaces to be inhabited than a series of objects to be curated (think of the cultural compound on the island of Naoshima in Japan, or any number of university or museum complexes, where high-design architecture dots the landscape). As an architect, this can have the perverse effect of making your work feel miniaturized—almost as if it has become a piece of sculpture. So it was challenging to relate to some of the other structures on the campus, particularly the Pardo house, as its garden wall was sited only three feet away from one of our new studio buildings. Pardo’s house has an idiosyncratic shape, with angled protrusions that at first give the impression of gesturing toward their surroundings, but the structure is actually very inwardly focused (even to the point of being entirely enclosed by a low wall and extremely dense plantings)—which makes it highly successful on a domestic scale but difficult for adjacent buildings to engage. We also felt that structures such as this or the Graham pavilion, for example, offer a somewhat limited idea of interdisciplinarity. They reverse normal categories of authorship and objecthood (here, a house is designed by an artist rather than by an architect), but the end product is often quite similar to things that are already being done, because the structure hasn’t been reinvented so much as simply transferred to a different audience or market (the house becomes art).

We wanted to approach the idea of interdisciplinarity from a more programmatic point of view, creating spaces of exchange that could actually produce sustained interaction between different practices. Before our buildings were added, the studios had been scattered all over the campus—the architecture school was literally in the attic of an old house—so if an art student wanted to visit a friend working in photography, he or she would have to walk across campus. The only real cross-disciplinary interactions were in the dining hall at mealtimes. And so, in bringing all the practices together into one studio complex, we felt our role was actually to produce structures that were less interesting in and of themselves. We embraced the vernacular typology of the stables that are very common on farms in the area, simple sheds with steeply pitched roofs, which some of the older buildings on campus already echoed.

We adapted this type into a long, single-story rectangular building, twenty-four feet high, with a pitched roof truncated at the top, a steel-frame structure, thickly insulated walls, and a facade of industrial gray cement panels. This became a generic form that we could simply repeat for all four of the new studio buildings. In a sense, the interiors and the outdoor spaces in between the buildings were far more important to us. We designed large porches and courtyards and tried to stick the buildings together in weird ways—at odd angles—to create more opportunities for encounters. Inside, we were very careful with the proportions: We wanted narrow buildings with high ceilings and large windows to let in a lot of natural light. The thinness also allowed a degree of transparency. Standing in one of the courtyards, for example, you can of course look into the buildings surrounding you, but because they are so narrow, you can also see through them into the courtyards and buildings beyond. A similar condition exists in the interiors, where you can always see across the courtyards into—and even through—adjacent structures. This calibration of views became one of the ways to cultivate mingling, communication. Even if you don’t physically enter another building, you are aware of what everyone else is doing around you.

It’s amazing how much the working methods of the different fields of art, architecture, and design have become homogenized. When we visited the school after the buildings were in use, almost every desk had a computer on it; it was impossible to tell which students were architects or designers or artists. But what’s really remarkable is that most of the students are using the same software packages, or if not the exact same software, then at least the same techniques of digital modeling, photography, and drawing. And yet at the same time, the idea of distinct disciplines still persists, because it has been so thoroughly institutionalized. Even at Krabbesholm, you see students learning specific skills that they or their teachers seem to think they will need to continue their education in a particular field, to get into graduate school—the graphic design students put everything on a grid, or the architects all use computer models to generate axonometric drawings. So there is a strange contradiction between this technological sameness and the way it is retrofitted to what are often very traditional ends, thanks to the persistence of individual disciplinary histories, narratives, and pedagogies.

We were aware of these tensions as we worked on the design, and our hope was that the right kind of space could push work in the direction of exposure and interaction. It has been gratifying to see how fluidly many of the students drift between disciplines while working in these new spaces, doing a little bit of architecture, or a little bit of fashion, or a little bit of photography, or some project that you can’t even really place. And in part this does seem to be because the buildings have created a better sense of community among them, cultivating exchange. While we were designing the project, we kept coming back to the idea of working in one building or courtyard and looking across into another and seeing people working there. That drove a lot of our process. And in the end the most important thing is simply that the students can’t help but be aware of what their peers are doing, not only in their particular field of study but throughout the school. The outdoor work spaces in the courtyards have been particularly successful in this sense, because they really seem to encourage the students to get their ideas out of the computer, to go out and build them, which then leads to spontaneous conversations and informal collaborations with others who are using or viewing those spaces. The adjacencies of the buildings and their open plans have given the teachers more flexibility as well—they can organize casual performances or exhibitions, for example, allowing the students to use one part of the space for production and another for display. So basic architectural tools and effects—glass, transparency, proximity—have had an outsize effect. When you enter the space, everything collapses around you.

Michael Meredith and Hilary Sample are founding principals of MOS Architects, based in New York.