It is easy, when walking through city streets, to become numb to the usual shapes taking their usual order. There, a rectangular building made of stone and steel. Here, a park of trees blowing in the breeze. The things you see, natural and manmade alike, can feel limited to a finite number of acceptable possibilities. There are expectations for what is and what can be. Kinetic architecture, however, has a way of upending all of that. Limitations are challenged by ingenuity and imagination, and the scenery can be then altered by what was once considered an impossible thing.2
Architect and inventor Drew Seskunas of SAW.EARTH specializes in creating uncommon structures that invite and engage. From his Brooklyn studio, Seskunas has designed reactive surfaces that undulate to sound, metal sculptures that defy gravity, objects powered by the electricity of the human body. Through his work, Seskunas shakes up the consciousness of his viewers. If the world asks “Why?”, Seskunas’s kinetic architecture appears to respond with a resounding “Why not?”
Since founding SAW. EARTH, Seskunas has created responsive spaces for local institutions like MoMA PS1, the New Museum, and the New York City Parks Department. He seamlessly floats between the worlds of academia, culture, and design, lecturing at the Art Institute of Chicago and Harvard, collaborating with singer Angel Olsen, and creating installations for stores like Saturdays NYC. It is the impressive CV of an inquiring mind.
Below, Seskunas let us into his studio to talk creating crash zones, altering for feeling, and translating magic to scale.
Former occupation and your most notable memory there:
When I was in high school, I lived at the beach during the summer and was a crab steamer in Ocean City, MD. I used to hang out with the cook when our shift was over and watch a VHS of Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii and smoke pot.
Your first experience with architecture/design as a child:
The first thing that really blew me away was when I was 15, I saw a PBS documentary on Frank Lloyd Wright by Ken Burns. Burns put these Beethoven piano sonatas playing over pans through Wrights’s projects and voiceovers of Frank Lloyd Wright quotes. He was so absurdly full of himself, but he made architecture seem consequential and dramatic and I knew immediately I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing it.
Were your parents interested in architecture/design? What did they do for work?
My mother was a public school librarian and my father was a deputy director at a psychiatric research institute where they studied schizophrenia. Nobody in my family was connected directly to architecture, but I would say all of their other interests like music, art, and spending time in nature fed into my love for architecture. Certainly once I decided to take that route, which was around 15/16, my parents were very supportive.
What initially drew you to kinetic architecture?
When I was in my late 20s and working on the Bikini Berlin project with Arne Quinze for four years, I became exhausted with how slow the feedback loop was. We were making design decisions and we wouldn’t know if they were successful for two more years, at which point they would be unchangeable. An architect working for me introduced me to Arduino and I became addicted to how fast you could prototype with it. I thought if you could integrate this technology into space, you could get direct feedback and make alterations depending on performance or feeling. It seemed to unlock some hidden dimension within architecture.
Teacher or person who has been most influential to your career and why:
Two teachers were really influential in giving me confidence to follow my own path: Gary Bowden, who designed the African American Museum in Baltimore and was my studio professor at the University of Maryland, and, later at Pratt, I was lucky enough to study and become friends with Mike Szivos from SoftLab, whose work really paved the way for studios like mine.
Favorite building or space in NYC and why:
There is a sequence of spaces my wife and I often visit together: the Met and then Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle. The Met because you can just meander through it like you’re walking from neighborhood to neighborhood, and Bemelmans because they make the best martinis in town, and also because the spaces there are so intimate yet there is also this communal element with the piano at the center.
How does your work go from idea to reality?
We create physical prototypes of ideas as soon as possible, normally out of whatever is at hand. For one: because it’s the best way to test if an idea has real potential for a given project. And two: because it’s fun and exciting to see ideas in real life. They will ultimately become reality at a larger scale, so it’s better to test them earlier to see if the magic translates, and there’s no better feeling when it does.
Least successful experiment in the studio, if any:
I’ve been playing with turbulent air-filled structures for a while, and many of those tests have gone spectacularly wrong. When they do, they tear themselves to shreds, or the arms of the piece flail wildly, knocking over anything in their path. Eventually we got somewhere special with them, but it took a lot of sewing and a sufficiently sized crash zone.
Most surprisingly successful experiment in the studio:
Printing musical sculptures out of hot wax was extremely messy and sometimes very painful, but surprisingly successful. It was a collaboration with the musician Angel Olsen, where she had the original idea of printing music. We were inspired by Iranian water wax sculptures, and found a way to freeze the wax in intervals that corresponded to frequency variation in her music. The most difficult part was keeping the emitter nozzle clear of wax. I had developed this elaborate set of instructions to keep it clear that I didn’t always follow every time I ran the machine.
How did you find your current workspace and where is it?
My current workspace is in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I found it from some friends who are furniture designers. I’ve had a studio in Greenpoint for the past seven years, first on the west side near the water, and now on the east side, which is more convenient since I live down Greenpoint Avenue in Sunnyside.
What do you eat for breakfast?
I normally make coffee and take an apple with me out the door, or I just share some of whatever I feed my son for breakfast.
What’s a day typically look like for you, from start to finish?
Every day is a little different. I teach at two different colleges in addition to running my studio, so I may be on the Upper West Side teaching architecture students, or down off 14th Street teaching product design students, or somewhere on-site visiting a project. I try and spend at least one full day alone in my studio having fun and messing around — and as many days with my son having fun and messing around — as possible.
Do you listen to music while you work? If so, what?
For sure, although my taste in music has been called into question many times. I get a lot of my music from 90s surf and skate videos. One gem I got from an old Billabong movie is Yothu Yindi, one of Australian pop music’s first aboriginal bands. Also George Telek, a Papua New Guinean musician.
Least favorite question people ask you as an architect:
It’s not really a question, but whenever I’m introduced as an architect people always tell me about how they either always wanted to study architecture or did but decided to change paths. I never know how to respond, but I wish everyone got a chance to study architecture; it was one of the most joyful experiences of my life!
What are you currently working on?
We’re finishing up schematic design on an urban-scale installation in Downtown Brooklyn that is the result of our turbulent air structure studies, which will open in Spring 2020. A Burmese restaurant we designed in collaboration with another architect, John Geisler, is opening in October in Prospect Heights. The project has a series of kinetic scenes that visually overlay the culinary inspirations of the chef. It’s called Rangoon. Go check it out; the food is delicious.
What medium or tool are you most interested in presently and why?
I love working with actuator motors at the moment. There’s a lot of interesting movement that can be created with them, and so far I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface in what’s possible. My piece “Your Present Mirror” at Elsewhere and the kinetic screens at Rangoon are driven by them.
What material do you go through the most of?
Aluminum sheet or channel. Most of our prototyping is in folded laser-cut aluminum. I like it because it’s lightweight, easy to cut, and also easily recycled.
What book/ film/ work of art most recently captured your attention and why?
I’m rereading Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon, which is a fictional study of the rise and fall of a series of theoretical civilizations on other planets. Some evolve intellectually to peaceful societies and others fall prey to infighting and ultimately self-destruct. Also I recently saw the Tilda Swinton movie Orlando, based on the Virginia Woolf book. She plays a boy who is commanded by Queen Elizabeth to stay young forever. Her character lives through many ages, turns into a woman, and has a daughter. I think what I like about both is the idea of following and comparing histories of different epochs and what potential outcomes could or may have been.
Best piece of advice you’ve ever received:
Definitely the best advice I ever received was from Gary Bowden when I was at Maryland. I was very eager and all I wanted to do was succeed and it just wasn’t happening. No matter how much I tried to give my teachers what they wanted, I kept getting middling grades and just couldn’t click with the agenda. Gary had established himself in professional practice and wasn’t an academic, so he was a bit of an outsider there. He told me to forget about what they want, that I should follow what inspires me instead of what I think people will like. It can be difficult trying to maintain your own voice, and tempting to follow what is trendy or in style. But, in the end, you can’t add anything to the conversation by following styles or trying to please other people. You have to risk them not liking what you’ve created if you really want to contribute something to the whole.