Material Explorations with L.A. Firm Layer

Material Explorations with L.A. Firm Layer

By Carren Jao
Situated at the cross-section of architecture, art, and installation, Los Angeles–based architectural practice Layer has consistently managed to delight and surprise. Complex yet not intimidating, their work has graced experimental spaces and museums alike across Southern California, engaging visitors to see the space they inhabit in a new light. Founded in 2009 by Emily White and Lisa Little—both graduates of Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc)—Layer is unusual in that two women head up the firm, but according to the two, that only makes the venture more interesting. We chatted with White and Little to ask about their beginnings, unique challenges and what else we can look forward to from the firm.
Before teaming up, you both were involved in different firms. What made you decide to pursue a partnership?

Lisa Little (left) Emily White (right) of Los Angeles architecture firm Layer.

Lisa: I think we are both people who knew from the beginning that we wanted to work for ourselves. So after gaining some experience, it seemed like the right time to do our own thing. The timing was somewhat unplanned. We were presented with a number of opportunities, including a couple of projects with the Los Angeles–based research and exhibition center, Materials and Applications. So when the chance to pursue our own installations emerged, we didn’t really hesitate to take it.

Layer's Loose Horizon installation at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. Photo by Art Gray.

Why the name "Layer"?Lisa: We wanted a name that could handle some of the nuances of our work. We do architecture, art, and installations. Often our work is composed literally of many layers, elements, or components. Do you feel that there are special challenges for women working in design? What has been your experience? Lisa: I think that in any field where men are more prevalent, there are challenges and also advantages. We feel like we have missed out on at least one project due to opinions about what gender an architect should be. At the same time, perhaps we are extricated from some preconceived expectations about architecture and design.Could you speak to how your partnership works? In what ways do you complement each other? Lisa: I think we are lucky in that we have a lot of overlapping abilities. This makes it easy for us to switch roles and to each benefit from the other’s input. Having said that, I think in general Emily is more playful and I am more pragmatic. My undergraduate degree is in electrical engineering and I am very detail oriented. Emily has a Bachelor of Arts. At the beginning of a design phase, playfulness is more beneficial and too much attention to detail can be a hindrance. When it comes to making sure things are structurally sound and will be able to be constructed, pragmatism becomes an asset.

Here's a detailed shot of the sculpture. The installation will be on view until October 14, 2012.

As a practice, in what aspects of architecture and art are you most interested? Lisa : We have many veins of interest. Material experimentation is a strong one. A lot of our projects explore the idea of structural integrity through techniques such as folding. Our Three Horned Beast installation at the New Children’s Museum in San Diego is a 30-foot-tall pavilion that uses an incredibly small amount of material—folded, powder coated aluminum—to encapsulate a very large volume. What were the biggest challenges you faced while launching your practice? Lisa: We started during a very difficult economic period. That has been challenging but ultimately I think it was a good challenge and a good decision. Being based in Los Angeles brings both obstacles and amazing opportunities. The city has a large number of very talented architects and artists. The competition is tough but also inspiring. At the same time, Los Angeles is incredibly fearless and open about design and architecture. The mild climate and the amount of unbuilt space provide for experimentation in a way that other cities cannot.

Layer's 30-foot-tall Three Horned Beast interactive sculpture was exhibited at San Diego's New Children's Museum in 2011. Photo by Art Gray.

What is the most valuable lesson you’ve picked up along the way? Lisa: I think we’ve struggled with how and when to collaborate. As I was saying earlier, we have a lot of overlapping abilities. So it has not always been clear who should be doing what. Combined efforts can certainly strengthen design but there are so many aspects to running a firm and not all of them need or benefit from multiple people being involved. So along the way we have been learning how to not always collaborate on everything. It has been a difficult but important lesson.Could you talk a little bit about your recent work? What concepts are you currently exploring?Emily: We are both interested in the relationship between technology and design, broadly speaking, and specifically interested in how technology has the capacity to influence perception. Our most recent installation, A Loose Horizon, currently on view at the Pasadena Museum of California Art (PMCA) was designed with this in mind. We developed the project using a highly deterministic parametric model, but at the same time were interested in how subtle shifts in viewpoint and scale could change the project in unquantifiable ways.We often see Layer’s work in museums or galleries. Is this an intentional part of your practice? How does this work within the overall scheme of things for Layer?Lisa: Yes, it is very much an intentional part of our practice. Installation work allows us to experiment with unconventional ideas about structure, form, geometry, and materiality, just to name a few. The installation work is often at a scale that lends itself to the fabrication techniques that we are drawn to explore. As we successfully test approaches and techniques, we can start to bring them into large-scale works. We also both teach design studios, Emily at SCI-Arc and I at USC. Teaching is also part of our overall scheme because it allows us to be very involved in the experimentation that is often found in pedagogical inquiry.

For the Skirball Cultural Center's Women Hold Up Half the Sky exhibition (October 2011–March 2012), Layer contributed Wish Canopy, a sculpture made from 1,500 interlinked pieces. Photo by Carren Jao.

What types of projects interest you most? Lisa: We're drawn to different types of work. Emily is more interested in art and I am more interested in architecture. I think our installation work is an interesting cross section of these interests and in general I think our work is benefitting from the diversity.

Emily: The projects that most interest me are those that involve developing a specific—and probably new—approach to the relationship between material and site, for instance a manufactured island, a treehouse, a building made like a hammock.What can we look forward to from Layer in the coming months? Emily: Layer continues to work on a range of projects from architectural enclosures—pavilions, canopies, and the like—to working with a developer of commercial properties in L.A. Recently we were invited to compete for a pavilion at MOCA for the upcoming show on contemporary architecture from Southern California. The pavilion is part of our trajectory of folded aluminum structures that have been developing over the past few years. We are also doing some residential work in Venice, just down the street from our office. In L.A., that's a miracle commute!

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