James Timberlake by Deven Golden

Home Architecture James Timberlake by Deven Golden
James Timberlake by Deven Golden

New high-profile edifices designed by architects whose firms are becoming household names are everywhere these days. These towering, monumental sculptures frequently stand among, yet separate from, the buildings around them. Concurrently, if less visible, is another movement working to change the way we think about architecture. Instead of a building’s outward image, the focus is its entire lifecycle: its manufacture, its sustainability, even its demise. Architecture from the inside out, if you will.

Steven Kieran and James Timberlake have been busy lately. Their 24-year-old firm, KieranTimberlake Associates, has just completed a number of major commissions, including the new Sculpture Building and Gallery at Yale University and the Loblolly House on Taylor’s Island, Maryland. Besides the firm’s obsessive attention to detail, these projects are among the most environmentally sustainable buildings in America. And they are not just very green; they also push forward precision off-site-assembly technologies, reformulating the definition of prefab in the process.

Their peers have noticed. Along with two dozen architecture awards last year alone they also received the prestigious American Institute of Architects 2008 Architecture Firm Award. This month their Cellophane House, a four-story, off-site-assembly model home, will be installed on 53rd Street in New York as part of MoMA’s Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling.

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing James Timberlake since 1992, and recently had a chance to sit down with him and talk about his firm’s vision: past, present, and future.

Deven Golden You’ve been having a pretty good run lately. And you’re going to be in the Home Delivery show at MoMA.

James Timberlake It’s looking at the history of prefab architecture, or “off-site fabrication,” as our firm likes to title it, and I’m looking at examples of new housing prototypes that might serve that mission.

DG Prefab?

JT Prefab is considered in some circles as a derogatory reference; most people associate the term with the trailer home industry. In our book Refabricating Architecture (2004), we looked at how manufacturing technologies might transform architecture and construction. We felt off-site fabrication addressed a much broader, more holistic series of manufacturing technologies that might serve the building industry. Slowly, that particular term has taken hold and begun to offset prefabrication as the buzzword. Prefabrication too narrowly defines the world of off-site construction, which is what Home Delivery is about. The show takes a very creative view of the world of both home delivery, hence the title, and the future of architecture and construction as it pertains to housing. It’s going to be intriguing.

DG What’s your particular contribution?

JT On MoMA’s lot, between 53rd and 54th Streets, there will be five dwellings ranging from almost a pod to our project, which is four stories high and will take two or three months to construct in a factory. It will be delivered to New York in chunks, and in a just-in-time delivery and construction sequence, will be erected in less than a week.

DG It’s called Cellophane House?

JT Yes. Two projects are its precursors. In 2003 we displayed a building envelope called SmartWrap at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. It was a mass-customizable building material that could be used as an envelope on exteriors or, potentially (depending on the technologies), on interiors. The second paradigm is Loblolly House in Taylor’s Island, Maryland. We adopted hybrid construction techniques and produced it off-site, in order to gauge how on-site assemblage could transform the making of a 2,500-square-foot home. Cellophane House is, as Steve’s son put it, the love child between SmartWrap and the Loblolly House: also a completely off-site-fabricated structure, but its chunks are either transparent or translucent. It’s completely made up of polycarbonates, recyclable thin-films, and two high-tech curtain walls on the north and south sides. It will be like a lantern; a gorgeous thing lit up at night, I think.