OMA and Beyond, Stories from Fabricator Andreas Froech

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Take an Austrian-born architect, ingrain him with a drive to fulfill the visions of some of the most challenging progressive firms–OMA , and FORM–and you’ll find yourself with fabricator Andreas Froech.

After a number of years developing materials for Panelite, which is owned by his wife Emmanuelle Bourlier and her business partner Christian Mitman, Froech launched Machineous a few years ago to explore the possibilities that robotic equipment bring to architecture. He’ll talk about those findings in October at the Monterey Design Conference.

“OMA had this very big project for Prada. [And] they wanted to break… the limits of what happened with the materials.”

But in this, the second of our two-part conversation, we asked him what led him to change his vocation.

You studied architecture but you chose to become a fabricator. Why?
It was never a choice. I always wanted to build stuff. I grew up being handy. I built tree houses, later I built surfboards.

[Then] when I was teaching at UCLA and working with Greg Lynn, the goals that were set to make what we wanted to make, with [what] Greg anticipated and wanted to see—nobody could do it. He wasn’t going to find a fabricator with the mindset to clue in quickly enough, and for not too much money so that we can actually get anything done. We were asking aerospace people.

A lot of architects [are in the same position] today. You find more and more people who come up through university, they come up with the research, and actually have to do it on their own. They have to get their own shop, they have to get their own robot or CNC–because it’s so complicated, what they design in the computer, that no standard fabricator [is willing to do it]. And if [the fabricator] tries, they give a price tag that you can’t afford.

And the other reason, we moved into materials-making was simply was the Prada research that we did early on, together with my wife, Emmanuelle. That was sort of a secondary way in.

“How do you make a translucent honeycomb panel?”

There was a sort of a short stint, but very intense, where Dan Wood (was then leading architect of OMA for Prada project and now has his own firm “Work Architecture Company”) and Prada asked us. They didn’t even have an office or any location in the United States at that point. But they had this very big project for Prada. One in New York, one in San Francisco, one in Los Angeles. [And] they wanted to break the boundaries and the limits of what happened with the materials.

Somebody had to go out and find people and places where we could fabricate, where we could make very very large aluminum panels. And where we could finish a very large aluminum panel. And then what is the finish? And when you actually look into that, there are actually twenty-five, thirty different finishes and they all look different and they all have their pros and cons. And then because it was an indoor outdoor structure in LA, they wanted to test that–how the weather affects the project. And there was a very large research [project based] on the [kitchen] sponge. Is there a way to produce [a foam sponge] in mass—we needed hundreds of these panels.

“Nobody dresses like Mark Mack”

We were doing this research. And it paralleled what we were developing with Panelite together with Emmanuelle and her business partner. [Where] we expanded capabilities and different fabrication methods. How do you make a translucent honeycomb panel?

I cannot think of a more complicated product than a translucent panel where you can see any flaw, you can see 100 percent of the complexity of all the components going into it. Pigment, reinforcement, resin, the connection between the resin and the honeycomb–all of that creates a complexity that has to maintain a balance so that it looks acceptable because in the end you don’t want to see a panel with defects. You can’t fix it, you can’t just paint over it, there’s no secondary process where you can be very messy first, and then you can go over it with Bondo and sand it and paint it, and, if you don’t like it, you can paint it again. (He laughs.)

It came out of surfboard construction but I had to refine it. It took me two years.

So, [becoming a fabricator] was a combination of a couple of coincidences and some, by the way I grew up.

You’re from Austria originally as is Mark Mack, although you don’t dress like him…
Nobody dresses like Mark Mack! (He laughs.)

You’ve worked with European firms, you’ve worked with Greg (Lynn), and you’ve worked with American firms. Do you see differences in approaches?
The approach is this–it’s in the education. That’s why I went to Columbia. There’s just a lot [larger] sense of what can we do. And we [in America] don’t have to look at tradition and be ‘correct.’ And European architecture, it’s following–in so many ways–tradition and precedence. Here? Because the education is [about] looking for a completely different set of inspiration–it makes this [exploration] possible in a very fast pace. You have a few offices in Europe, maybe a handful, but here I would say there are many many many offices that really want to research and explore.

“I love it about America…nobody is worried about breaking any rules.”

There are probably going to be more in Europe now, too. Because a lot of the young, Europeans are coming over to go to school here. And they go back, and they bring all of that inspiration back into their country. I remember, when I went to Columbia, I was one of three Europeans at Columbia out of forty.

Fifteen years ago, when I went, it was unique. I said I’m going to go to America to have another year of education. Nobody really though that it was a good idea. I was convinced that it was the best idea! It was the only way to do it. There was no way that I would finish school in Vienna and just go into an office and start drawing and build buildings. Because I couldn’t imagine that it would make me happy–it was too flat.

And I love it about America: you can talk to everybody about the open possibilities and opportunities and nobody is worried about breaking any rules or tradition. It doesn’t matter! It’s not an issue. ‘We’ll talk about that later–when it comes to money. Then we need to worry about it–the only limits are on the money. Can you afford it or not afford it?’ But that’s the limit for everybody, for everything. But the potential, the opportunity can be discussed. You don’t have to measure against tradition. ‘Is [the idea] smart? Is it intelligent? We’ll find out, and we’ll develop it.’

 

Want to know the possibilities that Machineous’ fabrication holds for your firm?

Don’t miss out on continuing education units that are, literally, a walk on the beach.

Architectural Record’s Clifford Pearson and Dwell’s Amanda Dameron will be at the Monterey Design Conference. Will you?

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