As the principal of Weathers, an experimental design office focused on discovering and implementing the architecture and landscapes of the future, Sean Lally uses speculation as a mechanism to enhance creative vision. Lally builds upon the foundation that invention requires an active imagination. In order to conceive new ways of building, new materials, and new architectural techniques, Lally investigates methods considered set and questions considered answered, to re-configure architecture’s current reality and re-imagine its future trajectories.
“The greatest challenge facing architecture and our broader society today is the need for advancements in harnessing energy. There’s no question humans are changing the earth and these changes are affecting plant and animal species. It’s likely that in order to live most ‘responsibly’ on earth, we need to get ahead of the curve of an evolving environment.”
Reading a newly translated, annotated, version of Jules Verne’s 10,000 Leagues Under the Sea gave Lally the idea to use that logic in his own work. The edition included footnotes about technological advancements at the time of its writing to give context to Verne’s visions, and show how they shaped the future. Lally’s fictions with footnotes employ technologies still in laboratories, in prototype, or in R&D, to extend the imagination towards latent potentials, without stretching the laws of physics or implausibility with visions of the far-distant future. For Lally, however, innovation is not always found in seeking the new, but in re-examining what is already around us. For example, the title of his recent book, The Air from Other Planets: A Brief History of Architecture to Come, does not make reference to alien worlds, but rather, considers the ways in which our own climate is often misunderstood. Lally writes, “We live not on the summit of a solid earth, but rather at the bottom of an ocean of air.” A new frontier to some, this fundamental reconsideration of our environments is necessary to Lally, who believes we must question the materials we use to define and construct the territories we inhabit, and the techniques that permit us to visualize and operate upon them.
“Architecture is at a unique and adventurous stage for questioning and re-informing our definitions of architecture, and the environments and lifestyles they foster. In our projects we test the social, organizational, economic and aesthetic implications of these new architectures.”
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“The architecture profession either spends a lot a time on the past, combing through footnotes, or focusing its vision on 2-3 years-out for projects down the road. More time could be spent looking a little further over the horizon in an effort to be sure we actually know where we’re heading.”
Trained in both landscape architecture and architecture, with an early education in biology and botany, he doesn’t see a distinction between built and natural environments. Both are spaces we inhabit, and both are as much about intensities of air, moisture, temperature, light, color, shadow, and other intangible elements, as they are about mass, material, form, or structure. In Lally’s work, buildings and landscapes, interiors and exteriors, are all fluidly linked territories. Landscape architects have always dealt with unpredictable, changing terrains. Plants grow or die, weather happens, seasons change, ecosystems support some things and not others. Landscapes are never static. But architects have been trained to treat buildings as fixed, immobile constructs, their systems always directed towards maintaining a homeostatic, normal condition. Upending this conceptualization of a building has been with us since the 1960s if not earlier, but has been slow to catch on. Lally points to Rayner Banham’s 1979 book, Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment, which contrasted the sealed, controlled environments of modern buildings with campfires, a different mechanism for thinking about spatial organization. The fire produces a gradient of effects that change as you move away from it. Those effects are constantly modulating, but they still produce boundaries: there is an “exterior,” a threshold where the campfire no longer has influence; and there are interiors, different regions of space that provide atmosphere. The mesmerizing flicker of the flames, the dancing shadows and drifts of smoke, foster safety, warmth, activities and community. The campfire is, for Lally, a spectrum of energy tuned to human perception and use.
“Material energies are what I’m calling energy when it’s seen as a building material, much like steel and glass before. Both steel and glass didn’t reproduce architectural spaces and forms like we had before, those materials in the hands of architects gave us new typologies, aesthetics and spatial organizations. Energy, for a number of reasons, should be approached much the same.”
For Lally, Banham shifts architecture from a building system to a system of control that modifies, conditions and regulates, in which the air itself is latent with design potential. Lally refers to this potential as material energies, a field of aesthetic and affective, material and immaterial, effects that allow atmosphere and energy to be used as design tools. Lally wants to rethink our approach to the idea of energy as a critical means to meet climate change and resource depletion, to create not just new experiences but to catalyse responsibly evolving environments. But we need new approaches to the problem to find better solutions. Viewing our environment in this way changes our assumptions of how we inhabit, manage and build that environment. It requires a fundamental shift in how architecture is defined. Architecture, Lally believes, is no longer about making physical boundaries that the human body can perceive. The territories and devices developed by Lally and his team at Weathers are in continuous exchange with their inhabitants and their surroundings.
"I think architects that believe reducing building energy needs as our greatest technological or moral contribution are stuck in an out-dated model of the discipline. It’s like worrying about the air bubble in a glass of water when it’s the chemical composition of the water that is the greatest variable in play.”
“Both the materials we have available to us and how the human body perceives them are changing,” Lally notes. These emerging technologies allow us to “explore new opportunities for how we design and build the environments we live in, and the environments and lifestyles they foster.” Lally believes we have yet to fully question the opportunities, or even speculate upon the implications, that such research will have on our spatial, formal and social constructs. But to take on this challenge is imperative, “With the imaginations of what could come and the existence of tools within our own and parallel disciplines that permit us to operate upon such criteria, it must now be our position to engage such an opportunity with generative and projective research.”