Craft Contemporary Interview: James Leng
Our Digital Marketing Manager, Rudy Falagán, recently sat down with architect James Leng for a brief interview. Leng is the co-founder of the architectural firm Figure, which is currently installing their project Veil Craft in the Craft Contemporary courtyard as part of a collaboration with Materials & Applications. Veil Craft opens July 17th from 11am-5pm.
Veil Craft is funded by the Graham Foundation and also supported by the Pasadena Art Alliance.
R: Okay, so — I figured we could just start it off with talking a little bit about yourself and what you do at Figure.
J: Okay, well, Figure is an architecture / design firm and I founded it with my business partner Jennifer Ly in 2018. We’ve been friends for a long time, we went to undergrad together and grad school. So, it sort of came out of a longstanding friendship. We had never worked together, so in 2018 we decided to give this a try. It started more informally, with a series of speculative projects, but have since then been building towards a more, let’s say, real practice of building and being very invested in the act of building things. You know, manifesting things in their physical form, in the real world, because we think that’s really powerful in many ways. So, yeah, this project Veil Craft is one of those things which is building, but building in a very unorthodox way and building in a speculative way at the same time. I think there’s many things that we can explore through that, which is quite important to us. So we do fairly normative things, like renovating someone’s bathroom, but also more fun and speculative work that allows us to project towards futures or ideas that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to explore and think about.
R: Mhmm. Yeah, that’s really cool.
R: As somebody that’s kind of just learning about Veil Craft I think it’s super interesting. So I also wanted to ask a little bit about the inspirations behind Veil Craft, just because I read a little bit from the proposal, but just for you to speak a little bit more on that.
J: Yeah, so Veil Craft has been a really interesting process. The project really started in 2019, when we submitted our proposal to Materials & Applications' initial request for proposals. We’ve always been admirers of their work in LA and the way that they’re able to use these types of installations and projects to foster a kind of discussion and dialogue. So, at the time they did a series of projects surrounding construction, one of which was staging construction, and we thought it’d be interesting to use that as a jumping off point for this project — for that to be a continuation of something that they had already been thinking about as an organization and talking about with other artists.
That was kind of an initial genesis: how do we look at the processes of construction, of the materials and aesthetics of typical construction, to interrogate it or maybe change it or reframe it in a different way? We came upon this idea of using scaffolding and scaffolding textiles for the site, because that type of aesthetic — where you drive down any major boulevard in LA and you just see scaffolding you just see fabric and the green, sometimes orange or black — and it’s just there, you don’t really question it. It’s just kind of an everyday aesthetic of the city that’s always in construction, and no one really thinks about it. Part of that was that even though construction is happening everywhere, it is very much kept out of the public’s awareness or mind’s eye. Literally, the construction textiles are meant to keep people out: this is a construction site, do not enter, you do not belong here, you’re not a part of this. So there’s a very exclusionary or exclusive type of mentality when it comes to putting up a boundary between the public and something that’s in construction. We thought it would be really interesting to invert that, to remake the courtyard in a way that invited people into this seemingly unfinished site of construction — but then to use it as a venue to begin discussing these topics of building in LA, who are we building for, things like that.
At the same time, the fabric component, the textile component of it, actually became more and more interesting to us. The fabric itself, how you manipulate the fabric to produce an aesthetic effect, the different associations people have to fabric. Also, the idea of craft — there is a lot of labor involved in the craft of fabric, the crafting of fabric, a lot of handedness. In a way, it became a projecting of using this fabric to both veil — to hide away, to conceal — as well as a way to reveal certain things, because the courtyard itself has such a rich history. It wasn’t about cladding it in material and hiding its history, but in fact using the fabric as a selective canvas so that you can reveal some moments of materiality or material intersection in a more curated way. That was a very long way to say that that’s the original genesis of the project —
J: — and we were going to build it, but then the pandemic hit and so at that point it gave us a lot of time to think about the project a little more. I think during that time M&A was continuing to have certain programming that was pretty profound in some ways — like with the heat wave in LA, their project Heat Aid providing shade, providing water to people, like realizing how inequitable these resources are to people. So we look at how we are using fabric and how we are providing shade to the public, which is kind of interesting. Furthermore, a lot of social unrest and new awareness about inequality and all of these things happened in 2020, which made us think more about the politics of gender and labor. That pushed us to explore the manipulation of fabric even more.
The idea of pleating came to us in that process of reflection, because pleating is such a labor-heavy act, but it’s also an act of celebration in a way. It’s decorative, it’s ornamental, it has an association to the domestic environment. It’s interesting to imagine that you’re entering this construction site but all of a sudden you feel like you’re in a domestic space — I mean, at a very different scale, but that you find this familiar textile technique at the scale of a building. You might normally find it in your living room or on what you’re wearing, like a dress. So, thinking about this installation, the scaffolding, as almost like a body — thinking about the body in different scales, like the individual body, the public body. With the pandemic, we all started to think about that very much, like with protective PPE and how we relate to different bodies and things like that. It’s almost like a garment that you can carefully drape over, or that the scaffolding would wear, and that we would attach it with a certain level of care like we were dressing ourselves, but now dressing a building. It’s slightly different than how you would typically dress a building, because in construction it’s all about expediency and you’re not really trying to make things pretty or do things with a certain amount of care. So those are the things we try to play into and also upend in some ways.
J: So that’s how the project has evolved for the better. We’re thinking about these techniques and textures, about patterns, and it’s made the project a little richer — at least I hope.
R: Yeah. I mean for me it’s interesting about the fabric as a garment, and also thinking about the idea of function with the construction aspect of it, the very innate function of having scaffolding — but now the pleating is here with a new function of dressing up the space, and also craft as function. I think there’s a really beautiful intersection between all of that. Also, just the masculine nature of the scaffolding and construction site with that femininity is a beautiful collaboration.
I also wanted to ask how it’s felt to see it begin to materialize in an actual space instead of a small model.
J: I would say it's always terrifying.
R: Yeah. *laughs*
J: *laughs* Especially because the scaffolders are so skilled and so fast. It leaves you almost no time to react. With more conventional construction, you’re like “Oh, it takes a year,” and things happen often too slowly. You’re like, “Well, this doesn’t quite look right, can we fix it tomorrow or next week?” Here, in one day, they got one and a half levels up. This is the end of day two, and they’ve already topped out. So in the last 48 hours, I’ve had to make multiple, multiple design decisions - and we’re a type of design team that likes to sit there and mull over decisions. It’s very difficult to make instantaneous calls. The [scaffolding] guy is up there, he’s about to put it on, is it right or is it not right?
It’s just grappling with the fact that you will never have a small scale model that’s exact to the physical conditions, like the field conditions. Like, we realized the real courtyard is slightly smaller than what we measured. That meant that certain elements had to be cut short, other proportions had to be adjusted. The back gate, that tree, is bigger than when we first had visited the courtyard and the scaffolding was running into it. All of these things, which are sources of stress, but — at least for me — also sources of delight. In building things, in making things real, there’s a great deal of, I’ll call them “serendipitous intersections.” Especially in that courtyard, where there’s so much going on architecturally already. The fact that the scaffolding comes really close to the tree, and it kind of pops out — I’m trying to maybe imagine that once the fabric is on you might see a few branches coming out of it. That’s awesome.
R: *laughs* Yeah.
J: It’s real. The world is not this perfectly blank slate that you get to erase. There’s also this moment where one of the pipes coming out of the wall has this vine growing out of it, and now the scaffolding has to weave around that and it almost looks like this integrated thing, unintentionally. I’m even imagining if the scaffolding stuck around and the vine just grew all over it, that it would be so cool. Just these unintended moments of reality that are actually delightful and remind us that we don’t build in a vacuum, that there’s already something there.
R: Definitely. Especially with construction being so preset and having all these formulas already put in place for efficiency, being thwarted by all of these different things. And also scaffolding as a temporary installation integrating itself with nature, like with the vine growing around and giving it a greater sense of permanence. I think it’s really wonderful.
I think that’s it for my questions - I had a fun one to ask just because we did an interview with me and our intern Josh, and one question I really like was: if you had a dream dinner party, who would attend?
R: *laughs* I know it’s a lot.
J: That’s a tough one. I might have to answer it kind of obliquely, and not in a fun way either.
R: That’s okay!
J: So, both Jennifer and I teach as lecturers at Berkeley.
R: Oh, my brother goes to Berkeley.
J: Oh cool!
R: Yeah. he’s civil engineering.
J: Awesome, our pair on the other side.
R: *laughs* Yeah.
J: I’m sure we architects piss them off, or civil engineers piss us off.
Something we had to grapple with, actually, this last year of teaching, was calling into question who our heroes are. It’s remarkable, and a big part of it was the students pushing for this, saying “Hey we need to look at other architects. Why are all of these architects fairly old European white men?” And we were kind of at a loss, because we were educated in that system, and we were taught that these are the heroes of architecture. I’ve got the idols that I looked up to when I was a student and even afterwards. So when you ask, “Who do you want to have dinner with?” I think, “Which famous architect do I want to have dinner with?” But then, at the same time, I’m like, “Well, are these people still the same heroes that I want to be with?” I actually don’t know. It just means that currently I don’t know who my heroes are, which might not be a bad thing actually.
R: I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think especially right now there’s a lot of questioning about the canons that have been built up, so it’s a lot about people beginning to realize that you have to carve your own way through these canons in order to make a space for yourself and who you’re representing. So I don’t think it’s a bad position — I think there’s a sort of awareness there that is kind of a gift in itself.
J: Right. I mean, do we really need a canon? In the way that it’s framed — I don’t know. It makes teaching more difficult, because you don’t have the same set of people that everyone is looking at. In a way, maybe that’s better. It’s a more dispersed and eclectic field of people that are all doing interesting things. I guess if I were to have a dinner party, I just want my friends here. *laughs*
J: Yeah, just invite all of my friends and have a good time.
R: Yeah! I think that’s wonderful — it’s a really great answer to it. Honestly, it doesn’t have to just be heroes, it’s who is important to you and that can easily just be the people around you, because that’s who you choose to have around you. It’s the community that you create.
That really just wraps it up, thank you so much for answering all my questions!
J: Yes, of course. Thank you!