Interview: Thomas Bercy

by Eric Zimmerman

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      Bercy Chen Studio LLP, Annie Residence
      Photograph by Mike Osborne

      Bercy Chen Studio LLP is one of Austin’s architectural treasures. Its numerous residential and commercial projects stand out as some of the most relevant and thoughtful in the city. The firm’s use of materials, its work with artists, and its blurring of the boundary between natural and built spaces has always peaked my interest. This conversation with Thomas Bercy about the firm’s practice took place in April 2008 over e-mail and the occasional cocktail party.

      Eric Zimmerman: When we first spoke, you mentioned you were trying to get artist Bill Lundberg to work with you on a project. Why did you want to work with Bill, and how did you end up incorporating his work into the building?

      Thomas Bercy: We are interested in the multi-disciplinary aspect of architecture. We believe that there should be more collaboration between architects and artists. Our work has been influenced by many different installation artists such as Donald Judd, James Turrell, Richard Serra, Gordon-Matta Clark, etc., ... and we were waiting for the right project to be able to pursue this exchange between fields. The project for which we engaged Bill is a private residence with frontage to Lake Austin. We used the reflective properties of copper, glass, Venetian plaster, acrylic and water to bring the surroundings into the house and to blur the boundary between the landscape and the interior spaces. Bill has worked ingeniously with different architectural elements, and we thought the house could be a great canvas for his projections.

      EZ: This idea of merging the landscape with the interior spaces makes me think of early 19th century glass and iron architecture and buildings like The Crystal Palace, for example. What you are talking about requires a certain amount of “slowness,” or willingness to let things unfold over a longer span of time than the normal quick pace of contemporary experiences of art and architecture, on the part of the resident/viewer. What are some of the ways, conceptually and in terms of your material choices, that you attempt to "slow" people down inside of your work?

      TB: Your question clearly evokes an important component of our architecture. We have extensively studied Asian architecture and are very interested in the idea of boundaries, and the importance of motion in architecture. Our projects follow Lao Tse’s principle of spatial continuum between inside and out. It is hard to distinguish where the house ends and the yard begins. Blurring the boundaries allows for a much more exciting space where both shelter and living amongst the landscape are intertwined. The house is used to frame the landscape, thereby emphasizing the contemplative nature of the architecture.

      Our material choices are closely linked with this idea of slowness and the idea that one has to wait to fully experience the intent of the work. We often utilize weathering materials as well as vegetation to more fully integrate natural processes. There is a sense that the projects are not complete once the architecture is finished, but rather once the vegetation and weathering processes have “caught-up.” Our use of reflective materials like water and glass further taps into this notion by setting up conditions that are constantly changing with the passage of the day. Moreover, the level of detail that we strive for in our work also speaks to the idea that you cannot fully experience the projects at first reading. If we are successful in this regard, one’s understanding of the work deepens with each visit and under differing natural conditions.

      EZ: For me these choices and ideas are especially poignant and evident in the Annie and the Tortuga Residences. In these residences the structure becomes a lens for really seeing and experiencing the world, and the world in turn does the same for the home. This concept is especially evident in the recreation room in the Tortuga Residence. Could you describe the room, and talk a little bit about how you understand this space in the context of the home and the ideas you mentioned in the previous question?

      TB: In the recreational spaces in the upstairs of the Tortuga residence, we had several objectives. First of all, we wanted to reconnect the interior of the house with the views of the lake. We sliced the roofline open through the attic in the same way that Gordon Matta-Clark cut openings through the abandoned structures he likes to mutilate. These openings became interesting spaces that can be used by the kids as reading spaces or a sleeping den. On either side of the cut, we sheathed the walls with acrylic sheets which are back lit and reflect the landscape and the sky, bringing the outdoors in. The vivid colors in the opening brings attention to the spaces and therefore to the views. We wanted to create the recreational spaces that are whimsical and playful, in order to make the architecture more approachable to the kids living in the house.

      EZ: So does the color kinetic lighting system play a role in creating that sense of whimsy and play? It is an interesting contrast, conceptually and materially, to the rest of the residence that contains a lot of natural materials, vegetated roofs, and a strong relationship to its setting on Lake Austin. The lighting system seems to reference the work of James Turrell—was that intentional?

      TB: We have been great admirers of James Turrell’s work. We have been fascinated by the way light seems to materialize in his installations. We also have looked closely at his sky rooms and his way to alter one’s perception. The purpose of architecture should not only be utilitarian. Pursuing abstraction has been a major focus of our practice. The abstracted nature of the space has a meditative quality, which allows one to escape reality not unlike being in Turrell’s tunnel in Houston.In a sense we are altering one’s perception of what a room should be like.

      EZ: This gets us back to this notion of "speed," or, "slowness," in relation to your work–not having something read instantaneously, or even come to a total completion until a point well into the future. Earlier you mentioned this idea of thinking about motion in relation to architecture. Could you talk about this a little, and how this idea does or doesn’t fit with your exploration of abstraction through your work?

      TB: Le Corbusier best explored the idea of motion in architecture. I was strongly influenced walking through the Villas La Roche-Jeanneret in Paris. The way one moves through the lobby of the house, and the interesting play between ramps, stair and balconies generates a stunning interior perspective. This “promenade architectural” is a concept that we follow with great passion. The passing of time is also represented in our work with the way the natural light comes into a space. In our buildings, we often open the façade with a narrow slit or thin skylight, which creates this light pattern mimicking a sundial. Finally, we like to think about the way a building weathers and we deliberately choose the materials that will transform with time. For example, we often use raw steel that we leave uncoated and therefore will oxidize – changing color and gaining subtle surface texture with exposure to the elements – or we use certain species of wood that turn silver as the UV breaks down the outer fibers. Vegetation is the last component that participates in the temporal nature of our project as it reflects the larger life cycle of growth and decay. All these aspects of our project lead to some interesting opportunities for abstraction to come in play.

      EZ: It’s interesting that you reference Matta-Clark and Turrell each of whom deals with this idea of ‘space’ in wonderful ways—when discussing the guiding principles of your architectural practice. What are some of the architectural sources that you gather from? Do you look towards architecture for similar things that you find in the work of artists?

      TB: Our sources and precedents are extremely varied. We often look at indigenous architecture from different parts of the world. As both Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright have pointed out, indigenous building solutions are often the best ones, since these solutions have evolved over centuries in order to best adapt to the local environment. In terms of artists, in addition to those you just mentioned, we also look at the work of Giorgio De Chirico and the way he exaggerates perspective to create an extremely powerful, poetic, and mysterious space in his paintings. We are not interested in the strict definition or separation of art and architecture. Both fields utilize space and materials to heighten one’s life.

      To see images of other projects by Bercy Chen Studio LLP, visit http://www.bcarc.com/ .

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