House of Cards

With six to nine typhoons a year on average, the Philippines is the most exposed country in the world to tropical cyclones, which cause serious devastation and force thousands of people to take shelter. During their fellowship at Solitude, the Philippines-based graphic designer Mica Cabildo and USA-based architect Stephanie Choi realized an installation, which reflects on tropical storms and their aftermath, from their very nature to the idea of what constitutes an emergency shelter. A discussion on storms, Brutalism, Hot Topic, first person shooters, and their first collaborative project, currently being exhibited in the vestibule of Solitude.

Mica Cabildo: Do you remember that day when we made plans to go to a café in Stadtmitte? My mother had just sent me an entry from the temporary shelter design contest she had organized, and I figured I could show it to you for consultation. I had this rough idea of making a shelter of some sort and covering it with a material that I could print on. What was the first thing that came to your mind when I told you about the project? What aspect/s of it were you interested in?

Stephanie Choi: At first, I was daunted by the prospect of designing an emergency shelter. Design for disaster is fraught with the best laid plans – what seems like a practical idea on the drawing table becomes impractical in real life. I thought in the context of an exhibition that we could focus on the material substrate to explore the idea of what constitutes a shelter. I wanted to avoid something that could be construed as decoration, as some kind of surface treatment. I was interested in looking at the entire cycle of the storm and not just the aftermath.

You’ve mentioned that there’s a discourse in the Philippines on storms, about how the storm creates a kind of mindset – could you describe this? How do you see your work situated in this, and/or what’s your position on the storm?

MC: The Filipino worldview, like most Eastern perspectives, is naturalistic and cyclical. It’s all about living in harmony with nature and accepting that nothing lasts forever; of course, this is a mindset that will keep a person sane and alive while living on the Pacific Typhoon Belt. I remember reading about how the people of the northernmost province had become so well adapted to storms that they can tell bad weather’s coming just by the way animals act and they can stay safe in their typhoon-ready mortar and cobble houses until the storm passes. No damage, no fatalities. This is not the case in Metro Manila, where I live. In most urban areas, there is no physical and mental space for this naturalistic way of living anymore. So when a typhoon comes, the city’s a mess. I think that was what I was struggling with when I came up with the storm project – knowing that after my residency, I would have to go home to that.
It was interesting how we went through so many studies in terms of material, form, and graphics for the installation. I think we also had some experience with practical ideas on the work table becoming impractical in real life. Do you have any favorites among the early drafts?

SC: I had never worked so closely with a graphic designer before – from the beginning it was important for me that our collaboration wasn’t divided, where I make a structure and you simply skin it. I think we had some individual ideas that we both brought to the project but as we brainstormed (sorry, had to throw that in there) together we developed more of a common language. My first impulse was to emphasize the strange dimensions of the space – it’s quite compressed by the stairs with these decorative fireplaces on either side (remnants and memories of original fireplaces). It reminded me of the stair vestibule for the Laurentian Library in Florence by Michelangelo – there’s an outsizeness to the stair that becomes awkward for the space, which makes it quite theatrical. I wanted to insert a very simple shape, such as a cylinder, into the center to make the space even more claustrophobic. I would still like to do this! I think another idea I liked that we scrapped was to create an imaginary territory, another archipelago by exploring the marbling technique in printmaking.

Maybe we should talk about our respective disciplines. I noticed you emphasize that not only are you a graphic designer, but also a printmaker. Making the prints with you for the installation was really a new way of working for me – I enjoyed the tactile attention to the repetition of the same motifs. Can you speak more about your view on printmaking and its relationship to your graphic design work?

MC: I learned screenprinting in my high school livelihood education class and I got into it because I wanted to make spunky little t-shirts that I couldn’t yet order from Hot Topic. Then after university, I started working with a local graphic design studio who were producing and screenprinting their own merchandise. I was with them for the first seven years of my professional life. So, printing has always been closely tied to my graphic design work.

Later on, I started making prints for personal projects, and it was no longer the case that every single print had to be perfect or exact copies of each other. I enjoy the rigorous physicality of the act of printmaking, and I’m interested in the interactions between humans and machines. I like giving emphasis to the human aspect of printmaking: the imperfections, accidents, interruptions, and evidence of conscious decisions on processes that were originally developed for mechanical reproduction and mass production.

I’d never worked as intensely with an architect before either! You’ve worked for multinational firms and have helped design hypermodern structures all over the world – what is your personal view on architecture? What kind of projects are you most interested in working on?

SC: I love that Hot Topic just entered the conversation! I used to go to a shop in LA called Retail Slut to fulfill my teenage punk rock needs.

Some things I’ve been thinking about here…

/getting away from the architecture cult of personality

/architecture is the built history of power – how to work outside a system of patronage/indentured servitude, how to circumvent the client/architect relationship. This isn’t to say that there are only negative relationships produced by the dependence of architecture on patronage, but that architects are often in a position of complicity.

At the moment, I’m most interested in working on collaborations with people outside of architecture. So, in a sense I suppose these are speculations.

Should we talk a bit about the installation itself? Since you left, I’ve also built a temporary structure next to the library (with the pieces from our little fire hazard installation under the stairs), trying to play with the more 3-dimensional possibilities of the modular cards. I like the idea that what we’ve created is a kit-of-parts that has a dynamic relationship with whatever space it is in. How do you see the possibilities of this kind of spatial print/drawing?

MC: Talking about architecture, power, and libraries: I remember having a conversation with you in the Landesbibliothek about Brutalist architecture. I train at the Printmakers Association of the Philippines studio, which is located in a Brutalist style theater commissioned by Imelda Marcos, whose husband, Ferdinand Marcos, held a 20 year dictatorship over the Philippines. In 1970, there was a period of civil unrest (a series of demonstrations and rallies) that became one of the reasons for Marcos’ imposition of martial law. It’s called the First Quarter Storm.

There is a gallery here with a ceiling almost twice as high as the Guibal-Saal vestibule, and someone suggested to me that house | cards can be installed there as a very tall but narrow pillar or tower-like structure. But I think what makes house | cards interesting is its potential to flow according to the room, guiding people around it, physically confronting their personal space with the prints, and enticing them to look into the installation’s nooks and crannies. Proximity is key, I realized, so I cannot think of it as a very high tower! We also had drafts of house | cards with more complex shapes – it would be interesting to play with that relationship of complexity between the graphics and the cards. What if the shapes were more graphic and the prints more basic? Or if both ground and print/pattern were based on the same shape?

What collaborations are you currently working on? How do you see these collaborations influencing or inspiring your future work?

SC: I just did a Google search – is this building called the Cultural Center of the Philippines? This structure looks incredible! And with such a sordid provenance! Brutalism really became the reigning aesthetic for civic architecture from the 1950s-1970s and, in this case, was co-opted by Marcos in his own bid to create a sham civicism in the Philippines. This reminds me of the Brutalist structures built by the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh. It would be amazing to bring house | cards to this space. Perhaps we could do a kind of Tower of Babel type configuration. I think a spiraling tower really fits the ideas and graphic language we’ve been working with. I would really like to continue playing with making the prints take on a more 3-dimensional aspect, whether it’s via the modular language of parts or something more figural.

I have a number of guests coming to Solitude in the next few months: a fiction writer, a medieval literary historian, and a non-fiction writer. With the fiction writer, I’m hoping to create some kind of dystopic future narrative involving crystals, dark/black transparency, PRISM, Edward Snowden, and »borecore.« With the historian, we have a project looking at the history of literature and architecture (and other disciplines) via the viewing lens of crystals, and with the non-fiction writer, well I’m not quite sure yet. I feel that these collaborations are essential for taking me out of certain assumptions within architectural practice.

Our own collaboration was also delightfully unexpected for me – what I really liked about it was that we come here as fellows with our own projects but, by virtue of hanging out, new ideas for things to make together arise organically. Things aren’t overly premeditated or thought out beforehand. I really liked the spontaneity. And here we have the space and time to figure out these random ideas.

It’s quite serendipitous that you bring up the First Quarter Storm, since we had first called this the Storm Project at the beginning. Was this political dimension also on your mind at first?

MC: Yes, it is called the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) – the studio is in the CCP compound but housed in the Folk Arts Theater. At one point, I asked you if our installation could be considered Brutalist, and you said it’s too happy to be that. But maybe without the prints, and if it were made of concrete? (I kid). A spiraling tower – that would be interesting. I can imagine it also like one of Filip Dujardin’s impossible structures.

Brutalism makes me think of the Panem Capitol in The Hunger Games, which is funny because as I was leaving for Solitude last autumn, I felt like I was getting shipped off to the Hunger Games, but the Akademie turned out to be its utopian opposite. People collaborate and are very supportive. I confess, however, that in my application, I mentioned I wanted to collaborate particularly with an architect or a fellow from the exact sciences. But shopping at Alnatura, browsing through art & design bookstores, and house | cards itself – yes it was all quite spontaneous!

The First Quarter Storm, or a political dimension in general, was also on my mind, but not largely so because I was not quite ready to make a work with a strong political statement. But it’s part of what we spoke about as the man-made storms, where storm can also be an active verb: She stormed out of the room, or the Revolutionaries stormed the Bastille. Maybe moving forward the political aspect can have a more visible influence.

You mentioned before that house | cards is the biggest work you’ve built yourself. In the building process also, you did a lot of the physically demanding construction tasks. How was the experience for you? How did you find designing for and working with cardboard?

SC: Ha, I don’t remember making that joke about our installation being happy! That’s funny you mention The Hunger Games… I recall early on in our residency, Karsten and Ariel had asked me to make a 3-D model of our Schloss building so that they could create a Solitude first person shooter game. Then fellows could battle each other in the hallways and studios of the Akademie à la Battle Royale.

Physically demanding – you mean getting up on the scaffolding to stack the cards? Luckily, I’m not afraid of heights! As an architect, you’re often building models in various scales to test out possibilities, so what was really refreshing about this project was working in 1:1, literally full scale. Compared to the anal level of detail I’ve had to maintain on past building projects, designing with cardboard was really relaxing! In my mind it was something more immaterial, like a 3-dimensional drawing, or something hovering between a drawing and a model. Regarding politics… I liked this idea of taking the form of a pedagogical toy (Ray & Charles Eames and Patrick Ryland) but deploying it in a much more intrusive or confrontational way.

Any last words before we sign off?

MC: A Solitude first person shooter game! That would make a great fellowship legacy, no?

Well, I really enjoyed working with you on house | cards, from white collar designing to assembly line printing to manual construction work. Who would’ve thought two petite oriental girls could create that massive thing? Oh and I just realized, with all those classic rock songs we had on our list of possible titles for the piece, we eventually did end up with something that also somehow alludes to a rock song. There is this infographic floating around the interwebs that says smart people listen to Radiohead.

Do you think the house | cards fashion line can give Hot Topic and Retail Slut a run for their money?

SC: I suppose that could be our retirement layaway!