“There’s a difference between BS and lying,” says Jimenez Lai. The Los Angeles-based architect is perched inside a three-story wooden tree house of his own design, outfitted with white fur rugs and installed inside a Santa Monica gallery space. “Lying requires the deliberate covering of the truth,” he continues, paraphrasing Harry G. Frankfurt’s 2005 book, On Bullshit. “BS, on the other hand, is a construction of reality that’s not real. But if you do it well enough, it can become real.” While architects are in the business of turning fantasy into reality, Lai’s construction of reality goes above and beyond erecting buildings. His soft-spoken demeanor and archetypal Warby Parker black-framed glasses disguise the searingly incisive humor that underlines his work. His first book, the elegiac 2012 “Citizens of No Place,” was a collection of critical essays on architecture and urban planning delivered as a stirring manga-style graphic novel where men make love to buildings and buildings skyrocket to 12,000 meters tall.
“It narrated the tragic condition of the contemporary architect that, driven by idea models, [he or she] seems at a loss when confronted with the current power structures of our time: finance models,” explains Eva Franch i Gilabert, executive director of New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture. “It pushes us intellectually to this historical edge, where we do not even have words left over to articulate the possibility of alternative futures, criticism and idealism.”
Lai’s cartoonist impulse translates into his built works, absurdist sculptures often made large enough for a person to recline inside. The way a cartoonist posits an opinion through caricatures with exaggerated facial features, Lai expresses his particular worldview through caricatures of buildings and visual puns: the treehouse itself, for example, outfitted with a neon lamp and potted plants, riffs on both clichés of Southern California life and 18th-century French Jesuit priest Marc-Antoine Laugier’s theory of “the primitive hut”—that the architectural ideal embodies its environment.
In 2008, shortly before he became an assistant architecture professor at the University of Illinois, Lai founded his firm and called it Bureau Spectacular, partly for its emphasis on the visual spectacle of his approach and partly for its compelling initials. Eight years in, Lai now shares the practice with his wife, Joanna Grant, and his largely conceptual projects have graced the Venice Architecture Biennale, where he curated the Taiwan Pavilion, the Chicago Architecture Biennale and London’s Architecture Foundation. Last year, he caught the attention of MoMA PS1’s Young Architects Program.
“Bureau Spectacular eschews easy categorization,” says Sean Anderson, associate curator of architecture and design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and one of the jurors who nominated the firm as a finalist in the program’s annual competition. “It breaks down hierarchies of the unknown and known through carefully considered, prescient whimsy.”
In Los Angeles, where Lai decamped in 2014 to take a teaching position at UCLA, his practice has begun the transition from the mainly theoretical to human-scale constructions. These include the interiors of Downtown L.A. boutique Frankie, where each retail fixture—the racks, the tables and the fitting rooms—fit together like puzzle pieces to form a staircase to nowhere, as well as his 52-foot-tall sculpture Tower of Twelve Stories commissioned by Coachella for the 2016 festival.
“I wanted a building with personality,” Lai says, describing the slouching caricature of an apartment building with no facade as “a stack of bubbles.” Hoisted on angled stilts, each “apartment” was a different size and shape, subtly referencing the writings of Louis Sullivan and Rem Koolhaas, and providing the backdrop for countless festival-goers’ selfies. This desire to create buildings with personality is a recurring theme in his body of work.
“Bureau Spectacular questions the repetitive rectangular forms seen in most urban cities and imagines an alternative,” says Jennifer Dunlop-Fletcher, architecture and design curator at SFMOMA, where Lai presents his first solo West Coast exhibition February 11 through August 13. “Jimenez has an affinity with architectural thinkers like Lebbeus Woods, John Hejduk, Italo Calvino and Archigram who were interested in proposals that were critical of the present state of architecture.”
His single-piece installation, insideoutsidebetweenbeyond, is a large-scale model of an urban landscape rife with exaggeration. In opposition to what he calls “character-less” buildings, he’s conceived a tableau of diverse characters: cartoonish mid-rise buildings with unusually large balconies and oddly-shaped window features. With the addition of human figures engaging in mundane, albeit California-centric activities like waiting in super-long lines for egg sandwiches and arguing over parking spaces, “The piece becomes a provocation within the field, as well as for the public,” says Dunlop-Fletcher—a spectacular form of BS.