Ambiguous by Design: SO-IL

Ian Volner

SO-IL’s Kukje Gallery—K3, Seoul. Photo by Iwan Baan.

Architects Florian Idenburg and Ilias Papageorgiou push open the door to the roof of their Brooklyn office, only to be nearly knocked back by a heavy pulse of heat. It is July in New York, and the world is on the broiler setting.

Scanning the ever-rising skyline of downtown Brooklyn, the two take a moment to catch their breath. Finally, Papageorgiou speaks: “It is incredibly hot.”

For him, it is a rare instance of stating the obvious. SO-IL, the firm Papageorgiou and Idenburg share with partner Jing Liu (who also happens to be Idenburg’s wife), are architects with an immunity to the expected, and seem to delight in throwing their audience off-balance. Founded in 2008, the office reflects the hip cosmopolitanism of its hometown while embracing diversity: Idenburg is Dutch, Liu is Chinese, and Papageorgiou is Greek. The firm’s young associates are a similarly multicultural bunch, and what holds them together—besides air conditioning—is a shared commitment to architecture as an intellectual funhouse.


SO-IL principals Florian Idenburg, Jing Liu and Ilias Papageorgiou.

“We don’t see our world as necessarily ‘one’ or ‘continuous’,” explains Idenburg—an expression more characteristic of the firm’s gnomic, complex outlook. What that means is that their projects are often a half step off the beat, playing a game in which form and function are deliberately unreconciled. The game is especially intriguing in view of the fact that two of the partners—Liu and Idenburg—emerged from the offices of famed Japanese firm SANAA, where Idenburg took the lead on their New Museum building in Manhattan. In SO-IL’s recent projects, and in a suite of others coming down the pike, the firm follows the studiously smooth path laid down by SANAA, but has spiked it with a strategically placed speed bump.


Pole Dance for MoMA PS1, New York.

The first hint of this approach broke onto the design scene in the middle of a different heat wave, back in 2010, when the firm debuted its winning proposal for MoMA PS1’s Young Architects Program. Visitors to the Queens museum that summer found its front courtyard covered by a giant net strung just overhead, secured by 25-foot poles; within the net, beach balls hung alluringly, begging to be smacked. “It relates to an idea about openness,” says Papageorgiou.

That sense of elasticity—and perhaps a little confusion—is a theme in the office’s catalogue. Wrapping up work this year in Davis, California, the firm’s new Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art bucks the model of art spaces as sheltered sepulchers, creating instead a blended sequence of outdoor and indoor spaces that takes advantage of the local climate. At 50,000 square feet, the museum is vaulted over by a ribbed “Grand Canopy” that covers an exterior plaza and interior courtyards, striping both in alternating bands of light and shadow. “Galleries and curators don’t like daylight,” notes Liu. SO-IL’s determination to give museum-goers a bit of sunshine is a carefully calibrated assault on their own brief, and is what makes all their art projects seem so daringly non-conformist.


Kukje Gallery—K3, Seoul.

Perhaps the most succinct distillation of SO-IL’s knack for ambiguity is their upcoming custom line for famed furniture maker Knoll. A table that looks more like a multi-seat lounger; a chair just big enough that it’s unclear whether it’s meant for one person or two; a pouf whose ridged vectors suggest that anyone sitting on it will soon slide off—the eye-catching allure of SO-IL’s subtle subversions is obvious, but it hides a still bigger one: the suggestion that design is not, as a generation of architects has insisted, a rational tool for problem solving, but a beguilingly flawed and poetic social art. As Liu puts it, “We think maybe it’s okay to not to understand everything.”

Amidst all this confusion, and in the heat of an afternoon that seems to go on forever, there is one more thing that seems to float in the hazy realm of the unknown: the proper pronunciation of the firm’s name. Even some of the principals’ closest friends have said they don’t know the answer—and with good reason. There isn’t one. When asked, the team just laughs. “Which do you prefer?” responds Papageorgiou.


Photos by Iwan Baan and Andre Herrero.