Ahead of the curve

Anyone who has attended a big art fair knows that trudging up and down the seemingly endless aisles of booths can be dizzying and disorienting. Didn’t I just see that Murakami? Or have I ended up back where I started?

Finding solutions to such hazards was the challenge put to Solid Objectives – Idenburg Liu, SO-IL for short, the four-year-old Brooklyn-based architecture firm charged with designing the tents for Frieze Art Fair’s first New York edition in May.

Founded by Dutch-born Florian Idenburg, 36, and his Chinese-born wife, Jing Liu, 31, SO-IL has been steadily gaining a following. Idenburg came to SO-IL with art-world cred: he served as project architect on the critically acclaimed New Museum in lower Manhattan. He and Liu then quickly won the Museum of Modern Art/PS 1’s prestigious Young Architects Program with a summertime project that was essentially a playground for grown-ups, complete with colourful yoga balls that visitors could roll on an overhead net, and a splash pool. It was, they admit, heavily inspired by their two small daughters.

“The great thing about working in the art world is that ideas matter,” says Idenburg. “It’s not just about maximising square footage.”

Still, when they landed the Frieze gig last May, Liu and Idenburg had never been to Frieze in London, where it began in 2003. They’d also never been to Randall’s Island, the fair’s New York home, which is known locally, if it’s known at all, as the out-of-the-way site of children’s baseball and football games. As their first bit of research, “we took the whole office there for a picnic,” Liu says with a conspiratorial giggle.

The architects were taken with the spectacular views of Manhattan from the East River island. They worked on preserving those views for fair-goers within the confines of a rather bland, ready-made, rectangular tent. Idenburg says they saw their mission as making it “fun to go there on the weekend, without going home with an Anish Kapoor on the boat”.

“I would say we drew 60 versions of the fair,” says Liu. “This is really a precise science,” she adds, referring to the strict guidelines for large, medium and small gallery booths. The solution was to “break up the tent in smaller pieces and insert these wedges,” says Idenburg, pointing to a model, and “give more an idea of neighbourhoods.” The 1,500ft-long tent is now articulated, snaking through the riverfront park. The “wedges” feature transparent skins, enabling fair-goers to enjoy both natural light and the fabulous views. Some open on to terraces.

Frieze’s founders Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover, who’ve worked with cutting-edge architects such as David Adjaye on the London edition, took a little persuading. But now Slotover says: “Jing and Florian just had really fresh ideas. No one has ever done a curved art fair before. It’s going to be very elegant.”

Founders Jing Liu and Florian Idenburg

Liu and Idenburg also decided to give each stretch of tent a different colour, so that fair-goers will be able to orient themselves by identifying blue or yellow or other sections. Circular benches in the wedges’ common areas allow 360-degree people-watching.

SO-IL have also created an outdoor sculpture garden with a view, an area for 10 of New York’s beloved food trucks, and, no doubt to the delight of many galleries, two separate entrances, one by the ferry and the other where cars will drop people off. “Basically, everyone wants to be near the entrance,” says Idenburg.

SO-IL’s contract with Frieze New York is for two years, and Liu says they will continue to refine their concepts in 2013. “It’s almost like an election,” she says. “There’s only so much you can do in one term.”

The project that may make SO-IL’s strongest statement to date is the Kukje Gallery in Seoul, South Korea. The contemporary gallery wanted its newest space in the city to house large-scale installations by its global stars. SO-IL proposed building an entirely empty box, pushing all the extras, including staircases and entrance, outside, “like mushrooms, fungus, attached,” says Liu.

After a Korean SO-IL staffer unearthed an ancient painting of the site, depicting then-rolling countryside in gentle strokes, or what Idenburg describes as Korean art’s typical “level of fuzz”, SO-IL suggested softening the hard-edged box. “We thought, ‘What if we shrink-wrapped the building in a permanent fog?’ ” Idenburg says. “The client said, ‘Great,’ but we had no clue what it was [made of].”

The pair came up with chainmail and took to the internet to find a company capable of manufacturing 500,000 hand-linked rings strong enough to withstand a typhoon. One false start in a small metalworking Chinese town eventually led them to a company that could do the job. The mesh skin is being installed in anticipation of the gallery’s April 5 opening.

“This is a pretty crazy endeavour,” Idenburg admits. “It would be hard to do this for someone who doesn’t understand art.”

Liu and Idenburg met in 2000, when she interned at architectural firm SANAA in Japan. A couple of years later, they ran into each other in New York, where Idenburg was working on the New Museum. They began dating, married in 2006 and started SO-IL in 2008, just before the financial meltdown.

The economic downturn has presented its share of obstacles. One dream project, a country house for design guru Ivan Chermayeff, was cancelled “at the moment we were about to dig a hole,” says Idenburg. The firm won a competition to design student housing in Athens that, he notes with a raised eyebrow, “is obviously not going to be built.”

Even so, the couple’s shared optimism is clearly the prevailing mood in their airy studio. Post-bubble, Idenburg argues, “was the perfect time for something new”.

Though each has one foot in academia – Idenburg commutes to Cambridge, Massachusetts, twice a week to teach at Harvard, where most of SO-IL’s staff were educated, and Liu has taught at Columbia – both are also determined to see their ideas converted to reality. To that end, they have actively pursued projects that are less than flashy or high-profile.

Take the upcoming community centre in the tiny Belgian coastal town of Koksijde. Even the mayor asked them why they entered the competition. It certainly wasn’t for the money. Idenburg jokes that “it pays, like, $200 a month”. But he says: “We very much enjoy doing buildings the public can enter and enjoy, not just look at. The spatial experience matters.”

As Idenburg shows off a model, he explains that adults and youngsters have distinct clubhouses, intentionally separated by a broad courtyard. “We wanted to give [teens] the possibility to leave. They can smoke cigarettes behind the wall. People are going to be kissing for the first time here for sure,” he says, pointing to a private corner.

Idenburg and Liu are aware that as their reputation grows, they’ll be fielding offers from wealthy clients, which has its downside. For now, they appreciate that their clients know what they’re getting.

“We’re not a household name,” says Liu. “People who call us have done their research.”

Frieze New York, May 4-7 www.frieze.com

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.