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Oblique Balance: The Work of Bill Price

By J. Claiborne Bowdon

Our ability to perceive the world around us has coevolved with a desire to shape what we see.  We form unique, visceral responses both to what we see and to what we desire to see. This is a tendency within each of us, yet an architect will dedicate his life to realizing this desire through their creative vision of what a building can really be—both outside and in. Bill Price has made his career as an architect an exploration of a structure’s relationship to both its external and its internal environment, and how each influences overall form and design. Having produced work in eleven different countries over three decades, with international acclaim as much for his work as for his academia, Price is now applying the principles gained in his longtime intellectual foray to distinct new residential projects in Houston, joining astute recent theory with a renewing urban landscape…and continuing to pioneer brand new building material along the way.

Price’s signature rectangular forms perch along edges and corners of underlying substructures in a way that may seem out of place, and in a way, they are. The asymmetry of these structures, clad in corrugated steel, for example, is thrown into sharper relief by the introduction of an organic material at another level, frequently a rich timber. Rather than aggravating the difference between structure and surroundings, it softens and joins them. The buffer of wood on or below the structure and the air between the overhang and the ground break up an otherwise monotonous surface and allow the building to float over the terrain, solidly fixed but weightless. Price’s stacked designs are studies of dissonant elements that create harmony between seemingly disparate concerns, such as material and environment. If you take this perspective when viewing the breadth of his work, you’ll find that this balance permeates all of the diverse concerns of his work over the arc of his luminous career, with hints of it found in projects as diverse as Maison à Bordeaux, a widely documented private luxury residence once cited as “the best house in the world” and the 97m-long Air Dome he created for the 2008 Seoul Design Olympiad in response to the theme “Design is Air.”

Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist as famous for his struggles against political oppression as he is for his stunning conceptual works, has written, “Price is an architect who is driven by his desire to develop materials and to apply them in unexpected ways. Both his reserved approach to design and his passion for materials are demonstrated in his sculptural formulation of buildings…the duality of the two materials, coupled with the juxtaposition of the two forms, creates an elegant sculptural object…always attentive to the effect of layering, Price repeatedly explores the stacking of forms. By stacking dissimilar objects atop each other, he reveals his clear foundations in postmodernism, in which unfamiliar objects are often juxtaposed to create a tension or composition.”

The “two materials” in the project that inspired Ai’s comments were corrugated steel and western red cedar, but Price has applied the same tensive philosophy in pursuit of a material which itself seeks harmony among space, light, and structure: the astonishing notion of translucent concrete. Before Price established his own firm in Houston in 2001 he was head of research and development and a project architect/designer at the Netherlands-based OMA, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, under internationally exalted architect Rem Koolhaas. In 1998 the OMA team was looking at a model for what would become the Casa da Musica in Porto, Portugal. The model had been constructed out of a translucent white plastic. Koolhaas asked if it would be possible to recreate that same effect of light transfusion in an actual building. Finding the answer to that question set Price off on a tete-a-tete between existing realities and his own imagination for the last two decades, which has found him experimenting and pushing forward with the concept and application of a concrete-like substance that could also transmit light.

To accomplish this, instead of relying on the traditional binding component of concrete—cement—and support structure of steel rods, Price would replace both of these substances with transparent plastic. From there Price has experimented with different building techniques that would allow for the material to be used in smaller units, so as to maintain a strong surface tension rather than expanding it too far and weakening it, and the results have been both encouraging and ingenious. Price has not yet accomplished his ultimate goal of a pourable, liquid substance that behaves just like concrete, but he has been able to consistently move forward in his experiments and applications, remaining both theoretical and practical forerunner in a way that characterizes a rare breed of inventor.

Price’s work conquers our preconceived notions of how to appreciate and understand both space and structure. Should he succeed in developing the formula that will produce a true translucent concrete, his legacy will be one day be ubiquitous. Allowing the constant movement of light throughout a structure would be a significant leap forward from the mere arranging of apertures within the structure, which Price already accomplishes in extremely thoughtful yet more traditional ways (windows, door, even perforated walls). Meanwhile, his stacking designs give a unique, inviting shape to interior space while celebrating and emphasizing the outside world. Buildings not as shields, but as ways of existing within the world. It’s an engaging realignment of perception that Price seems to strive for—both humble and audacious.

While Houston has been the site of Price’s academic life for several years now, it is starting to figure more prominently as the setting for residential applications of his theory. If stacking is a way to deconstruct buildings in a way that makes them more balanced not only in a utilitarian sense but also co-environmentally (outside/inside), then his latest projects are homes that are fully open to and reflective of the loudening pulse of urban renewal in the city. Abolishing the superficial modernism of Houston’s recent design waves, Price’s new work here reintroduces architectural deliberation into the process of reinventing a city.