Design Vanguard 2006

Studio Luz sheds new, inventive light on the social potential of architecture

Studio Luz Architects

By David Sokol

It’s a Friday night, and Diva Lounge is jumping. Friends converge around the rustic bar made of salvaged Vermont butternut wood and decorated with the random patterns of worm holes. First dates share Indian tapas as they marvel at the walls and ceilings entirely lined with illuminated panels that look like fat pillows. A bouncer checks IDs outside, where the club’s exterior features the same glowing, bulging surface as the interior. Welcome to downtown Somerville, Massachusetts, where the Diva crowd is as sexy as the interior.

Steven Holl, Frank Gehry, Office dA: With big-name architects making new icons for the Boston skyline, the New England metropolis is loosening its buttons. But it may be under-the-radar architects like Studio Luz, the designers of Diva Lounge on the city’s outskirts, that are changing the ways people interact with their environments and each other.

Click for complete slideshow of projects.

Pictured: Diva Lounge; Photo © John Horner

Read more: Studio Luz in archrecord2 (Sept.2004)

Indeed, interaction is fuel for Studio Luz principals Hansy Better Barraza and Anthony Piermarini, whose work negotiates experiences of community and introspection. Their Diva Lounge, for example, is a social facilitator. The butternut backrests of the banquettes are incised with the shape of a silhouette. The point, Barraza says, is for visitors literally to “rub shoulders.” The long, narrow lounge terminates in three bathroom pods, the interiors of which are too small to contain anything but the essential plumbing. With surplus space allocated around the pods, queuing up is less annoyance and more friendly, multigender social activity.

Conversely, exhibition installations diplaying the architects’ work, such as Terrain: Vulnerable Architecture, at Drake University in Iowa, and If…Then, commissioned as part of The Architectural League’s 2004 Young Architects Forum (YAF), foster intensely private moments. At the Drake show, images and collected artifacts were presented inside long chicken-wire cylinders mounted from quicktubes (cardboard forms used for pouring concrete footings), so that contemplating them meant disengaging with the wider gallery setting. For YAF, the architects clipped frosted acrylic elements, looking like toy viewfinders, to a structure of interlinking steel brackets. Of the amorphous shape improvised on-site, Piermarini says, “If…Then was an open-ended question, so we wanted to create an open-ended armature.”

These projects also highlight how Studio Luz applies quotidian materials out of context and repeats them to abstraction. Diva Lounge’s surfaces, for example, are actually common polycarbonate skylight bubbles. In the firm’s fourth-floor workspace in South Boston, visitors glimpse future iterations of this theme. One model, for Boston’s Union Square Performance Area, specifies seats made of 6-foot-long granite curb cuts that the city can later dismantle and reuse for sidewalks.

Piermarini notes the gritty circumstances of being a young architect, saying repetition-as-abstraction “is about making the design accessible. The reality is that many of our projects have very limited budgets.” With a long track record of ingeniously responding to budgetary plight, one looks forward to the day when Studio Luz’s resources are grander.

Originally printed in the December 2006 issue of Architectural Record.
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Founded: 2002

Design Staff: 5

Principals: Hansy Better Barraza and Anthony J. Piermarini, AIA

Education: Barraza: Harvard Design School, MAUD, 2000; Cornell University, B.Arch., 1997; Piermarini: Harvard Design School, M.Arch. II, 1999; Cornell University, B.Arch., 1997

Work history: Barraza: Practice—Office dA, 2000–02; Habitat for Humanity, 1999; Kennedy & Violich Architecture, 1998; Ricardo Bofill - Taller de Arquitectura, 1997; Academic—Rhode Island School of Design, 2002–present; Piermarini: Kennedy & Violich Architecture, 1998–2003; modA, 1998

Key completed projects: St. Martin Street Residence, Fitchburg, Mass., 2006; Diva Lounge, Somerville, Mass., 2006; Seiyo Sushi & Wine Shop, Boston, 2005; Kashmir Indian Bistro, Boston, 2005; W.O.W. Inc. boutique, Newton Highlands, Mass., 2004; Ombar Lounge, Boston, 2002; Harvard Mailslot System, Cambridge, Mass., 2000

Key current projects: Union Square Performance Space, Somerville, 2006–07; Acôté Salon, Miami  Beach, Fla., 2007; Mela, Boston, 2006; Community Hill Development, Leicester, Mass., 2008–12; Hope for the Children of Haiti campus, Port-au-Prince, 2008–14