UNIVERSAL ASSEMBLY UNIT: A Space Animation Studio Review

by Emily Hayden, AA 3rd Year
09 December 2014 Architectural Association, London   A professor at my previous school once asked me if I wanted to be the type of architect who builds buildings. I felt a bit trapped answering such a question, and possible answers began darting through my head as I recalled all my varied interests, some overlapping with the field generally known as “architecture,” and many not involving buildings. I thought of Lebbeus Woods’ bold declaration in 1993: “I am an architect, a constructor of worlds.” Decades later, these words by the late Woods, who never did build a building, continue to remain relevant when it comes to the ambitions of architects and students the world over who hope to leave their mark on environments of all types through all means of doing so.   During their lecture at the AA a few weeks ago, UniversalAssemblyUnit (UAU) struck me as a group of people who wouldn’t be nearly as anxiety-ridden when faced with such a question. Theirs is a deeply unique practice, both in person and on paper. UAU collectively describes a self-assembled group of four Diploma Unit 6 graduates: Oliviu Lugojan-Ghenciu, Samantha Lee, William Gowland, and most recently, 2014 graduate Zhan Wang. The group’s formation began rather innocently with a pact to meet on Monday nights and talk about ideas. Since then, UAU has evolved into a multidisciplinary studio bridging (or rather, blurring) the gap between media arts and architecture.   [caption id="attachment_3842" align="alignnone" width="360"]Chris Pierce introduces UAU as indicated on the screen Image credit: Maria Jose Orihuela Chris Pierce introduces UAU as indicated on the screen
Image credit: Maria Jose Orihuela[/caption] On the evening of Monday, 17 November they met at the AA. As we walked into the lecture hall for the second instalment of this term's “What’s Next” lectures, we were greeted by an unusual lecture setup: chairs facing toward Bedford Square and a series of four laptop screens projected onto a partition wall, each manned by a member of the group. The visual feast displayed bits and bobs from UAU’s projects, including photographs, animations, screenshots, and text, encapsulating the colourful dynamism and multidimensionality of their work. The lecture was conducted in the style of a discussion panel, with each member jumping in to explain projects and answer questions about the nature of their practice while modifying and adding information to the screens. UAU describes itself as working in the field of digital narrative, addressing the role of the digital realm in physical space, and extending the digital in order to augment the architectural environment.
The lecture began with a showreel, a compilation of their projects from Diploma 6 that serve as a foundation for their practice as UniversalAssemblyUnit. The short film mixes clips from each member’s work, showcasing a diverse creative language as a starting point for the practice. However, the group firmly emphasised that while they have a deep appreciation for cinematography, they are not filmmakers. So, what are they? The difficulty of answering that question is what makes their work relevant. UAU pursues multi-platform projects because they believe that experiencing work on an iPhone screen is inherently different from being seen on a laptop, or in a storefront window display. These virtual “sites” inform a critical approach to architecture in the digital age, and the changing way in which we interact with it. As I write these words and as you read them, we are inhabiting a powerful digital space that, while ephemeral, is deeply relevant to our lives as disseminators of information and experience.   [caption id="attachment_3840" align="alignnone" width="360"]Datum Explorer: a visual and binaural mapping of a forest in Sussex re-projected onto the landscape (and its creators) Datum Explorer: a visual and binaural mapping of a forest in Sussex re-projected onto the landscape (and its creators)[/caption] Universal Assembly Unit, like their lecture-cum-installation, is constantly changing. They are adapting animation from being a filmmaking tool into an exploratory method of prototyping spatial environments. They acknowledge that the digital revolution has changed and will continue to transform our lives at a rapid pace, and it is natural that it should also influence the way we envision space. Their ambition to push a medium to its absolute limit, uncertain of the outcome, is emblematic of the AA’s speculative approach. They point out that their work is a constant investigation of where their studio fits into the landscape of contemporary design. As a student it’s fascinating to see how a practice like UAU has evolved in only a few short years and to examine the variety of their portfolio, crossing multiple fields like fashion design, digital prototyping, installation, and application development. UAU has its finger on the pulse of global trends, sampling everything from gaming software to 3D scanning, almost always mixing tools and methods to reimagine multidimensional interactions between user and environment.   UniversalAssemblyUnit also touched on the constant balancing act of doing the type of crowd-pleasing work that pays the bills, and doing the projects that they feel very passionately will push the limits of digital media. Oliviu likened their creative process to that of carving a sculpture from a solid block, describing finishing the sculpture and being more creatively inspired by all the provocative debris that has fallen from the stone throughout the process. As a student I felt I could relate to their desire to develop a professional practice while staying true to their interests that originally flourished at the AA.
UAU finished by discussing Datum Explorer, an immersive project sited in the forests of Sussex. The project involved developing a digital simulation by 3D scanning the physical landscape and documenting the sounds of the flora and fauna in the form of a spectacular visual and sound mapping of the site. Incredibly, very real bits of a Sussex forest were meticulously recorded and transported to UAU's studio in Dalston. After augmenting their translated version of the environment, it was played back digitally and physically on site, complete with a binaural soundtrack of the recorded audio, as well as elusive simulated creatures claiming physical territory and responding to the user’s movement throughout the site.   For me, as I watched this lecture,  the most powerful aspect of UAU’s work is its ability to challenge and extend our perception of reality. At the AA XX 100 launch, 2007 graduate Julia King told us that her years at the AA “nurtured a broad understanding of what architecture might be.” Clearly King is not alone in this observation, as UAU is pursuing a similar exploration, albeit by very different means. The AA agenda encourages investigation of these deep seated, sometimes existential curiosities about where architectural work stands on a larger spectrum. As we’ve seen in each of the “What’s Next?” lectures, the career paths pursued by AA graduates are widely varied. While UniversalAssemblyUnit looks towards the future, reinventing architecture along the way, many designers are mired in the idea that environments must be physical, and that what is fantastical cannot be real.   [caption id="attachment_3841" align="alignnone" width="360"]The multi-screen performance meets installation in the Lecture Hall for UAU's What's Next lecture Image credit: Maria Jose Orihuela The multi-screen performance meets installation in the Lecture Hall for UAU's What's Next lecture
Image credit: Maria Jose Orihuela[/caption]   For more information: UniversalAssemblyUnit website UniversalAssemblyUnit lecture video Oliviu Lugojan-Ghenciu on Projects Review 2011 Samantha Lee on Projects Review 2012 William Gowland on AA Conversations Zhan Wang on AA Conversations Diploma 6 Unit Brief