September 30, 2022

Fantastical for Real: Creatures Are Stirring Embraces Architecture’s Creaturely Qualities

5 min read
Fantastical for Real: Creatures Are Stirring Embraces Architecture’s Creaturely Qualities

Photo: “Creatures Are Stirring: A Guide to Architectural Companionship” by Joseph Altshuler and Julia Sedlock, photo by Brian Griffin

When Joseph Altshuler and Julia Sedlock first met they realized they had one thing in common: they both enjoyed designing buildings (and other things) that loosely resembled animate creatures—“architecture that was prone to zoomorphism and other morphisms,” as they call it.

Altshuler, cofounder of Chicago-based design practice, Could Be Architecture, founding editor of architectural literary magazine SOILED, and assistant professor of architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is known for designing spaces, things and happenings with a dash of playfulness. Julia Sedlock, co-founder of Cosmo Design Factory, is pushing the boundaries between the probable, the possible and the unlikely. Beyond working with clients, she leverages design thinking as a tool for community development and activism, and alongside neighbors and local government she imagines and creates a more equitable and inclusive environment in the rural village of Philmont, New York.

Photo: “Creatures Are Stirring: A Guide to Architectural Companionship” by Joseph Altshuler and Julia Sedlock, photo by Brian Griffin

“While the world is facing numerous political, social and environmental crises, we think that cultural practices like art and architecture play an important role in offering new perspectives about how to think about these issues,” they say about their collaboration. “We decided to dig deeper into the potential of this topic, interrogate our assumptions and aspirations, and eventually, to write a book about it!”

The authors talk about “Creatures Are Stirring: A Guide to Architectural Companionship,” an optimistic manifesto that re-scripts the anthropocentric narratives of Western architecture with new myths for a playfully compassionate and co-habitable future. By embracing architecture’s creaturely qualities they reconceptualize buildings as our friends. Between reality and the fantastical, the book will make you rethink architecture, the built environment and humanity at-large.

Photo: “Creatures Are Stirring: A Guide to Architectural Companionship” by Joseph Altshuler and Julia Sedlock, photo by Brian Griffin

Tell us about “Creatures Are Stirring” and the concept behind it.

As young architecture practitioners just out of grad school, we individually and independently enjoyed making designs (for buildings and other things) that loosely resembled animate creatures—architecture that was prone to zoomorphism and other morphisms. This was a moment in time (early 2010s) when a cohort of younger architects and designers were starting to revisit the symbolic and graphic games played by certain postmodern architectures of the 1980s. We suspect this is a reaction to an older generation’s (many of our teachers) skepticism and outright dismissal of these interests and ideas as purely decorative and frivolous.

When we met each other and discovered that we were each pursuing work with similar formal qualities, we were inspired to work together to unpack the broader cultural significance of this affinity, and hopefully refute the assumption of frivolity. Maybe the animal-like architecture we were making wasn’t just cute or whimsical or idiosyncratic, but perhaps it pointed to new forms of agency for architecture, and to ways that both its producers and audiences could access different or new versions of our own humanity by connecting with a wider range of animate beings. While the world is facing numerous political, social and environmental crises, we think that cultural practices like art and architecture play an important role in offering new perspectives about how to think about these issues. We decided to dig deeper into the potential of this topic, interrogate our assumptions and aspirations, and eventually, to write a book about it!

Photo: “Creatures Are Stirring: A Guide to Architectural Companionship” by Joseph Altshuler and Julia Sedlock, photo by Brian Griffin

Serving as “a guide to architectural companionship,” the book makes one rethink the relationship between humans (and nonhuman lifeforms) and the built environment. Can you talk about using humor as a way to deliver a more serious message?

The seriously playful tone of the book is intended to empower designers and broad audiences to reconfigure their relationships to the designed environment akin to the effortless bond that children develop with plush toys and imaginary friends. One thing that children and comedians have in common is the ability to look at the world with a perspective that is free from preconceived notions about the way things should be and to make disarmingly raw observations that upturn pretense. Humor can make us uncomfortable because it forces us to look at things that we don’t necessarily want to look at, but when done well it reminds you that we are all laughing together at ourselves, not at each other in a mean spirited way. It is a generous, lighthearted way to be honest with ourselves about the nature of our shared reality. If we can bring that sensibility to architecture and our built environment, then perhaps we can start to understand our shared flaws and potentials in a way that allows us to build new, different, and more hopeful collective experiences (even if they make us uncomfortable).

Photo: “Creatures Are Stirring: A Guide to Architectural Companionship” by Joseph Altshuler and Julia Sedlock, photo by Brian Griffin

What are you hoping the reader will take out of “Creatures Are Stirring?”

We hope that “Creatures Are Stirring” will encourage readers to pay more attention to the relationships they share with the built spaces of their everyday lives as well as their imaginary lives. On one hand, the structures that we live, work and play within or alongside make a deep imprint on our state of mind, both consciously and unconsciously. We hope that by seeing these structures and spaces as companions, readers will become more aware of the ways they impact their life, their mood, their creativity, their other relationships, their capacity for play. As a result of this awareness, we also hope that readers will start to ask more from these spaces, to imagine other ways that their built environments can enhance their lives, or other ways that architecture can facilitate relationships in their communities, or make connections with other creatures anywhere in the world, whether human or nonhuman. In our most aspirational moments, we hope that people can start to see how the local influence of the architecture that they encounter in the most intimate moments of the day can be part of a much wider network of relationships and companionship beyond their immediate surroundings.

Find “Creatures Are Stirring: A Guide to Architectural Companionship” online here.

Fantastical for Real: Creatures Are Stirring Embraces Architecture’s Creaturely Qualities