Currents — Temporary Architectures by SO – IL 

Beatrice Galilee




During a conversation about the temporary projects of SO – IL, the New York-based architecture office, its founders and directors Jing Liu and Florian Idenburg start laughing, a lot. "Wait a minute, isn't all architecture inherently temporary?" asks Liu. "Are we not — and isn't everything — eventually going to cease to exist?" continues Idenburg with a smile. 



maat, 10/06/2020 – 11/01/2021 


Exhibition design: SO – IL 
Graphic design: Geoff Han 
Text: Beatrice Galilee 
Video: Corinne van der Borch and Tom Piper

Currents - SO-IL


View of the exhibition Currents. Temporary Architectures by So – IL. Photo: Francisco Nogueira.

After ten years of running a firm, it is vital to keep an eye on the long-term. In the here and now, however, this exhibition addresses the specifically durational and temporal practice of SO – IL; the architectural works that are confined to a few days, weeks or months, reflecting a multiplicity of meanings in the atmosphere, attitude, and philosophy of their architectural practice.  


Currents presents twelve fleeting designs, from pavilions to performances, competitions, and sound pieces, each exploring persistent leitmotifs of the studio's work. In this small, focused exhibition (at maat, Lisbon, 10/06/2020 – 11/01/2021), you will encounter pairs of projects, each touching on multiple dimensions of a single motif. The voices of the architects will appear throughout, sharing the relevance of these very temporary projects in their own words with each other and with us. We will hear the origins of their signature styles, encounter references, homages, and books, and identify where else these ideas have appeared in later works. 


Through six different currents — An Open Work, Rethink the System, World Building, Kinetics and Canopies, A New Skin and Unravelling a Threat — we encounter the dynamic forces and soft transitions that ebb and flow in the life of one of the most exciting international architecture studios today. 

Currents - SO-IL


View of the exhibition Currents. Temporary Architectures by So – IL. Photo: Francisco Nogueira.


Pole Dance, New York, USA, 2010 
Blueprint, New York, USA, 2015


SO – IL’s nascent office took root in New York City in 2008, just as the global financial crash was unfolding. The effects of this massive destabilisation were felt across all cultural and social systems, and the young studio took this condition as the premise for their winning competition entry in the annual MoMA PS1 Young Architects Program pavilion. Poledance comprised a spatial system of a grid of flexible poles and nets that were at once interconnected and co-dependent as untethered elements that encouraged dance, movement, and spontaneity. This open-ended perspective required the public’s engagement to “complete” the experience of the installation and was influenced by philosopher Umberto Eco’s book The Open Work (1962). In the commission for the iconic non-profit space Storefront for Art and Architecture, the architects explore a different notion of openness: by shrink wrapping in white plastic an arts space famous for opening its doors to the street, the project forced its performative façade into stasis while generating a radical new space both on the street and inside the exhibition space. The approach of wrapping and veiling creates ambiguous forms and spaces that require interpretation, and as such, invite the audience in. Other “Open Works” in SO – IL’s oeuvre included in this section are the proposal for an art gallery in Brooklyn (Maujer Art Space) and open, unprogrammed public spaces of The Manetti Shrem Museum at UC Davis in California.

In Blue Print (SO – IL, 2015)


In Blue Print (SO – IL, 2015) a seamless sheet enveloped the opened doors of the Storefront for Art and Architecture. Photos: Iwan Baan.


Pole Dance (SO – IL, 2010) occupied the entire walled courtyard of an old public school in Queens that today houses MoMAPS1. The installation consisted of bungee cords, glass fibre poles and trapeze netting, pools and misters. Photos: Iwan Baan.


Pole Dance (SO – IL, 2010)


Frieze Art Fair, New York, USA, 2012 
Passage, Chicago, USA, 2015 


This couplet of projects explores bespoke short-term designs that skilfully use repetition and innovation to hack standardised systems in order to fundamentally alter the visitor’s spatial experience. On one hand, a pedestrian ramp at the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennale is transformed through a sequence of standard metal structural studs, creating portals and frames that change in height and proportion. On the other, the visitor’s experience of the first New York edition of the commercial Frieze Art Fair is opened up to include the river surrounding them through the simple gesture of a repeated triangular wedge which turned a necessarily boxy, Cartesian plan into a playful, snaking system. The assignment for both projects required a large, new and culturally engaged public to bring life and imagination to an otherwise generic and stale space. While all architecture projects — temporary or otherwise — seek to transform space, these elegant solutions twist and turn, referencing ideas and readings of the philosopher Paul Virilio and theorist and architect Claude Parent, who advocated for a holistic experience of architecture that transcends material aspects to centre around the body moving through space. SO – IL’s intervention in the Chicago Cultural Center made Parent’s notions a reality.


Frieze Art Fair New York (SO – IL, 2012)

Frieze Art Fair New York (SO – IL, 2012)


Frieze Art Fair New York VIP drop-off (SO – IL, 2012). Photos: Iwan Baan.


TřaŋşϦįŚϮơrĭa, New York, USA, 2012 
Pollination, Chengdu, China, 2011 


The professional trajectory of SO – IL has also followed the path of their family life in Brooklyn, New York. As first-generation immigrants, Idenburg from the Netherlands and Liu from China, the couple chose to build their architectural practice while raising their two daughters, an experience that required significant adaptability and a capacity to learn. In this current, we encounter the architectural ideas and actions of the studio that rely on the immaterial forms of building: in Transhistoria the architects commissioned and recorded a series of 13 stories that were spoken aloud to migrant communities in one of New York’s most diverse neighbourhoods. 50 volunteers participated in the installation and each story, written by a poet, writer or priest, spoke to the idea of belonging, relationships and the emotional bonds created through fictional, fantastical and emotional experiences. The studio also explored World Building in a guerrilla project for a biennale in Chengdu, China, which sought to generate random green life in the rapidly urbanising city. The studio’s scope for master planning projects and working with entire cities extends to recent projects in Miami, upstate New York and Hangzhou, and a hypothetical project The End of Fictionalism. 

Pollination’s seed bomb lab at the Chengdu Biennale. Photos courtesy of SO – IL.






TřaŋşϦįŚϮơrĭa site on a roof. Photo courtesy of SO – IL


TřaŋşϦįŚϮơrĭa site on a roof. Photo courtesy of SO – IL


Spiky, Beijing, China, 2013 
In Bloom, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 2010 


While temporary projects can be vehicles to experiment with complex thoughts and ideas, they can also be a place to perfect the simple things. In this pairing, SO – IL’s intentions are distilled to the basics: how to inhabit a space. A project that generates volume, light, shelter from a single sheet of stainless steel, Spiky exhibits both of these inclinations. When the cuts in Spiky are extruded they form a series of delicate conical shades, playfully mediating the environment and challenging its appearance as either shade or shelter. The unrealised pavilion In Bloom, realised in collaboration with artist Ben Kinmont, was intended to form the centre of a neighbourhood for a one-year period. Its canopy was designed to change in appearance during the seasons — from a petal-like shade to a crown or John Hejduk-influenced castle-like character — offering a lesson in semiotics and symbolism. A certain fascination for meshes, metals and canopies and their kinetic capacity to generate ambiguous, open-ended and complex spaces is a current that extends through SO – IL’s practice, appearing at the Manetti Shrem Museum, Long Island House, and the Kukje Gallery in Seoul. 

In Bloom model, 2010


In Bloom model, 2010


Breathe, Milan, Italy, 2017 
L’Air Pour L’Air, Chicago, USA, 2017 


An important quality of impermanent architecture is its capacity to offer both architect and user space to fantasise and confabulate. In A New Skin, SO – IL invites us to reimagine the ways in which the exterior material of architecture — its skin — can experiment with forms and operate in playful and thoughtful tandem with its environment. For Breathe, a speculative ‘home of the future’, the studio stretched intelligent pollution-filtering fabric across the entire structure, creating a porous light-filled spatial experience for its imagined occupants. Each room was stacked upon the next, offering the potential for the skin itself to change with different conditions and to radically question individual tolerance and capacities for physical and emotional transparency. The architects also sought to question the relationship between body, self and the environment we breathe in through the intimacy of the home in the performance L’air pour l’air, developed in collaboration with artist Ana Prvački and in which a related skin and familiar geometry are seen at a human scale. An ensemble of four musicians wore a mesh fabric suit that was intended to purify the air for an unearthly performance in Chicago’s Garfield Park Conservatory, with the performers moving through space and conjuring imagery of the extremities of our search for purity, privacy and survival. 

L’Air pour l’Air (SO – IL, 2017).


L’Air pour l’Air (SO – IL, 2017)

View of the exhibition Currents, the section dedicated to Breathe (SO – IL, 2015). Photo: Francisco Nogueira


View of the exhibition Currents, the section dedicated to Breathe (SO – IL, 2015). Photo: Francisco Nogueira


Tricolonnade, Shenzhen, China, 2011 
Into the Hedge, Columbus, USA, 2019 


Throughout this exhibition, many formative influences of the studio have been revisited, from the recurring presence of Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer, to contemporary authors and philosophers. In these final projects, both commissioners and designers pull further at the threads of history, using installations to examine and recontextualise important historical figures and ideas. The Tricollonade project at the Shenzhen Biennale (2011) was part of a historical re-enactment of Strada Novissima, an iconic exhibition organised by Paolo Portoghesi for the first Venice Architecture Biennale (1980). For their installation, SO – IL took as their starting point the idea of the façade itself, presenting a colonnade reinvented as a marble and mirror prism. In Columbus, Indiana, a city famed for its support of modernist architects, SO – IL worked with a paragon of modernism in the US, the Eero Saarinen-designed Miller House and Garden (1957). The installation Into the Hedge diverted 130 Arbor Vitae trees that were destined to be planted in the garden of the Miller House itself and temporarily relocated them to the lawn of the city’s courthouse, creating a maze-like installation interwoven with brightly coloured nylon webbing that uses the colour palette from the house’s interiors, all chosen by Saarinen’s favoured graphic designer, Alexander Girard.




Beatrice Galilee is a curator, critic and cultural consultant specialising in the field of contemporary architecture and design. She is the founder and executive director of The World Around, a New York-based conference and platform for cultural discourse whose critically acclaimed first event took place in January 2020.

Founded in New York in 2008, SO – IL is an architectural studio led by Florian Idenburg and Jing Liu that not only produces permanent buildings but also thinks about architecture in relation to time and duration.



Into the Hedge (SO – IL, 2019)


A brightly coloured nylon webbing transformed Into the Hedge (SO – IL, 2019) into a large hammock. Photo: Hadley Fruits for Exhibit Columbus