Like any number of creative professionals in New York City, Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture, the husband-and-wife team behind Asymptote Architecture, had long deemed it necessary to be “in the center of the center,” living and working in Lower Manhattan.
But five years ago, driven by SoHo’s increasing gentrification (and numerous tourists)—as well as the promise of an easier commute to their son’s school—the couple decamped to a recently finished apartment building housed in a former dry-goods warehouse on the Brooklyn waterfront. “We went through the wormhole,” Rashid says jokingly about the mental shift to another borough. “And we were like, Wow, this is okay.” After 20 years in the penumbral streets of SoHo, Rashid, citing the couple’s “Canadian upbringing,” notes it was “exciting to be able to see the weather change.”
So sold were they on life after Manhattan that they moved their offices as well, to an industrial building opposite MoMA’s PS1 in Long Island City, Queens—a bike or ferry ride away from their apartment. Whereas they’d managed to make do with a few thousand square feet in their former office, the new place, home to some 35 employees, has 15,000 square feet over three floors. Much of the space is devoted to the production and display of models of the firm’s strikingly sculptural work. “We wanted that factorylike existence,” Couture says.
For years, Asymptote was the quintessential experimental, multidisciplinary firm—its biggest projects, like a virtual trading floor for the New York Stock Exchange, did not exist in the physical world. “We were known in the virtual-reality field, the art field, the design world,” Rashid says. They were an architect’s architects. But that is changing, thanks to a surge in high-profile projects, from the Yas Viceroy hotel in Abu Dhabi in 2010—built around a Formula 1 track that now ranks second only to Monte Carlo in popularity—to the modern branch of Russia’s Hermitage Museum, soon to be built in Moscow, and a Missoni-branded residential tower on Miami’s Biscayne Bay, to be completed in 2019.
When the couple moved to Brooklyn, they took up residence in a space that was finished—at least in theory. “Essentially, all we did was erase things,” Couture says. (“Erasure,” Rashid adds, “can be very expensive and time-consuming.”) Rashid notes that he went out for milk one day and came home to find that Couture had punched a hole in a column near the entry. “It wasn’t even structural,” he says. “We realized it was only there so the developers could say there was a foyer.”
Another subtle intervention perfectly encapsulates how architects really do see the world differently. One morning, Rashid had Couture stand on a few phone books and look out onto the expansive view of New York Harbor. “I said, ‘Look at the horizon line.’” Standing on the stack not only made the water more visible; it changed the ratio of the horizon in the window frame to the more aesthetically pleasing “rule of thirds,” he says. And so half the living space is now slightly elevated.
The space is minimal and bright, aided by old factory skylights overhead and white wooden floors below. (Couture sent back sample after sample to get the right shade.) The objects that are there seem totemic to them personally or to their architectural practice. There are photographs by Filip Dujardin, who uses digital manipulation to create what he calls “impossible architecture.” A lone painting hangs nearby. “My father was an Abstract Expressionist painter,” says Rashid (whose brother is the product designer Karim Rashid). “I love his work, but because I grew up in a house filled with canvas, I just can’t put paintings on the wall.” A glass cabinet houses a Sony DV player purchased on Canal Street in the late ’90s, which displays what Rashid describes as “the world’s first digital sketchbook for architects.” They loaned such a device for the presentation of an early project—the Guggenheim Virtual Museum—and the sketchbook has since become a cultural artifact, presaging architecture’s seminal move into the digital world. “It was shown recently at MoMA,” Couture says, “and our son freaked out.”
The kitchen is dominated by a gravity-defying, cantilevered slab the pair designed. Overhead, like the glittering stalactites of some otherworldly cave, hovers the LQ chandelier they designed for Zumtobel, which uses the “mathematics of minimal surfaces,” says Rashid, to scatter LED light across silver plastic shards. In one corner, there’s an Eames rocking chair, which Rashid bought for Couture when she was pregnant. Next to it is a child’s version of a Bertoia side chair. A third completes the “family.” “You know how they say architects have too many chairs,” Couture says.
Dominating everything is the commanding view of New York Harbor. “The harbor always looks like it’s in slow motion,” Rashid says as we watch a huge ship glide by. In a playful flourish, they installed a mirror along one edge of the window, so viewers can see, at once, the historic structures of Governors Island and the Lower Manhattan skyline. “You can actually see history in the making,” he says.
Their work takes a similarly expansive view. Even as they are always investigating new technologies and materials, they frequently take a playful glance backward; inspiration is equally likely to come from higher-order math as avant-garde art. Their ING headquarters in Ghent, Belgium, uses parametric computer modeling to achieve the pattern of the exterior cladding—which itself is based on Flemish lace. The 2012 ARC-River Culture Multimedia Museum, in Daegu, South Korea, a dramatic elliptical ovoid structure that uses a high-tech polymer on its exterior cladding, takes its cues from ancient Korean bowls. The geometric cluster on the roof of the Hermitage branch is at once an elegant way to externalize and disguise the building’s infrastructural core and an allusion to the geometric artworks of Kazimir Malevich.
And for work being done for the next Architecture Biennale, in Venice, Rashid says he was inspired by looking back at the city as he left for the airport in a water taxi. “The wake of the water taxi,” he says, “looked exactly like a whale’s tail.” He is trying to work those “core mathematical principles” into a piece that will be installed in the church of San Lorenzo. While recent biennials have tended toward the dryly didactic, the couple says they aspire to spectacle. “I remember being eight and going with my dad to the Montreal Expo,” Rashid says, “and being in awe of Buckminster Fuller’s domes. If you’re holding the hand of an eight-year-old today, looking at an architecture exhibition should create the feeling of ‘I can build remarkable things.’”