A Conversation with Brandon Clifford
March 18, 2013
Stereotomy is “the art of cutting solids, more typically stone,” and the primary research interest of 2011 SOM Prize for Architecture, Design, and Urban Design Fellow Brandon Clifford. Recently, Clifford has served as the LeFevre Emerging Practitioner Fellow at The Ohio State University and is currently the Belluschi Lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A Principal in Matter Design, Clifford’s work can be seen at the Boston Society of Architects’ Design Biennale Boston from February 21 through May 2013.
Your report sets a high standard for anybody who wins the SOM Prize in the future.
It was a lot of fun to pull it together. I was very grateful to receive the fellowship and do the work.
Is there a stone mason in your family?
No. My grandfather was a carpenter and I spent a lot of time working with wood when I was a kid. I had no idea how one would work with stone, so I wanted to look into it.
How did you become interested in stereotomy?
At Princeton, there’s a history of stereometric research. The ghost of architectural educator Robin Evans lingered around the school and I came across it after doing the Foam Tower Project when I was a first year graduate student. It was an installation project where they asked for a 10-foot by 10-foot cubic volume but never stipulated a height restriction. So, I used foam and went 60 feet up. I used stereotomy as a way to carve and it was much faster and more efficient than most digital technologies. I started looking into references of other uses of stereotomy—and that spawned this research platform.
What’s your current career trajectory?
I’m full-time faculty, so I see myself as an academic researcher. Even this exhibition is part of my research. I’m here [at MIT] for three years.
Many examples in your report are very old. Is that because you haven’t found new examples of stereotomy beyond your own work?
I do have contemporaries, but I tend to reference ancient predecessors, skip over the industrial era and situate myself close to other people, like Philippe Block. I just published with Giuseppe Fallacara, whose new book is called Stereotomy: Stone Architecture and New Research. I think this research has taken off because no one is working with stone today and, if they are, they’re using it as thin veneer. They call it stereotomy, but it’s an effort to create thinness. So it’s much easier to make ancient references. Ancient projects are always volumetric, heavy—the ones that have lasted.
We don’t know much about the ancient structures that fell down.
How did you become involved with Design Biennial Boston?
I just applied. It was a very brief application, but I think they looked at my website and saw "Volume" listed there. Someone purchased it and they started reading it. They asked me to see results of the research done through "Volume" to produce the project for the exhibit, which is really a no-brainer for me. That was going to happen anyway.
And the project is a half-scale stair?
Yes, it’s a baby stair. The first turn is at eye level, so you can’t get your head under a single turn.
I would think you don’t want people climbing on it.
Yeah. There’s a history of these small-scale prototype projects, like Phillip Johnson’s Pavilion on the lake at the Glass House. Or in Italy, at Palazzo Spada, Borromini created a forced perspective—it’s like an Alice in Wonderland tunnel.
Is every piece identical and cast of concrete?
Yes. My business partner, Wes McGee, and I made molds and we’re going to cast 80 treads from those molds.
What’s the mold made out of?
The mold is rubber and then there’s a plywood mother mold around the rubber. So the rubber’s kind of like an offset of the tread. The mold is one of the most complicated parts of this. That’s what we spend the majority of our time on.
How long has it been now since you finished the research that became “Volume?”
The travel ended in August 2012. It took another month and a half to complete the report. And then sort of a back and forth with editing and things like that. So the report was completed in December.
How do you see the SOM Foundation award as an influence on your career?
It was a real opportunity coming out of graduate school with financial support to do research. If I was trying to get into academia and working a job and trying to do research on the side, it would have been quite difficult.