The third in the Lateral Thinking series, featuring trained architects who have moved sideways into other professional disciplines.
When I first heard that KMKG called themselves a studio for ‘transmedial architecture and design’, I was a little suspicious – the term appeared full of the potential for phoniness. In fact, it turned out that Fernanda Reis, Martin Kern and brothers Xaver and Geog Kettele are not only down-to-earth people who actually seem to enjoy the nuts and bolts as much as their creative design, but that the word ‘transmedial’ sums up what they do - and how they work - pretty precisely.
Last summer saw the completion of their Graz skatepark, for which they drew on 15 years’ personal experience of skateboarding. The City of Graz at first wanted to set up five separate, identical skateparks. KMKG were able to point out that not only was it more sensible to pour the budget into one bigger and better site where a unified skating scene could emerge, but that the initial plan for parks in different districts even risked creating a culture of rivalry and gangs. Now that the single site at Grünanger is officially open, KMKG visit regularly and are satisfied with what they find: it’s incredibly busy, but the atmosphere is easygoing. Skating, Georg Kettele says, is emphatically “not about who is the toughest guy... it’s about being the coolest guy, which means the best skater. If you go down to Grünanger Skatepark you will see everyone just getting on with it together, from teenagers on skateboards to young girls wearing headscarves on mini-scooters.”
In stark contrast to the skatepark project, they were recently invited by INNOCAD to take part in a competition designing the interior of the brand new ÖBB headquarters next to the Vienna Hauptbahnhof. Awarded a placing, their sophisticated concept focuses on opening up the offices with a ‘curtain system’ – actually 3.5 km of textile screens – that shift and turn like the points on a railway line, so that the employees can define and sculpt the space as needed. The screens are covered throughout in subtle graphics and photos of the Austrian landscape.
Then again, they were also commissioned by Creative Industries to come up with a bar concept for the Designmonat 2012 centre. This time, the challenge was to take a huge, draughty, unstructured warehouse with a low ceiling and terrible acoustics and make it into somewhere people would want to spend time - on a low budget. KMKG created a ‘room within a room’ in the middle of the space, covering the tangle of cables on the ceiling with netting, and building and painting much of the wooden construction themselves.
Another piece in the diverse mosaic of their portfolio is the iTree. The iTree is an iPhone and iPod docking station made out of a hollowed tree trunk. Designed in collaboration with master speaker-builders Trenner & Friedl, it uses the hollowed-out tree as a resonant body and the wall as a reflector. The wood performs like a violin, with resonant spatial acoustics. You couldn’t find a greater antithesis to the standard sleek, black docking station. Customers choose from a range of woods and lengths and can even take a ride through the forest and pick out their own tree. The iTree is then hand made by local Styrian carpenters. Surprisingly, iTree production consumes less wood than it does to build regular speakers, and the leftover wood chips are used for heating or as cushion fillings. This week the iTree will be at the ICFF in New York; last Christmas it was on show at the Wired store on Time Square.
This kind of product display is usually hugely commercial and expensive, however for the iTree it was by free invitation. In fact, although KMKG have yet to spend a cent on promoting the iTree, it has appeared in hundreds of blogs, numerous magazines - including Playboy - and on television shows across the world. As a medium, the blog is a natural arena for KMKG – a basically democratic filter that is not about how much money you throw at advertising but rather about word-of-mouth, and well suited to smaller companies with a hands-on approach. Typically, their experiences with blogs in spreading the popularity of the iTree has flowed straight back into other areas of KMKG’s work, and at the moment they are completing the programming themselves for an online management system for the TU Graz, and a tool for sharing creative architectural work to blogs and online media across the world, a natural link-up with an online press kit where the focus is on it being very fast and easy to use.
KMKG have not so much shifted away from architecture as spread an architectural attitude into all areas of life - and vice versa: their work is undeniably ‘transmedial’ and serves as a clear demonstration that architecture is not just about building walls. Martin Kern has just finished a thesis entitled Null Lux, about how light can function as an architectural urban form; KMKG is also working in collaboration with sound artist Gerriet Sharma on the architectural capacities of sound. Theirs is an across-the-board approach that permeates daily lives and reshapes space of all kinds: it’s about sculpting virtual space through software, creating interior design that invites its users to define and play around with their office space; it’s about the social architectural potential of a skatepark, about how blogs can re-shape and subvert ingrained social and business systems - and even about the potential for architecture to eradicate disciplinary barriers and bring down walls.
Fernanda Reis, Martin Kern, Xaver Kettele, Geog Kettele
KMKG STUDIO Graz