Update: Lead Pencil Studio to Bring New Work to Doug Fir Lounge (June 16)

update by Mimi Price

Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo—the Seattle-based artist/architect operating as Lead Pencil Studio—certainly have Portland’s attention. Last year they transformed the eastside Portland skyline with their steel structures Inversion: Plus Minus, erected at the eastern ends of the Hawthorne and Morrison Bridges. The sculptures, often referred to as “ghost-like,” employ negative space to recollect Portland’s urban past. Built in the open rather than inside gallery walls, Inversion: Plus Minus provoked a variety of reactions, and left the city buzzing.

In a conversation with KATU.com producer and reporter Shannon L. Cheesman, Annie Han notes that, “it would be strange to make something and either everybody dislikes it or everybody loves it. It comes with the territory—especially when you are putting your work in a public space.”

This June, Han and Mihalyo will undoubtedly continue to elicit responses as they prompt Portlanders to yet again rethink the city with a multimedia performance at the Doug Fir Lounge. Their latest project, Dark Corners/ High F/ Mannequins / Ugly / Downer Boxes, “present[s] a series of parallel theories using noise, words, images, objects and actions to describe an alternate reading of the city” and will continue Lead Pencil’s tradition of captivating the eyes, ears and minds of Portlanders. They promise to “variously address the joys of upending distinctions between architecture, art, landscape, culture and history.”

The free event will be held on Monday, June 16 at 7:00 pm at the Doug Fir Lounge and is open to ages 21 and over. Further details may be found here.

Lead Pencil is consistently creating, experimenting and attracting audiences. Since The Bear Deluxe Magazine’s feature on Lead Pencil Studio, they have showcased a number of notable installations, including Without Room, a replica of a Greensboro, NC resident’s living room displayed at the Weatherspoon Art Museum in North Carolina in 2008, as well as After, a two-part installation exploring the medium of modern spaces exhibited at the Boise Art Museum from 2008-2009, and Retail/Commercial, a piece including various consumer-related materials (mannequins, shopping carts, florescent lighting) and erected in downtown Seattle’s Rainier Square Shopping Center in 2009.

Lead Pencil Studio has also been the recipient of several awards, including the 2008 Founder’s Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome and the 2009 New York Prize by the Van Alen Institute.

Here’s the original story “Double-Scapes,” by Molly Cooney Mesker, as it appeared in TBD #25 (2007):


Lead Pencil Studio Refracts Views of Built Environments

By Molly Cooney-Mesker

On March 8, 2007, a construction project was erected behind unassuming walls in a dark corner of the Exploratorium, an experimental, hands-on museum located near San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Delicate steel-wire structures adorned the downsized bare topography constructed with local dirt. A bent line of long florescent bulbs was suspended above a nylon archaeology grid that stretched over the miniature landscape. Awash in the florescent glow, Exploratorium visitors towered over the structures, absorbing the petite construction of Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo, founders of Seattle-based Lead Pencil Studio.

The installation, In Between, was another contribution to Lead Pencil’s ongoing exploration of earth movement and site preparation. Han and Mihalyo captured the uncertainty of a construction site through their ambiguous and unfinished structures.

“We have long been interested in and documented the earth moving and excavation portion of the construction process, the moment when a site goes from native and ordered, to earthen chaos,” says Mihalyo.

Han and Mihalyo met while studying architecture at the University of Oregon in the mid-1990s. As students, they began traveling through the rural Pacific Northwest capturing the decomposing skeletons of once-robust logging towns. Han and Mihalyo found themselves drawn to the disappearing conical structures of sawmill wood burners. In 1997, Mihalyo compiled the photographs of their sawmill studies and put together Wood Burners, a book investigating and celebrating the remarkable structures. In the foreword, architect Steven Holl echoes Mihalyo’s awe for the burners: “The phenomenally and haptically [tactilely] intense combination of light and space that lies within Rome’s Pantheon is echoed in the wood burner.”

With Wood Burners fresh off the presses, Han and Mihalyo were first demonstrating themselves to be architects more interested in studying space than creating conventional buildings. In 1997, they left the Seattle architecture firm Miller/Hull and started Lead Pencil Studio. Since their departure from mainstream architecture, the artists have been awarded an Artist Trust Fellowship from the City of Seattle, were selected as an Emerging Voice by the Architectural League of New York, and most recently were given the Prix de Rome scholarship for architecture (initiated by Louis XIV in 1663 but now presented by the French government).

In summer 2006, Lead Pencil was awarded a Creative Capital grant of $10,000 to construct the Maryhill Double, a 6,000-square-foot scaffolding enclosure cocooned in blue translucent nylon atop the edge of a bluff on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge. The installation was perched across the expansive gorge from the Maryhill Museum of Art – a Flemish-style chateau built in 1914 by Sam Hill. Drawing on the museum’s historic struggle as an oasis of green gardens in a barren landscape, Lead Pencil examined land use, scale perception and the vulnerability of contained space. Han and Mihalyo invited visitors to climb the Maryhill Double’s teetering stairs and peer through the minimal scaffolding to the extravagant Maryhill Museum across the gorge.

The Maryhill Double was constructed in July 2006 after three years of planning, negotiating, and designing. Due to Lead Pencil’s ephemeral design sense, as cold October winds swept through the gorge, Han and Mihalyo disassembled the netted scaffolding without a trace.

Lead Pencil’s awards and successful installations have generated a deluge of media attention, from articles in Architectural Record to The Believer to The Stranger, Seattle’s alternative weekly, which in a May 2007 story, christened them “the most promising artists in the country.” Although Han and Mihalyo had long flown under the radar and enjoyed excluding themselves from design trends, the duo now welcomes the attention. “Our artwork is site-specific and often temporary: it has been difficult for most people to see the work in person,” says Mihalyo. “The media attention, therefore, has been enormously helpful in getting the word out fast enough for people to go see it and to provide an introduction for those who can’t.”
Their success in large part is rooted in Han and Mihalyo’s refusal to subscribe to the traditional notion that studio art and architecture are mutually exclusive. They have organized their two-member firm into “The Department of Architecture” and “The Bureau of Spatial Inquiry.” (Their work ranges from sculptural installations to photos and drawing to urban design and architecture.) They consider the disciplines to be inherently interconnected and draw equally from architecture and the studio arts.

Han and Mihalyo use every outdoor experience, every walk through the city as their drawing board. In 2000, they accepted a residency with the Center for Land Use Interpretation. Occupying a construction trailer adjacent to a World War II glider, the two studied the abandoned foundations of deconstructed buildings. There in the Utah desert, grew their obsession with excavation, foundations, and the displacement of dirt that has since driven projects such as the 2005 installation in Seattle’s Henry Art Museum, Minus Space, which re-created the incline of land removed in the construction of the Henry Museum, and their recent Exploratorium installation, In Between.

Despite Lead Pencil’s focus on landscape and place as well as their commitment to sustainable design, the duo refuses to bill themselves as “green” architects. “Most of the times our clients aren’t necessarily aware that we are making choices that contribute to the sustainable cause.” Their architecture projects range from commercial buildings in Chicago to small single-family dwellings in Seattle. “We feel, culturally, that architecture should be past the point that we need to market ourselves under that heading,” says Mihalyo. Lead Pencil considers itself “second generation” in regard to sustainability.

During an era of rising alarm about global warming and “green” design frenzy, Lead Pencil is not seeking sustainability projects and LEED certification (green-building rating system). Region and ecology are inherent in the firm’s structures, and the environment is an undercurrent in everything it does. While other architects and planners hem and haw over the conventions and formality of land-use practices, Han and Mihalyo model their land-use solutions after, of all things, billboards. The duo are amazed by the economy of the structure. “Billboards are almost like a sail that presents such a tremendous amount of power,” says Han.

Still, admittedly or not, sustainability is built into Lead Pencil’s language of design but from a more baseline perspective. As many designers retrofit sustainable features into unsustainable buildings or simply ignore the issue altogether, Lead Pencil focuses on the reduction and simplification of building projects. The duo believes that sustainable design is more than correct material selection and efficient energy use. Their philosophy of sustainability considers such factors as reducing or eliminating the need to commute and living smaller with less abundance in a less consuming and complicated existence. “Instead of using reclaimed timber in your 5,000-square-foot house, consider instead a 1,500-square-foot house with greater outdoor area, fewer walls, passive energy design, a great window to observe and connect to the world, and live close to work,” says Mihalyo.
Their philosophy is evident in their studio and Seattle home named The 4 Parts House. In 2001, Han and Mihalyo designed the space to have sleeping, studio, living and portal areas constructed primarily of concrete, glass and steel. Fully submerged in the process, the couple welded the large pieces of steel that dominate the structure of their home-studio.

From the construction of their home to the installation of their art, Lead Pencil’s hands-on approach sets Han and Mihalyo apart from the likes of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the well-known conceptual landscape artists. While the artists are similar in their introduction of structures into unassuming landscapes, Lead Pencil’s small scale and clear personal connection to the landscape gives the architects’ art an approachable and conversational style. They have their hands on the details of every project, from making thousands of welds to tiny steel wires to creating the steel doors for their home.

Artistically, Han and Mihalyo move with ease from exterior to interior installations. In their 2004 installation, Linear Plenum, they hung 19,000 strings in Seattle’s Suyama Space. The strings followed the shape and function of the room. Viewers were forced to remain constantly conscious of the space. “We filled the space while leaving it empty at the same time,” says Han. From May through June 2007, Lead Pencil installed Drawing Space at the Lawrimore Project in Seattle. Suspended wire structures indicated the presence of enclosure without walls.

Han and Mihalyo tend not to merge ideas from their strictly artistic exploration with their practical and budget-minded architecture projects. Fortunately, there is hope for more incorporation of artistic concepts in the future. “As the scale of our work increases and the opportunities grow more interesting, we are beginning to see that there might be a project someday in the not so distant future that calls for some more interpretive spatial experiences,” says Mihalyo.

As a capstone to the past few years of expanding projects and public attention, Lead Pencil accepted the Prix de Rome prize. The duo are embracing the opportunity to venture to Italy in fall 2007 to divert from practical projects and focus next year on developing new research. While in Rome, they will be based at the Villa Medicis and hope to compile a new book on the subject of concrete foundations.

As a young studio, Lead Pencil has composed a language around many elements of the built environment that have long gone unexplored, and despite its amorphous and elusive presence, Han and Mihalyo are very clear about their objectives. “We would like to see an alternate form of practice develop that explores artistic meaning in architecture outside of the practicing profession,” the two agree.