Studio Visit: SAW.EARTH

At his new Brooklyn workshop, designer Drew Seskunas opens up about architecture for the wandering planet

Drew Seskunas is a designer rooted in community. On weekends, that group might be the Chinatown skate scene; on an early morning, the surfers who congregate at Rockaway Beach; and at home in Brooklyn, his family. While at work, however, Seskunas is mostly flying solo, but thinking critically about design solutions for the people his projects will serve. He launched SAW.EARTH (Seskunas Architecture Workshop on Earth) in 2019, though beforehand the industrious designer and architect was a member of The Principals.

We recently checked in with Seskunas to learn more about his solo practice and to take a tour of his new studio space in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. The space boasts a backyard and the coveted outdoor area means that come summer, the architect will likely find himself at the center of another thriving community. “The best thing my new space has is a garden, so I can test out how materials and prototypes perform in different environments. The bad part is that with all my chimineas and furniture prototypes, the backyard is also a great party space. So getting work done will be harder in warmer weather.” Seemingly, for Seskunas, this won’t be a problem. Spending time with his peers in any setting is part of what shapes his holistic thinking.

On your website, you call SAW.EARTH “architecture for the wandering planet.” What does that mean to you?

We all know our planet is spinning and hurtling through space, but since we can’t feel the movement, we don’t really think about it. The fact is, there is nothing on Earth that is not affected by its movement and nothing in existence that is not always in motion. That fact is truly awesome. Despite this, we design buildings that are meant to be static objects. An architecture for the wandering planet acknowledges that everything is in motion and responds to the rhythm of all things.

What are you currently working on in your studio?

Right now I have a mix of projects in the workshop. I’m working on a kinetic sun-shading system for a large recreation space on Roosevelt Island where I also designed all the furniture, redesigning a loft in SoHo and I’m also starting my fourth student design/build workshop with graduate students from the NYIT School of Architecture and Design. Every year we create a permanent structure for a community garden somewhere in the city. So far we have created structures for community gardens in Bed-Stuy, Williamsburg and Roosevelt Island. This year we are working with El Catano garden in East Harlem.

You have a distinctive way of looking at the built environment. What is it about kinetic movement that inspires you?

Reality occurs to us as a sequence of events, which gives our existence a deep sense of impermanence. That can be unsettling, and in some ways the idea of architecture being permanent and unmoveable is an attempt to counteract that feeling. To be more in tune with our true experience of reality, architecture needs to embrace impermanence. It should move and be responsive in ways that reflect our reality.

Your projects are super-involved. Are you handling all aspects of design and manufacturing?

I don’t like to sit at a computer all the time. I think it’s important for architects to work directly with the materials they design with. Also my work is fairly complicated, so in the beginning I tended to build everything myself. At some point there is a scale of fabrication that I’m no longer comfortable with, so I am lucky to have people who are willing to take on the complexity of my work as it increases in size. Now I work with engineers, fabricators, students or community organizers on every project.

How do you describe your style and approach to design?

I always ask, “Why am I the person designing this, is there something I can add to this project or not?” If not, I step away. If there is, I usually start with the creation of a system that can be applied in multiple ways to whatever issues the design brief needs resolved. I want my work to be adaptable and responsive.

Is your work concerned with sustainability?

It’s important to contend with where the materials you use come from, how long they last and what happens with them after they are no longer of use. Until our governments include the environmental effects of production into the costs of goods, everybody has to work out their own balance and be comfortable with the end results. I use 96% recycled aluminum on many projects because it is one of the few building materials that has a street value and an established system for recycling. I know if they dismantle one of my structures, scrappers will pick it up off the street and recycle it for money and it will get turned into something else down the line. It also allows me to design lightweight structures that use far less material.

You spent time working in Berlin before basing your practice in Brooklyn. Did that inform your work today?

In the late 2000s I directed the design of a large multi-use building complex in West Berlin called Bikini Berlin. It was a gigantic project with a lot of stakeholders, and while we had a lot of design freedom, there wasn’t a good format for us to experiment with materials or physically prototype. As a result we struggled to communicate our designs effectively to all the stakeholders involved in the project. While we were ultimately really proud of the end result, I knew that it didn’t have to be so difficult to achieve success. So I modeled my current practice as a workshop that integrates physical prototyping early in the design process. This allows for more experimentation, more direct communication with clients and better final results.

You skate, surf, and are married to a fashion designer. Do you draw inspiration from any of these aspects of your life?

Absolutely. I wouldn’t say I was good at either skateboarding or surfing, but adept enough to know the feeling of pumping around a bowl or dropping into a wave with wind and water screaming up at your face. I have a friend who calls those moments “insect speed,” they’re experiences that change your understanding of the pace of time. I’m always inspired by my wife’s work [Yara Flinn of NOMIA] and sometimes we get to collaborate, which is both challenging and really rewarding. Recently we collaborated on the design of her new store in Williamsburg. I also created a kinetic chair for a Pink Essay show inspired by a shoe she designed. Being close to her work makes my work better.

Are there any other people or books that have shaped your design ethos?

Frei Otto inspires me because he wasn’t constrained by the traditional definition of an engineer, architect or artist and he seemed to never stop experimenting. Jeanne Gang’s experiments with formal systems and materials are incredibly inspiring, especially considering the scale she is building at. I love the writing of Carlo Rovelli, every time I pick up the book The Order of Time I feel like I have some epiphany about existence. Julia Watson’s Lo-TEK broadened my perspective on how communities can work in tandem with their environments.

How do you begin your own process?

I really enjoy working directly with materials, so I think it’s important to always be doing some research on materials or structures whether it has a direct application or not, it inevitably filters into projects. Most often I get inspiration from each new client collaboration. I tend to develop close relationships with my clients so we typically get to develop ideas together over long periods of time on multiple projects.

What’s the hardest part of what you do?

The hardest part is the cost of materials. I do this job because it satisfies me in a way nothing else can. There are times when I would even pay to do it. As long as the brief is interesting, I’m game to find a way to make it work financially. Too often that means taking profits from one project so you can work with a non-profit or do a student workshop. I wish I didn’t have to make those sacrifices and I got to work with everyone who had an interesting need that came through the door.

You also teach at Parsons—does working with students help keep you thinking?

Teaching forces you to reexamine the reasons why you do what you do, which can force you to confront some harsh realities! You need to take responsibility for the knowledge you pass on. I guess I got into it thinking it might help me keep my ideas fresh, but instead it has helped me be more comfortable with aging and my evolving role in the design community.

Images by Rafael Rios