Tom Wiscombe Sees the Future – The Interview

Written by on April 27, 2013
Tom Wiscombe | Interview | Living Polymer Cartiladge Car | Emergent Architects | Bliss Magazine Online

We asked Tom Wiscombe if he's from the future, or can just see the future. He cleverly avoided answering, which we found suspicious.... Either way, this incredible architect is certainly SHOWING us what the future holds.
Things like Polymer Cars that self-power via, " algae photo-bioreactor system that produces biofuel on-board." Or Structural Tattoos for buildings (yes, buildings) where design, " based on creating the illusion of figures pushing outwards into a loose outer skin." It looks amazing (see some below).
This La Jolla, California native is serious about his work and it shows with his impressive accomplishments. Tom says he's just getting started, but his work is already part of the permanent collection of the FRAC Centre Paris, the Art Institute of Chicago, MoMA San Francisco and MoMA New York.
He's also a senior faculty member at the Southern California Institute of Architecture. In 2012, Tom Wiscombe held the Louis I. Kahn Visiting Assistant Professorship at Yale University.
He's certainly done much more, but we'd like the work to speak for itself. Tom's a pretty cool guy and we are pleased to introduce you to him through this great interview:

The Semi-Rigid Car (Shark Car)

Bliss Magazine: We were first introduced to your work after seeing articles on your Semi-Rigid Car (shown above) in Discover News and DeZeen Magazine; it’s visually breathtaking and an incredible piece of work. Just how far into the future will we have to go before this is feasible?
Tom Wiscombe: Thanks. Here’s how I see it- if last century was all about mineral materials like metals, then this century is all about polymers and composite materials. It used to be that a material had a fixed look and structural capacity associated with it. If you needed different rigidities, opacities or colors, you would collage materials together and use hardware to join them.
But because of advanced in applied materials, it is becoming a reality that materials themselves can be transformed internally to provide different effects, and hardware disappears entirely. It’s more like chemistry than assembly.
The revolution in multi-material 3D printing is really exciting because it gives us the first glimpses of how things might be grown out of mixtures of polymers and how materials can be nested inside one another.
Right now you can only make something the size of a dog with this technology, but I am convinced that you will be seeing multi-material concept cars in the next ten years. I am an architect though, so I am ultimately interested in how architecture might be affected via technology transfer down the line.

"Here’s how I see it- if last century was all about mineral materials like metals, then this century is all about polymers and composite materials."
--Tom Wiscombe

Bliss Magazine: The Discovery and DeZeen articles were from 2011: Any changes or improvements since? Technology has advanced - meta materials significantly in the past year and 3D printing has sure come a long way since then. Any impact on your current thinking?
Tom Wiscombe: I think scaling up is still a big factor. There are a lot of experiments going on with nanotechnology and engineered materials at very small scales but rolling out large design objects is still not yet on the table.
The reason is the inertia of the Fordist mass production paradigm, where things are made on assembly lines. Manufacturers are tooled up for a certain way of working and are resistant to change.
Even the most advanced robotic construction is still mainly operating in a linear way. The multi-material paradigm is more like magic. Things pop out of the oven ready to go, fused, blended, and squished together.
There is always a gap between paradigms where innovators have to play the role of showing that certain things are physically possible before the economics make sense. Only then can industry consume it and produce a new, profitable economy of scale that can rival the old model.

Bliss Magazine: You describe the body and fuel, any thoughts on how to power the car? If I can dare to use such a mundane word in relation to your design… the engine?
Tom Wiscombe: I believe strongly in expertise. I am not a car designer and I have great respect for the discipline of car design. So I decided right off the bat to try to deal with issues which cross over to architecture - such as skin, structure and transparency - rather than try to completely re-invent the drive-train.
I always imagine the skin of the Semi-rigid car sliced and unfolded to become a building skin. The one angle I did want to include was energy, in the sense that energy could be produced deep inside the skin of the car using biological material rather than fossil fuels.
I’ll take the low-tech/ high performance of biology any day over the over-mechanized solar panel.


Top Gear - Bugatti vs. Euro Fighter

Bliss Magazine: On one of our favorite Top Gear episodes, Hammond races the Euro Fighter with a Bugatti. How would the Shark Car fare?
Tom Wiscombe: No idea, but imagine you are in the Shark and you sense the road and the world around in a completely different way, through layers of translucency and color…the payoff is probably more atmospheric which is, to me, critical.
I’m not just interested in technology for the sake of itself, but for how it changes the way we see and exist in the world.
Bliss Magazine: How big of a car buff are you? What do you drive?
Tom Wiscombe: I currently have a Dinan enhanced BMW 740i which I love because it is all style on the inside and performance on the outside. It used to be owned by Kenny Rogers which is a funny LA story.
I have to tell you I am obsessed with cars and airplanes and have been since I was a kid. I was just an at airplane graveyard in Atwater, California and saw a mothballed SR-71 Blackbird - truly one of the best design objects ever made by man. It’s a super-flat surface stuffed or inflated to make a volume.


About Tom Wiscombe

Bliss Magazine: Musicians often start with music and instruments in the home from an early age. How about architecture? Were there early influences for you? When did you know you had this talent?
Tom Wiscombe: I really believe in practice and repetition as a way towards expertise, as opposed to the idea that you are born with something. I used to build those plastic models of aircraft carriers and spaceships and cars, and I remember that I always felt like I was missing the right part. So a lot of times I would Frankenstein model kits together.
I don’t feel talented, I feel discontented, like I am missing the right part, even today. That drives me. And that’s not talent, it’s something else.
I remember a great influence of mine when I was a kid was Syd Mead who designs whole worlds. Frankly any science fiction, even junk got me going... I love the idea of ‘science fiction’ which is never really resolved into fact.

"I don’t feel talented, I feel discontented, like I am missing the right part, even today. That drives me. And that’s not talent, it’s something else."
--Tom Wiscombe

Bliss Magazine: A lot of your inspiration is found from nature; messy biology specifically. Do I have that right? Leonardo da Vinci is reputed to have started by wandering out into the forests and deconstructing flowers. How does your design process evolve? For example, are you physically spending time in the rainforest? Where are you most creative?
Tom Wiscombe: Well, I do need to make it down to Costa Rica for sure, but for now I have precisely curated images of animals all over my office. For instance, right next to my desk I have a picture of a King Cheetah which has an amazingly messy pattern of spots and stripes.
But right next to that is a picture of a painting from Gerhard Richter. Those are two different kinds of mess from two worlds. I like cross-genre thinking, it feels contemporary.
Tom Wiscombe | Interview | Living Polymer Cartiladge Car | Emergent Architects | Bliss Magazine Online
Bliss Magazine: At your level, how competitive is your field domestically, or even globally? There are maybe ten architects in your league around the world?
Tom Wiscombe: Ha! That’s very nice of you but I am really just getting started here. It’s very competitive but I just try not to think about that and keep developing my body of work. There are many good architects out there but I think maybe not enough collaboration.
We still operate as islands and there are so many little islands now that you can skip across the ocean. I think we need new models of practice.
Bliss Magazine: Have you exhausted what can be done here on terra firma? What's a dream project for you - Moon bases, or perhaps an interstellar habitat for mankind with DARPA’s 100YSS? (Which you really must check out)
Tom Wiscombe: I’d rather stick with science fiction and create the future here on earth to be honest! I love the idea of space more than the realities of space.
The extreme engineering constraints of space would take the fiction out of the science if that makes sense…I worked at NASA as an intern, and it was not as glamorous as people tend to assume…

The Work

Bliss Magazine: From a layman’s perspective, your designs look impossible to build. What's the most revolutionary under the hood? What are you working on currently that has you the most energized?
Tom Wiscombe: Everything I design now I think of in terms of composite construction, even if it is not yet the state of the art in architecture. I am hugely interested in the way that composites are totally malleable and almost lack materiality in the traditional sense.
They require you as an architect to be even more aggressive in order to articulate them into something visually resonant — you don’t get anything for free like seams or joints or textures. It forces you to create scale and refinement in radically new synthetic ways.
Bliss Magazine: Do you still find inspiration from the old masters and iconic structures, or is your work so future-forward that it’s completely unrelated at this point?
Tom Wiscombe: I don’t think you can innovate without an understanding of precisely where you are breaking ground and who has been there before. Innovation never comes from nowhere, it builds on and mutates existing threads.
I just took my students from Yale over to see some textile block houses from Frank Lloyd Wright in L.A. a few months ago, because I realized that he was working on architectural tattoos- an ongoing interest of mine.


Bliss Magazine: This is such an intriguing concept. We’d love to learn more. How do you define “supergraphic tattoo”? The Sci-Arc Cultural Pavilion comes to mind (below). You describe it, “…tattoos are developed on their own terms, as parallel objects, with their own internal rules and figuration. The interface of mass-object and drawing-object creates…the overall wholeness of the piece.” The effect is stunning. It’s such an essential visual element and defines our experience immediately when looking at the structure. How did this idea of tattooing structures evolve? How will their use impact future designs?
Tom Wiscombe: Well you took the right quote! I love the idea that a pattern can simultaneously relate to underlying forms but also deviate from them. Animal skins often do this, but also contemporary fashion like Alexander McQueen.
Tattoos are not decorative, they are intended to replace the organizational logic of grids and tiles that people doing digital architecture over the past ten years have been obsessed with.
A tattoo is a massive figure, not a continuous field. It can be used to organize construction seams, apertures in surface, and so on, and it creates mysterious scale effects where the building might be the size of an Egyptian pyramid or an iPhone...
A great example of Supergraphic Tattoos on the Sci Arc Cultural Pavilion in Los Angeles:


The Design Environment

Bliss Magazine: Is there a hot spot for architects now in the world? It seems like China is a significant player. Why mostly China? Is it simply a cost factor or is it that design work at the forefront of contemporary design is just more accepted there perhaps?

"I’m not just interested in technology for the sake of itself, but for how it changes the way we see and exist in the world."
--Tom Wiscombe

Tom Wiscombe: I think China was hottest ten years ago. There was a gold rush there to get western architects in to give their top ten cities a futuristic makeover, as a sign of their desire to engage the first world economies. That wild-west development has calmed down now, but I am committed to China and see huge opportunities.

Bliss Magazine: Is China just one of the few places spending money on new buildings? Have we lost something in America with a focus on the lowest possible building costs?
Tom Wiscombe: Yes you are absolutely right. I find the bottom-line thinking in the US seriously troubling, as if quality of life doesn’t matter, just quantity. History shows that all significant empires have significant architecture, so I see the lack of investment in architecture to be a kind of retreat into provincialism.

Bliss Magazine: All your work is cutting edge to our eyes, but you've been at this a while. What do you consider radical or revolutionary at this point?
Tom Wiscombe: I like the idea of collapsing a city into a building. Extreme density. City-states. Massive three-dimensional interiorized spaces rather than extruded city blocks. Maybe I am talking about spaceships after all…
We hope so Tom, because whatever you imagine we are definately going to want to see. Meanwhile, check out some more of Mr. Tom Wiscombe's astounding work:


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