Spotlight on Jennifer Bonner: Dissecting the roof plan, a new paradigm for architecture, with the League Prize Winner
This is part one in a series of exclusive conversations with this year’s Architecture League Prize winners. Hunter Douglas is thrilled to be an ongoing supporter of the competition for young architects and designers. See last year’s coverage here.
By Zoë Zellers
“I’m suggesting the roof plan as a way to make architecture,” says architect Jennifer Bonner, who founded MALL, a creative practice for art and architecture, in 2009. Instead of using something like [Le Corbusier’s] free plan or [Aldof Loos’] raumplan, which are some architecture’s past paradigms, I’m using the roof as a way of defining the domestic interior.”
Bonner was named a recipient of the 2019 Architectural League of New York’s League Prize for Young Architects and Designers. For this year’s theme, the design competition asked applicants to consider the “Just” in how they approach architecture, from research to advocacy to technique. Her winning submission entitled, “Just Roofs,” examined domestic roof typologies, with models and research presented at the League Prize exhibit at Parsons School of Design’s Sheila C. Johnson Design Center.
She says this focus is “really looking at the kind of ordinary or every day, and what I like to call, ‘the contractor canon.’ We can see all these infinite variations of roofs, and they range from different socioeconomic backgrounds: more affluent neighborhoods can have a very complex roof. But, I would say, less affluent neighborhoods also have complex roofs, and that’s based on additions over time… The roof,” Bonner explains, “seems like a neutralizer of ways of reading architecture.”
“The roof seems like a neutralizer of ways of reading architecture.” —Jennifer Bonner, 2019 Architectural League Prize winner
While teaching at Georgia Tech, Bonner’s in-depth research into roof typographies later led her to design and construct a single-family residence, “Haus Gables,” using the ridges and valleys of the roof to guide and inform the floor plan inside. The avant-garde home was built on a property that’s roughly 24-feet wide in the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood, which adjoins Atlanta’s BeltLine. Given the narrow dimension, Bonner conceptualized a clever design that features six gable roofs, which are combined to form a single roof. In breaking with past architectural paradigms, MALL uses the roof plan to spatially organize architecture, establishing rooms, catwalks and double height spaces in the interior by aligning them to peaks in the roof above.
“I wanted the project to be very radical, so it was kind of no holding back on ideas to push its form, and interior, and materiality,” she reflects.
“Haus Gables” is also one of just a handful of homes in the U.S. that’s made of cross-laminated timber, an ultra-strong wood material that’s produced by fusing together layers of lumber in alternating directions. The architect pushed materiality in other realms too: the exterior features white faux bricks made of stucco embedded with millions of glass beads, provided by the DoT from road stripping, that add a reflective appeal; Italian marble finishes in the bathroom are actually made of vinyl and cartoon-like sketches; and black terrazzo is applied as a thin tile instead of poured in place and polished. Bonner was inspired to examine the American South’s “old tradition of faux finishing, which is kind of, fake it until you make it.” Here, “faking it” in unconventional ways becomes a striking – and playful – design goal.
“I wanted the project to be very radical, so it was kind of no holding back on ideas to push its form, and interior, and materiality.”
“I think architecture should be a little more fun. That’s not to say that it shouldn’t be rigorous, it can be rigorous and fun, I think,” says Bonner, “And that’s what I’ve been trying to kind of advocate for in examples of my own work.”
When asked what the acronym “MALL” stands for, Bonner laughs, “it stands for many things… One acronym version could be, Mass Architectural Loopty Loops. Or Miniature Angles & Little Lines – there are infinite meanings.”
At any rate, MALL builds upon extensive research to focus on projects that “re-appropriate history, hack typologies, reference cultural events and invent representation. By engaging ‘ordinary architecture’ such as gable roofs and everyday materials, MALL playfully reimagines architecture in the field.”
She explains that “The Roof” is “asking a very specific architectural question,” which, like other projects, has led her to years of research and conceptual exploration.
“I write about them, I exhibit, I make things, I lecture, and then the idea is to then take that conceptual work and then turn it into a real building. And so, what you see in the gallery is basically a five-year-long project from research, inception of concept, and then all the way through until the built 1:1 project in Atlanta.”
“Haus Gables,” was a self-funded and developed project, and Bonner believes she is “following in the footsteps of an architect-developer model, where I’m really trying to push architecture without the constraints of client’s opinions and direction… That also means I’m taking on a lot of risk,” but the reward is in the reimagining or pushing of a “new domestic domesticity that I don’t know if I would have been able to achieve with a client telling me what countertops they want.”
While cities like Atlanta are seeing a lot of new build, especially mixed-use residential developments, Bonner points out, “developers and investors need stories with those buildings, and I think maybe the younger generation is able to provide like a contemporary voice for those buildings in their concepts, forms and images.” As a young architect today, Bonner adds, “I think there’s a chance to break in.”
“Ten years out of graduate school, the goal is to try to make a real architecture. And so just kind of through grit, determination and drive, I tried to make that happen.”
“Ten years out of graduate school, the goal is to try to make a real architecture. And so just kind of through grit, determination and drive, I tried to make that happen.” She continues, “When you’re a single female practitioner and out there doing it, I think the amount of mentors surrounding me is extremely important to just give me complete confidence to do it.”
Bonner, who has previously applied to the League Prize, describes submitting for the annual competition as “a really interesting point of time each year for an architect to kind of rethink their work, and to frame it through the lens of the League’s theme of that year.” She calls winning the League Prize the ultimate honor. Next up, she’s working on a small development of single-family homes in Atlanta made of cross-laminated timber, as well as a project focused on office typology, plus a gallery show at Kent State University exploring elevation and façade materials.
Bonner takes strong inspiration from art, travel, and her experience living in diverse corners of the world from Alabama to Istanbul, London to Boston, encountering unique cultures. Yet at the end of the day, she says, “the most important thing that drives my ‘capital A Architecture’ project is that I’m not interested in creating a very cohesive body of work, because each project I start conceptually. And so, what the idea is, and the intellectual question, then drives the form and representation.” See more work from Jennifer Bonner’s portfolio here. And, click here to go inside “Haus Gables,” which is currently available to rent on Airbnb.
Since 1981, the Architectural League Prize is an annual competition open to designers ten years of less out of school. Entries from around North America are reviewed and selected by a jury of distinguished architects, artists, and critics, including the Young Architects and Designers Committee, made up of past League Prize winners. The 2019 Architectural League Prize winners are Rachel G. Barnard, of Young New Yorkers, Jennifer Bonner, of MALL, Virginia Black, Gabrielle Printz, and Rosana Elkhatib, of feminist architecture collaborative, Mira Hasson Henry, of HA, Gregory Melitonov, of Taller KEN, and Cyrus Peñarroyo, of EXTENTS.