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Mapping Digital Disparity: Architect Cyrus Peñarroyo Blends Digital and Physical Worlds for Urban Design Solutions

Spotlight on Cyrus Peñarroyo, the League Prize Winner who questions media consumption + maps Internet access

This is part two 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

Cyrus Peñarroyo applied for the Architectural League Prize this year because he was inspired by the challenge presented by the design competition’s theme, exploring the “Just” in architecture.

“I thought it was really exciting and really important in this particular moment. And, I thought that it would be great to try and frame my work within the context of the theme, ‘Just,’” says the winner of the prestigious League Prize.

The word “just” inspired him to reflect on how, “oftentimes, people are quick to use it to point to what architecture is and isn’t.”

Cyrus Peñarroyo, of EXTENTS, at the League Prize exhibit at Parsons School of Design.

Cyrus Peñarroyo, of EXTENTS, at the League Prize exhibit at Parsons School of Design.

Peñarroyo continues, “to say that image-making is ‘just’ representation, to say that political activism is ‘just’ social practice… there are these ways in which we use the term ‘just’ to almost dismiss cultural enterprises of others in favor of talking about, or advocating for, your own intellectual project. What’s interesting about the concept of acting justly is that actually it’s more interesting to turn those disciplinary silos inside out, and to try and not use it to dismiss the work of others, but to actually think about how you can cross between different interests or approaches to architectural design,” he pauses, “Does that make sense?”

At the League Prize winners’ exhibit at Parsons School of Design, Peñarroyo immersed visitors in a bright purple-hued exhibit that displayed computer monitors, cords, keyboards, and digital doodads, with a sculpture-like treatment that sprawled onto a data floor system. With the help of McLain Clutter, his partner at EXTENTS, Peñarroyo, blurs the lines between representation of the physical and the digital, a theme that’s present in his portfolio.

“I think the installation leaves the visitor with maybe more questions than answers,” he smiles. 

Peñarroyo immersed visitors in a bright purple exhibit that displayed computer monitors, cords, keyboards, and digital doodads that sprawled onto a data floor system.

Peñarroyo immersed visitors in a bright purple exhibit that displayed computer monitors, cords, keyboards, and digital doodads that sprawled onto a data floor system.

“That physical platform is actually meant to support a digital platform for the viewing of built and speculative work that I’ve designed with my partner. It’s platforms on platforms,” he jokes, “and it’s meant to be engaged with in various ways. There are movable pieces that allow visitors to actually sit, relative to my piece, but also move them to other places in the gallery to set up relationships between my work and the work of other people.”

“I think the installation leaves the visitor with maybe more questions than answers.” –Cyrus Peñarroyo
“That physical platform is actually meant to support a digital platform for the viewing of built and speculative work that I've designed with my partner," says Peñarroyo.

“That physical platform is actually meant to support a digital platform for the viewing of built and speculative work that I’ve designed with my partner,” says Peñarroyo.

Peñarroyo opted against displaying monitors upright, but instead positioned them on the floor, laid flat – “that’s meant to prompt visitors to question their media viewing habits. Oftentimes, you look at screens facing down, and the way that these screens are casually arranged in the space, it’s meant to get you to question how you might engage with content on a regular basis,” he explains. “The presence of technology is increasing rapidly in our lives. In a way, the digital is more environmental, it’s everywhere. It’s ubiquitous, it’s around us.”

“In a way, the digital is more environmental, it’s everywhere. It’s ubiquitous, it’s around us.”
EXTENTS | Lossy/Lossless, Los Angeles, CA, 2019. Courtesy of EXTENTS.

EXTENTS | Lossy/Lossless, Los Angeles, CA, 2019. Courtesy of EXTENTS.

He adds, “in our work, we’re really excited by the ways in which media can help to frame collective experience,” which Peñarroyo points out, architecture can also accomplish. “We hope our work gets people to engage with their environment more critically, and so this installation is really meant to prompt the viewer to think more carefully about the technology that organizes their lives, the media that surrounds them, and the ways in which they’re actively participating in that.”

In 2017, Peñarroyo and McLain Clutter established EXTENTS, an Ann Arbor-based design practice that moves between different disciplines. EXTENTS operates across varying scales and silos, focusing on architecture, urbanism, media, digital culture, and other instruments of life that can be impacted by design.

In 2017, Peñarroyo and McLain Clutter established EXTENTS, an Ann Arbor-based design practice.

In 2017, Peñarroyo and McLain Clutter established EXTENTS, an Ann Arbor-based design practice.

“We’re really interested in pushing architectural design to its limits, to its extents,” Peñarroyo explains, “so that means evaluating what we think is at architecture’s core, and maximizing that, but also looking at the limits of architecture and where it might interface with other disciplines…. It’s kind of about moving from the center to the periphery constantly — like what architecture is versus what it isn’t, and what opportunities that might find.”

“We're really interested in pushing architectural design to its limits, to its extents,” Peñarroyo says.

“We’re really interested in pushing architectural design to its limits, to its extents,” Peñarroyo says.

Within his personal narrative, Peñarroyo also appreciates operating “in the middle.” He was born in Kansas City, MO, to parents who immigrated from the Philippines, and grew up in the Midwest, and later lived on the East Coast and in Asia, before coming back to the Midwest to teach at the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.

“I very much consider myself a Midwesterner at heart,” he says, “There’s something about being in the middle that I think is exciting as a designer. Relating back to my practice, the way that we work — we see value in being able to move between different modes of thinking. And I think that the middle as a space, literally allows you to move between different silos of thought, and the Midwest is exciting for that reason.”

“I very much consider myself a Midwesterner at heart. There’s something about being in the middle that I think is exciting as a designer.”
EXTENTS operates across varying scales and silos, focusing on architecture, urbanism, media, digital culture, and other instruments of life that can be impacted by design.

EXTENTS operates across varying scales and silos, focusing on architecture, urbanism, media, digital culture, and other instruments of life that can be impacted by design.

One of Peñarroyo’s most interesting, ambitious projects to date is centered around Detroit, just an hour away from his hometown of Ann Arbor. On-line/On-site: Cartographic Connections Across Detroit’s Digital Divide, began as a mapping-based research effort led by Peñarroyo along with Salvador Lindquist, Reed Miller, and Craig Zehr. The group collected data from interviews with Detroit high school student, then mapped detailed geographies of digital access – and exclusion – across Motor City’s disenfranchised neighborhoods. They examined how internet connectivity is actually a physical access issue in Detroit, and measured differences in areas that feature a central hub of WIFI access, like a McDonald’s or a public library. The ultimate goal is to use this data mapping to propose urban design scenarios to Detroit city officials that would enable new forms of both physical and virtual connection, and increased opportunities for marginalized communities.

“Most of Detroit is actually offline,” he explains, “many residents don’t have the same access to Internet as people in the downtown area. People that might come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, don’t have the money to afford Internet or smart devices or computers.” After a year of research, he’s starting conversations with city officials and community organizations to propose “actionable” urban design solutions to “reimagine what the city could look like if it was motivated by Internet access… and provide Internet to people in those neighborhoods.”

EXTENTS | Becoming Digital Exhibition, Ann Arbor, MI, 2018. Courtesy of EXTENTS.

EXTENTS | Becoming Digital Exhibition, Ann Arbor, MI, 2018. Courtesy of EXTENTS.

Peñarroyo plans to continue work on “On-line/On-site,” in addition to other projects, and his role as assistant professor of architecture.

“Right now, I’m most inspired by my colleagues at the University of Michigan. We have a pretty good cohort of faculty there that have become close friends of mine, and I think all of us are orbiting around each other and talking about similar issues. I think it’s really enriched my work,” he notes. “You know, it’s less about looking up to big architects. I have a lot of respect for those architects, but right now I’m most inspired by the conversations and dialogues that I have with my colleagues.”

“Right now I’m most inspired by the conversations and dialogues that I have with my colleagues [at the University of Michigan].”

Peñarroyo expressed gratitude for his many mentors and educators, some of whom previously won the League Prize. “I’ve always looked at it as this moment in their careers where they were really onto something exciting. And so, for me, winning the League Prize is such an honor. It means a lot to win it so early in my career… The work that I do is socially and politically motivated, but it also does have an aesthetic agenda — those things are not mutually exclusive.

At EXTENTS, Peñarroyo says, “we take a lot of risks, because we’re not afraid to take risks,” adding, “I think if I had any advice it would be to just trust your instincts.” See more work from Cyrus Peñarroyo’s portfolio here

Hunter Douglas Architectural is proud to support the League Prize design competition.

Hunter Douglas Architectural is proud to support the League Prize design competition.

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.

Since 1981, the Architectural League Prize is an annual competition open to designers ten years of less out of school.

Since 1981, the Architectural League Prize is an annual competition open to designers ten years of less out of school.

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