This Is Not A Cube: 3 Designers Reimagine Architecture’s Most Basic Shape

Nice cube.

The cube is the one of the most basic volumes out there. It’s something we instantly understand as a space, and a building block that can be used to create more complex structures. Chamber, a design gallery tucked underneath the High Line, invited three architects who are at different stages in their careers—emerging, mid-career, and established—to explore the creative potential of a simple cube, and in the process, the more artistic side of architecture.


To represent each of these career stages, curator Andrew Zuckerman chose three firms: Leong Leong, a young New York– and Los Angeles–based firm whose major work to date includes Philip Lim’s flagship in South Korea; Levenbetts, a New York firm whose projects include Sibley Hall at Cornell University and a handful of gorgeous houses; and Steven Holl, the ultra-famous architect behind Beijing’s Linked Hybrid and MIT’s Simmons Hall.

Leong Leong, which opened in 2009, riffed on the cube by carving pink Himalayan salt—which looks an awful lot like quartz—into “A Toolkit for a Newer Age:” abstractions of objects needed for daily life, like a mortar and pestle, tiffin containers for food, an iPhone speaker, a candle holder, a bowl, and an (uncomfortable looking) seat. One tongue-in-cheek detail? Sticking a gold file into the center of a block to grate salt for food.

Levenbetts, which was founded in 1997 and represents the mid-career firm, decomposed the cube into asymmetrical, angular concrete modules in a series called “Not to Scale.” The aim? Illustrating how a flexible shape shown at different sizes morphs our perception of what we’re looking at. Working with a fabricator in Oakland, California, the firm created blocks that were assembled into a long bench and an ottoman. Then the design team tessellated those shapes into various patterns on prints, while other versions took on the guise of architectural blueprints, woven textiles, and even city plans. Now Levenbetts is at work on a house whose rooms are based on the shape, showing how artistic explorations lead to real-life applications.

The most sculptural work came from Steven Holl, who opened his firm in 1976. He hollowed out blocks of walnut and concrete and made a 3-D printed lamp to explore themes positive and negative space as a metaphor for social openness in architecture.

Taken as a whole, Unpacking the Cube shows the creative potential of a single shape. All architecture is essentially a mutation of a cube. What’s interesting here is tracking the trajectory of abstraction. Just as the famous Cubist painter Picasso moved further and further away from literal representation throughout his career, we can see a similar path in what Leong Leong, Levenbetts, and Steven Holl created here.

Catch it until March 5 at Chamber.


(All Photos: Guang Xu)

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.