Merging Histories and Sustainability with Chris Mercier
Christopher Mercier of (fer) studio is back with another project, one informed by the site’s history and a playful balance of natural light thanks to the skylights installed overhead. For this tour, Chris gives us the lowdown on the Sixth+Mill project, inspirations and designing with sustainability in mind. Let’s jump right in!
Chris, where are you from? What brought you to where you are now?
Chris Mercier: I grew up, just outside of Detroit in Michigan. I went to a high school there and graduated with an architecture degree from Lawrence University. Growing up, I was always interested in becoming an artist. At some point along the way, the realization came that, I guess, you can’t be an artist and you have to pick something.
Perhaps, I regret it but looking back now, I did choose architecture as a way of doing a little bit of both. I thought to myself, “if I become an architect, I could still be an artist. But if I became an artist, I couldn’t become an architect.”
“If I become an architect, I could still be an artist. But if I became an artist, I couldn’t become an architect.” Christopher Mercier
Tell us about your art
I was very much into painting throughout the years since second-grade, doing stuff like this all the way.
What’s your earliest memory?
It’s a funny story. I was back in Detroit in high school and I had gotten a local gallery in Royal Oak, kind of a progressive gallery at the time. They were going to let me exhibit a piece, which was amazing! So, on the day, my friend was helping me bring the 5 x 6 ft piece of painting to the gallery. We had a disastrous day.
We were carrying it, walked just through the door and there was this wooden chest under a pedestal inside this glass case and somehow, my friend walked backward right into it, knocking it over. The glass went exploding on to the floor and.. I mean yeah, that was my first gallery experience. So maybe, it was better I went into architecture.
How did (fer) studio come about?
Over the years after I went through Lawrence [University], I was really interested in Daniel Libeskind’s work, who was at that time a theorist teaching in Cranbrook. I started hanging around Cranbrook. After going through various processes, got accepted into Daniel’s program which was in its second year, called Architecture Intermundium in Milan. I spent a year there with seven or eight other students from around the world, so that was eye-opening!
Then, I went for a Master’s in SCI-Arc while working as a metal fabricator. After a while, I got a job at Frank Gehry’s and kind of went from there. Along the path, I was imagining starting up my own office and always trying to figure out what that was going to be called.
“Form, Environment and Research were really a process of me thinking — what are the elements or conditions you go through in a design process?” — Christopher Mercier, (fer) studio
In the end, Form, Environment and Research were really a process of me thinking “what are the elements or conditions you go through in a design process?”
Basically, what you have, are the form, and the environment which is a huge implication of the form and the environment, you know the physical environment. It can be the kind of political environment, emotional environment. So that’s how (fer) were the three main aspects of what it was to create a design and a piece of architecture. And that’s kind of where that name came from.
“Environment is kind of everything we do, the people, the community you are in, the physical environment is obvious. The emotional, political, cultural are all different forms of environment.”
How do you make sure you have sustainability in all your designs? Is it a challenge?
Yeah, it can be. I always question “what’s the level of sustainability?” We’ve done things like The Green Building where we’ve had the LEED Platinum award for that project. We always build sustainability into the project. So, we are already always considering how to deal with daylight.
If you really design right with the physical environment, and you pay attention to it, you kind of address a lot of the conditions of sustainability right off the bat.
So instead of designing for sustainability, you design to sustainability?
Exactly, it’s how you orient it, how you face it and how you open and close the building. All those conditions really are initial conditions you design to. They either create a sustainable condition or they don’t. Then you have to make up for it if they don’t, through other sustainable technologies.
What words would you use to describe your work?
We provide kind of contemporary, iconic, architectural and urban design solutions for environments that are under-utilized or not working, or that need complete ground-up or revision for.
We’re providing a solution to some problem — and that problem many times is a spatial or relational one — for client. Or it’s both. It’s a spatial organizational problem. It’s also kind of an identity problem, in terms of how their architecture is perceived, how their building basically creates some identity within the market of what they operate.
What is your inspiration for home?
Back then at my home in Michigan, I remember going upstairs and all I was ever given was the pain of yelling downstairs trying to get my mom’s attention for something. Now, with a lot of the houses, the majority of the houses that we do, have this kind of communication where you can be upstairs, you can lean over that rail and talk directly to someone hidden, and have the house more as an open experience.
“How to make the upstairs quarters and downstairs quarters become somewhat of a linked space so that there’s an open dialogue between them all?” — Christopher Mercier
Can you tell us more about your latest project, Sixth+Mill?
Sixth+Mill is in the front portion of a building from about 1920. A brick and steel warehouse, it was originally [built for the] Los Angeles Gas Company … and it has the great factory windows in it. Previously, we did oversee Officine Brera which operates in the back half of that building. So Sixth+Mill is a project in the essence that it’s by the same ownership and chef that runs Officine Brera. Now they have Sixth+Mill which is really just a pizzeria, as its focus.
All the dishwashing and all of the kind of more unsightly — or “less sightly” things, let’s put it that way — are basically buried inside the kitchen overseeing the Officine Brera. So, it really means we’re in a great open exhibition kitchen, kind of situation.
We were trying to preserve the building height, which is about 40 feet high internally. And so, we did not want to close it from that. There’s an upper skylight up there and it’s a really beautiful feel, kind of a vast glass ceiling.
When you’re in the space, you don’t really notice it so much … it just integrates really well.”
The solution was that we created a panel of glass ceiling if you will, it’s an acrylic panel ceiling set in a steel grid. We were all worried about that at one point but it turned out pretty good. When you’re in the space, you don’t really notice it so much, I think it looks kind of … it just integrates really well.
What projects are you currently working on?
We are thinking a plaza behind The Broad museum in downtown Los Angeles. We’ve been working with The Broad on that for a while. That’s on top of their existing parking garage, it’s a temporary outdoor space, it’s about 16,000 sq ft. It’s basically a turf area with trees and landscape and open field area in the middle.
The road’s going to use it to host various events; the public will have music spaces and things like that. We are also working with the metro tube to connect their bridge into metro space and it’s going to link right to that plaza.
What is your aesthetic for home decor?
Ah, let’s see! I know that question really well. You know what, at the moment, I live in a loft. So my house is both my residence as well as a painting studio.
It’s a warehouse, kind of split down the middle in a funny way, and one half is all open but one half is closed bedrooms and bathrooms and things like that, while the main living spaces are all open. The living side has a raised wood floor, and then the working or painting side is just a concrete floor so you kind of step up on one side and step down on the other side.
Every time I get asked about this, like favorite projects, it always becomes the next one! I guess I can say that I really like the idea that I can live and work like that, in that vicinity. My wife is fully pushing to buy a house so I’m starting to look for that. And I’m always wondering in my head what’s going to happen when I have to move away from the paintings.
As Chris is always looking for his next inspiration and form of art, I look forward to the direction of (fer) studio and his own artwork to come!
*This interview has been edited for clarity and grammar.