In the midst of the Great Recession, Ersela Kripa and Stephen Mueller founded AGENCY Architecture. Working out of El Paso, Texas, the pair deploys words, maps, wearables, and installations to uncover contradictions in liminal spaces like military training sites, refugee camps, and borders. Additionally, the firm works to emphasize the rising importance of data and its potential impact as a tool. Through the development of urban strategies, architectural projects, art installations, and research publications on a variety of scales, the practice attempts to address the ways in which designers can take part in critical conversations.
One notable project, Twenty-One Feet, began in 2016 and proposes a spatial training matrix to interrogate de-escalation tactics and discourse within the police force. The project is named for the standard 21-foot buffer maintained by police officers from civilians, allowing – it is thought – an average officer to acknowledge the attack, draw their service weapon, and immobilize the assailant with lethal force. The site, currently slated for construction as a bunker-like police precinct, serves as a testing ground for new standards of police/civilian encounters. A 21-foot structural grid expands and contracts to provide for encounters both comfortable and claustrophobic. Floors tip from flat even ground to extreme inclines.
Another project, focusing on the use of data as a tool is the 2017 “Selfie Wall.” According to AGENCY, selfies are a resource for third-party data-crunchers who use facial and pattern recognition software to extract identity and mood. Metadata is embedded in the photo file, social network post protocols, mobile device settings, and user-generated content, jeopardizing every selfie-taker’s individual data privacy.
AGENCY’s exhibit provided the perfect selfie stage to explore these issues. Its rigid, multifaceted structure mimics stage lighting and the photo umbrellas used in portrait photography, film, and vanities. AGENCY followed the posts, analyzing metadata from selfies uploaded to Twitter and Instagram that have an event-specific hashtag.
Kripa and Mueller are both current faculty at Texas Tech University College of Architecture – El Paso, TX, USA. Together, they co-direct The Project for Operative Spatial Technologies, which focuses on computational tool sets that uncover environmental and spatial injustice. Moving forward, AGENCY hopes to expand its practice into the realm of activism by using the visualization tools of architecture to positively impact causes of social justice.
Join Kripa and Mueller on Social Design Insights with host Eric Cesal as they discuss the ability of democratized information to fight existing power structures and the ways that designers can contribute to national conversations about the informal spaces that result.