With her Michigan-based firm, Alibi Studio, principal architect and artist Catie Newell investigates the precision of time and space through the use of site-specific installations which examine the essence of light and dark.
“Being in an exact place at an exact time and feeling fully present and engulfed in that space is important to our work. Site-specific installations give us a medium through which we can amplify all of the material conditions and story of a place. It also comes at a swiftness that can be difficult for a building to pull off.”
While the transient aspects of her works are often captured in photographs, Catie believes that they are best experienced in person. “I am truly enthralled by the additional elements of material and immaterial effects that things like the atmosphere, the weather, the time of day and the feel all add to the essence and experience of a place. The intangible gives the tangibles a reason for being.”
One abstract effect that resonates in Catie’s work is the spirit of the existing structures which she often uses as a base for installations. “They have a story,” she says. “Spaces are rich with stories that have cut across time. This is evident in the way the space is used, how the materials are behaving and what events have occurred in and around that space.
“We like to work responsively, incorporating the stories and allowing materials or light conditions that are already present to come to the forefront. We recognise our works as a moment in time. Time will go on and the work itself will – and should – transform or vanish.”
Catie admits that she didn’t come to the architectural field due to a love of buildings. “As a kid, I enjoyed making things and being outside. My father, who worked with me on a lot of our early installations, was a very skilled wood carver and an antique toy restorer. He taught me excitement for the anomalies and uniqueness of special or rare objects.”
Catie began an aerospace engineering degree but quickly realised that she was more interested in the appreciation and distinction of physical space, which ultimately led her to study architecture. Throughout her career, she has eagerly explored the intersection of architecture and art. “My formal training was in architecture; so I’m always grateful to be included amongst artists. I recognise that, between the two fields, I have found a headspace where I can push the limits and constraints of architecture in order to imagine other ways of being or living or tending to or making our built environment. It’s fair to say that in some of my work, the ‘client’ is actually the quality of light or the story of the material or the space itself.”
“if we took more effort to create more beautiful spaces that evoked place, calm, beauty and lineage, we would see an increase in livelihood and a decrease in stress, anger and pain.”
Catie joins Teulo’s Expert Series to dive deep into her work with the site-specific architecture, Secret Sky. “When asked to do a project with an otherwise unused barn, I was first drawn to the expansive sky that surrounded the area. The barn was so small; so object-like in that sky.
“Our works are always looking for a means to express that change of light and darkness. I found myself trying to consider how to let the barn work with the sky; to try and open it to the sky, but in a manner that was not simply a cut... It was then that I began to really work with the barn and its existing details: how it faced the road, where original door openings and breaks in the foundation were, how the structure came together and allowed in light as a volume. Light needs a place to fall and materials take on new attributes because of how the light or the darkness cloaks them.”
Dark, Catie says, plays just as important a role in her work as light. “Our trust in light does not give us grounds to understand darkness. It has its own definitions and geographies. The effects of darkness infuse physical space with qualities impossible in full illumination: weightlessness, blurred edges, mutations, colour alterations and the ability to disappear. Night is an amazing moment in the life of a space.”
Alongside her professional practice, Catie is also Director of the Digital and Material Technologies Master’s programme at University of Michigan. She says that the academic work more broadly discusses methods of making and designing, while also providing a tremendous forum for questioning how and why we make things. She believes that, at a core well-being level, “if we took more effort to create more beautiful spaces that evoked place, calm, beauty and lineage, we would see an increase in livelihood and a decrease in stress, anger and pain.”
While the pandemic has prompted some expected adaptations in her practice over the last year, Alibi Studio is pressing ahead with the transformation of a roofless structure in Detroit in its newest installation, The Hideout. Catie says that they are also experimenting with “the optical appearance of materials and material formations. But, it’s too early to put something into words or sentences. It has to be discovered for what it is first.”
Learn more about Catie’s work at http://www.alibistudio.com/ and connect with her on Instagram @alibistudio.