Lonn Combs and Rona Easton, married in life as well as in practice, have spent the last year living and working in Rome. Combs won a Rome Prize in Architecture in 2011 and, with Easton, has been studying Italian architect and engineer Pier Luigi Nervi’s groundbreaking innovations with concrete. In a way, their time in Rome has been a mirror of their practice in recent years. Just as they are taking the time now to “slow down and learn to walk again,” Combs says they decided a few years ago to narrow their focus to the essentials: studying materials, structural performance, and assembly.
In the reverse order of most independent architects’ trajectories, the couple’s collaboration officially began with their largest built project to date, a parking facility (2005) for George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. Someone familiar with the architects’ work connected them with the developer of the project. “He was willing to listen to us in terms of design ideas,” says Combs in explaining the imaginative result. Their shift to a smaller scale began around the time the architects competed in the 2010 MoMA PS1 Young Architects Program, which they did not end up winning. For the temporary installation that PS1 builds each summer in its courtyard in Queens, New York, they proposed a cluster of colorful parasols made of extruded cellular-polycarbonate blades. “The challenge of imagining the design is one thing; building it yourself, and efficiently, is another,” says Combs. “[PS1] opened up a focus on smaller installations and ways we could do our own building. It’s been an interesting area of research, and it strengthened our outlook.” That research led to two projects in 2011 that explored lightweight structural membranes: a temporary concept showroom for Ohne Titel, a New York–based fashion label, and an installation called Changing Room in Chicago’s Extension Gallery for Architecture.