Paris-based architects Hiroko Kusunoki and Nicolas Moreau founded their eponymous husband-and-wife firm in 2011 and seemed to come out of nowhere when their design won the Helsinki Guggenheim competition last year. In addition to photo-quality renderings of a cluster of pavilions clad in charred timber, the architects presented Kusunoki’s mind-boggling, Richard Scarry–meets–Where’s Waldo drawings of the museum and the surrounding city in their competition entry.

Using fine-tipped black pens on white paper, one of Kusunoki’s flat-looking drawings of the Helsinki waterfront is not only a meticulous and exhaustive aerial view, it is also populated with rounded, miniature people. Some are walking dogs, one is teaching children on the grass, and another takes his bike across a bridge. Many have speech and thought bubbles above their heads, implying the collective hum of the city.

Rather than creating drawings like these at the beginning of projects, to help articulate the concept, Kusunoki conceives them after the initial design has been completed, to help them refine it. “All of the animation that I draw is kind of a summary,” she says. The illustrations help her and her team test how well a project sits in the context of a city, and how the negative space around it might be used. “We are quite skeptical about 3-D renderings,” she says. While such images are lush, and easily absorbed by clients and others, Kusunoki says she has a hard time imagining herself as the “beautiful woman” often found in them. She hopes people will spend time with her drawings and will be able to envision themselves inside of a project by identifying with the characters.

As for the firm’s initial dive into a project, Moreau says that they always begin by studying the site in order to judge the appropriate size and scale for a building—one of the hardest things to get right. After fine-tuning a project’s dimensions and scale on the computer, the architects break out scissors to start modifying the plan and sections and assembling the pieces like a collage. Model-making over dinner and some drinks helps keep the mood playful and everyone motivated. (Moreau previously worked for SANAA, another firm dedicated to modelmaking.) “We are a young studio,” says Kusunoki. “We can provoke something that does not seem possible. We can make something quite weird.”

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