Architect likes to think, and live, outside the box

Jimenez Lai, assistant professor of architecture

Jimenez Lai, assistant professor of architecture, lives in his Briefcase House, a house within a loft that sits on casters so it can be moved around.

Jimenez Lai is an unusual guy who has lived in some unusual homes.

One was a shipping container on a pier in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

Another, a student-designed shelter in the desert at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West.

He now resides in a strange home of his own design, a structure of unfinished wood inside a huge, 1,400-square-foot warehouse loft in the Pilsen neighborhood.

An assistant professor of architecture, Lai thinks outside the box — so far outside, the box is somewhere over the horizon.

Lai calls his home Briefcase House. Open but windowless, the house within a house sits on casters so it can be rolled around to change the perspective. He shares it with his cat, Helvetica — “like the typeface.”

Sharing the loft space is Bureau Spectacular, Lai’s name for a workshop where he turns out installations, outsized furniture, paintings and drawings that he enters in architectural competitions.

“Bureau Spectacular pays homage to On Bullshit,” a book by American philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt, which distinguishes b.s. from lying by saying that the latter at least knows what the truth is, Lai said.

So it could be said that B.S. (Bureau Spectacular) is inspired by b.s.

Until recently, a prominently displayed piece in Lai’s space was White Elephant, a 10’ x 10’ x 10’ structure, hard on the outside (translucent polycarbonate) and soft on the inside (stuffed cowhide).

“It tumbles and changes orientation and can flip to eight different stances,” Lai said.

He calls it White Elephant because “a gift is a white elephant when it is a valuable but burdensome possession which the owner cannot dispose of and whose cost is out of proportion to its usefulness or worth.”

He added, “If anything, it’s a couch or loveseat, a chamber for hedonism.”

White Elephant has been collected by New York’s Museum of Modern Art to appear in a future exhibit, along with the original drawings from a related Lai comic book story.

For a look at White Elephant and some of his other projects, visit his website at

In 2004, when he was a graduate student at University of Toronto, Lai won a scholarship to study at Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s home in Arizona.

“It was an opportunity to drive across the U.S. and visit as many Wright buildings as possible,” he said.

As an apprentice architect, he lived for six months in a shelter designed by another student, and in his second year there designed a shelter himself.

Lai took Broadacre City, a theoretical Wright project, and proposed it as a space ship, a Noah’s ark populated with animals two by two, perhaps destined for another planet.

From Taliesin West, he took off for Rotterdam to become a disciple of the artist Joep van Lieshout for six months.

“He declared his independence from the Dutch government to make his own country, and invited artists from around the world to join his colony,” Lai said.

Under van Lieshout, Lai worked on such pieces as the Rectum Bar, a drinking establishment furnished with dung-shaped couches.

“He paid me 200 euros [$267.84] a month and I lived in a shipping container,” Lai said.

“I was cheap labor and I lived in and slept there with just a mattress and a padding blanket, the kind used by movers. To say the least, the conditions were rough.”

A talented cartoonist, Lai is the author of Citizens of No Place: An Architectural Graphic Novel, a collection of short stories. His work was included in the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo, also called CAKE, in June.

Lai was born in Taiwan and moved to Toronto when he was 12. At the University of Toronto he earned a bachelor’s degree in fine art history and a master’s in architecture.

He moved to New York City to work at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, founded by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. Later he returned to Rotterdam to work directly under Koolhaas.

“I realized that most of the architects who pushed boundaries tend to teach, and they tended to teach while they were young,” said Lai, who won the Debut Award at the Lisbon Architecture Triennale in 2013 and will represent Taiwan at the 2014 Venice Architectural Biennale.

“And they established their architectural operation — their office — while they were teaching.”

That was true of Koolhaas, Peter Eisenman and others. “I was trying to participate in this tradition,” he said.

To that end, Lai began teaching at Ohio State University. Along the way he met Robert Somol, director of the UIC School of Architecture, who invited him to come here in 2008.

Lai loves movies, “even bad ones,” he said, like “Dead Snow,” a Norwegian production.

“A Nazi SS troop become zombies and go hunting for gold,” he said.

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