Architecture? Sculpture? Decor? None of these terms quite do justice to what Plant In City’s Huy Bui creates in his Brooklyn studio. Bui is a designer and artist who became an architect after a stint in real estate banking, a career that obviously couldn’t accommodate his creativity, but it’s not large scale buildings or houses that Bui focuses on. It’s terrariums, another term that seems to fall short of describing his work.
Bui’s creations are little worlds—biospheres— of stackable wooden structures that contain landscapes, and even tech systems for monitoring them. By playing with scale and distilling the world down to the micro level, Bui compels us to think about our relation to the systems of the planet, large and small. It’s an amazing trick, and one reason why Plant in City is so unique.
Can I call them terrariums? It doesn’t seem like it does your work justice.
I’ll call them microcosms, these little worlds.
Where did the concept come from? Were you interested in plants first or architecture?
I knew I was a little different, even when I was in architecture school. Traditional architecture is more about language, history, legacies, certain time periods. We’re living in this time where we’re beginning to question everything — religion, government systems — and the only thing that is kind of consistent thinking is the world of science. I’m smitten by the cosmos, and it’s really been driving the way I think. It’s about all these different worlds, in different worlds, within different worlds. This repeating kind of rhythm.
What does that mean for us? We’re trying to solve this mystery in our lives. Are we the only ones? Is there life on other planets? Learning a little more about the cosmos makes you understand a little more about what’s going on here.
Has that been a driver since the beginning, or just recently?
Well, our whole culture is trending towards making things, whether it’s writing or becoming a woodworker or ceramist. This was just my way of creating value in this world. Getting closer to the things that surround us, the materials and so forth. And I’m just continuing on that.
So when you were working your banker type job, were you making things at night with your hands? Where did it begin?
My first dabble in the creative world was photography. I lived in San Francisco and I would spend Saturdays and Sundays just shooting. Having a great eye is the first step into the creative world. You’re framing, so you’re already making a decision. And then you’re putting a story together. So that was the beginning of this sort of creative pulse that I discovered.
Then you decided to go into architecture? Why?
It was the closest thing to real estate. In the world of architecture there’s so much happening — philosophy, structures, and physics, history, engineering. So much going on; so many different scales too. Huge urban complexes... buildings. Architecture is moving towards a science-based thinking, thinking of buildings as organisms. It has to breathe. It has to have lungs, and you can start looking at the plumbing as arteries. It has multiple systems, not unlike our bodies.
And you bring that whole systems thinking to the micro level!
Exactly. The whole idea with the work that I’m doing is trying create this module, this biosphere that has a kind of ambiguous scale. You look at and can be like, I can put myself in it. Or whoa, this could be super huge! Or, it could be a one to one thing, just a terrarium.
Modular buildings are common in architectural now. Did you apply that concept to your projects? Is that where it came from?
Yeah, I’ve been looking back at Superstudio, the radical architectural think tank. They kind of laid the groundwork for people like Rem Koolhaas. They were like: with design and architecture the only thing you should really impose on the environment is something that’s super simple and has a system that is easy follow. So they imposed a grid, and Plant in City is very much based on that grid too. With that simple system you can create so many variations, but it grounds you. But yeah, that was an element that I brought to my work for sure.
From a practical standpoint, having plants in the city can be kind of tough. There’s not a lot of light depending on where you live, even if you want to add a soil or something you have to do it in your bathtub. How much of that was something you were trying to solve?
New York City really defines you as much as you define New York City. I just wouldn’t see this idea happening anywhere else. We have spatial constraints. If you don’t have any more floor space, you have to build up. It’s the same concept. New York City also lends itself to a lot of collaborations. One of my partners has a UX background and architecture background. So there’s a lot of layering go on. There’s projects, inside projects, inside projects. It can be seen as an urban design project, and then it can be seen as interior work for someone who needs a partition wall or something.
Yeah, Plant in City is absolutely applicable to a lot of different situations, and there are a lot of different ways to think about it.
There’s almost too much flexibility!
How much are you building vs. experimenting? What’s your day like?
In this phase, I’m still going through this modular-centric design. I’m just building these pieces. The next step is after you build it, how do you arrange it, how do you set it up? Even my new work, is also based on this modular design. It’s still based on frames. I’m still thinking less about plants, but still microcosms of these little worlds. The intention is to suggest massive scales at even a smaller unit to make you think bigger.
Is it safe to say you’re interested, or obsessed with, the small scale?
I am. I certainly am. It’s a way to think on a larger scale, especially if you’re just one person.
Most architects want to build a huge project.
Yeah, but they start small. They may build huge massive plan that will affect cities for years, but they always start small.
Do you have any desire to work on large scale projects? Do you want to take it bigger?
I’m open to it. I see my career as this journey. I have this life plan, but you never know who you’re going to meet or who’s going to see your work. If someone approaches me and says, hey you want to make a skyscraper out of one of your modules? Okay! Most architects do their greatest works later in life, so who knows?
Speaking of this. Are there dream projects that you want to do?
I would love to scale up and create a whole community of tiny houses. They would be inspired by the whole Plant in City frames. I’ve had a lot of people say to me, I’d love to live inside one of your terrariums. People want to live in a little tiny jungle. How about thinking about space and about nature, before thinking about where you put the bed, the closet, the kitchen?
Do you see yourself as an artist?
I’ve been thinking about that lately, the life of a scientist and the life of an artist. Those two disciplines are much more closely related than most people think. For me, I relate a little more closely to the scientist then the artist. As more artists take on that approach of the scientist mentality, we’ll see a lot of interesting work.
Albert Einstein said “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”