Metal Machine Musings
It’s a pretty well known fact, at least among architects, that in the United States’ “jobless recovery,” architects are, or were, category leaders in joblessness. Two New York Times articles, “Architect, or Whatever,” in January 2010, and “Want a Job? Go to College, and Don’t Major in Architecture,” in January 2012 put a 0.5 Micron fine-point on an already deep sense of malaise.
Even in headier times, the vicissitudes of the practice often fall short of the grand vision that fills the sleepless dreams of architecture students, who are taught to believe that their singular vision can and will churn up whole cities from the muck. The reality is that, once seated in a drafting chair, the architecture graduate is often relegated to executing someone else’s vision, and usually at the level of detailing doorknobs, sometimes for years, with no clear picture of how to get that first commission.
But there are some architects who have managed to advance their craft and stay vital, while branching out into something a bit closer to the field than truck driving. Architects experiencing a lull in commissions, or even just a creative block might find inspiration in their work.
In the gaps between traditional building jobs, two Los Angeles firms, LAYER and dOSu Studio Architecture, have turned experimentation with material properties, particularly metals, into art. Both firms have exhibited extraordinary metal installations recently, LAYER with “A Loose Horizon” at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, and dOSu, with “Bloom,” at Materials & Applications, a sort of open-air exhibition space wedged between two buildings on Silver Lake Blvd.
LAYER, led by Emily White and Lisa Little, has created a serrated, three-dimensional sunburst shape out of 1/16”-inch red-and-gray-painted aluminum pieces, which hangs on a steel cable from the museum’s ceiling at the top of a partially enclosed staircase. “A Loose Horizon” is tilted at such an angle that, when viewed from the street, it looks like a cross between some kind of sea anemone, a bird of paradise, and a really substantial eyelash, peering out over the ledge.
Inside and up close, the piece angles aggressively into the path of travel. The smooth metal neatly radiates from a center loop, with each ray passing through several thicknesses before splaying from its partner slightly after the last rivet. Several of the pieces extending over the ledge are less rigid, and wave like tendrils. Fear of impalement overcome, the viewer is rewarded by turning to look through the iris, affording a focused view of radio towers in the mountains to the north. The feeling it evokes is at once technologically affirmative, and vaguely threatening, like a possessed jet fan turbine dipped in hot chili sauce.
“Bloom,” by dOSu, doesn’t just imply kinetics – it actually moves, without the aid of motors, though imperceptibly except in time-lapse photography. The self-supporting monocoque is comprised of 14,000 individual pieces, set into 414 hyperbolic parabaloid panels set into an aluminum frame. The pieces are comprised of thermobimetals – metals that react to temperature changes by expanding and contracting, most commonly used in thermostats. The tension in the pieces causes the entire sculpture to stretch and arch, yawn and gasp, pucker up, tense and sag as the sun passes over it, creating differently shaped enclosures in the outdoor space throughout the day. Designed for peak performance (maximum shading) on the winter equinox, “Bloom” takes a slightly different shape on every day, owing to the sun’s position. Though dOSu principal Doris Sung dubbed the sculpture “Bloom” because it reminded her of a Victorian undergarment (“bloomer”), it also looks like a funnel, a surrealist cheese-grater, a floppy hat, and any number of other things, depending on the day.
The opportunity to experiment is a welcome and vital aspect of the careers of both studios’ principals, and it’s integral, not tangential to their other work.
“Art is a comparatively freeing experience relative to architecture,” says Little of LAYER. “A 5-story building has all kinds of life safety concerns and parties to deal with. This is an opportunity to experiment on a smaller scale.”
“Doing this kind of proto-architecture has an appealing immediacy,” says White. “I like the quick turnaround.”
For Sung, making a performative, kinetic sculpture isn’t a deviation from architecture, so much as a continuation of an experiment that happens to be open to public view.
“I use the ‘installation’ format as a means for testing my prototypes at larger scale,” she says. “It is like a laboratory for me. The structures are proof-of-concept constructions that test material behavior, structure, digital fabrication tools, etc. The fact that they look like art or a product of beauty is part of my obligation as an architect to consider all the virtues of design, including venustas (or delight). It is hard for me to make decisions based on practicality alone. Plants and other things in nature have a performative purpose, and they are beautiful.”
The practical applications for a structure made of thermobimetals are appealing – the system devised by dOSu could become a movable shading device that would track the sun, cooling interior spaces while using no electricity to move. Sung’s research continues this fall, when she’ll be working with graduate students in University of Southern California’s building science department to develop a method of measurement for the energy savings afforded to spaces protected by thermobimetal shading devices.
Sung has not installed the thermobimetal brise-soleil on a building yet, but is currently fielding inquiries, and has several patents pending on thermobimetal products. In the meantime, she’s working with UC Berkeley professor Ronald Rael on creating a load-bearing concrete block system that makes use of thermobimetals to open “pores,” allowing buildings to breathe, reducing the need for mechanical conditioning. The first prototype block will be on display at the ARS Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria from Aug. 30 through Sept. 3. The main obstacle to the success of that system is the fact that water also penetrates the pores, in addition to air. Eventually, the blocks will feature a moisture barrier to mitigate that effect, Sung says.
“Thinking in terms of building products, instead of buildings, is just another way you can bring an idea to market,” she adds.
Experimentation also characterized the development of “A Loose Horizon.” The intention was to create a piece that was “phenomenological,” White says, with an emphasis on connectivity – “framing a view spatially with some depth, instead of just 2-D.”
Initially planned for an interior display room, the piece “migrated into the lobby,” taking on a life of its own. The interior room instead became a sort of mini-museum of the process, including two large installations showing the pieces as they looked when laid flat, before assembly. The team first sketched, then made computer models, then made some “fairly awkward physical models that collapsed,” White says. Somewhere in the process, “A Loose Horizon” shed 26 rays.
The transition from a computer rendering to a physical reality can be daunting.
Little and White stamped each piece with a unique letter-number identifier to remind themselves that “it would always translate into 3-D, from these cutout pieces in what appears to be total chaos, into order,” Little says. It took quite a few phone calls to puzzled machine shops before LAYER found one that was willing or able to do the work. Architecture students from Woodbury University—where Little taught last year – helped with the assembly. White teaches at Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-ARC).
LAYER used the same stamping strategy on another aluminum sculpture at the San Diego Children’s Museum, called “3 Horned Beast.” Painted blue, the object was to create something that had both “flightiness and ferocity,” Little says, which is also an apt description for “A Loose Horizon.”
The pieces of “Bloom,” designed in a 3-D software called Grasshopper, had to be laser-cut at a custom shop, labeled, and assembled onsite – also with the help of students, interns and volunteers, says Sung, who also ran up against some resistance initially.
“At first, there was a lot of head-scratching from metal suppliers,” she says. “A lot of my research has distant implications and they could not see the immediate benefits for them. Fortunately, I was able to convince the supplier’s researchers that there was value.”
Though it’s an integrated part of both practices, the installation work of LAYER and dOSu do cross a boundary between “art” and “architecture” that, while increasingly arbitrary, nevertheless does exist in practice. This is particularly evident in the way that the predominant art museum aesthetic remains a blank space that doesn’t “distract from” the art. Likewise, the public art that often “graces” a building often looks like the “1 percent for art” developer concession that it is, and appears to have been selected by someone who has never seen the building. Installations that fully occupy their spaces, and which puncture, surround, enclose and move, challenge those assumptions and trends, apparently with some success – “A Loose Horizon” has been designated “public art” by the City of Pasadena and will remain on display at PMCA for up to 12 months. Then, it is to be installed in a permanent home in the museum or elsewhere in the city.
The firms’ principals aren’t overly concerned with the labels, though they concede that they appreciate the attention from the “crossover appeal.”
“The art community considers me ‘mainstream,’ and the architecture community considers me ‘fringe,’” Sung says. “For some reason, I insist on calling myself an architect.”
“I think there is a lot of overlap between these art and architecture communities, and I think I operate in that overlap,” White says. “People outside of the overlap probably do treat the work differently, and treat us differently.”
Whether one considers them “art,” “prototypes,” or something else, it’s tempting to think of how the ideas in these installations could be applied next.
“We have done quite a few installations,” Little says. “If we had done the same number of buildings, that would be nice. I would like to make a building out of this folded skin.”
“A Loose Horizon” is on display at the Pasadena Museum of California Art through Oct. 14.
“Bloom” is on display at Materials & Applications through Fall 2012.
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