The Unnatural: How Diller Marches to a Different Drummer

Event: “Unnatural” in Architecture by Elizabeth Diller
Location: National Arts Club, 06.16.08
Speakers: Elizabeth Diller — Principal, Diller Scofidio + Renfro; Douglas Friedlander — Chair of the Architectural Committee of the National Arts Club (introduction)
Organizer: The National Arts Club, Architectural Committee

Poss Family Mediatheque at The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, one of Elizabeth Diller’s favorite unreal spaces.

Photo by Iwan Baan, courtesy The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston

In an era when “natural” is touted in everything from food to design, it’s refreshing to hear someone come out in favor of its opposite. “The unnatural doesn’t necessarily have to be bad,” declared Elizabeth Diller in a recent talk about her firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s (DS+R) work. “It’s not necessarily fake, it’s just a different kind of natural.”

Her firm has long treaded the border between the natural and the artificial. Take the Blur Building, a technologically conjured fogbank at Lake Neuchâtel for the Swiss Expo 2002. The ephemeral “building” redefined what architecture could be, putting a focus on the visitors’ transient experiences instead of creating an enduring physical form.

To promote social contact in the densely foggy environment with limited visibility, the firm designed an intelligent raincoat for visitors that would blush pink when someone with a similar personality profile drew near, Diller explained. Although the wearable technology was never developed, the designers’ fascination with the natural phenomenon of blushing continued. As part of a renovation of Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, they designed an “intelligent skin” lined with wood veneer and resin translucent enough for light to shine through, creating a warm glow. When the house lights come down, the lighting under the veneer will glow briefly, “blushing,” so that “momentarily attention is stolen from the stage and brought to the architecture,” she said. Audiences will first get to see the effect at a gala this December.

Designs such as The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston (ICA) and the unbuilt Slow House play with the artificial framing effect of windows. At the ICA, views of the harbor are slowly doled out, glimpse by glimpse. A favorite spot for Diller is the Mediatheque, a vertiginously sloped computer room that draws the eye to a patch of undulating waves framed by a window at the end of the space. Devoid of context, the view’s impact almost begins to appear unreal. “When we opened, some elderly gentleman stood at the top and said, ‘Wow, this is the biggest screensaver I’ve ever seen,'” she recalled.

Unlike such eye-grabbing experiments, DS+R and Field Operations’ design for the High Line called for a light touch, she said. As documented by Joel Sternfeld’s photographs, the long-abandoned elevated railway had the eerie charm of an industrial ruin being reclaimed by nature. The architects’ goal was to preserve that feeling of a natural oasis in the midst of the city, so they designed slender paved areas weaving through vegetation, inspired by the look of plants pushing up between cracks in old, crumbling concrete. They never anticipated the development frenzy that the High Line would trigger, and that worried them, she said, along with concerns about potential overuse of the park once it opens.

“We had this strange feeling of doubt that we’re losing the very thing that we love, that melancholic, very beautiful postindustrial feel of this abandoned railroad that we wanted to turn into something that was a kind of contemplation about the nature of nature,” she said. But in the end, “we began to realize that this kind of growth is very much part of what cities are about and the High Line will ultimately be a blend of the natural and the cultural. The notion of ‘nature’ really does need to be rethought…. We foresee a future of the High Line where nature and culture will find a really smooth and interesting interface that we can’t entirely predict.”

Parking in the Green Zone

Event: Earth Day symposium: Park Design for the 21st Century
Location: Center for Architecture, 04.22.08
Speakers: Deborah Marton — Executive Director, Design Trust for Public Space; Hillary Brown, FAIA — Principal, New Civic Works; Charles McKinney, Affil. ASLA — Chief of Design, NYC Department of Parks & Recreation; Laurie Kerr — Senior Policy Advisor, Mayor’s Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability; Denise Hoffman-Brandt, ASLA — Professor of Landscape Architecture, City College of New York School of Architecture, Urban Design and Landscape Architecture; Alex Felson — Director of Ecological Design, EDAW; Joan Krevlin, AIA — Partner, BKSK Architects; Signe Nielsen, FASLA — Principal, Mathews Nielsen; Susannah Drake, ASLA, Assoc. AIA — Principal, dLandstudio; Tim White — Project Manager, eDesign Dynamics; Marcha Johnson, ASLA — Landscape Architect, NYC Department of Parks & Recreation; Margie Ruddick, ASLA — Principal, WRT Design
Moderators: Rob Crauderueff — Sustainable Alternatives Coordinator, Sustainable South Bronx; Steven Caputo — Fellow, Park Design for the 21st Century Design Trust
Sponsor: Design Trust for Public Space

Queens Botanical Garden

The Queens Botanical Garden, designed by BKSK Architects.

©Jeff Goldberg/Esto

As NYC gets ever denser, its parks and green spaces will play a crucial role in keeping the city livable, pleasant, and ecologically sound. Aptly held on Earth Day — the anniversary of the first announcement of PlaNYC — this symposium peeked at some ideas that will inform a new publication devoted to promoting sustainable landscape design in NYC, the High Performance Landscape Guidelines by the Design Trust for Public Space and NYC’s Parks Department with a peer review by NYC Department of Design and Construction (DDC), due out next year.

Hillary Brown, FAIA, coauthor of the DDC and Design Trust’s High Performance Infrastructure Guidelines (2005), called for a reframing of the discourse surrounding sustainability. “A vision for the next generation of buildings, infrastructure, and, of course, parks must be one of not only just replenishing the health of natural systems but, I believe, placing them deliberately in our midst,” with roof gardens, vegetative roadways, and plentiful parks. “In this way, sustainability isn’t about austerity but, to the contrary, offers a richer living vocabulary — in the end it is the re-energizing of man’s symbiotic relationship to nature,” she said.

Like the guidelines themselves, the panels included a mix of ideas and case studies. One highlight was a talk on urban carbon sinks by Denise Hoffman-Brandt, ASLA, professor of landscape architecture at the City College of New York School of Architecture, Urban Design and Landscape Architecture, who revealed the complexity of long-term ecological strategies. PlaNYC’s initiative to plant a million trees holds the potential to reduce carbon levels, because vegetation and soil help to absorb and store it — on the other hand, if the trees die from lack of proper maintenance, the dead wood stands to release even more carbon into the atmosphere, she explained. Alex Felson, director of ecological design at EDAW, discussed the necessity of collaborations between ecologists and designers, which require bridging very different vocabularies and methodologies.

Joan Krevlin, AIA, presented the case of the Queens Botanical Garden designed by BKSK Architects. It includes solar panels, a geothermal heating and cooling system, and other green features, and is on target to receive a LEED Platinum rating, she said. The project is designed not only to function sustainably, but also to educate the community about ecological systems. A Visitor & Administration Center’s green roof becomes an extension of the garden, and water is used as a unifying element between the architecture and the surrounding landscape. Likewise, NYC Department of Parks & Recreation landscape architect Marcha Johnson, ASLA, discussed how a playground without pavement in Pugsley Creek Park provides inspiration for a city where built and natural landscapes can coexist in a harmonious balance.

May the Spirit of Space Be With You

Event: The Spirit of Space: A Conversation with Noushin Ehsan
Location: Center for Architecture, 04.07.08
Speaker: Noushin Ehsan, AIA — President, 2nd Opinion Design
Moderator: Wids DeLaCour, AIA — Co-chair, AIANY Housing Committee
Organizer: AIA Housing Committee

Baha’i House of Worship

Baha’i House of Worship by Fariborz Sahba embodies Noushin Ehsan, AIA’s idea of the spirit of space.

Norman McGrath

New York-based, Iran-born architect Noushin Ehsan, AIA, has become fascinated with the spiritual aura that certain architecture holds, dubbing it “the spirit of space.”

She was “converted” when profoundly moved upon visiting former schoolmate Fariborz Sahba’s Baha’i House of Worship, a lotus-shaped temple in Delhi. Le Corbusier’s chapel in Ronchamp, too, has spirit of space, as do many secular designs, such as NYC’s revamped Columbus Circle, according to Ehsan. So what leads to a place having spirit of space? To Ehsan, flashy, attention-grabbing design is irrelevant, as are costly materials and adherence to a style.

While there’s no exact formula, she outlined qualities conducive to spirit of space: an airy, joyful, orderly, holistic design; an apt use of symbolism; and skillful landscaping and integration with nature. Beware of copying, for “a replica can’t radiate the same power,” Ehsan said, citing the imitation Parthenon in Nashville, TN.

Theoretical reference points were notably absent in this lecture. Risking the obvious, Ehsan also asserted that our built environment profoundly affects people’s emotions and behavior, a point no one would dispute. But her extensively researched, slide-filled lecture came alive through her enthusiasm and detailed examples, ranging from Tadao Ando, Hon. FAIA’s renowned Church of the Light in Osaka to the quirky Albert Moore-designed Igloo House in Cornwall, CT, a vacation house owned by Ehsan herself. At first glance, the artificial, lumpy look of the foam-built house repelled her, but inside, the geodesic-dome-shaped structure is remarkably soothing, womblike, and rejuvenating, she said. In fact, her sojourns there have been her “salvation,” she declared — high praise from this architectural evangelist.

Breathing Façades, Energy Carts for Dead Cell Phones Featured in FEEDBACK Show

Exhibition: FEEDBACK
Location: Eyebeam, 540 W. 21st Street, through 04.19.08


(left) Fluxxlab’s Revolution Door uses manpower to generate energy for an LED sign; (right) The Power Cart by Mouna Andraos and Fluxxlab, among others, provides power to recharge electronic devices via a hand crank and solar panel.

Courtesy Eyebeam

In the future, perhaps sick buildings will automatically vent stale air by opening slits in their façades, recycling will be universal, and dead cell phones and laptops will be easily recharged with a few twists of a hand crank. These are just a few of the eco-friendly measures being conceived by architects, artists, and engineers featured in FEEDBACK, an exhibition at Eyebeam in Chelsea through this Saturday.

Visitors enter through a revolving door designed by Carmen Trudell and Jenny Broutin, who formed the design firm Fluxxlab to work on experimental sustainable projects together. Titled Revolution Door: Power for People by People (2007), the door recycles the energy used to push it to light up an LED sign. Fluxxlab also contributed the show’s exhibition design, which includes artificial turf covering a central “green,” evoking the ambiguous nature of some environments. Recycled artificial grass was a more eco-sensitive option than real grass would have been, said Broutin, who led one of FEEDBACK’s many accompanying workshops on the turf one recent Saturday.

Around the common green lie displays of about 20 projects at various phases of development. Designed by Mouna Andraos with help from Broutin, Trudell, and others, The Power Cart (2007) is a recycled-wood contraption designed to wheel around city streets, providing power to recharge cell phones or other devices via a hand crank and solar panel. On the side is a shelf for wine bottles, so the eco-conscious may have a drink while they wait for their gadgets to charge.

Systems for monitoring air pollution and other toxins abound. One highlight is Living City (2008) by architectural designers David Benjamin and Soo-in Yang of The Living. The latest phase of this project involves networking buildings in NYC and San Francisco to share air-quality data gleaned by sensors. In response to the air quality readings, a prototype building façade at the SF art center Southern Exposure “breathes” by opening and closing gill-like slits (viewable at Eyebeam through live video). Eyebeam visitors can also see (but, alas, not ride) a prototype of the wooden bike that Rogers Marvel Architects and West 8 designed for Governors Island.

A few projects may leave visitors scratching their heads, such as Annina Rüst’s eRiceCooker (2006), which tracks references to genetically modified rice on Internet news sites and automatically cooks rice in response, creating an excess of food that seems counterintuitive. Overall, though, FEEDBACK serves as a roadmap of promising routes being developed toward a more sustainable future.

Experiments with Donuts and Other Mood Enhancers

Event: Emerging Voices Lecture Series
Location: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 03.19.08
Speakers: Anne Rieselbach — Program Director, The Architectural League of New York (Introduction); Nat Oppenheimer — Director, The Architectural League of New York (Master of Ceremonies); Brian Johnsen, AIA, Sebastian Schmaling — Principals, Johnsen Schmaling Architects; Granger Moorhead, Robert Moorhead — Partners, Moorhead & Moorhead
Organizer: The Architectural League of New York

Parts House / Mobile Chaplet

Johnsen Schmaling Architects’ Parts House Pavilion incorporates moveable panels (left). Moorhead & Moorhead’s Mobile Chaplet is a woven traveling place of worship.

Johnsen Schmaling Architects (left); Moorhead & Moorhead (right)

Moorhead & Moorhead is a multidisciplinary NY-based studio led by Granger Moorhead, an architectural designer, and brother Robert Moorhead, an industrial designer. They admire materials and craftsmanship, and described how testing the potential of weaving and folding gave birth to some wild-looking yet highly practical designs. One weaving experiment led to the carbon-fiber Filament Wound Bench, resembling a donut wrapped in a fishnet stocking. Created using a manufacturing process commonly used for large-but-light items such as aircraft fuselage, the 54-inch-diameter bench weighs a mere 17 pounds.

A week-long weaving binge with their architect father yielded the Mobile Chaplet: a traveling chapel with a curvy mesh canopy made of two layers of thermoplastic-composite rods woven together. The canopy doubles as a backrest for a built-in bench, and its porous form offers a veil of privacy that still allows views of the surrounding landscape, Granger explained.

For Johnsen Schmaling Architects, Brian Johnsen, AIA, and Sebastian Schmaling believe, “the size and budgets of the projects are so limited, we have to make sure that the structures themselves are simple, so we have a little bit of wiggle room to explore the issues that we’re interested in: skin, materiality, tectonics, and context.” Most of those issues came into play in one early, defining project, the Parts House Pavilion, completed a year after the Milwaukee-based firm formed in 2002. The pavilion features movable colored Acrylite panels that can be rearranged into various Mondrianesque configurations, forming shifting frames for the surrounding cityscape and architecture. (The cheery colors in contrast to the gray city might be termed a “Milwaukee mood enhancer,” Johnsen quipped.) The windows draw public attention, too, and the client’s penchant for rearranging them earned him a neighborhood nickname as “the South Side Picasso,” Schmaling said.

The award-winning Camouflage House in Green Lake, Wisconsin, shows a similar interest in framing and context. The building façade echoes surrounding trees with layers of thin, vertical strips of untreated cedar, Prodema panels in foliage colors, and clear glass. In a renovation of a former brewery, walls made of beer bottles provide a nod to the building’s historical ties to another of Milwaukee’s famous mood enhancers.

Architects Say, “I’ll Do It My Way”

Event: Emerging Voices Lecture Series
Location: Urban Center, 03.22.07
Speakers: An Te Liu — artist, associate professor & director, Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design, University of Toronto; Jared Della Valle, AIA, Andrew Bernheimer, AIA — Principals, Della Valle Bernheimer
Organizers: The Architectural League of New York

245 Tenth Avenue

The steel-and-glass cladding of 245 10th Avenue was designed to reflect light in patterns that vary by day and by season.

qubdesign, courtesy Della Valle Bernheimer

“I hate it and I’ve almost rid my life of it,” proclaimed An Te Liu about IKEA furniture. Jared Della Valle, AIA, and Andrew Bernheimer, AIA, have no fondness for the mass-market designs either. For them, buying from IKEA and scavenging from the trash were equally distasteful methods for furnishing their office in their early days.

But Liu confessed to liking the designs better with a few not-so-minor alternations. Ignoring IKEA’s arcane instruction sheets, he assembled the parts for a desk into an angular hanging sculpture; he also reconstituted table panels to form a striped wall mural.

Like Andy Warhol, Liu, an artist and director of the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design at the University of Toronto, is known for using mundane objects as building blocks for new, unexpected forms. Drawn to the cheery colors of 3M sponges, he used them to create walls and pillars in his Soft series. In another project, he constructed totemic pillars out of air purifiers. He appropriated a photo of Levittown as source material for endlessly repeating ornamental wallpaper — an ironic critique of the myth of individual autonomy within a vast built network of sameness, he explained.

Bernheimer and Della Valle, principals of Della Valle Bernheimer, also delight in reinventing familiar forms, but with a highly utilitarian bent. When their firm needed new office furniture, they decided to sidestep stores like IKEA and buy a CNC milling machine to make their own ultra-customizable modular table. The duo’s love of individual variation characterizes their condominium at 245 10th Avenue, whose textured, reflective façade resembles an ever-shifting steam cloud, and a residence in Connecticut that appears to float in the treetops that surround it.

Perhaps the perfect complement to Liu’s Levittown wallpaper was Della Valle Bernheimer’s recent affordable housing project in East New York. The firm strove to break the mold of cookie-cutter design in the collaborative project, built for a mere $108 per square foot but offering a high level of architectural variation. Instead of “I live in the third house down the block on the left,” the owner can say, “I live there,” Bernheimer said.

Though a cynical police officer once challenged him, claiming the houses were “too nice for this neighborhood,” he holds on to the hope that the development may have a regenerative effect on the area. Certainly it’s been a positive step for the first-time homeowners who are beginning to move in, a group of people whose houses are as diverse as they are.