As tradition dictates at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles (better known to many as SCI-Arc), each year an architect builds a temporary pavilion to house the school’s graduation, which is held in September. This year the task was handed over to Dwayne Oyler and Jenny Wu, professors at SCI-Arc and principals of their firm Oyler Wu Collaborative. The directive was simple: Design a structure that would keep 1,000 students, teachers, and guests cool and shaded during a 5:00 p.m. ceremony in the school’s blisteringly hot parking lot.
Two months later, with the assistance of 15 students in their seminar class, Oyler and Wu debuted Netscape, a hand-woven canopy made from 45,000 feet of polypropylene rope, 6,000 feet of steel tubing, and 300 square feet of fabric. With a texture that echoes the industrial chain-link fence that rings the parking lot, the pavilion arcs over the parking lot with a monumental presence, yet the dense, knotted intersections that stretch between the trusses showcase the ingeniousness and beauty of pure human-scale craft.
This type of large, highly engineered structure is where Oyler and Wu excel—their pieces, like a sculpture honoring Muhammad Ali, are often made from massive formations of bent aluminum tubing. But with all their projects, they were looking to experiment with something new. One day a student brought them a small knitted pattern, which he said he had created with a single piece of string. It was visually interesting, remembers Oyler. "But then he twisted it, and we were like, whoa." Watching how the loose knots responded to tugs of tension, stretching into fascinating new shapes, was a realization for Oyler and Wu. "Instead of bending metal, we could create a form by bending rope," says Oyler.
With the assistance of two forklifts, the students assembled and welded the steel beams together as the frame for a giant net. A simple knitting technique was gleaned from YouTube, where the students watched a video over and over of an older woman teaching a simple stitch. They then constructed giant 40-foot looms in the parking lot, which they used to produce the netting surfaces. Even with the wealth of technology before them at the school, it was only by using this old-fashioned technique that they could make the proper stitches, says Wu. "We were knitting with our bodies."
Using a 16-foot by five-foot model (one of several created for the project) which they brought out to the parking lot in the afternoons, Oyler and Wu worked to calibrate the structure’s louvers so they’d provide maximum shade right at 5:00 p.m. on the graduation date. Using a jersey knit (the same that’s used in sport uniforms), the team stretched and angled the porous textile between the two planes of rope netting. The louvers provided parallelograms of shade that elongated throughout the day, uniting into continuous shade just as the ceremony began.
Although the louvers proved to be the most difficult detail to execute, adding them produced an unintended aesthetic effect: In the lightest wind the jersey ripples with movement, giving the rope-and-steel structure an almost nautical feeling. It’s a ship with billowing sails moored in the concrete sea of L.A.'s downtown.
Photos by Scott Mayoral