Every summer a new architectural folly rises from the concrete and gravel courtyard of MoMA PS1 in Queens, New York, only to disappear at the start of the fall. The short stay is a pit stop on a migratory journey, it seems, where each of the whimsical “creatures” spreads its wings for a season, grazing on pebble rocks before moving on to an undisclosed location. (Usually a warehouse or workshop to be dismantled, its parts put away in storage or recycled.)
They come in all shapes, colors, and materials, ranging from the bombastic to the timid. They attract the hippest subset of museum-goers, who come to look at, play around, and, yes, pet the showy structure on display.
Whatever it says about the state of art in the year of Spring Breakers, this year’s piece for the hot season is Party Wall. The winning pavilion for the 2013 Young Architects Program (YAP) comes from architect and educator Caroline O’Donnell’s CODA.
Last November, CODA was listed among the small circle of finalists for the program’s 14th iteration. Upon hearing the news, O’Donnell, an assistant professor of architecture at Cornell, dug up the winning and losing proposals from YAP’s history and began studying their formal qualities and programmatic strategies. “I thought it was important to understand what happened before,” O’Donnell tells Co.Design. To do that, her strategy was "to categorize them into types,” or “biological classifications.”
So she put together a small compendium of animal species. “Wendy," YAP’s 2012 winner, for instance, was what O’Donnell considered a starfish, while she categorized workAC’s much-loved 2008 “Public Farm” as an “aggregated piles” species (“PS1 endangered”), or, in keeping with the theme, a sloth.
The big takeaway? Most submissions, built and non-built, were bats, wide canopies that covered a portion of the courtyard and cast shadows on visitors below.
All the bats that appeared to O’Donnell indicated not a lack of imagination on the part of the designers, but rather a lack of information in YAP’s famously laconic brief. The three-point program lists just shade, water, and seating as the requisites for submissions. Shade is the most pressing factor of the bunch, as it’s integral to cooling off concertgoers who fill the courtyard for Warm-Up summer music events. But, given the relatively small dimensions of the site, it’s also the hardest to work out architecturally—resulting in a great number of low-hanging, wide-spanning bats.
Admittedly, the zoological avatars didn’t really figure into the final design for O’Donnell, though she considers the structure "chameleon-like" in its own way. That is, possessing properties of a program-reactive species that firmly repudiates the favored canopy model.
The wood-and-steel installation cuts a formidable presence, but somehow avoids becoming monolithic or commandeering—a feat given its scale. It looms loftily above ground, casting all kinds of shade, yet its footprint occupies less than 1 percent of the courtyard’s area. CODA achieved this economic use of space by flipping the canopy scenario on its head. The strategy yielded a long, narrow dividing wall, which the architects broke up into blocky components that form the letters W-A-L-L. The message is calibrated to be revealed in full on, and only on, August 31, when the pavilion’s shadow will reach its greatest depth.
The wall’s zig-zagging massing touches the ground at just five points, with seating, pools, and platforms filling in the gaps in between. The broad sides of the legs are angled in opposite directions in a V-like formation; they’re left open at the narrow ends to create hollow pockets of shaded space for the cool crowd. A linear chain of water features snakes its way through the structure’s innards and hovers over the people below, periodically showering them with refreshing mists.
The structure is faced with ornamental wood screens, whose quasi-arabesque patterns animate the sides of the pavilion. At first, the panels look like laser-cut stencils, which bear an indecipherable, no doubt digitally determined outline. This skin, in fact, is a weaving pattern of skateboard cut-offs. All of the 3,000 wood scraps, “bones” as O’Donnell calls them, were sourced from Ithaca-based eco-friendly Comet Skateboards. Working with the Cornell Center for Materials Research, the architects developed a modular facade based on the standard unit of the cutoff. Additional Comet bi-products, such as misprinted boards—which account for 10 percent of the company’s output—were repurposed as benches sprinkled throughout the courtyard.
Certainly "Party Wall" is a sign, in the tradition of the billboards that surround its summer home in Long Island City, though one that relies on the fleeting sun and shadows of the season to be fully revealed. The architect explains: “When you ride the train around the site and further into Queens, there’s this amazing language of signs on top of buildings, with steel frames and billboards. You start to see this thing less as an object and more as part of a family of familiar forms in the neighborhood.”
"Party Wall" is open through August 31, 2013.