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In urban architecture, how much can a structure's surface say?
Sometimes, not much—but at other times, its meanings run far below
skin deep, as revealed in a recent AIGA/NY talk, “Personal Spaces/Public
Visions,” featuring Elizabeth Diller, of Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R), and
Michael Rock, of 2x4.
DS+R is transforming the High Line from an abandoned railway
(above) into a lush, elevated public park (top). (design: Diller
Scofidio + Renfro and Field Operations, courtesy City of New York;
photo: Joel Sternfeld © 2000)
In her thought-provoking and often soul-searching remarks,
Diller covered some recent high-profile projects in New York by her
architecture studio, DS+R, including a redesign of Lincoln Center
and the transformation of the High Line, an abandoned elevated
railway on the city's West Side, into a public park. Diller
explained that the High Line was a rather poignant project, for the
place's original charm and mystery depended on its untamed quality,
as an industrial ruin that had given birth to a profusion of wild
vegetation. As captured in the photos of Joel Sternfeld, the place
evoked a feeling that was “incredibly melancholic,” she said. “It
was a kind of final revenge of nature over industrial culture.” She
went on to explain, “When the Friends of the High Line decided to
do their [design] competition and we submitted our names, and we
came up with the project, we also had a lot of self-doubt about—do
we really want to do something there and destroy this?”
Created in collaboration with landscape architects Field
Operations, DS+R's winning entry was a sort of anti-design, in
which a permeable surface formed the defining aesthetic. The
designers took inspiration from the random patterns of plants
pushing up through a broken sidewalk. Instead of imposing bold
pathways upon the narrow space, they formed thin strips of concrete
shaped like the prongs of a comb, allowing for walking areas while
still preserving a wild look for the plants that would spring up
between the fragments of concrete. Thus, the park is conceived as
an “interesting mineral-vegetal blend,” she said. At an entrance
spot where the High Line was once sliced off at Gansevoort Street,
they kept the raw-looking appearance of that slice, using it to
display the layers of the plant life. All in all, with its hybrid
blend of the natural and the unnatural, the park design might
recall another DS+R project for the 2002 Swiss Expo: Blur, a
building constructed of technologically produced fog.
As for the Lincoln Center redesign, a collaborative project with
other firms that is also currently underway, Diller spoke more
about the arduous process involved in negotiating the politics of
such a massive, city-involved project than on the design. But in
other forums she has revealed how at this site, too, surfaces have
played a huge role in transforming and updating the dated
institution's structures, to bring a welcoming sense of openness
and transparency. Once-forbidding buildings on West 65th Street
will gain windows to open them up to the public eye, while a public
lawn will add softness to a place that's often perceived to have a
hard, elitist look. A sleek wood-veneer “intelligent skin” coating
the interior of the Alice Tully Hall will be able to glow from
within, in a gesture that's both warm and theatrical.
2x4's lightbox-like visuals on the Herzog & de
Meuron-designed Prada store in Tokyo. (courtesy 2x4)
In his presentation, Michael Rock, of graphic design studio 2x4,
revealed an equal fascination with surface, though for far
different architectural effects. His studio frequently uses
large-scale digital displays to enhance or, sometimes, subvert the
architectural forms that they cover. Using a whirlwind tour through
sci-fi movies as a jumping-off point, he concluded that while
there's considerable cultural anxiety about ubiquitous video
advertising (as exemplified in Minority Report), the
seamless and elegant melding of architecture and technology (as in
Blade Runner) represents a tantalizing challenge for
designers. (In fact, Blade Runner must have launched “10,000
architecture graduate program theses,” he quipped.)
2x4 delights in transcending the inherent flatness of the
surfaces it works with, often using soft forms to create the
illusion of depth and, thus, “a very ambiguous space between the
surface that we're working on and the depth of the architectural
space,” Rock continued. For a Chanel store in Hong Kong, the studio
used a four-story low-res LED screen to display video of drifting
bubbles, their organic, three-dimensional forms seeming almost to
dissolve the building's rectilinear edges. In a lightbox-like
design that enveloped the façade of a Herzog & de
Meuron-designed Prada store in Tokyo, a verdant fairytale-like
landscape conforms to the building's structural grid to a certain
extent, but also breaks out of it with gentle curves. Perhaps most
intriguing, in a project for a Prada Beverly Hills store, the
designers used video-game software to create human figures composed
of images of information. The figures were projected into the
building's window, so they seemed to “float around the space
itself” like ghosts.
In the end, 2x4's exercises in architectural embellishment might
be beautiful and technically impressive (winning a rousing round of
applause from the audience), but Rock's presentation could have
benefited from a deeper examination of their broader meaning,
especially in a talk intended to cover the issues around bringing a
personal design vision to the public. He commented little about his
and Diller's shared project, Lincoln Center, though that would have
been a natural point of interest for his local audience.
Questions such as how 2x4's video displays have impacted their
viewers—and even how they have contributed to the clients'
brands—were given short thrift. But perhaps a focus on aesthetic
and technological innovation is enough, sometimes, in a design form
that's often called upon to be showy, that should grab a
passersby's attention for a brief moment of branding or visual
pleasure as they stroll by—or as they fly by, if the vision of
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