Nestled among boutiques and restaurants along a stretch of Silver Lake Blvd in Northeast Los Angeles is a small front yard that has become a testing ground for audacious experiments in architecture and design. From the tinted mylar, space-warping Maximilian’s Schell (2005-2006), designed by Benjamin Ball & Gaston Nogues, to the angular metal structure Density Fields (2007) by the Oyler Wu Collaboration (featured in last month’s issue of Fabrik), for the last decade artists, architects and landscape designers from all over the world have squeezed spectacular and highly inventive structures into this 25 x40 foot outdoor exhibition space.
The space belongs to Materials & Applications (M&A), a research and exhibition center dedicated to advancing new and underused ideas in art, architecture and landscape design. Founded in 2002 by artist Jenna Didier, the space was conceived as a place where innovative and emerging artists and designers can collaborate on new ideas for public space. Didier also hoped it would inspire social engagement and involve the local community, something that she believed to be missing in her own artistic practice. She set up M&A as a non-profit, and with the help of grants, the support of a dedicated team of volunteers, and the co-direction of fellow artist and frequent collaborator Oliver Hess from 2004-12, transformed her front yard into a pocket public park that hosts two large installations a year and numerous public programs, events and workshops and is open free of charge 24-7.
Now, ten years on, M&A has been embraced by the architectural community as a test-bed for developing ideas about materials and their applications. Almost immediately after its inception, Marcelo Spina, founder and principal of PATTERNS, a Design Research Architectural Practice based in Los Angeles and Argentina, proposed a concept for the space. His installation Land.Tiles (2003-2004) was an articulated contoured topography – a micro-environment – made up of 140 concrete cast and textured blocks manufactured through a process of CNC (Computer Numerical Control) milling and vacuum-formed plastic. Though formed from concrete, each tile had a surface pattern like wood grain and a subtly different form, resembling rocks in a stream. Spina developed the work with students from his Land.Cro.Sy.Rials seminar class at SCI-ARC, incorporating research and development of new highly integrated, environmentally-sensitive, contour-responsive erosion control and landscape consolidation systems. The extended display period of the installation, and the continuous flow of water over the piece, mimicking heavy rainfall, enabled the architectural team to monitor structural, surface and vegetation conditions.
In late 2005, another transformation dazzled the neighborhood and significantly boosted M&A’s visibility in the national and international architectural world. Maximilian’s Schell by Benjamin Ball & Gaston Nogues was a gleaming canopy of over 500 tinted mylar scales arranged as a vortex evoking the mighty consuming force of a black hole. The designers’ goal was to create a work that combined architecture, sculpture and “made-to-order” product. To do this, they manipulated mylar, internally reinforced with bundled Nylon and Kevlar fibers, using a CNC cutting machine which sliced the sheets of amber mylar into components shaped like triangular scales that reflected light like stained glass. During the day as the sun passed overhead, the canopy cast colored fractal light patterns onto the ground, changing the space, color, and sound of the courtyard, and providing an environment for enhanced social interaction and contemplation.
This delicate yet tensile web was inspired by the Disney cult sci-fi film, The Black Hole, in which an evil tyrant, Dr. Reinhardt, played by Maximilian Schell wishes to harness the “power of the vortex” and possess “the great truth of the unknown!” The installation did indeed function as a vortex, drawing thousands of people into M&A’s courtyard. In fact, it received so much press attention, says Didier, “that we were worried that we might lose some of our street cred!”
For the tenth anniversary of M&A’s transformational space, the undulating metal installation Bloom, currently on view, is a perfect celebration of the organization’s mission. Designed by Doris Sung, Assistant Professor at the USC School of Architecture, “the piece really hit the sweet spot,” says Didier with great satisfaction. “It’s an intersection of high artistic achievement and rigorous research into materials, and it evokes a strong emotional response in viewers.”
Created by Sung in collaboration with Ingalill Wahlroos-Ritter and Matthew Melnyk, Bloom is particularly remarkable because it responds to its environment. Made up of 414 stacked panels of a smart thermobimetal (a sheet metal that curls when heated), as the sun heats it up, its surface shades and ventilates specific areas of the shell and also transforms to permit light and air through. The continuous flexing of the panels with the rises and falls in temperature causes the sculpture to actually move without the use of a power source or any mechanical parts, an innovation that could have valuable, zero-energy applications in architecture, such as canopies that curl shut when the sun is directly overhead, or vents that open automatically to let out hot air in summer.
Each of the installations hosted by M&A in their pocket park has served to further research into architectural materials and their applications. They have also succeeded in drawing in the local community, as Didier had hoped. The artworks as well as the numerous open air discussions, workshops and performances hosted in the space have acted like magnets, attracting residents of Silver Lake (myself included) and beyond to the space to explore, learn, volunteer or simply lose themselves in the magical setting. The influx of visitors to the space also gives the local business community a boost. Lynette Carezo, manager of the clothing boutique Grace Ellay two doors down enthuses, “Everyone around here loves M&A. What they do is really cool. They bring a lot of new people to the neighborhood and that helps us too.”
So what will the next ten years have in store for Materials & Applications? Didier and her team will continue to transform their Silver Lake front yard, but they are expanding their mission to include other parts of Los Angeles. In a project called the Urban Acupuncture Initiative (UAI), M&A will work with members of different communities throughout the city to identify interstitial blighted spaces in their neighborhoods and transform them into healthy spaces that are rich both artistically and spiritually. Because they will be motivated by the communities themselves, “these transformations will be from the inside out,” Didier explains. These will surely be spaces worth watching closely in the years to come.
More information on M&A can be found at http://emanate.org.
Words: Meher McArthur
Images: Courtesy Materials & Applications