Canadian Architect

Feature

Next Vague

A temporary installation interrogates gallery and exhibit design.

September 1, 2003
by Trevor Boddy

NEXT installation, Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, BC
Lang Wilson Practice in Architectural Culture (LWPAC)

LWPAC’s NEXT installation at the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) is both a continuation of, and a riposte to, the aestheticism that dominated architectural culture in the late 20th century. That period, which has receded in history much quicker than many of us thought possible, was one in which the art gallery became the paradigmatic design commission, when form triumphed over all other architectural considerations, and when architecture schools became the new art institutes.

It is a particularly clever bit of curatorial legerdemain that the Vancouver Art Gallery’s NEXT series curatorial impresario Bruce Grenville has dedicated his first two exhibitions to shows that feature architecture as both subject and expressive medium. It is a direct result of architecture’s recent aestheticist obsessions that it is now exhibited in galleries in a way it has not since architects led the High Modern charge in the mid-20th century. For VAG, first came Won Ju Lim’s plexiglass imagined city, “Elysian Fields North”, (it ran from October 2002 to January 2003) inspired by the video game Tetris, and now Oliver Lang’s tour-de-force demonstration of digitally-directed alternate modes of building.

Lang has made his creation something of a meta-commission; he provided a temporary installation for the under-used dead-end corner of the museum dedicated to the NEXT series, but also proposed an adaptable building system that can be used by curators to house future installations by other artists. While space does not permit a thorough airing of the many issues raised by the LWPAC NEXT installation, here are a couple that float to the top of the flue:

The Paradoxes of Mass Customization

Oliver Lang is deeply interested in the possibilities digital design and fabrication provide for particularizing environments, while maintaining industrial efficiencies of production. “It will provide choice without the penalty of cost,” he says. Will this revolutionary power come to architects as Lang predicts, or will it further ensconce architects’ role as stylists, sculpting the next PT Cruiser body to go on the Chrysler world car chassis? Construction is one of the most decentralized and technologically conservative industries going, with much of its processes and materials remaining unchanged over the decades. Remember the dead end of Moshe Safdie’s Habitat and other attempts to industrialize housing? Effectively, Lang wants to bypass the industrial era to bring construction into the information age, building elements going from architect’s screen to immediate computer-controlled fabrication. This mode of mass customization may be more of an Arts and Crafts enterprise than it is a rationalization of construction-faux-modernity for those who can afford it. Besides, building customization is now readily achieved with interior finishes, furniture, modular windows and the like: do we really need this technology to now push and pull the form of walls and floors? What are the needs it fulfills?

The Formal Imperatives of Digital Design

In theory, the digitalization of architectural design should be neutral in terms of the physical forms it produces, but in practise it is proving to be anything but. Thanks to the inherent three-dimensionality of digital tools, there has been an explosion of amorphous form: one way or another, thanks to drawing tools that no longer bring an orthogonal bias, we have all become blobsters. The 2 by 8 foot plywood matrix modules of Lang’s VAG installation serve in theme and variation as floors, walls, plinths and chaise longues. This breaking down of the separation of building elements is the ongoing obsession of contemporary avant-garde architects, but Lang insists, “I am not just another blobmeister–LWPAC believes in adapting form to program, and not the other way around, as they do.”

Arguable.

Oliver Lang studied architecture at Berlin’s Technical University and has a Masters from Columbia University, part of the first graduate design class there to work exclusively in electronic environments. In the mid-1990’s he spent brief periods both working and teaching with Peter Eisenman and Greg Lynn. Lang considers more important the three years he spent as a project architect on the Corning Glass Museum in upper New York State for Smith Miller and Hawkinson. In 1997 he founded the Lang Wilson Practice in Architecture Culture with Cynthia Wilson, his Calgary-born partner in life and design.

Their first, and to date only completed construction is a crit room and studio addition to the School of Architecture at Santa Maria University in Valparaiso, Chile. This intervention into the fabric of an existing building and institution recalls similarly-scaled constructions at two Canadian architecture schools: Bryan MacKay-Lyons’ work in Halifax, and John Shnier’s in Toronto.

Since 1999 Lang has taught full-time at the University of British Columbia’s School of Architecture. Current UBC director Christopher Macdonald is building on the example of McGill graduate Alvin Boyarsky’s influential epoch at London’s Architectural Association, encouraging a wide variety of positions within the school. Lang’s simultaneous technological and cultural interventions are some of them.

Trevor Boddy is architecture critic for the Vancouver Sun, and welcomes feedback at trevboddy@hotmail.com

Client: Vancouver Art Gallery

Design team: Lang Wilson Practice in Architecture Culture (LWPAC), Oliver Lang (principal in charge), Alayne Kaethler

Structural: Fast + Epp, Vancouver BC

Vacuum forming: Scenic Solutions

CNC milling: School of Architecture, UBC

Stainless steel mesh: W.S. Tyler Canada

Contractor: Vancouver Art Gallery/LWPAC

Area: 1,500 sq. ft.

Budget: n/a

Completion: April 2003

Photography: Kristopher Gruenert unless otherwise noted

Next: LWPAC

NEXT is a series of exhibitions on emerging artists from the Pacific Rim, curated by Bruce Grenville at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Oliver Lang and the LWPAC were invited by the Vancouver Art Gallery to develop a new prototype for a gallery space to accommodate the complexities of new media artworks while providing something unique and distinguishable from the architecture that defines most other galleries. In response to the challenge, LWPAC designed and built a physical prototype for “1000+ galleries”, a concept that enables artists and curators to generate a series of spatial configurations that relate, position and question the perception of artwork. The project offers a fluid and dynamic context that can be adapted to multiple scenarios while shifting the typical gallery viewer from passive observer to active participant. Lang’s proposal developes a design and fabrication strategy that would allow curators and artists to collaborate on developing a space that could serve present and future collaborations. This part of the process is what he refers to as “conditioning” the gallery space. Rapid Prototyping, CNC milling and vacuum forming were used extensively to research and develop material properties, and construction or fabrication methods, that facilitate current and future implementations of ideas that mediate a complex spatial layering.

Lang’s design process is described in three stages:

1. Designing a strategy and curatorial process

2. Stimulate an interpretative interaction through abstraction

3. Protoype various assemblies that would allow for a multiplicity of implementations and unexpected perceptions that would enable an exploration of ideas on Mass Customization.

The NEXT: LWPAC project comments on the traditional notion of authorship that typically generates entirely fixed and closed propositions. LWPAC’s goal is to propose a system that resembles the nature of new media art, which includes continuous invention along with the unpredictable outcome associated with interactiv
ity. In order to work with the concepts that abstraction and new media allow, the project deliberately deploys the idea of incompleteness by focusing on the essentials with little or no attempt at a pictorial representation or narrative. Rather than providing a fixed solution, the incompleteness becomes a strategy that leaves the reality partially up to the interaction of curator and artist in their search for spatial potentials. Ultimately, each visitor will interact with the space on his or her own terms.

In reaction to the neutral and static space of the ‘white cube’ approach to viewing artwork, the NEXT: LWPAC gallery allows for an interior landscape that shifts and adapts to the cultural practices of viewing artwork. The visitor is meant to interact with the artwork, mitigating disengaged or passive experiences.

Various scenarios for the ‘landscape’ models enable visitors to gain unique perspectives and interact with the artwork from a variety of vantage points that vary in elevation and inclination. The variety of configurations in the space has the potential to create fields of adaptation and unfolding for the viewer. The intent is to blur the spatial hierarchies between artwork, viewer, floor, ceiling, and wall.

This effect of spatial multiplicity was accommodated using ‘scenario planning’ conducted in parallel with rapid prototyping. Rapid prototyping, CNC milling and vacuum forming were used extensively to research and explore material properties and construction or fabrication methods that facilitate current and future implementations of ideas incorporating complex spatial layering.

The fabrication and prototyping process was conducted as a laboratory for CNC milling, vacuum forming, and research in emergent and traditional materials as these are used in new robotically-assisted processes. The gallery system was developed as a distributable assemblage that contains both extremely simple lattice members, as well as highly specific insertions. Modern plastics and metals, unexploited potential materials in architectural applications, were employed. Lang notes that both metal and plastic begin as a liquid. At this beginning stage, a material intelligence can be infused into the process and allow for a vastly expanded range of material properties, either as an integral material, or as a composite. Part of the floor was constructed as corrugated and translucent PET-G. A combination of extremely precise and simple techniques was used to fabricate components directly from 3D digital CAD files.

Lang bemoans that the adaptability of architecture and the potential of mass production are at odds with each other. For example, in their 1998 annual report on Mass Customization, the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas presented a distinction between three different production ages and their implication to characterization, cost and value; first, the Agrarian Age: Hand Production (Artisans) Low Fixed Cost–High Marginal Cost; second, the Industrial Age: Mass Production (Assembly Line) High Fixed Cost, Low Marginal Cost; and third, the Information Age: (Digital) Low Fixed Cost, Low Marginal Cost. Lang recognizes that architecture is still trapped in either the Agrarian or Industrial Ages in terms of product quality, cost and actual choice, while many industries have long advanced themselves into the information age. The projects that we build exist largely within either standardization or expensive, customized solutions. The idea of a building as a high-quality product that allows for choice and adaptability remains an exception. To Lang, “choice is now an option.”




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