Pop Rocks

TEXT Leslie Jen
PHOTO Krista Jahnke

Things are looking a bit rocky on the University of British Columbia campus these days, and that’s because Pop Rocks has made a soft but welcome landing on Main Mall, the primary axis of the ever-expanding university grounds. The result of a collaborative effort between AFJD Studio (Amber Frid-Jimenez and Joe Dahmen) and Matthew Soules Architecture, the installation is the second iteration of an initiative begun last year, when the City of Vancouver commissioned the team to design a temporary space downtown for residents and visitors to “sit and recline, sunbathe and eat, and interact and play”–on a heavily trafficked stretch of Robson Street that divides the Vancouver Art Gallery from Arthur Erickson’s Law Courts.

A curious assemblage of what looks to be a cluster of amorphous white beanbags to which passersby are irresistibly drawn, the soft forms recall the scale and whimsy of Pop artist Claes Oldenburg’s iconic giant hamburger sculptures from the 1960s. Pulled out of storage and refreshed for its second unveiling only a few weeks ago, Pop Rocks invites all to flop their weary selves down to soak up the idyllic surroundings, look up at the sky or across to the North Shore mountains–while inhaling the restorative fragrance of lush spring blooms.

 The pale alien forms are installed prominently in front of the clock tower and library on Main Mall, the defining pedestrian-only thoroughfare of a sprawling campus peppered with a spate of new buildings. Kind of like Chicken McNuggets, these giant yielding cushions comprise three unique shapes: bean, kelp and seed. The organicism of the forms seems fitting for this West Coast city, but was arrived at rather unexpectedly. In fact, the rigorous material explorations that drove the project took the team away from their initial intention of crafting more prismatic hard-edged boulder shapes, and the architect’s predictable bias towards strong geometries was sorely tested through this prolonged exercise. The distinct qualities of the chosen materials ended up dictating the resultant soft structures, and steered the trio in completely unanticipated directions–not unhappily, however.

Fabricated entirely from post-consumer and post-industrial waste, the installation makes use of discarded Teflon-coated white fibreglass fabric that once formed the distinctive sails on the roof of Canada Place, Vancouver’s iconic waterfront megastructure. As one might expect, the fabric is incredibly durable and virtually indestructible. And despite its blinding whiteness, the Teflon coating repels all manner of dirt and debris, and what does adhere can easily be blasted off with a pressure washer. Sewn by sailmaker Evolution Sails, the giant fibreglass bags were then filled with a loose aggregate of lightweight post-consumer expanded polystyrene beads from Mansonville Plastics, resulting in a collection of appealingly squishy and malleable blobs. Scattered here and there along the campus promenade, 12 of these soft “rocks” form a pillowy landscape–a defining focal point and locus for new kinds of social interaction. 

Aside from the laudable achievement of utilizing 100% post-consumer waste in a highly intelligent manner to create something of value to the city, Dahmen maintains that the primary satisfaction derives from the degree to which people enthusiastically engage with the installation, and the consequent appropriation and activation of public space by a variety of user groups. It is anticipated that Pop Rocks will continue to delight well into the fall season, until the relentless late autumn rain begins its onslaught. CA 

Other members of the Pop Rocks design team are Jen Boyle, Byron Chiang, Baktash Ilbeiggi, Warren Scheske and Derreck Travis. Structural engineering services were provided by Bevan Pritchard-Man.