At the Cooper-Hewitt’s “Design USA: Contemporary Innovation” exhibition, the physical objects on view are almost ancillary—afterthoughts—to the real action, which takes place not on the minimal display shelves, but on the iPhone that every museum visitor is handed.
This approach really pays dividends in the final and largest room of the show, where the Apple gadget’s multimedia capabilities are put to great use, with audio and video clips of some of our top living designers discussing their architectural practice in depth. I’ve never been so engaged by a design show as I was by this one, which allowed for true immersion into some very interesting minds—with great stories to tell.
Here are some highlights:
• In a group audio interview, principals from Polshek Partnership enthused about the myriad attractions about the firm’s favorite building material: that solid but transparent wonder known as glass. In one of my favorite anecdotes in the show, the firm shared how its first design for the Clinton Presidential Library—which relied on louvers to protect the precious documents from too much light—was heartily rejected by the louver-hating 42nd President. An alternative solution was quickly found: layers of laminated glass.
Clinton Presidential Library
• In his video, Peter Eisenman relays how, as a 20-year-old, he ventured deep into an Iowa cornfield to pick some corn—out of sight of anyone who might report his trespass. He got helplessly disoriented—and says he has been aiming to replicate this “lost in space” uncertainty at his projects ever since, perhaps epitomized by his design for the memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
(Modeling junkies will also appreciate Eisenman's story of his groundbreaking use of Form.Z 3D software, which enabled the complex forms of his Aronoff Center for design and Art at the University of Cincinnati.
• In his audio contribution, Thom Mayne (who recently gave RECORD a video tour of his 41 Cooper Square) was in full techno-geek mode (perhaps appropriate for someone who bears more than a passing resemblance to Steve Jobs). Discussing his methods, Mayne stressed how important rapid-prototype modeling has become to his practice, powering one complex design iteration after another until the right solution is reached. In his two-minute lecture, Mayne also managed to predict that technology would soon make “working drawings an anachronism.”
Steve Jobs Thom Mayne
• The favorite material of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien? Press play on your iPhone, and you learn it’s stone. And the type of project they’d most like to work on? Low-income housing.
• Same material question to Richard Gluckman? Concrete—a low-cost material that can be elevated with high-end detailing—and whose permanence also helps ease the mind of an architect fearing the erasure of his work.
• While the museum curators note Rick Joy’s frequent use of rammed earth as a building material, the architect himself, in his audio input, counters that his material choices are actually quite heterogeneous and driven more by context than anything else. So while rammed earth may make sense in the hot, dry Southwest, a project in Vermont would lend itself to the use of wood and stone.
• William McDonough is represented in the analog world by a rather dull poster of his enormous green roof at Ford’s River Rouge Plant. But there’s plenty of passion in his voice when he describes his hope for not just “cradle-to-cradle” buildings, but c-to-c cities and even nations.
• Nader Tehrani of Office dA wins the prize for the longest piece of multimedia—a nearly nine-minute video, where, in addition to discussing what architects can and should do to control more of the design process, he explains how the design decisions at the firm’s acclaimed Macallen Building Condominiums in Boston have made it extremely adaptable to being marketed in different ways in different economic conditions. His firm partner, Monica Ponce de Leon, uses her audio minutes to discuss how academic research—she’s dean of the University of Michigan’s school of architecture—helps push her practice forward. (Take a look at our video tour of Office dA's workspace.)
• Tom Kundig gets the only audio/video double play on the iPhone. In the audio portion, we learn how he equates mountain climbing with architecture. And the nearly silent video is the perfect medium for exploring Kundig’s projects—which have so many moving parts that can’t be properly captured with photography.
• In his video, landscape architect Walter Hood most eloquently expressed a recurring theme heard again and again as the exhibition’s designers discussed their methods: the importance of both research and of listening.
• Gregg Pasquarelli of SHoP Architects said building performance trumps building form in his hierarchy of what’s most important—and he also insisted that that the firm tries to have fun with its designs—even when burdened with the stress of a billion-dollar project.
Other designers included in the show: James Carpenter, D.I.R.T. Studios, OLIN, LTL Architects, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and others.
The exhibition closes on April 4—I strongly encourage any architect in the New York area to check it out—thanks to its savvy use of the iPhone, it has set a new benchmark for me about what an architecture exhibition can achieve.