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How One NYC Museum Sparks Architects' Most Radical Work

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Photos of Cosmo by <a href="">Max Touhey</a>.
Photos of Cosmo by Max Touhey.

If you happened to walk by the Museum of Modern Art PS1, in Long Island City, Queens, this month, you would have seen a curious 50-foot structure rising over the museum's courtyard walls. Peeking above the graffitied concrete was a collection of massive tubes linked in a web. From a distance, they appeared to float in midair. Close-up, the reality is more complicated and intricate.

On a recent Friday, the team of seven people working on the structure was 10 days into construction. They had already set up the foundation, which sat on wheels, and two towering beams, which connected a total of 13 circular tubes. They tinkered with the material—mostly agricultural piping—propped up onto the structure's base or leaning from cranes. Once they finished piecing together the various piping, the result would be a seamless water purification system. Still to come: the installation of smaller plastic tubes that would connect the structure into a web, with two water tanks fixed to the base. The final step would be to incorporate greenery, which was already growing elsewhere in the courtyard.

If it sounds like a complicated building process, it is. And it would be completed in a matter of three weeks, with about 70 people—architects, engineers, construction workers, students—stopping by to help build it. This is the scene every June at the MoMA PS1 courtyard, a space that has emerged to foster impromptu outdoor architecture studios. The courtyard has become an unexpected haven for ambitious, bizarre designs of the kind that many architects never get the chance to create.

"It's an incredible process that brings together many different people," says the architect who dreamt up the multi-tubed structure, Andrés Jaque. "That's what makes this program so special."

The program Jaque is referring to is MoMA PS1's Young Architects Program. The annual collaboration between the Museum of Modern Art and different architecture firms, which opens today at the PS1 space in Long Island City, Queens, begins when MoMA invites architects, curators, scholars, and magazine editors to nominate young architecture firms that are experimenting with new styles and techniques. Ultimately, five finalists are selected and asked to present a proposal for an installation at MoMA PS1. The winning proposal is displayed over the summer in the expansive courtyard of the former school building. Winning proposals often have an element of uncertainty to them, a question of how, exactly, the structures can be built.

This is true certainly of this year's winning proposal, dubbed COSMO, submitted by Jaque's firm, the Office for Political Innovation. And it was true of last year's winner, Hy-Fi, submitted by the architecture firm The Living. "PS1 believes in an idea that's still a question," said David Benjamin, founder of The Living. "Then they give you a stage and the opportunity to go for it." Both the Office for Political Innovation and The Living are modest firms with radical dreams of what architecture can be, and their projects, COSMO and Hy-Fi, offer unorthodox visions of design. They are also two of the most ambitious projects the program has selected in recent years, as its focus has shifted to designs that promote sustainable architecture.

Jaque founded the Office for Political Innovation, which is based in both Madrid and New York, with the idea that architecture can—and should—engage with conflicts among nations, wars over resources, gender issues, and inequality. "The office was formed for the possibility to participate in conversations regarding sociology, science, technology," he explains. Their proposal for MoMA deals with the urgent need for clean water supply around the world.

COSMO is a moveable structure that's made out of customized irrigation components. The Office for Political Innovation selected a variety of pipes from irrigation catalogues to create interconnected, tube-like structures that sit on two wheeled platforms. Greenery surrounds the base of each platform, and algae will be used to help purify the water. The variety of pipes will filter and purify 3,000 gallons of water over four days, without the use of electricity. After that process, the cycle continues again, with water becoming more purified with every cycle. Every time the cycle is complete, the structure will glow.

The Office for Political Innovation's predecessor in the courtyard, The Living, also designs with sustainability, environment, and creativity in mind. That's what made the firm an ideal candidate for the Museum of Modern Art's Young Architects Program last year. "I've always been interested in bringing architecture to life in many different ways," says Benjamin.

The Hy-Fi design submitted by The Living rose 40 feet and was comprised of three chimney-like structures that wove to create a single, open tower. It was notable not just for the design, but because it was made of 100 percent organic bricks. These "eco-bricks" were made with discarded corn stalks and mycelium (also known as mushroom roots), required no energy input, and generated no waste or carbon emissions. The Living even proposed to grow the bricks with the help of Ecovative, a manufacturing company founded to develop practical and economical uses for mycelium. The result? Slightly larger-than-normal bricks that were extremely light, easy to manage, weather-proof, and structurally sound.

"This is a very competitive process," Pedro Gadanho, the curator of MoMA's Department of Architecture and Design, says of the Young Architects Program. "But it's also a very inspirational competition that people really want to be a part of." He explained that the Young Architects Program only began to focus on sustainable design in recent years. "We are now looking for a very creative, unorthodox proposal that will respond to ecological concerns," he says. "It's become essential that the proposals present a solution in their work."

Photo of HWKN's Wendy, the 2012 winner, by Jessica Dailey.

That focus emerged from the architects themselves. The winning entry for 2008, P.F. 1 (Public Farm One) by WORK Architecture Company, transformed the PS1 courtyard into an urban farm with vegetables and plants that bloomed inside cardboard tubes. The idea was to create a living structure made from inexpensive, sustainable materials recyclable after its use in the courtyard. After that, "teams themselves started revealing a call for environmental issues," Gadanho says, and it became part of the criteria for judging the designs. In 2012, the Young Architects Program selected the firm HWKN to build Wendy, a spiky structure that utilized a special nylon fabric designed to neutralize airborne pollutants. The 2013 winners, CODA, constructed Party Wall using reclaimed wood from a manufacturer of eco-friendly skateboards.

The Living's proposal to build Hy-Fi marked a notable shift for the program, as it was far more ambitious in its commitment to sustainability. "This proposal was attractive in that it offered a building material for the future," says Gadanho. "We can grow bricks in a simple way... the proposal marked the return to the basic unit of brick as an architectural element, but the brick had been transformed into having an ecological use for the future." Hy-Fi was also unique in that the entire structure would be compostable after its temporary run in the courtyard.

This year, according to Gadanho, the Young Architects Committee selected Office for Political Innovation because the firm presented "the most mature solution" to pressing environmental concerns. The design "is also such a joyous expression of architecture," says Gadanho. COSMO's aim is to tackle the problem of global water scarcity, also bringing up questions of climate change and political strife. "We want to relate to people in a critical way concerning how water can be transformed," says Jaque. "We're very sensitive to the ecological, cultural, and political moment."

COSMO is also unique in that it will be on wheels. "We wanted to minimize our environmental impact at PS1," says Jaque. When the exhibit closes in September, "There will be nothing remaining when we leave." Wheels also ensure that the structure can be exhibited in places other than MoMA PS1. "The important question now is how do we avoid creating temporary architecture," says Jaque. The conscious design decision to build a structure that will outlast PS1's temporary museum residency was also made by The Living—the eco-bricks on display last summer are now being composted by the Long Island City reuse center Build It Green.

Turning these ambitious renderings into reality for the museum is a fast, intensive project that leaves little room for error. "Every phase of this process is impossibly short," says Benjamin. As Jaque explains: "That first moment you realize you've won you think, Oh my god… We only have a few weeks to accomplish this."

After The Living was selected as one of five finalists, they had eight weeks to develop a proposal for presentation to the Young Architects Committee. The period of construction was confined to three weeks. "The winners start work immediately," says Gadanho. "They must prepare and understand how everything will be assembled, and achievable in a concrete manner." Both The Living and Office for Political Innovation are small firms with seven-person staffs, and both Benjamin and Jaque spoke to utilizing a large support network of assistance to build. "We don't need to be an office of max capacity," says Jaque. "We activate our network of experts and consultants from around the world."

Last summer, The Living decided to move its whole studio to the PS1 courtyard site during construction. The majority of the eco-bricks were grown in a facility upstate by Ecovative in an intense construction process. The bricks had to pass load tests and stand up against wind pressure. Upon deciding the proper density and strength, the bricks were then formed in specially-designed molds. The Living also grew bricks of sustainable concrete (which would serve as the base of Hy-Fi) right inside of the courtyard.

Photo of Hy-Fi by Iwan Baan, courtesy of The Living.

Benjamin called the PS1 courtyard "an outdoor studio for a month." While he said there were a lot of little panic moments—the team had to build a makeshift tent over the under-construction structure during one week of nonstop rain—there weren't any big moments of doubt. They also received help from structural engineers, Columbia University architecture students, and traditional brick masons. In the end, the team assembled a total of 10,000 bricks in a precise, geometric, and structurally-sound pattern. While earlier renderings made the design look sleek, the end result was something much more organic. Gaps in the brickwork naturally ventilated the interior. The Living decided not to dye the bricks, leaving them an earthy white tone.

As for this summer, the Office for Political Innovation prepared for implementation by selecting materials for COSMO from irrigation catalogues. "We'll be using traditional components and assembling them differently," says Jaque. "It'll be efficient in both time and price."

The constraint on time comes coupled with a constraint on budget. According to Gadanho, it's an intentional way of doing things. "In the end," he says, "the architects are involved in the construction process in a very meaningful way." According to Benjamin, MoMA PS1 is fairly hands-off during construction, but the architect is extremely hands-on: "PS1 expects that the architect is making it happen and solving problems on the spot."

The debut of each summer's architecture project is coupled with the start of the PS1 Warm Up Series, a weekly music series held in the courtyard. "A lot of people are just coming for the music," says Benjamin. "But it's a great setup… This project could have been done in a lab, or on a vacant lot. But we got to test this building in public and within the surrounding culture." Benjamin said that people responded strongly to the material—that it looked familiar but it was made of a substance that's completely new. The Living started sending Columbia University architecture students to the Warm Up Series to explain the origins and benefits of the eco-bricks to the crowd.

Gadanho says that how the building interacts with the public is an important part of the jury's decision. Jury guidelines specify that proposals must provide shade, seating, and water. It must have a strong visual presence, but it cannot obstruct views or movement of the crowd. "We liked how Hy-Fi reflected shadows in the courtyard," Gadanho says—the gaps in the brickwork resulted in various patterns as the sun changed. "With COSMO, we felt it would provide an interactive, interesting experience."

The courtyard exhibition brings a wide audience to the work of the winning architecture firm, with roughly 5,000 visitors each weekend. "It's hard to say if our current work is a result of the PS1 design," says Benjamin, "But we did receive a really positive response." The Living started working on number of unique projects after its courtyard debut. The firm is designing a building for Princeton University with a wood facade comprised of 800 boards of former scaffolding. The firm is also working with SHoP Architects on the ambitious Pier 35 redesign; The Living is designing floating lights that will change color and blink, responding to the fish swimming underneath. The firm, commissioned to design an acoustic environment for one of the exhibit rooms at MoMA's Bjork retrospective, arranged 7,000 felt cones on the wall to complement a Bjork video.

Photo of cut mycelium bricks by The Living.

Benjamin isn't through with the concept of growing bricks, either. "While we went through this process, a stem cell researcher told me that given a year, we could grow any type of property we wanted," he says. "This is an incredible opportunity for firms who are thinking big." While more experiments are necessary to determine if the eco-bricks can be used widely, the results from Hy-Fi are promising. Benjamin says that the materials suggest that we can manufacture bricks as a living organism to last a certain amount of time—two weeks, a month, 20 years. Changing properties of the eco-bricks—the ratio of the waste material, the species of mushroom, the amount of growing time—will produce bricks of different performance. He is also encouraged by the price: "Mycelium bricks are very inexpensive... they are cheaper than almost any other building material," he says. "The cost of mycelium bricks is about $1.25 per cubic foot, compared to about $1.90 per cubic foot for concrete, $12 per cubic foot for red clay brick, and $10 per cubic foot for wood."

While The Living continues to explore the ideas represented by Hy-Fi, the Office for Political Innovation is right on the cusp of its courtyard experience. Jaque is planning to send representatives from the Office for Political Innovation to talk with the crowd and lead tours of COSMO throughout the summer. He wants to be transparent about the design to give others ideas of how a water purifying system could work in places around the world. "We want to discuss these issues and hope people will take part of that discussion home," he says. Jaque notes that the production of such a system is not so much a matter of cost as knowing how to build it. "You can do it with a simple pump—$50—and a few buckets, as long as you understand the logic," he said. "So that is why we are making the process readable for people. So they can get how simple it is." He envisions a structure similar to COSMO in a village not just to purify water, but also to serve as a gathering place.

While there's intention to transfer these ideas to a wider use, the designs primarily exist within the courtyard walls as a thought experiment. Gadanho says that the purpose of the competition is mainly to inspire: "As in any architectural competition there is an ambition to represent the best practice, including both design skills and how these translate in out-of-the-box, innovative approaches to sustainability that can be scalable to other purposes." It also must serve as an appealing, appropriate setting for the Warm Up parties.

Winning designs are not picked by the jury based on practicality—the future use of eco-bricks, or the transferability of a water-purification system. According to Gadanho, "There is more of an intention to affirm really talented practitioners that have come up with grand ideas and new architectural images."

Jaque's grand idea is ready for its courtyard debut. "There's stress, for sure," says Jaque. "And also happiness. But the big thing is the expectation. What will be the reaction of the public, and how will we organize around that response?" He quickly adds: "The not knowing, that's part of the process too."

· MoMA PS1 coverage [Curbed NY]
· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]