Starting this Saturday, the public will finally be able to admire the winner of this year’s Young Architects Program – Party Wall – at the MoMA PS1 courtyard in Long Island City. Every Saturday this summer through September 7, Party Wall will be the multi-functional backdrop (at once wall, water feature, shading and seating storage device) for Warm Up 2013, an outdoor music series.
We spoke with Party Wall’s designer, Caroline O’Donnell, principal of CODA, just this morning; she told us that although much has been made of Party Wall’s ingenious material (skateboarding scraps) and multi-functionality, it’s most important feature is it’s referentiality to the urban language of Long Island City.As O’Donnell told us: “we started to understand the relationship between the wall and the other languages—Long Island City, the billboards, the graffiti. We realized we had entered into a dialogue with a bigger urban context.”In fact, the wall itself is a legible sign – written in the shadow it forms.
Read our interview with O’Donnell on Party Wall’s ingenious design, after the break…
ArchDaily: Can you tell us a little more about the name “Party Wall”? Did the name precede the general design concept or did they evolve in tandem?
Caroline O’Donnell, CODA: They normally have a very simple brief for the Young Architects Program—to provide shade, water and seating for a dance party every Saturday. But this year they changed the brief and added different programs during the week, such as lectures, educational programs and performances. We thought it was really important to address both of those, not just one, to accommodate these different parties who would be sharing the pavilion. As you know, in architecture terminology a party wall is wall that divides spaces and enables a wall to be shared by different users on different sides, so it’s kind of a play on words. On one hand it is for a party; on the other hand it is about sharing the wall between different users.
AD: Did you use the skateboarding scraps for purely practical reasons (a.k.a to re-use material)? Or does skateboarding hold some greater inspiration for you?
CODA: I’ve been asked this question a lot and I have to say there was zero inspiration, just a lot of work and research. It’s not that any of us are skateboarders, but more that we wanted to make something that was usable for the different user groups. And even though there were many programs, there were two different states that the courtyard needed to be in: one was as open as possible so that there could be a dance party and on the other hand you need a lot of seating for things like lectures and performances. The problem was doing both at the same time.
As soon as we had the idea for the wall, we thought that the wall could act as a kind of storage device. The material of the wall could be made of chairs and it could be closed up, with all the chairs stacked and contained in the wall, or taken out and used for the different programs. We looked at many different types of chairs and they all seemed very ecologically unfriendly. Cheap plastic chairs are basically the worst thing you can do to the environment. We went back to the drawing board and started to research more sustainable and environmentally conscious materials. We found a skateboard company that was wondering what to do with the waste material and we loved both the off-cuts and misprints that they were producing. Once we realized that we could translate those into benches and chairs, we realized that it was the perfect material.
AD: So did the choice of material come about from researching companies that were trying to figure out how to use their waste material?
CODA: We went to the Cornell Materials Research Lab and they are involved in developing new material, such as plant pots that decompose in the ground. This company, Comet, had been involved with them because they had developed their own proprietary eco-friendly glue that they use in the lamination of their plywood sheets, which are also sustainably harvested. We went to the Materials Research Lab and we looked at about 100 new and cutting-edge materials. It was really interesting and there was a lot of great stuff, but we knew as soon as we left that the skateboards were the thing that we were interested in. So we called the company and they said that they were literally just walking out of a meeting where they were wondering what to do with their off-cuts. And they’ve been excited to work with us from the beginning.
AD: Can you tell us a bit more about the unusual shape of Party Wall?
CODA: Normally, shade is a big issue, and the typical solution has been to make a canopy which provides shade and covers everybody. We looked at all the previous projects and, of course, it was important to try to do something that hadn’t been done before, so we took the idea of the canopy and flipped it 90 degrees to form a wall. As long as the wall is positioned correctly in relation to the courtyard and the sun—and as long as it is tall enough—it can create shade just as good as a canopy could.
As soon as we did that we started to understand the relationship between the wall and the other languages—Long Island City, the billboards, the graffiti. We realized we had entered into a dialogue with a bigger urban context, which is pretty exciting. The next questions required going into detail: What kind of wall is it? Is it flat? Can it touch the ground without being a barrier? We knew that it had to lightly touch the ground, as little as possible, but still have enough surface area to create shade.
Once we realized that it was in dialogue with the language of signs it became an interesting problem. A sign is super legible; it says exactly what it wants you to do. We teach at Cornell and we spend a lot of time talking to students about legibility and architecture: What does it mean? What does it say? We’re somewhere between the two worlds of the highly abstract difficult reading of architecture and the highly legible reading of signs. We started to think of Party Wall as a sign that could say something, so we started to test out different ways of using lettering to create the form. The end result is something that uses letters and spells out ‘WALL,’ but it’s not really clear upon first view because it doesn’t spell it literally in the object itself. It actually casts a shadow that says ‘WALL.’ It’s interesting to see people come by and realize that they are letters; there’s a familiarity with the shape of the letters, but they know something is wrong because they are not the right way around. So there’s a kind of frustration that starts to happen when people are trying to figure out what it says. We’re reluctant to tell people because we don’t want to make it too easy.