Exhibition designs by Alfred Zollinger and Sandra Wheeler challenge assumptions about what's green
Laura Fisher Kaiser -- Interior Design, 3/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
Alfred Zollinger and Sandra Wheeler have a reputation for not taking things at face value. Designing "Ecotopia: The Second ICP Triennial of Photography and Video" at New York's International Center of Photography, the husband-wife partners poked fun at environmental orthodoxy by constructing giant Ecotopiaries. The pair's displays for "Green Community," now at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., are not only technically innovative but also indicative of an increasing involvement in content.
Both Wheeler and Zollinger grew up in what the latter calls "DIY families," he in Switzerland and she in Toronto. Because of that hands-on background, they like their ideas to evolve in the studio through extensive prototyping and experimenting with materials. The couple first collaborated in the 1990's at the Cranbrook Architecture Office in Michigan, working on projects by the likes of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, and went on to found Matter Practice in 2002. In addition to exhibition design, the firm is working on residential and commercial projects in New York and Connecticut.
What's behind the name Matter Practice?
AZ:Practice implies that we're continually learning and honing. Matter is a three-part play. First on my Swiss roots, the Matterhorn. Then on Herbert Matter, who collaborated with Charles and Ray Eames. And third as in substance and everything that occupies space, which is what designers always have to play with.
SW: Also the matter of materials. Our early professional experiences were in construction or fabrication, which continues to inform our practice. The content of an exhibition is a kind of matter as well. Finally, there's the question of essence—why does this matter?
AZ: We've had to endure a lot of bad puns, but we think it works.
SW: We take it seriously, humor.
Dealing with serious topics, including global warming, what is your sifting process?
SW: We don't come in with preconceived ideas. We look at the context of a problem. With the Ecotopiaries at ICP, we were talking about hope that exists despite climatic disasters and war, and we seized on the idea of a blade of grass that manages to grow out of crack in a parking lot. From there, we went through a period of drawing installations, gathering quotes, looking at the work of other architects, thinking about social and political dimensions.
AZ: Part of this mode of inquiry is to consider not just how a material appears and behaves structurally but its symbolic meanings, implications, and associations, too.
So, deciding on your materials palette is a fairly intellectual exercise?
SW: Well, the most important part takes place at our in-house shop, where we cut up materials, play with them, make a mess. Our hands are capable of discovering things that our heads cannot.
SW: For the Ecotopiaries, we realized that making irregular forms on computers was the wrong approach. We played with tires, but we couldn't get the right volume. We made prototypes out of foam, but that didn't work.
AZ: Then we tried petroleum tubing. By accident, we learned that the stuff curls when you put it together.
That hardly seems like a green material.
AZ: We were really interested in the contradictions inherent in a substance that replaces asbestos—insulating pipes and decreasing noise—but is based on petroleum. For "Ecotopia," the tubing was pragmatic, because it was black and tactile and fire-resistant. Videos were shown inside some of the forms, so it was also good that the material was sound-absorbing. The installation was not about greenwashing or doing what's expected. It spoke to the complexities of the issue.
Did some museum-goers miss that irony?
SW: We allow the work to be read in different ways, and that's exciting.
How is the National Building Museum exhibition eco-conscious?
SW: We tried to reduce the amount of offcuts and to use the inherent color and texture of a material instead of paint. All the materials were recycled, recyclable, or sustainable in some way, and that required a lot of research. To decide whether to make something out of steel or aluminum, for example, entails looking at the whole manufacturing process and where the metal goes afterward. Although steel appears dirtier, it's in fact cleaner than aluminum, which takes more resources to produce. Sustainability is complex and contradictory.
What else goes into your thinking?
SW: We see exhibitions as something between architecture and theater. As the visitor moves through the story, it's a question of shaping the experience without controlling it. The order of encounter is fairly important, but the last thing we want to do is make a circulation path, so you have to move in one direction like cattle through a chute. Of course, 10 percent of people walk through backward.
Do you ever stand there incognito and watch how people react?
AZ: The best time to do that is at openings, because people usually have a bit of alcohol.
SW: At "Ecotopia," they were absentmindedly stroking the installations, like petting a cat on a sofa.