Some Like It Hot
P.S.1's 10-year-old summer party keeps the beat pumping—and the inspiration flowing
Craig Kellogg -- Interior Design, 3/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
A rendering of the aluminum-framed chimneys in the upcoming 2009 Afterparty by MOS Architects. Image courtesy od MOS Architects.
Philip Johnson was well past 90 years old when, in 1999, he designed a summertime DJ booth and nightclub outside the P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City, New York. "Ronald Lauder gave the money as a birthday present to Philip," P.S.1 founder Alanna Heiss recalls. Society event designer Robert Isabell installed Johnson's flag-flying 50-foot-tall towers of scaffolding, and color consultant Donald Kaufman gave Johnson's modular bleachers their antic racing stripes in a millennial palette of ultramarine, chocolate, emerald, and chartreuse. For the rest of the summer, the courtyard adjacent to P.S.1's gargoyle-bedecked wannabe Richardsonian Romanesque schoolhouse became a dance floor under the stars.
If not quite a masterwork in the Johnson canon, the project helped to cement the affiliation between P.S.1 and the Museum of Modern Art, where he sat on the board of trustees. The ongoing collaboration that Terence Riley, then MoMA's architecture and design curator, grew out of the Johnson disco is now seen as a "happy symbol of the merger," Heiss allows—despite the fact that she personally acknowledges a "lifelong antipathy toward and distrust of architects." For her, the series was more about reviving nightlife than about promoting design per se. "The age of AIDS had begun killing off decadent, frantic joy," she explains. So it was that an art-world veteran, somewhat suspicious of design, teamed up with the ultimate architectural gadfly to invent the arguably most anticipated annual showcase of emerging talent in the U.S., allowing P.S.1's concrete-walled outdoor space to realize its potential as virgin real estate for experimentation of the highest order.
Cardboard tubs filled with strawberries, broccoli, lavender, and other plants in 2008's farm-inspired P.F. 1 by Work Architecture Company. Photo Eileen Costa, P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center.
In 2000, the fledgling SHoP/Sharples Holden Pasquarelli became the first winner of the Young Architects Program competition. A cedar-lath pavilion was the centerpiece of an ensemble that also comprised all the major elements that have become program signatures: cool water for wading and mist, shaded lounges, and open areas sympathetic to crowds and dance music. Gregg Pasquarelli recalls the six weeks of design and construction, followed by the two-month exhibition, as a sweet dream that ended too soon. His one regret? "We should have taken more pictures."
The very next year, Lindy Roy's firm, Roy Co., included a photomural of a tidal wave alongside a matrix of wall-mounted box fans that would have done a Target visual-merchandising team proud. The subsequent winner, Massie Architecture, transformed the courtyard by inserting a ribbonlike pergola of quotidian white PVC tubing, closely spaced to filter the summer sun. These early architectural adventures and the ones that followed won consistent notice from critics looking for new ideas and new faces, valuable snapshots of the next generation.
The cedar pavilion and wading pool from the inaugural Young Architects Program winner, SHoP/Sharples Holden Pasquarelli's Dunescape, 2000. Photo Eileen Costa, P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center.
SHoP's scheme was an influential outing for the firm's nascent brand of digital design—what was then called blob architecture—because the life-size, three-dimensional installation proved "more interesting than what had been seen on the computer screen," Pasquarelli argues. Credit MoMA's publicity machine with spreading the word far and wide, too. "It's one of the reasons we grew into a 75-person firm," he says bluntly. To this day, he reports, he's "both shocked and quite flattered" by the student copies that he and his partners encounter while reviewing work in schools around the U.S.
To follow 2003's hard-edged, aerodynamic aluminum-mesh canopy from Emergent principal Tom Wiscombe, Heiss and her committee of museum professionals were looking for something softer and a little more forgiving. They found it in nArchitects's lyrical canopy of fresh-cut sustainable bamboo, which quietly faded from green to tan over the course of July and August. Work Architecture Company made an even stronger environmental statement. By early fall 2008, the recyclable cardboard tubs levitating over the courtyard's high concrete wall were lush with bushels of plant life. That's a long way from the materials-intensive SHoP pavilion, which consumed two-by-twos by the truckload—wiping out the supply "from Long Island City to Montauk," Pasquarelli admits with a laugh.
Spandex sprayed with latex and polyurethane and stretched over an aluminum armature by Xefirotarch for Sur in 2005. Photo Eileen Costa, P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center.
The 2005 installation by Xefirotarch toyed with skeletal, organic shapes in spandex. Just as youthfully exuberant and no less fanciful were the colorful, translucent Mylar petals fluttering from Ball-Nogues Studio's utility poles in 2007—a hippie-era postcard long delayed by generations of modernist mailmen.
Adjusted for inflation, the $70,000 budget for 2009 may be not much better than the meager $50,000 that SHoP struggled with in more prosperous times. "There's no money for any kind of veneer or surface, so everything that goes into these projects is apparent," Riley notes from his current post as director of the Miami Art Museum. As he conceived the program, its scrappy do-it-yourself ethos was a pointed rebuke to a growing obsession with luxury. "Maybe everything does not have to be made out of wengé wood and French limestone?" he quips.
This summer's winners, Michael Meredith and Hilary Sample of MOS Architects, are the first that Heiss, recently pressed into retirement, was not involved in selecting. Their Afterparty, a commentary on the current financial crisis and an investigation of eco-physics, will essentially be a low-tech village of thatched "chimneys" designed to exhaust swampy air from the courtyard, using only induction.
Heat, as they say, rises.