An urban vision

For architects Hilary Sample and Michael Meredith, whose work recently won an architectural design competition held by the Museum of Modern Art and P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in New York, New Haven was the perfect place to start their architecture firm, MOS.

“New Haven has this rich cultural history in architecture,” said Sample, an assistant professor at the Yale School of Architecture, in reference to the work of Eero Saarinen, designer of Ezra Stiles and Morse colleges, and Cesar Pelli, former dean of the School of Architecture..

With a projected budget of $70,000 and a Jan. 26 deadline, Sample and Meredith, along with the four other finalists selected to submit proposals, set out in December to design an “urban landscape” for P.S.1’s large courtyard incorporating shade, water, seating, bar areas and a dance floor. Two Yale School of Architecture critics — Martin Cox and Makram el Kadi — were also among the finalists in MoMA and P.S.1’s Young Architects competition.

Sample and Meredith, Sample’s husband and working partner who teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, recruited a team of Yale and Harvard graduate students to help them translate their digital model into a physical one, built with laser-cut paper and steel frames.

“Inevitably there’s going to be discrepancies with the process of trying to take the digital data and making adjustments for the actual physical way the model’s built,” said Jason Kim ARC ’09, one of the graduate students who helped bend and solder steel rods for Sample and Meredith’s model. “It can be very painful … We put in a lot of long hours.”

Last week, Sample, Meredith and their team of more than a dozen office staff and students finished attaching delicate paper surfaces onto steel frames, loaded the 30-inch-by-40-inch model into a van and drove to New York to present their project to the judges.

The result of their hard work is what they call “afterparty,” a cluster of thatched chimney or cone-like structures that seem to sprout out of the courtyard; they will tower over P.S.1’s walls, visible to subway passengers and drivers on the Long Island Expressway. The structures echo the area around P.S.1, a former industrial haven filled with factories.

“Afterparty” reflects its surroundings in other ways as well. Sample said she and Meredith deliberately used “primitive, experimental” materials such as thatch, foam and concrete, which have a “different, fun sort of texture.” With its raw, industrial look, the landscape fits today’s economic realities, Sample said.

“The idea is back-to-basics for architecture right now,” she added, citing “the use of raw material, which is easy and affordable.”

Even the design’s title, “afterparty,” resonates with current events, Barry Bergdoll, chief curator of architecture and design at MoMA, said..

“It’s the spirit of the times,” Bergdoll said. “The party will go on but it won’t be a flashy party … That catches a wonderful spirit of appropriate fun in the time of a recession.”

Bergdoll added that P.S.1’s “Warm Up” summer series mainly caters to young people, many of whom lack the means to leave the city for the weekend or summer.

Sample also points with pride to one of the landscape’s most innovative features: the use of the concrete courtyard walls and the thatched structures, along with cooling chimneys and water troughs, to cool visitors down. In the heat of summer, visitors will be able to stand inside the structures for shade, while cooling chimneys will draw up cold air by induction, creating a breeze.

All of the designs were innovative, Bergdoll said, citing in particular Yale School of Architecture critic Martin Cox’s inflatable “PSi: Summer Blow Up,” which consisted of ultra-lightweight white fabric inflated and suspended over the courtyard, like a patch of clouds. Cox said he envisaged adding two inflatable wading pools with waterfalls that would fall like rain from the “clouds” overhead.

“Because the installation is temporary … we started with the idea of using the absolute minimum of material,” Cox said. He added that because the fabric shell would be prefabricated, the design could be installed in less than a week.

Although Cox’s design did not win, he said it was “an honor” to participate.

Sample agreed, noting she and Meredith entered the contest for the third time this year.

“It was a big risk doing it again, but it’s such a great problem — spatial, architectural,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun.”

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