• “Hybroot” crawled down the hillside in an appropriately segmented manner. Photo by Whit Preston.

Architecture was once said to be technologically decades behind other constructive disciplines. Post-World War II mass production yielded the modern airliner for aviation, but Levittown for architecture. Now, thankfully, we’re catching up. Rapid prototyping soft- and hardware allow designers to directly test and manufacture at the human scale, from jewelry to complete building components. Our expanded tool kit arrives just as we’re also tasked with addressing our collective environmental crisis. These advances in fabrication and environmental investigation were key components of Field Constructs, a recent competition in Austin that featured four installations by talented, young designers.

Field Constructs Design Competition (FCDC) was co-directed by Rachel Adams, Associate Curator at the University of Buffalo and previously at The Contemporary Austin; Catherine Gavin, former editor of TA; and Igor Siddiqui, principal of ISSSStudio and assistant professor at The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture. As these three discussed ideas for a competition involving site-specific installations, the opportunity arose to partner with Ecology Action to locate the project at Circle Acres, a 9.7-acre creek bed-turned-quarry-turned-landfill brownfield in Austin’s Montopolis neighborhood. From there, the idea expanded to become, in the organizers’ words, a competition focused on “new technologies, materials, and models of practice.”

FCDC was formally launched in November 2014. Its call for proposals, widely circulated online, yielded over 60 entries from four continents. An invited jury narrowed the ideas to a shortlist of 18. From there, the curators selected four projects to be realized at Circle Acres. Their choices maximized the diversity of the designers’ ideas, materials, and physical locations — both onsite and in practice — while ensuring the teams had the experience to realize their work at a difficult site on a limited budget of $5,000 per project.

In mid-November, after months of preparation, teams arrived in Austin for a busy week of fabrication and installation. ”Digitally derived” in this case also meant “labor-intensive.” The exhibit opened to the public during Big Medium’s East Austin Studio Tour, which, for the first time this year, featured artists south of the Colorado River. FCDC opened on a rainy Saturday with the curators and designers leading a tour of the exhibit.

From the entrance on Grove Boulevard “Blurred Bodies” was the first project encountered. Designed by Studio Roland Snooks of Melbourne, Australia, and assembled with students from Texas A&M and UT Austin, Blurred Bodies’ steel sheets were generated using algorithms that describe swarming patterns found in nature. Standing in a small clearing,  the camouflaged cloud shimmered, despite being held together with twelve thousand rivets. The installation was nearly completed by the opening — “The problem with complexity theory is it’s complex,” mused Roland in his presentation — but it made no difference, in its mostly finished state the assembly was fascinating. The shapes are part of Snooks’ ongoing experimentation; he is already at work on similar carbon fiber and titanium prototypes.

“Hybroot,” up next, crawled away from viewers down a nearby embankment. Part root, part robot, it was designed by Kory Bieg, principal of OTA+ and a professor at UT Austin. The installation tests the limits of a recently-acquired CNC lathe: Each branch is composed of individually milled quadrants whose fabrication took two hours apiece, meaning the completed work involved about 160 hours of tool time. Once milled, the units were glued together and painted. Originally rendered in an open field, the piece benefitted from the steeper terrain of its final location, as it rose to head height before diving back into the ground. Its color graduates from a bright green sampled from the site to an artificial yellow, with deeper recesses painted a darker blue — a chromatic success against its autumnal backdrop.

As visitors followed the path into the meadow, “99 White Balloons” began to react. Cambridge-based INVIVIA designed the responsive installation to reveal our invisible sensorial datascape: Arcs of white latex balloons with LED collars rose and fell with changes in temperature, while anchoring posts, hiding the Arduino controllers, responded to sound. This was FCDC’s only powered — and only kinetic  — installation. (The power comes from small, photovoltaic cells.) Supports were placed to avoid the meadow’s landfill cap, leaving INVIVIA’s slow balloon wave to hover among the thorny Central Texas plant life. Seen at a distance, the performance was a calming ballet.

Finally, “Duck Blind in Plain Site” was a collaboration between Brooklyn’s OP.AL, led by Jonathan Scelsa, AIA, and Jennifer Birkland, ASLA; and And-Either-Or’s John Paul Rysavy, Assoc. AIA. The former acronym stands for Optical Art, Architecture, and Landscape, and their egg-shaped installation delivered in all three disciplines. The shape reads as two skins: an inner surface of tessellated duck-shaped CNC-cut folded plastic blocks, finished in bright stickers; and a hairy exterior reminiscent of a Nick Cave sculpture, with dyed strands of Raffia grass woven into the blocks by a small army of volunteers. The pairing recalled the meadow location, sitting above the artificial landfill cap but surrounded by natural flora. Rysavy described the structure as a “cellular diaphragm,” and thankfully it was strong enough to survive the rush of kids that instantly commandeered the pod to road-test its colorful interior. 

These four pieces harmonized to showcase a range of innovative fabrication techniques. Such an ecology of style was a conscious move by FCDC’s curators, for whom the competition was a design project in itself. To that end, Pentagram’s Austin office contributed graphics and branding, making for the best presentation materials to accompany any competition in recent memory. Following their lead, Igor Siddiqui designed a handsome exhibition in November 2015 to visually and spatially explain the project in UT Austin’s Mebane Gallery. Renderings of the 18 shortlisted projects, along with 12 curator’s choices, were displayed on water jet-cut steel plates assembled by UT students. Each display was a conic ellipse of unique size, angle, and height, the result of a parametrically controlled model: Mass production now becomes mass customization.

With successful competition results in hand as their “proof of concept” for the venture, the curatorial team has already started to brainstorm programmatic adjustments for FCDC 2.0. What will they think of next?

Jack Murphy, Assoc. AIA, is an architectural designer at Baldridge Architects in Austin.

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