This past weekend I strolled down to P.S.1 with my wife and daughter to check out this year's Young Architects Program, Afterparty by MOS. After seeing the initial, competition-winning design and the subsequent photographs from its opening, I wasn't expecting to like it in person, as the initial appeal gave way to questions about execution. But like it I did. Below are my impressions, with the words relating, in most cases, to the image-pairs directly above.
Afterparty -- "after the party of a sort of high-formalism which has dominated academic discourse," in the architects' words -- does what the best YAP installations do, they make their presence known outside the concrete walls of the P.S.1 courtyard. Having previously only experienced Xefirotech's Sur installation in 2005, I'm convinced this is the way to go, because this external visibility is an expression of a scale compatible with the large, and otherwise empty courtyard.
Where Sur failed to hold its own in the void, Afterparty's "chimneys" anchor the space, shifting its center of gravity to the large seating area, while also tying its bulk to the two smaller spaces to the north (left in the overall view above). Basically the design is comprised of three zones: a seating area under the cluster of chimneys, a more open misting area over the path leading to the P.S.1 building, and the two smaller rooms, one open and also mist-covered and the other dark and intimate. This close-up of the geo-textile "skin" illustrates the installation's most contentious point: it looks like it's covered in hair. Yes, I'll admit there's a resemblance to Snuffleupagus or a woolly mammoth -- two descriptions I've seen on a number of web pages -- but focusing on these similarities distracts from the positive aspects of the design.
So what are these positive aspects? One is the cooling the form and/or skin provide. I'm not even sure if the coolness that I felt on the 80-degree day was attributable to the supposed induction from the chimneys or just from the shade, but in either case it is the design that can be attributed. In the dense seating area the environment was very pleasant, though in other areas the mist is necessary to cool the body. I'm less inclined to believe that breezes are funneled up the chimneys to create breezes in the seating area; I think the openness below allows breezes in all directions and, when combined with the shade, drops the temperature a few degrees.
What the apertures atop the chimneys do allow, if not for warm air to escape, is daylight. A soft glow of natural light permeates the seating area. What seems dark when outside has a pleasing, even amount of light within. The heavy skin would otherwise make this space too dark, cooler but unwelcoming. The interiors of the chimneys are striking, a combination of the bright oculi, the tapered forms, the slender aluminum pipes and the dappled sunlight making its way through the geo-textile skin. Porous coverage overhead is a recurring part of the designs, but many canopies end up with too little shade, like Sur, and therefore don't adequately fulfill that competition aim. By raising the openings high enough a decent amount of shade, and therefore cooling, is created.
Counter to the shade and density of the seating area are the open areas covered by a mist that is generated by nozzles attached to the rings defining their openings. Here the skin engages the concrete wall between the main courtyard and the adjacent rectangular space, allowing larger spans without additional supports coming down to the ground. I could see these as popular areas for dancing during the summer Warm-Up parties at P.S.1.
In their competition entry, MOS pointed out that Long Island City's industrial smokestacks were inspiration for their forms. Regardless, a striking profile is created, city-like in the variety of heights, sizes and the changing relationships of the chimneys to each other. I especially liked the view of them through the openings below.
The structure is cheap -- aluminum pipe and fittings -- but the inner mesh skin helps to obscure this fact. Like spindly Gothic ribs, the curved sections of pipe define the spaces and the lines of force. The organic grid of chimneys works together to resist vertical and horizontal forces, certainly reminiscent of Gaudi's architecture in Barcelona. So the inspirations appear to be industrial smokestacks, Bedouin tents, and maybe the Gothic or Gaudi. Do these run counter to the aforementioned "high-formalism which has dominated academic discourse?" By formally incorporating these inspirations and using an attention-getting skin, the architects perpetuate the high-formalism, yet they replace the computer with the old-fashioned model. Considerations counter to high-formalism, namely sustainability (recyclable aluminum structure, chimney induction, lightweight construction) are offset by facts like the geo-textile's source: Indonesia. Nevertheless the result is experientially more transcendent than the photographs attest, sheltering yet reaching for the sky.
Leaving P.S.1's courtyard my appreciation of the shadows the chimneys cast on the concrete wall was tempered by a couple signs posted on the latter. One gave the details of the installation and the other listed the roughly 50 volunteers "who made this project possible." Based on what I've come across on other YAP installations, the people on this list supplied the free labor that made the project possible within the confines of the small $70,000 budget. I immediately thought of unpaid interns and other unfortunate practices in architecture, seeing this volunteerism as an extension of the same attitude, where creativity does not extend to finances. One could argue that the installation is not architecture, so it's acceptable to utilize volunteer labor. Also one could say that "if so-and-so doesn't volunteer their time, somebody else will." But that sort of logic is the same as "if I don't design this building, another architect will," even if that building does more harm than good. In other words, rooted in the how is the what, and the questions of each should ideally influence each other so neither's results are harmful or exploitative.