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Monday, August 10, 2009


Reef in Manhattan, New York by Rob Ley and Joshua Stein

A project that would certainly make a fitting addition to the explorations in XS FUTURES is Reef, a recent installation at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York City by Rob Ley (Urbana) and Joshua Stein (Radical Craft). Taking over the roughly 900-sf (84-sm) space, the piece "redefines the role of architectural envelope by capitalizing on emerging material technology" and "creates an interior condition which reacts according to an exterior street-scape, and reasserts an active, willful role in shaping that public space."

The first goal is addressed via shape memory alloys, or SMAs, "a category of metals that change shape according to temperature, offer the possibility of efficient, fluid movement without the mechanized motion of earlier technologies." As these changes occur at the molecular level the designers use the reef as an analogy for their construction, bringing to mind how reefs sway with their surroundings, the water. Here the surroundings are the air, the city and the visitors to the gallery. So how do these elements impact the kinetics of the installation? Needless to say, it is not clear.

The designers' second goal, in terms of shaping public space, is more direct and tangible, given the relationship of the wing-like installation to the openings of the Storefront and the street beyond. One could envision a kinetic facade rendered in this way, swaying in the wind or even changing direction based in this force. Of course something similar has already been built, the Koning Eizenberg-designed Children's Museum of Pittsburgh and its fluttering translucent panels. I'd love to see more exteriors of this ilk, be it on ground floors or up above, out of arm's reach.

Returning to the kinetics, what perturbed me about Reef was the limits of the change and movement. Investigating the installation's framework, it's clear that the overall form of the piece is static. The steel pieces and connections allow for some subtle movement, but these same parts followed basically an arbitrary design flowing through the Storefront space; movement is limited to the plastic panels as the wires push and pull them into various positions. While this is where the designers focused their attention, the potential of this approach may be lost on the distracting form, an albeit appealing presence in the equally kinetic Storefront.

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