'Pavilions' Offers a Primer on Structures Built for Pure Pleasure

Inside Jay Nelson's 'Structure for Seeing 5,' 2017. (Courtesy of the Museum of Craft and Design; photography by Henrik Kam)

The pavilion is an architectural outlier. Traditionally a freestanding, temporary structure, it can provide utility or shelter, but more often than not its true purpose is pure spectacle. Imagine the architectural equivalent of statement jewelry. But Architectural Pavilions: Experiments and Artifacts, now on view at San Francisco’s Museum of Craft and Design, pinpoints an ulterior, altogether invisible functionality for these unconventional structures: architects’ testing grounds.

Guest curator Mariah Nielson follows the evolution of seven architectural practices from early pavilions into larger commissions and projects, each time identifying an experimental material or method that worked its way into a more permanent form.

Do/Su Studio Architecture, 'Bloom,' 2011. Aluminum with steel model, activated by heat.
Do/Su Studio Architecture, 'Bloom,' 2011. Aluminum with steel model, activated by heat. (Courtesy of the Museum of Craft and Design; photography by Henrik Kam)

A prime example: SITU, a studio based in Brooklyn, shows part of one of their earliest projects, Solar Pavilion 2, an improvised assembly of notched laminated plywood. Like a set of wacky, zig-zagged Lincoln Logs, any one part of the structure can be notched together with any other part of the structure. The studio still uses this organizational flexibility and emphasis on organic, community-driven construction to inform their practice today, even while tackling big picture projects like New York City’s rapid growth.

SITU, 'Solar Pavilion 2,' 2008.
SITU, 'Solar Pavilion 2,' 2008. (Courtesy of the Museum of Craft and Design; photography by Henrik Kam)

Guiding us through these stories of architectural evolution, trial and error are plenty of visual aids -- handmade models, full-sized structures, digital renderings, and videos of production and assembly. Looking at architectural models will never not be interesting, and there’s plenty of intricate miniatures -- especially from London-based Carmody Groarke -- to fulfill that desire.

IwamotoScott Architecture and UC Berkeley students, 'Site-Specific Pavilion,' 2017.
IwamotoScott Architecture and UC Berkeley students, 'Site-Specific Pavilion,' 2017. (Courtesy of the Museum of Craft and Design; photography by Henrik Kam)

And even when the visual elements in Architectural Pavilions become a bit obtuse, the two full-sized pavilions commissioned for the exhibition provide welcome tangibility. Site-Specific Pavilion made by a group of UC Berkeley architecture students studying under Lisa Iwamoto of IwamotoScott, is the gleaming manifestation of a seemingly impossible object. The angular top half of the pavilion seems to hover, almost magnetically, above the lower half. Upon closer inspection, slim lines of aircraft cable provide the tension that makes this optical illusion possible. It’s thrilling and a bit unnerving.

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In the entry to the exhibition, a beautifully hand-lettered timeline provides a pavilions primer from 3000 B.C. to the present day. The range of structures represented here -- from minimalist stone plinths to an unrealized “fun palace” -- is good preparation for the difference between Site-Specific Pavilion and the exhibition’s other commission, Jay Nelson’s Structure for Seeing 5.

Jay Nelson, 'Structure for Seeing 5,' 2017.
Jay Nelson, 'Structure for Seeing 5,' 2017. (Courtesy of the Museum of Craft and Design; photography by Henrik Kam)

Where former is hard-edged, trickily engineered and possibly from the future, the latter is all warm wood and curves. Known for his surf buggies, tree houses and camper vans made of salvaged wood and plywood, Nelson brings a welcome bit of rough-hewn carpentry into an otherwise sleek exhibition. His slatted cylindrical structure, complete with interior seating, a miniature model of itself and various thematically appropriate books for your perusal, resembles a cross between a hanging lamp and a zoetrope. It’s downright cozy.

For those without a background in architecture, even approaching the subject can be daunting. But Architectural Pavilions gives newcomers a thoroughly intriguing place to start. Smaller in scale, often exploring a single design, engineering or material question, pavilions offer an accessible entry point into a more nuanced appreciation of our built environment. And if the projects on view at the Museum of Craft and Design inspire the construction of some spectacular DIY pleasure structures, even better.

'Architectural Pavilions: Experiments and Artifacts,' is on view at San Francisco’s Museum of Craft and Design through Jan. 7, 2018. For more information, click here.

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