Each year, MoMA PS1, one of the oldest and most celebrated modern-art museums in the United States, conducts a design competition to solicit a new outdoor interactive art piece. One young designer is selected annually to create a unique and functional installation that will enhance the organization's popular weekly music event, "Warm Up." With representatives from DFA Records, XL Recordings, True Panther Sounds and Pitchfork.com helping curate the programming for Long Island City, N.Y.'s most eclectic summertime dance party, the actual space becomes as vital as the music.
Surrounded by graffitied buildings, the museum stands out in the mostly industrial neighborhood, shadowed by factories and warehouses. Simultaneously blending into the landscape but also standing out this summer was the "Party Wall," the vision of Caroline O'Donnell and her architectural studio, CODA -- winner of MoMA PS1's 14th annual Young Architects Program.
O'Donnell's winning concept is a massive temporary structure, a monolith of sustainable materials. Steel and wood tower over the courtyard, covering the cooling pools below as water mists out of the installation. But the benches and seats, made to be stored easily within the structure itself, aren't traditional furniture: They're recycled decks (and pieces of decks) from Ithaca, N.Y.-based Comet Skateboards.
Every summer, NYC-based modern-art museum MoMA PS1 holds a contest where architects and designers can submit their ideas for an interactive courtyard installation that can host the organization's weekly dance parties. This year's winner, the "Party Wall," is the brainchild of Caroline O'Donnell and her architecture studio, CODA, and uses the throwaway bits from skate-deck manufacturing to give shelter to visitors. Once the sunlight catches the installation at just the right angle, it begins to cast shadows that form the word "WALL" -- a bonus visual element that is both subtle and playful.
Part of MoMA PS1's requirements for the proposed structures is the provision of shade, water and seating for the weekly dance parties. This year, museum staff added a new element to the competition, one that played a huge role in the decks being incorporated.
"Their new program was a bit vague, but based on lectures and performances -- things that happen during the week when the Saturday dance party isn't happening," O'Donnell says. "These types of events needed seating, but they didn't want seating for the actual dance party. Our original solution was to use cheap patio chairs, but the cheapest chairs we could afford were environmentally horrible. We needed to find something else that was sit-able but wasn't a pre-made chair -- some sort of waste product that we could make into a chair."
After consulting the materials resource lab at Cornell University, O'Donnell's team became intrigued by a local skateboard company after sifting through hundreds of options. But it wasn't just the wooden decks and cutaways that drew O'Donnell to Comet; the company prides itself on using environmentally safe materials to make its boards, including a proprietary glue free of formaldehyde. In the end, Comet donated more than 3,000 scraps -- or "bones," as they refer to them -- to help create the colossal structure.
Once the building blocks were decided on, CODA sought to make something that fit with the actual site -- a structure that made sense in the context of its surroundings. After spending weeks exploring Long Island City, the team came up with a concept that clicked.
"We were really interested in the 5 Pointz building covered in graffiti across the street," says O'Donnell. "As you arrive in Long Island City by road or train, there are a lot of billboards that you pass, along with a lot of graffiti; there's an industrial quality to LIC. We weren't thinking of PS1 the museum; we were thinking [of] what belongs there. The roughness, the steel sculpture being left unpainted, similar to a billboard, and having the skateboards work back to the graffiti all made sense."
Still, all the time planning and plotting, tweaking models and factoring in everything down to the wind effects on the installation can't predict how it will be actually used. O'Donnell was surprised to see people using the deck-benches to attempt skate tricks, but was most taken aback by the children turning out to the events.
"Watching the kids is great because they're not thinking about what they're doing," she says. "We imagined that the grown-ups who were hot from the party would dip their feel in the pools, but we didn't think much about kids splashing around and screaming as the water surprises them, misting every five minutes."
Light becomes another element as the sun sets on the Warm Up parties, casting what O'Donnell describes as "jack-o-lantern-like patterns" on the white walls as it shines through the deck cutouts. While this was a pleasant surprise, the biggest shadow cast by the wall isn't coincidental at all. Though there are clues given throughout the courtyard, once the light is lined up, the installation reveals itself to form the inverted letters "W-A-L-L," literally spelling it out for the dancers in bold type.
As the Warm Up series' final activation nears -- the last party is Sept. 7 -- O'Donnell sounds melancholy discussing the exhibit's closing. There's talk of a public skatepark taking the structure, but the expense to transport and assemble it is massive. Though she'd love to see it continue on somewhere and enjoys just talking about the process, O'Donnell's very academic about the whole thing.
"Everyone imagines me as some kind of cool skateboarder who one day said, 'Dude, wouldn't it be cool if we did a whole wall of skateboards?''' she says. "It's really not true. I may have been on a skateboard a few times as a kid in Ireland, but I'm not in any way cool. ... We're just borrowing things that are already on their way to be recycled, just lending them to PS1 for a while."