Project Series 36: Predock_Frane Architects
Predock_Frane Architects’ exhibition, Inland Empire, reflects the artists’ interpretation of components of the built environment—regional depot buildings, big-box retail stores, mini-malls, housing, and the corresponding network of transportation corridors—common in the decentered landscapes of the Inland Empire. With this piece, the team deals with issues of globalism, capitalism, conspicuous consumption, design, architecture, and perhaps most fundamentally, the developing interactions between the urban, suburban, rural, and natural worlds increasingly prevalent in the 21st-century.
Predock_Frane Architects was established by Hadrian Predock and John Frane in 2000 as a collaborative research and development architecture and design studio. Their practice consists of a dual, but intertwined, relationship between their building projects and their art/design projects. In 2005, the Architectural League in New York named them as one of six emerging international architectural firms. In 2004, they were selected to represent the United States in the U.S. Pavilion during the 2004 Venice Biennale, and in 2006 they were invited to participate in the Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial, “Design Life Now.” This cross-disciplinary approach benefits both branches of their practice—their art/design projects benefit from the methodologies common to architecture, while their building projects benefit from the more intuitive and generative explorations that inform the art/design installations.
NEW SPACES AND NEW WORLDS: THE WORK OF PREDOCK_FRANE ARCHITECTS
By Brooke Hodge
Predock_Frane is one of the most thoughtful and sophisticated firms to emerge in recent years from the ripe crop of young architects practicing in Southern California. Their ambition to build has been rewarded with commissions for significant residential, commercial, and institutional buildings and with winning competition entries for projects including the Central California History Museum (2000). While the practice has moved into the territory of built work and all the management and time that demands, principals Hadrian Predock and John Frane are unwilling to sacrifice their passion for exploring challenging conceptual problems.
The deep conceptual underpinnings of their practice gain physicality most often in research-based investigations and, while these projects—located at the threshold of art and architecture—often take the form of site-specific installations, their importance to the practice as a whole cannot be underestimated. Rather than seeing this aspect of the work as a separate series of art projects, Predock_Frane uses these explorations to inform and structure the development of its built work.
As a curator, what has struck me over the years of watching the practice grow is the realization that Predock_Frane never takes the easy or predictable route when invited to participate in exhibitions. From the prestigious Venice Biennale’s 9th International Architecture Exhibition—where they were one of 6 young firms selected to represent the United States—to the most recent Cooper-Hewitt National Design Triennial, Predock_Frane seizes the opportunity to conduct an investigation, often site-specific in nature, that manifests itself in an evocative and ephemeral installation. Recalling conceptual art projects Hans Haacke’s Condensation Cube (1963) or, more recently, Sarah Sze’s delicate assemblages and Olafur Eliasson’s environments, Predock_Frane’s installations are a provocative and refreshing response to the challenges of exhibiting architecture.
Architecture exhibitions are too often a dry, and frequently inscrutable, parade of scale models and technical drawings. Never meant to be seen as art objects, these tools of the trade can only ever be representations of actual buildings and cannot begin to capture those elusive qualities of light, space, and materiality that make architecture come alive. By eschewing these traditional modes of representation, Predock_Frane has developed a rich body of installation-based work in which intangible qualities and unseen relationships become visual. Always overlaid on a rigorous intellectual foundation, to Predock_Frane these projects are a way to make new worlds from a mass of research, data, and conceptual strategies.
For the U.S. Pavilion at the 2004 Venice Architecture Biennale, which asked participants to investigate a specific building typology. Predock_Frane was asked to examine the notion of sacred space and, in response, created a poetic room-sized installation called Acqua Alta, or Just Add Water. Rather than designing a structure to address this complex and ever-changing building typology, Predock_Frane instead undertook an investigation of the water and marsh patterns and the complex geometries of piers and pilings that underpin the city of Venice to create a space that is itself spiritual and contemplative. Predock_Frane describes the hauntingly delicate installation of thousands of monofilament strands, that were suspended from the ceiling and held in position with lead weights, as a “pixilated field” that grew from the extrusion of approximately 5,000 points demarcating the patterns uncovered by their research. Referencing the encroaching water levels in Venice, each strand of filament was stained green at varying heights creating a transparent linear environment where visitors had the sense of being caught between two worlds: a verdant glade or the unseen world beneath the sea. At the core of the architects’ scheme was the desire to give physical form to the incomprehensible intersection of the material and the immaterial.
Predock_Frane’s Venice project caught the eye and captured the imagination of the curatorial team for the 2006 National Design Triennial, organized by the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York. With no prescribed mandate of what to exhibit, Predock_Frane decided to develop a large-scale model based on the firm’s competition-winning scheme for the Central California Museum of History in Fresno. The model, which was conceptual in nature rather than literally depicting the museum building, hovered between a representation of the rich agricultural history of the region and the actuality of the museum proposal, for which the agrarian landscape of the San Joaquin Valley served as source material for highly specific and filtered architectural studies. Made of thousands of fine nylon filaments, acrylic, and wood, the model possessed the same kinetic energy as the Venice environment, albeit at the smaller scale of an object. As with Acqua Alta, Predock_Frane chose not to represent its dense historical and contextual analysis graphically but rather to abstract its research findings into physical form. And, so rather than serving as supporting material for a building project, one can begin to actually see the complex thinking that drives the practice and how the rigorous conceptual framework they build for every project can be translated to the scale of architecture.
The programmatic layers of the Central California History Museum building itself are analogues of the various landscape and water systems that shape this rich agrarian region. The building’s base is heavy and grounded, with thickened earth walls and “weighted” materials enclosing its spaces. Strips of landscape, that function as courtyards and water gardens, slice through the base while the upper linear zones of the building house exhibition spaces and, in contrast are light, floating elements sheathed in perforated copper that changes appearance with different light conditions. Archival elements embedded in the walls stitch together the earthbound and skyward zones of the building.
Many of Predock_Frane’s other projects also illuminate the strong connections between theory and practice, ephemerality and physicality, natural and manmade, handcrafted and machine-fabricated that underlie their work. The J. Paul Getty Museum Family Room (2004) takes as its starting point the image of a budding flower with a network of roots that weaves together the activity of experiencing and understanding art through play with the larger experience of the museum’s permanent collection. Based on a series of oppositions that react in a complementary way to the monolithic, monochromatic Getty campus, the Family Room is a diminutive, colorful space that provides a sensory and sensual environment where children can experience art in a creative and uninhibited way. The Rambla Houses, designed for a hilltop site in Malibu, take their cues directly from the natural beauty of the site to offer 360-degree views of the landscape through monitor-like apertures that are the key element of each unit variant. The architecture of the houses responds to both the spectacular views but also performs defensively to combat sun and danger from common Southern California hazards: fire, landslides, and earthquakes. The Center of Gravity Foundation Hall, a teaching and meditation space for the Bodhi Mandala Zen Center in New Mexico, also found its formal origin in research about the land it sits on and the natural forces that shape its surroundings. Light structures the space as the design of the building traces the course of the sun throughout the day and integrates this information into the physical manifestation of the scheme. Natural elements—heavy rammed earth—are juxtaposed with the machine-made—light polycarbonate—to create a contemplative harmonious environment perfectly suited to the rituals that take place both inside and outside the structure. The thin folded plane of the roof sits atop the building envelope like a piece of blue sky or a slice of heaven.
Mapping and analyzing the decentered suburban landscape of the Inland Empire provided the conceptual framework for Predock_Frane’s installation for the Pomona College Museum of Art Project Series. Examining this vast territory through the lens of Google Earth, the architects identified the development patterns, building typologies, and supply and demand relationships that characterize this region. Questions emerged. Sketches and diagrams were drawn. By positing answers to their questions and organizing and translating the resulting mass of research, data, and statistics into visual form, Predock_Frane has created an abstracted taxonomy of Inland Empire building types suspended within a field of commodity distribution relationships. Balancing on the threshold between art and architecture and between the immaterial and the material, the work of Predock_Frane once again transports us to a new world where we can begin to see and understand the unseen.
Brooke Hodge is Curator of Architecture and Design at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. From 1991-2000 she was Director of Exhibitions and Publications at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, where she also held the positions of Adjunct Curator of Architecture at the Fogg Art Museum and Assistant Dean of Arts Programs at the Graduate School of Design. She has organized exhibitions of the work of architects Frank Gehry, Gio Ponti, Zaha Hadid, Kazuyo Sejima, Enric Miralles, theater designer and artist Robert Wilson, car designer J Mays, and fashion designer Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons, among others. Her most recent MOCA exhibition project, Skin + Bones: Parallel Practices in Fashion and Architecture, is currently on view at Somerset House in London and she is working on a new exhibition of the work of Morphosis, which will open at MOCA in Spring 2009. Hodge also writes “Seeing Things,” a bi-weekly design column for “The Moment,” The New York Times Magazine’s blog.
Our installation maps and curates the body of land roughly contained within portions of Southern California’s Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties known as the Inland Empire. Looking through the lens of Google Earth, we have focused our observation of this decentered suburban landscape upon a generic set of building types that are situated within the complex interdependency of dwelling and commodity distribution. The installation itself consists of six building types caught in a typical chain of commodity distribution set in a 1:1 scalar relationship. These abstracted “boxes” are suspended by 376 lines of nylon filament which are analogous to the flow of freeways, boulevards, and streets. Accompanying the suspended models, a graphic pattern on the gallery walls conveys a 1/10th proportional quantitative relationship of houses to mega distribution centers (75,000 houses : 1 mega distribution center). From the top of the gallery space, a model of the 1.7 million square foot regional depot building (the largest in the Inland Empire), hovers like a threatening spaceship over the other building types: local depot, big box retail, mini mall, apartment complex, and single family house.
Through this reformation, new questions, understandings, and spatial configurations emerge. Where does the space of architecture end and city/landscape begin? Can the volume of buildings reach a tipping point where a new type of space emerges? Which building type is enabling which? Is the image content of architecture relational and proportional to scale and use? Are there underlying logics and geometries that structure and define these relations? Can these be made visible?
Our working methodology of “generative repetition” curates a set of existing local circumstances into new projects that are not only representational and indexical but also projective. Like DJ’s sampling from an array of sounds, our interest as designers lies in strategies that deal with the vast territory of the pre-existing—viewing this mass of dynamic material as a way of making new worlds. Not only an indicator of scalar and quantitative relationships, Inland Empire intentionally isolates a chain of relations that is normally unseen and physically distinct. Our project emerges as a version of a “supply and demand” diagram that is extracted from the locality of the Empire’s terrain.