Bringing imaginary art to reality


Slought's Patarchitecture exhibit, with designs by eight PennDesign students, will be open from March 21 to May 1




Slought — a cultural organization based at 4017 Walnut St. — proudly celebrates turning 362,880,0000 seconds old.

That’s 11 and a half years, for those of us measuring age in a more standard way. But Slought’s decision to depict their age in this unorthodox manner — a choice that curator Aaron Levy deems “playful” — is part of the organization’s attempt to embody the characteristics of their current art and architecture exhibits on display.

“This was not just an attempt to be theatrical and playful,” Levy said , “but also to think about a way that a cultural organization can move beyond just displaying the work but actively trying to perform it and engage it in different ways.”

From March 21 to May 1, the Patarchitecture exhibit — which includes designs by eight PennDesign students — will be open to the public. This “playful” exhibit is inspired by the work of the famous French writer and philosopher Alfred Jarry , who died in 1907. He coined the philosophical term “pataphysics,” which Levy describes as “the science of the imaginary.” In following Jarry’s ideas, this exhibit aims to create physical spaces that channel the theories pataphysics.

In his final 18 months of life, Jarry designed and lived in a small wooden structure — with a footprint of about 11-by-12 feet — called “Le Tripode” along the Seine River in France. This was a physical retreat in which he could engage his creativity and imagination.

Although Jarry referred to his structure as a “tripod” the wooden building is actually a four-sided structure with four feet. “He was always being playful with language and with ideas and structure,” Levy said.

As a challenge, Slought began searching for original designs of modern “tripods,” asking the question, “What would be your ideal place to think and write?”

The answer came from students in their first year of the Master of Architecture program at PennDesign. They had not originally created their designs with Jarry and Le Tripod in mind, however.

In their very first studio, ARCH 501, the students began work on “pavilions” — structures that they would conceive, design and build on a full scale in order to be occupiable by at least one person.

“We really wanted students to examine tectonics, materiality and full scale,” Simon Kim , the studio coordinator, said . “Ultimately it’s important for students to learn not just to design, but to build at the full scale.”

Of the original 17 pavilions created over the course of the three-week project in September, two of them remained standing six months later and were incorporated into the Patarchitechture exhibit at Slought. Kim and Winka Dubbeldam , chair of the department of architecture at PennDesign, spoke to Levy about the exhibit and felt the remaining pavilions aligned with Jarry’s ideas of pataphysics.

“For us it’s really great for the students to understand that their work keeps going beyond the boundaries of this building,” Dubbeldam said. “It’s really important to get out in the world and get feedback.”

Emily Gruendel , who helped design one of the featured pavilions along with two other students — Rajika Goel and Alex Tahinos — explained that the project’s “jumping off point was to come up with some kind of inspiration, creature or object.”

“Ours was a worm,” she said.

Six feet in length and three feet tall, the tube-like structure created by Gruendel’s team was aptly titled “Deployable Worm.” It consists of bowed wooden dowel rods, connected by plastic tubing, zip ties, rubber bands and nylon pantyhose. The structure is “tensile,” meaning it can stretch and lengthen to its full six feet or be compressed into a smaller tunnel.

“With this exhibit we have an opportunity to re-look at these [pavilions] and see them as imaginary spaces,” said Katie McBride , a student from the studio and the exhibit’s assistant curator. “If I were to have my own tripod, it could be like this — I could have a ‘worm tunnel’ and I’d just read in there.”

The other design in the exhibit is called “Apophenic Apparatus.” It is a white and silver wall constructed out of mirrored card stock paper. Five feet tall and seven feet long, the wall is kinked and curved, composed out of over 700 hendecahedrons — 11-sided polyhedrons.

“In architecture, geometry and form have effects in a space, however small it may be,” said Dan Lau , a student who helped design the wall. “Through the pattern sequence that we came up with — the arrangement of the blocks itself, the materiality — we started exploring how you achieve different effects.”

Although the wall, also designed by Phoebe Hiu-Nam Leung, Christopher Mulford and Chi Zhang , is not an actual enclosure that a person could occupy, Levy still believes that it embodies the tenets of pataphysics.

“With Jarry’s tripod there’s a clear sense of inside or outside,” Levy said. ”[Instead] with this [design], the inside and outside are complicated and explored in a more subtle way that doesn’t produce inclusion or exclusion, but rather this seamless ability to move in and out.”

The third piece of artwork in the exhibit is a partial reconstruction of Alfred Jarry’s original tripod, created by local artist Stacy Petty. Slought’s new exhibit also includes a wooden plank suspended from the ceiling, 150 centimeters above the ground, to capture Jarry’s whimsical style. This essentially created a second ceiling at exactly Alfred Jarry’s height, which was also the height of his own apartment where he lived before constructing Le Tripode.

“In every way, Jarry’s life was playful and his environments were equally playful,” Levy said. “We wanted people ... to experience what it would be like to see things from his height, but particularly to live in an apartment that was so creatively structured that it would force you to move differently, think differently, be different.”

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