SuralArk Wins Competition for Architectural Folly in Queens Park

SuralArk by Aleksandr Mergold
SuralArk by Aleksandr Mergold, associate professor of architecture, and Jason Timberlake Austin (B.Arch. '00).
SuralArk by Aleksandr Mergold
SuralArk by Aleksandr Mergold, associate professor of architecture, and Jason Timberlake Austin (B.Arch. '00).
SuralArk by Aleksandr Mergold
SuralArk by Aleksandr Mergold, associate professor of architecture, and Jason Timberlake Austin (B.Arch. '00).
April 14, 2014

Noah's Ark is coming to a New York City park — thanks to a new interpretation of the Biblical vessel by two Cornell alumni, whose design for an architectural folly won an international competition.

Instead of being constructed from gopher wood and measuring 300 cubits (450 feet) long, SuralArk is made of pine lumber and reclaimed vinyl siding and is 55 feet long. And unlike its predecessor, the modern ark will never set sail but will be displayed — upside down — in Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens.

Designed by assistant professor of architecture Aleksandr Mergold (B.Arch. '00) and his professional partner Jason Timberlake Austin (B.Arch. '00), the project was selected from more than 170 entries in Folly 2014, an annual competition sponsored by The Architectural League of New York and Socrates Sculpture Park, an experimental playground for sculptural and multi-media installations.

The architectural folly is traditionally a fanciful, small-scale building sited in a garden or landscape, dating back to the great English and French estates of the 16th and 17th centuries. The lack of purpose in an architectural folly prompted Mergold and Austin — partners in the Philadelphia architectural firm Austin + Mergold (A+M) — to think of Noah's Ark.

"An ark in Biblical times — once it landed on Mount Ararat — became no longer useful as a house," says Mergold. "It became no longer useful as a boat. It became a strange monument to — who knows what? It became the first folly."

The structure, which opens to the public on May 11, has its origins in American suburbia, which has encroached on New York City and other major cities. With its name a combination of the terms "suburban" and "rural," SuralArk is sheathed in multicolored vinyl siding, a material increasingly popular in suburban housing.

"At one time, the designation between urban, rural, and suburban environments was quite distinctive and delineated," Austin says. "Today, we find ourselves in a condition where there's a lot of overlap."

A case in point is the vinyl-sided, two-story house that sits directly across the street from the park, which has views of Manhattan. "It's the perfect 'sural' site," Mergold says. "You can't really tell if you're in the city or the countryside or suburbia."

Anne Rieselbach, program director of The Architectural League, notes that SuralArk "exemplifies this new vocabulary, providing an arresting threshold to Socrates, while offering multiple readings of the park's own hybrid context." Another Folly juror, Chris Doyle, said, "SuralArk deftly sails between a number of dichotomies. Both as an object and as a space, the project has clever elegance."

Another tie between SuralArk and the neighborhood surrounding the park is water. Overlooking the East River in Long Island City, Socrates Sculpture Park was flooded with six feet of water when Hurricane Sandy pummeled New York City in October 2012. "This idea of the ark waiting for a flood is very palpable," Mergold says.

Starting in April, Mergold and Austin, who met as undergraduates at Cornell, will spend most weekends building their ark in the four-acre park, with help from Mark Krawitz of A+M and several Drexel University, Temple University, and Cornell students and alumni including Andrew Fu (B.Arch. '14), Spencer Lapp (B.Arch. '09), and Daniel Marino (B.Arch. '12). The structure's hull will stand five feet above the ground on a series of wooden stilts.

Beneath the ark will be a place where visitors can escape from the sun and contemplate the meaning of the structure. "Most art that is made reflects on contemporary issues," Austin says, "so that it becomes a record of the conversations that are happening on the local and global scale."

By Sherrie Negrea