Faculty Team from Art, Architecture, and Engineering Win City of Dreams Competition
An interdisciplinary exhibition crafted of disused grain silos will be installed on Governors Island in New York City this summer.
Oculi, the winner of the 2018 City of Dreams competition, was created by architecture's Assistant Professor Aleksandr Mergold (B.Arch. '00) and his design practice, Austin+Mergold (A+M); Associate Professor Maria Park, art; Professor Chris Earls, civil and environmental engineering; and Scott Hughes, principal at Silman Structural Engineers and a visiting lecturer at AAP NYC.
City of Dreams focuses on the future of a world that is faced with depleted economic and natural resources. The annual competition aims to promote sustainability-minded thinking in architecture and design and requires contestants to consider the environmental impact of their design from construction to demolition. The finished pavilion will be a place for people to meet, learn about the arts programs on the island, and experience how art interacts with the historical context of Governors Island.
Named for the shape of the dominant material, Oculi will reuse several circular metal grain bins, remnants of the American agro-industrial age. The bins will be procured from Upstate New York and central Pennsylvania and brought to the city, establishing a visual connection between urban and rural modes of living. A field of elevated "oculi" will frame unobstructed views of the sky and track the path of the sun.
The project was the ideal fit for A+M, a landscape and design practice that Mergold operates with Jason Austin (B.Arch. '00). According to Mergold, A+M makes a conscious effort to work with what is already here — existing material, product, technique, and knowledge from the 20th-century American manufacturing heyday, which is widely available but often in disuse — rather than new, virgin materials and resources.
"We had been thinking about these grain bins for some time now," says Mergold. "It is probably one of the only successful American building systems designed for disassembly, first patented at the turn of the 20th century and now very much underutilized. Some time ago we designed a housing unit (House-in-a-Can) that would use a standard grain bin — an homage to the work of Buckminster Fuller and his early versions of the Dymaxion house. We saw the opportunity in the City of Dreams competition to use the bins, connect upstate and downstate, and eventually continue the investigation on the housing unit using what we learned from working with the bins on Oculi, and then reuse those same bins yet again."
Mergold had previously worked with Hughes on projects including the 2016 Cornell Council for the Arts Biennial. "Scott has a ton of practical experience, so I reached out to him knowing that this could be an interesting and highly unusual project from the standpoint of construction and implementation," he says.
Mergold also sought out a collaborator in the College of Engineering, recognizing that Oculi would be highly experimental from a structural standpoint as well. A friend in engineering recommended Earls, who was very enthusiastic about joining the team. According to Earls, his work will "explore the space of engineering solutions and help conduct material and structural experimentation so as to uncover suitable forms that at once respect the architectural intent and function favorably at the site of installation on Governors Island."
The project was also an ideal fit for Park, whose work ranges from serially based paintings to site-specific installations. She recently completed Sight Plan, a 150-foot mural for the central subway temporary barricade at the Chinatown Station in San Francisco.
"I had seen some of [Park's] work and knew she did murals," says Mergold. "And there I was with nine 'rooms' on my hands, and I knew that I couldn't just paint them different colors. I needed an idea, and I needed an artist."
"Aleks [Mergold] was already working with Chris and Scott when he reached out to me," Park says. "Looking at their proposal, I saw an opportunity to further explore the research I had done for Sight Plan, and our subsequent conversations made it clear that we were in agreement over the direction and philosophy behind this project."
Park proposed the idea of covering the inside of the silos with subtle variations of the daytime sky color so that viewers might move from one to the next in anticipation of finding themselves under one that matched the color of a particular day or time. "As the de/reconstructed grain bins mark awareness of a different time and place, the viewer's involvement with [the bins] also indicate a different kind of purpose or sense in movement," she says.
Following the deinstallation of Oculi in late 2018, A+M is looking for a housing organization to partner with in reconstructing the bins as an experimental housing cluster in central New York.
The annual City of Dreams competition is hosted by FIGMENT, the Emerging New York Architects Committee of the American Institute of Architects New York Chapter, and the Structural Engineers Association of New York. The 2018 jury included David Benjamin, founder and principal, The Living; Anna Fixsen, senior web editor, Metropolis Magazine; Benjamin Gilmartin, partner, Diller Scofidio + Renfro; Ann Ha, BEHIN HA DESIGN STUDIO; Jorge Otero‐Pailos, director and professor of historic preservation, Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, and founder and editor, Future Anterior Journal; and Risa Puno, artist.
City of Dreams will open June 2, 2018.
By Rebecca Bowes