In 2011, the University of Kentucky College of Design entered the River Cities Project into the 5th International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam (IABR), “Making City.” Once accepted, Martin Summers was chosen to lead the exhibit design team and began developing the concept within the IABR’s evolving constraints.
Two active studio projects within the River Cities umbrella were chosen to be exhibited: the renovation of the decommissioned HMPL #1 Power Plant in Henderson, Kentucky led by Mr. Summers and the year long studio led by Gary Rohrbacher (filson-rohrbacher), which focused on the future of the Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Paducah, Kentucky. The studios produced a tremendous amount of research material in the form of 2d, 3d and video that had to be organized and curated. Gathering all of this material revealed the design problem that is typical if one were designing a building; too much program (exhibit materials) and not enough site (floor area), within tight zoning limits (total volume of exhibit space.) The solution required maximizing the surface to volume relationship within the given physical constraints.
Testing the surface to volume condition revealed other conceptual and spatial opportunities. A theme of nested doubles emerged; inside/outside, River Cities Project/studio research projects, Henderson/Paducah, Rotterdam NAI/Kentucky cities. The design strategy explored variations of container and contained, while articulating spatial concepts of boundary or threshold via physical and virtual means.
The container would be defined by the unified graphic language of the River Cities Project, branded in a gradient of blue via the exhibition book developed over several months with M1DTW and the UK CoD. The exterior graphics articulate the larger River Cities Project scope, some of the main participants, the video interviews of the participants, quotes about the work, display space for books and t-shirts. Spatially, the upper hanging volume (a thin membrane) provides an initial threshold between interior and exterior space. The upper volume was designed with its footprint slightly larger than the overall base construction to imply a possibility of lowering, which would close and “contain” the exhibit. When visitors engaged the work, you could see them lean in to cross this boundary to become part of the interior space. The interior of the implied volume was dedicated to the studio research projects. Vibrant and multi-colored, the 2d student representations were in direct contrast to the unified exterior, producing a distinct separation while also recognizing their dependence.
The base design also attempts to separate and unify the exhibit materials through a series of subtle manipulations. A housing for the video monitors rises up to visually smooth their screens into the base but project them to the outer surface so that they were read as part of the overall brand. The base of this housing (below the monitors) provided adequate room to hold the books and t-shirts that were provided to visitors in celebration of the Biennale opening. Other distinctions were created by painting the Henderson side white, blending the models into the overall form and unify them into a larger project. The Paducah side was left raw to blend with the base of the interactive, planning model, which invites participants to test alternative strategies. IPads were integrated into a slight depression at the top of the base construction to increase public interaction and their ergonomic location. This simple move visually links the section model of HMPL #1 (imbedded in one corner of the base) with the corresponding models on the table top just above.
The last threshold, perhaps the largest, is one of time and space. The ubiquity of technology that allows us to virtually occupy multiple spaces and locations at the same time became an almost hidden element in the project. The opening ceremony and the exhibition itself were broadcast and recorded via webcams mounted at the top of the monitor housing. This allowed people in Kentucky (Lexington, Henderson and Paducah) to participate remotely. The viewers in Rotterdam were only made aware of the broadcast if they noticed the cameras or used their smart phone to scan a QR Code in the IPad presentations, linking them to the website.
“Making City” opened on April 19th, 2012 and ran through August 12th, 2012.