Can an object be both familiar and sublime, engaging its audience over time without its elusive qualities becoming banal? This question and a series of other agendas drove the design process and the constructed solution. A small rolling porch gate for an even smaller dog offered a unique opportunity to test ongoing design research into camouflage, patterns, perception, direct-to-fabrication processes, and parametric design tools within a limited budget. In a much broader context, the design attempts to capture the shifting reality of the American Dream by translating the iconic picket fence (symbol of stability) into a moving, visually dynamic structure where ones’ vantage point alters its resolution and accessibility.
The site for this project is the front porch of a 1920’s stucco home in the Kenwick neighborhood of Lexington, Kentucky. The neighborhood has its own distinct identity and is known for its “Bungalow Tours,” organized biannually by the Neighborhood Association. Victory Avenue is unique within the neighborhood by having a dense, urban character with minimal front and side yards and is located only a few blocks from downtown and a few blocks from the emerging “Warehouse Block.” While the houses on the street vary in architectural style, each has a generous front porch that spans its width and is only a few steps removed from the public sidewalk. This relationship produces an inviting public space where neighbors meet neighbors through an extension of their internal living space. The porch in this context is a transition space between public and private, a threshold occupying a hybrid middle ground of exterior interiority, a site of domestic expression within the public sphere.
The owners desired an external living room to be shared with their dog but needed to temporarily block the large opening, preventing the small dog from running to the street. Additionally, they would also need the gate to roll behind a side wall when not needed - returning the porch to its original state. When tasked with finding a solution, a custom design was required to address the required flexibility and the specific dimensions of the “site.” Transformation was at the heart of the problem and was extended through the various research trajectories to become the project's broader aesthetic agenda.
Most of the porches on Victory Avenue have a simple, vertical, 1”x1” balustrade capped by horizontal rails with minimal additional detailing among the anomalies. These vertical balusters bring to mind traditional white picket fences of the iconic American home, and as such, they represent the threshold between public and private spatial uses without producing a solid, visual barrier. The three stucco houses are unique in this context with their low, solid, wall/rail and arched openings making them even more distinct within this context. While the stucco houses might seem more removed from the sidewalk because of the solidity of the walls, the generous scale of the arched openings, lower wall/rail height, and wide stair opening to the sidewalk make them feel surprisingly more public and connected. The rolling gate temporarily blocks the stair opening and appropriates the language of the balustrade/picket in response to its local context, while amplifying the expressive potential of its part-to-whole relationships to their maximum effect.
It became clear that the project would require a flexible design process of rapid iterations and experimentation to allow for both the generation of the object and simultaneously evaluating its experiential qualities related to viewing angle, color, material, and seasonal light and shadows. A parametric solution was needed and the design was informed via geometric iterations in Rhino with Grasshopper3d, and with materiality and lighting evaluated through Maxwell Render and its real-time “Fire” rendering capabilities. This mix of tools produced an active environment and intuitive workflow where the design could evolve through rapid iterations to test patterns of interference for their visual relationships and overall constructability. This active process imbued the constructed solution with its own dynamic sensibilities and transformed a static assembly of elements into a constantly active, visually transforming object.
The generated pattern was developed through two, competing frequencies of vertical elements, determined through the iterations to be two different material systems; painted wood and aluminum. These two material systems were then intersected with two virtual surfaces, intuitively and reflexively manipulated to alter the resultant visual patterns and maximize variation as one moves around the object. The surfaces were further constrained within an overall depth to allow for concealed rollers at the base, a stopping mechanism at its limit, and to minimize overall weight and material waste and cost. The vertical wooden elements received a two-color paint process to amplify the difference between the two approaches parallel to the gate and combined with the reflective quality of the aluminum fins, heighten the pattern's intrinsic variation. The designed material effects were also considered within a more dynamic context of environmental variation and the movement of an observer. The seasonal variables alter the perceived color via the sun’s color temperature and the aluminum’s reflection of the seasonal vegetation. The natural cycles of the sun provide secondary patterning effects producing slow-moving shadows and localized, intensified reflections. These material effects increase the dynamism of the gate when viewed from a static location and are then further amplified by the observer’s movement. Through the observer, this transformation takes place across three phases – approaching, perpendicular, and looking back. As an observer moves toward the gate they are enticed to look at its unique qualities and drawn into a relationship. Once their gaze is fixed, their curiosity is rewarded as the gate appears to transform when they move, revealing the subtle shifting appearance as patterns emerge, disappear, then re-emerge in a familiar but different relationship.
Beyond simply providing a barrier to demarcate the public/private threshold, the gate attempts to activate the public space just beyond and delays its own comprehension through a series of designed patterns. The project operates through multiple camouflaging techniques by contextually mimicking the balusters/pickets, simultaneously recalling and eroding the image of this symbol, and expressing itself as different and unique within the broader context by drawing attention. As neighbors walk past, their faces express the moment when they are visually engaged and it is possible to see them turn their heads as they walk past, an outward expression of the designed intent. When the tiny dog is behind the gate, barking to protect his territory, a different but also complex reaction can be witnessed – surprise, amusement, and delight.