M&A (Materials & Applications) Phalanstery Module

Posted on 01. Jun, 2008 by in Lifestyle


words by Jason Dean, photo by Robert Todd Williamson

They’ve gotten used to the curious stares when people walk by their house. If the gate is left open, kids come in and play in the yard. Two months out of the year, their property is a construction zone. Oliver Hess and Jenna Didier welcome such intrusions. Part workshop, part gallery, part playground, their home is an architecture and landscape research collective; which means they build really cool stuff, showcase designers, and engage the community. 

Didier, who moved to Silver Lake in 2002 because she liked the artistic flavor of the neighborhood, formed Materials & Applications (M&A) as a means of exploring architecture and design outside the realm of typical commercial, residential, and gallery-based projects. 

I paid a visit to 1619 Silver Lake Blvd., where I was met by Hess, who is co-director of M&A, which in true communal spirit, is 100% volunteer-driven. “When people figure out what we’re doing, they want to help,” he says. 

He invites me inside to escape the sweltering heat, and the subject inevitably turns to water. Didier’s fountain design company, Fountainhead, has undertaken a rainwater collection project and is using the fountain near the entrance as a “water lab” for conservation studies. 

“We’re not so much ‘green’ as we are ecologically efficient,” explains Hess. 

Every six months, M&A constructs a new piece that takes center stage in the courtyard. The projects they are looking for, Hess says, should serve some social good and offer commentary on how we use our space. M&A gets anywhere from 30 to 50 submissions each year to consider for exhibition. 

The current attraction, “Phalanstery Module”, was submitted for a competition on zero gravity. The installation will be on display until September. Conceived by architect Jimenez Lai, the piece is a large hollow cylinder encircled by two wheels on gears on which it rotates at a clip of six degrees per minute, or one complete revolution per hour. Inside, pedestals, shelves, and some hi-tech translucent paneling provide structure to a shifting environment that requires the occupant to change positions periodically to adapt to the inevitability of gravity. The interior can accommodate six people fairly comfortably. Sitting inside has a hypnotic effect, but any daydreaming is short-lived. 

The piece that brought M&A to widespread attention was the “Maximilian’s Schell” installation. On display from June 2005 to January 2006, the piece was a massive gold canopy made of separate, tinted mylar tiles that converged into a central black hole. One main consideration for projects they decide to do, Hess says, is durability. Designs are built to be on display, exposed to the elements, for six months. “We also try to design things that have an afterlife,” he says. 

More than 30 people had a hand in physically creating Phalanstery Module. Nicholas Blake, Hess’s first boss when he worked in the world of animation special effects, serves as lead fabricator and helps guide the engineering process. “We invite people in the community to share, help, and learn,” offers Hess. M&A hosts a lecture series and is involved in outreach programs. “The best part about doing this is hearing kids outside playing. We try to create hopeful spaces,” he continues. “We want people to feel welcome.” 

Originally from Minnesota, Didier studied architectural theory and moved to San Francisco, where she designed robot art. She wanted to get into set fabrication, but instead found herself designing rides in theme parks. Having established Fountainhead before moving to L.A., Didier formed M&A in 2002, joined soon after by Hess, who helped put into motion the vision she had for the company. In 2006, she, Hess, and artist Marcos Lutyens formed infranatural, the business from which they promote their own design proposals. 

Currently, they have an ambitious “kinetic bridge structures” project for downtown L.A. that is set for approval pending completion of impact reports and other municipal formalities. “The rules go on forever,” says Hess. “Everything from how horses would integrate to no reflective material. But there were no creative restrictions.” We then hop in the car to visit Didier, who is at the site of a new conservation effort by the Silver Lake Green Committee. We pass by the depleted Silver Lake Reservoir, and Hess assures me that L.A.’s water situation is beyond dire. We pull into a small parking lot behind a nail salon at Rowena and Hyperion. Didier describes an ecologically efficient scenario of how the space will be reconfigured. Fruit trees and herbs will be planted. A water collection system will be used to catch rainwater. “Building parking lots contribute to a lot of water waste,” she says. “[The project] is a demonstration of something that’s simple to do and it has multiple benefits.”

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