Parties always have a tendency to get out of hand. The tradition of the Beaux Arts Ball began in the 19th century at the architecture school of the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, as an opportunity for the students and surrounding community to release their inner pagan, through a burst of creativity and fantastic debauchery that included nudity, costumes and cross-dressing. The tradition spread to the United States, including the famous 1931 Beaux Arts Ball in New York, where architect William Van Alen masqueraded as his iconic Chrysler Building. Architecture schools began to host their own festivities, and the University of Kentucky College of Design (UK/CoD) started the tradition in 1969. In the last 45 years, the UK event has morphed into something more: the gratuitous melding of seemingly distinct cultures. One is a wild and crazy party scene attracted to electronic musicians performing, while the other is represented by elegant, world-class architectural installations.
The ball is described by some as the second biggest party in the state of Kentucky, outside of the Kentucky Derby. This statistic is difficult to attest to, but the party attracts over 3,000 people each year, with a host of national and international musicians playing the event. There is also plenty of classic Beaux Arts debauchery. What makes UK's ball special is that is home to an environment where some of the most interesting experimental architecture in the US is being produced. This year, groups of students duked it out in a competition to build a series of installations in Lexington's Pepper Warehouse, where the party took place.
The series of nine student-produced installations included a variety of architectural themes and effects. Jason Scroggin and his team were responsible for four pieces, including one carry-over from last year's ball, a 3,5 metre-high polar bear that integrates the Massimal series produced by his practice, Design Office Takebayashi Scroggin (D.O.T.S.). Three other small furniture pieces occupied a section of luxurious, white long-hair turf, offering party-goers a place to lounge during the performances. The objects were designed using everyday materials, such as funoodles and plastic play balls. These material investigations utilized more established technique with off-the-rack materials to make new and recognisable forms. Mike McKay's PERFORMA 13 is the thirteenth iteration in the series, and is produced out of a collaborative research studio that investigates the potential of everyday materials. In this iteration, McKay manipulates flexible material via digital fabrication technology and aggregates diverse pieces, creating a sensuous, undulating form.
Chico Nichols created an installation using high-gauge tubing that was arranged vertically in different densities, creating a barrier between a more private space and the public circulation paths. This field became a dividing element as well as a combining element; users on both sides of the installation could see videos that were projected onto the tubes. This provided different visual experiences for each set of users, while also providing a space for partiers to dance inside of, breaking down the distinction between stage and spectator. Another installation made a space out of a series of emergency blankets. Hung vertically, these metallic blankets looked very heavy, but swayed in the breeze like the lightest fabric ever made (which they might be). Another set of students used an Atwoodian projection technique to make a faceted surface come alive with animated light.
All of these instances provide a Venturian both-and of inclusivity and non-judgementalism rather than exclusivity and false morality. McKay and Scroggin combine ordinary materials with progressive techniques, transforming the materials and bringing them out of their context while leaving them recognizable as ordinary. This makes them extra-ordinary. The emergency blanket installation similarly accomplishes this feat. Each installation is a both-and, while the party itself is as well. Architecture here is featured out of the banal, autonomous context of the gallery, and in the wild, or as a part of contemporary culture.
Like any good both-and, this situation is not only formal, but also political. Rarely are such high-level projects experienced this way. However, in this sense it is actually an inverse of the Venturian project. In Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown's work, the everyday was incorporated into high architecture. Here, architecture is incorporated into the everyday. While Venturi and Scott Brown were experts analysing and critiquing everyday architecture, the partygoers at the Beaux-Arts Ball were everyday people critiquing high architecture in real-time. Their experience via visual stimulation as well as physical touch was a new and interesting way for architecture to be valued. In the case of Nichols' tube-screen, this relationship is both physically and metaphorically broken down. The architecture here was created within the constrictions of a disciplinary autonomy and expertise; it was made in the academy, by experts. This expert knowledge and a creative process, which is highly informed and controlled, produced several very good pieces. These pieces, however, were informed by forces outside of the discipline, connecting it to a general party-going public, and thus to the broader cultural context. We need more engagement outside the cage of the gallery, if architecture is to survive in the wild. Matt Shaw (@mockitecture)