On 17 December, the architecture and design practice United Environment Architecture set up a charcoal-fired blast furnace in a private backyard in L.A.'s Koreatown, and proceeded to scare the neighbors. In front of a packed audience of some five dozen — people who kept coming, going, and nursing more beers — UEA founders Tada Ryvola and Michael Sandstrom worked though the night, melting post-consumer aluminum into handcrafted objects. Among the results were house numbers in a modernist typeface, small animal figurines, and other fractures of hardware. In previous experiments with the blast furnace, Ryvola and Sandstrom had made custom metal lamps.
That evening, the pop-up aluminum foundry felt like a post-apocalyptic bonfire — "a spectacle of sparks", as Ryvola put it. An ignited Honda car transmission, for example, would counter-intuitively transform into a heap of designed objects as opposed to, say, a heap of twisted metal or (should I go there?) carnage. Some guests left with metal souvenirs. One guest wouldn't leave until his cast dog had been made with "just the right amount of imperfection", Ryvola tells me over dinner in January. "He liked the fact that you could see the seam lines on the object." After all, the imperfection that results from a process lends to the story of a product. Needless to say, Ryvola and Sandstrom were happy to oblige the demanding audience member. In getting such a request, they felt they had successfully made their point — or at least, one of them. "Most architecture and design firms are like Freemasons-Lite", says Ryvola. "It's not a very forthcoming profession. There's a 'man behind the curtain' quality to production, where the designer is a creative genius who mystically reveals something to the user."
"The process of architecture doesn't readily lend itself to an audience", adds Sandstrom. "But we wanted to show that it doesn't have to be that way."
By stripping the "fourth wall" between architect and user, UEA made a performance of the process of design, and not of the design itself — even if the resulting objects were both functional and aesthetic. UEA put the messy on a platform, and treated glossy and "finished" as byproducts. The designers further made a conscious decision to interact with their audience. Ryvola and Sandstrom took requests, made conversation, and answered any questions thrown at them. The event was by no means a formal Q&A or a quiet observation. On the contrary, "it turned into a party, which was entirely out of our control", said Sandstrom.
But if Blast Furnace did not look like a "typical" architecture show, that was not only a matter of choice, but also of chance. UEA originally intended to hold the event in a white-walled gallery. "We were thinking: white pedestals, vases, and good lighting", says Sandstrom. But only days before the event, the gallery that was to host Blast Furnace backed out, claiming problems with insurance. Sandstrom called the gallery's last-minute decision a "meltdown" (how appropriate). Instead of canceling the show, UEA transported it, highlighting yet another philosophy of their practice: architecture can be local, it can be light, and minimal in the most literal sense of the word. UEA readily acknowledge the vast divide between Blast Furnace and the large-scale industries more typical to aluminum foundries. "But when you can pack an aluminum foundry into the trunk of one car, there's no excuse for young architects not to be practicing today, however small scale their projects", says Ryvola. "To think otherwise is stupid."
Outside of cementing the ethos of their practice with Blast Furnace, UEA also comment on the greater surroundings of their headquarters — the city of Los Angeles. Ryvola and Sandstrom scoured local scrap yards for the materials they used in Blast Furnace, and in connecting with the junk of their city, they connected with its infrastructure: with the remains of LA's aerospace industry, the maritime skeletons of the Port of LA, and the bones of defunct cars and trucks. "It's fascinating that these materials were discarded by LA only to come together again in a backyard in Koreatown", says Ryvola.
Los Angeles is a city very often on lockdown — psychological or physical. There are high-speed chases through cordoned-off streets, choppers above polluted freeways, rolling blackouts, and the threat of landslides and seismic shifts under sunny skies. Apropos of Blast Furnace, how interesting that this prominent 'Blade Runner' stereotype of Los Angeles (in many ways accurate), is built on aluminum: The helicopters, the glistening skyscrapers, the car graveyards, the electric grids. And LA is not a city famous for preservation — like a snake, it often sheds its skin and emerges with new exteriors, which are as vulnerable to transformation as their predecessors. Likewise, the products that resulted from Blast Furnace might prove as transient as the materials that made them. Without purporting to open a dialog about recycling, Blast Furnace is an embrace of this cyclical process of destruction, disposal, and renewal. In exposing the framework of a process, UEA also expose the framework of a city — with all its seam lines and imperfections.Katya Tylevich