October 1, 2003
Tom Wiscombe’s Light-Wing for the P.S. 1 Center for Contemporary Art is as forward looking in the way it was built as it is in its form.
Tom Wiscombe was born to build. “I was a Lego freak,” he says. “It’s kind of ridiculous, but I even had an architects’ table when I was in the fifth grade.” His enthusiasm for the craft of architecture is everywhere apparent in Light-Wing, the temporary pavilion that Emergent—Wiscombe’s Los Angeles-based firm—designed and built in the courtyard of the P.S. 1 Center for Contemporary Art in Queens, New York. Hovering over the courtyard like an enormous aluminum dragonfly, Light-Wing provides shade, places to sit, and cooling pools of water for the throngs of music and art enthusiasts who attend Warm Up, the museum’s raucous Saturday afternoon summer dance-party series. At night spotlights inside the roof structure make the cladding glow a bright pinkish red, and the dragonfly becomes a lightning bug, a beacon sure to entice any passers-by to the party.
For the last four years P.S. 1 and the Museum of Modern Art (the two are affiliated) have held a competition, the Young Architects Program, for the design of an “urban beach” setting for Warm Up. The program’s objective is to identify zzzand encourage emerging architectural talent, and in that it has been remarkably successful. Previous winners include Lindy Roy, William Massie, and SHoP/Sharples Holden Pasquarelli—whose wave-like wooden structure in 2000 largely put them on the map (and on the pages of Metropolis). As this year’s winner, Wiscombe was awarded just $60,000 to build the project—and something much more valuable: a high-profile platform from which show off his work.
The Warm Up party aims to bring a new and younger audience to the P.S. 1 collection, and Light-Wing may prove a stronger draw than the music. It’s an impressively massive and sturdy piece, and its undulating mesh surfaces are sure to send architectural theory fans into a swoon. But when Wiscombe talks about his project, he always comes back to the practical aspects of building. “The key for this project was the roof structure, obviously,” he says. “It was generated first as a field of independent objects—long horizontal structures we’re calling ‘canoes.’ The canoes are clad in aluminum mesh, and then there’s a second cladding that goes over the entire thing.” Wiscombe clearly relishes the challenge of making a coherent design out of these discrete objects, and not just because the resulting roof looks like “a mutant or hybrid landscape.” “Each canoe is actually standing on its own columns,” he says. “But they work together, too. You can start to remove some of the columns, because the canoes rely on one another for structural support. You can read this thing as a series of objects, but also as a larger organism.”
Light-Wing is Emergent’s first completed project. Until now most of Wiscombe’s work has been with Vienna-based Coop Himmelb(l)au, where he is still a project partner. His output includes the radical 1998 UFA Cinema Palace, in Dresden, the yet-to-be-completed Akron Art Museum, in Ohio, and a science museum, in Lyon, France. Wiscombe, who is 33, first started working with Coop Himmelb(l)au upon completing his undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley. He had hoped to work at Frank Gehry’s office, but no positions were open. Someone there suggested he try Coop Himmelb(l)au, which had a studio in Los Angeles at the time. While working there under founding partner Wolf Prix he finished a masters at UCLA’s architecture school and launched Emergent in 1999.
Light-Wing was completed through a similarly serendipitous route: a mix of institutional risk-taking, informal networking, and the sort of non-hierarchical teamwork you might expect from a native Californian. (Wiscombe was born in La Jolla, near San Diego.) Wiscombe was nominated, along with Rogers Marvel Architects, by Metropolis senior editor Paul Makovsky for the Young Architects Program, which solicits nominations from curators, architects, critics, and editors every year. From that group, five finalists (including Rogers Marvel) were selected to present their designs to the jury. Terence Riley, architectural curator at MoMA and head of the Young Architects Program, says that Wiscombe’s ability to convince the judging panel that he could do the work even though he was based in L.A. and Vienna was crucial. “He brought his frequent-flyer miles statement to the final presentation to show that it would not cost him any extra to be coming back and forth from Vienna and Los Angeles to New York,” he says. “His presentation was very thorough and very well done.” When he was selected, Wiscombe rounded up friends and student volunteers and entrusted the contract work to an old junior-high friend, Emergent project leader Burr Dodd, a gallerist, general contractor, and artist (his latest work involved projecting laser beams through fish tanks filled with honey). “We had a lot of people helping,” Wiscombe says. In addition to his construction manager, welding team, project designer Dionicio Valdez, and two team leaders, Wiscombe employed about 20 interns: students from SCI-Arc (where he teaches) and others who had heard him lecture at Pratt Institute, Columbia University, and the University of Wisconsin. “It was all word of mouth, and it worked out pretty well,” he says.
When something fell out of their range of expertise, the group looked close by to find help. Amsterdam Metalworks, for instance, the company that welded together the canoes and connected them to their columns, was a firm in the museum’s Long Island City neighborhood that does architectural metal work for artists and galleries. The assembly took place under a freeway overpass a few blocks away from P.S. 1, with Dodd, Wiscombe, and interns taking shifts sleeping in a car in the lot to guard the aluminum from thieves. “It was really interesting for me to get a chance to play general contractor as well as architect,” Wiscombe says. “It seems like a lot of younger architects are really coming back to the design/build idea. It’s partly a reaction to the escape into the digital which has happened over the last ten years. We’ve all perfected our supple beautiful surfaces in Maya or whatever it is, and now people want to get them realized.”
Which is not to say that Wiscombe shuns the computer. “I do a lot of physical models,” Wiscombe says. “That’s the most important thing for me. But the computer was key and enabled us to build this thing.” There were at least 5,000 differently shaped panels to be cut for the aluminum mesh cladding, and only by modeling them on a computer could Wiscombe’s team cut them accurately and efficiently. “But I’m not interested in work that’s completely computer-generated,” he says, “because I think it loses its social aspect. So I try to go back and forth.”
“The thing I think is really interesting about Tom’s project is that underlying all of his sophistication about how you build on an international scale—picked up from working with Coop Himmelb(l)au—is a profound understanding of the root activities that go into building,” Riley says. Light-Wing reflects, both in its form and in the way Wiscombe and his team built it, a desire on the part of young architects for a craft as practical as it is theoretical, one that uses the computer as one tool among many rather than the sole way of looking at things. If it all seems very ad-hoc and casual, that’s fine with Wiscombe. “For me this project is a model of how architects should be doing things.”