Virtually all of the architects I’ve met – and I’ve met many – either started out as artists or have always dabbled in the fine arts. Pencil, charcoal, watercolour, acrylic or oil, wood, clay, metal or glass sculpture, photography and, of course, furniture design.
Yet too often the general public sees the architect as some sort of glorified technician, capable only of creating sets of designs that make practical things built. While a building must necessarily have as much applied science and engineering as fine art, if technicians were all that was needed, it would mean that all buildings would look like warehouses and none would look like Zeidler’s Ontario Place. (and, if we applied that logic to automobiles, all of them would be Reliant K-cars and never a Porsche 911).
So, having said that, please consider the architect as an artist. And, in particular, please see Heather Dubbeldam and Scott Sampson of Dubbeldam Architecture + Design, through this lens.
Well, through 8,000 lenses, to be exact.
Installed last year at 345 King St. W. in downtown Kitchener, “Binary Spectrum” is a huge, immersive, playful, colorful, three-dimensional, ever-changing and sometimes kinetic installation made up of 8,000 colored and transparent discs suspended from 650 cables. . Watch it from outside (night is best), just inside the lobby while lounging on the serpentine sofas below, or from a window on the building’s second floor, and it changes. It’s rows, it’s columns, it’s fractals, it’s rain, it’s a lagoon full of lily pads, or maybe it’s a starburst.
But it’s more than that, says Ms Dubbeldam: “Just playing around with the idea of manufacturing, where they make things, versus the digital realm, which is more ephemeral, and how do you bridge those two. .”
She’s right: depending on one’s position, the work may seem solid and manufactured, but at other times and in different light, it may also feel like the wind could turn all these records into one and into zeros and shoot them into the mouth of a satellite. .
It makes sense. Kitchener-Waterloo was once a manufacturing powerhouse. Rubber; textiles; dozens of furniture manufacturers; shirts; shoes; buttons; leather goods; and later, electronics. In July 1940, Frederick Edwards described it breathlessly for Maclean’s magazine, calling the two towns “industrial centers of considerable importance to this Dominion”.
“Kitchener has 127 factories, housing 160 industrial enterprises, and… Waterloo adds another thirty-three factories to the tally,” he wrote. “When these people want something, they look for it.”
And, after factories began to empty out in the 1980s and 1990s, Kitchener-Waterloo took on the technology. After Research In Motion achieved great success, the region became known as “Silicon Valley North”. Just a few years ago, Google created its largest office in Canada and placed it in the Breithaupt block at King St. W. and Moore Ave. Part of the complex, naturally, was an old rubber factory.
That Perimeter Development Corporation owns both buildings is no surprise.
Binary Spectrum started with a phone call: Perimeter called the Dubbeldam office and asked if they would like to create some “interesting artwork” for the wall of 345 King. They agreed, but after seeing the lobby of the building, the architects asked if it could be “spatial” instead, says Ms Dubbeldam.
Mr. Sampson picks up the story: “In the beginning, the whole team got together and [we were] just spitting out ideas, trying to figure out what we wanted to do…it was a fun design exercise. Not having to deal with structural implications or, you know, health and safety and all that stuff that we constantly talk about.
And with the idea hatched, the final warm and cool hues decided upon, and the renders complete, it was time to find a company that could manufacture the piece. Sixpenny Architecture Makers, on Geary Ave. in Toronto, had the necessary courage.
“They really can do it all,” says Sampson. “And they were right in our neighborhood…we knew it was going to be a very collaborative process and we would see a lot of different mock-ups and then work through the manufacturing process.”
After Dubbeldam sent in a 3D render and Sixpenny created a four foot by four foot sample in their office, details such as the thickness of the cables and how they might terminate (with very small plumb lines metal teardrop) have been decided. Then it was time to build the entire kit and caboodle, which Sampson says took no more than a few weeks, with the actual installation taking around three days.
“They first installed the [ceiling] grid, and then they had a very rigorous technique where they had each individual strand in a Ziploc bag, rated “A-6 grid,” that sort of thing…we actually took a time-lapse video of their setup. You would think it took a lot of time, but it didn’t, it was a lot of front-end work that made the installation pretty seamless.
But will 8,000 records hanging in the lobby of an office building change the world? No, but like all good art, if it stops people in their tracks, fires a few extra neurons in their brains, and makes them smile, it will have done its job.
“It was our first opportunity to do something like this,” concludes Mr. Sampson. “And we think we’ve done a very good job.”
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