When Flimsy Is Good

Photo: Iwan Baan

S o much contemporary architecture is pristine, precise, and technologically advanced that it comes as a relief to walk into the courtyard of MoMA PS 1, grab one of the masts holding up the new architectural installation, and jiggle it hard enough to make the whole structure tremble. Pole Dance, by the fledgling firm SO-IL (architects love cryptic abbreviations; this one stands for Solid Objectives–Idenburg Liu, and should somehow be pronounced differently from both “so ill” and “soil”), is a deliberately cheap and shaky affair. It consists of dozens of 30-foot fiberglass poles, anchored to the ground with simple cleats and lashing upright with bungee cords. The poles support a vast net, like the kind a trapeze artist might tumble into. Rolling around in the net are scores of inflatable exercise balls.

It’s a game in search of rules, but kids will quickly find that if they agitate the poles hard enough, they can propel the big colored balls around the canopy and maybe even get them to drop into a wading pool in the center of the courtyard, where they can be collected and then hurled back up. Over in the small side yard, the installation acquires another level of sophistication: Thanks to a lovely bit of engineering by the firm Arup, the quivering poles activate motion sensors that translate physical vibrations into electronic sounds. You can literally hear yourself shake a stick. And since the bendy masts are all interlaced, moving one also moves the rest, resulting in a ghostly serenade.

Maybe this is flimsiness’s moment. Pole Dance already has an architectural cousin in the city: the Starn brothers’ Big Bambú, on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There, a constantly expanding framework of long bamboo stalks lashed together with nylon twine sways and mutters in the breeze. Together, the two summer pieces remind a city accustomed to the rigors of steel and concrete that in many parts of the world, architecture need not always be expensive, permanent, weatherproof, or stiff. There is something electrifyingly paradoxical about a structure that is obviously strong, but at the same time looks like it’s falling apart.

Pole Dance and Big Bambú share the ability to disappear. Florian Idenburg, part of the “IL” in So-IL, likes to point out that the playful $85,000 installation at PS 1 is made from inexpensive, off-the-shelf parts, required no sawing and almost no drilling (and therefore minimal waste), and has fully recyclable components. The rotating pins that anchor the masts are surfboard parts; a surfing school has already claimed them for after the show closes. The piece’s economy acts as a reproach to the culture of high-end, high-tech greenness that has spread throughout the architectural world. The most efficient building is the one that doesn’t get built, but one that vanishes without leaving a residue comes in a very close second.

When Flimsy Is Good