New exhibit pushes the envelope

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September 21, 2010

12:07 AM

When you’re cold, you shiver and get goosebumps. When you’re warm, your skin sweats to cool your body. Your skin keeps water inside your body and protects you from disease. Imagine if your skin could also nearly eliminate your ecological footprint or emit ambient light. This is exactly what is becoming possible for today’s innovative architects. To them, the human skin is an inspiration for the future of efficient, sensorial and sustainable buildings. The international firms and designers included in the exhibition at the Muscarelle Museum of Art focus on the metaphor of a building as a body and the existence of a prosthetic second skin that allows human beings to exist in a future hostile environment.

The exhibition, entitled “Envelopes: Architects’ Unfinished Experiments with Building ‘Skins,’” is on the first floor of the Muscarelle. The exhibit is attached to a corresponding display of photographer David Brashear’s work on the texture of architecture. The progress of the entire exhibition is unnatural in its arrangement, but the works presented are exceptional and original.

Entering the exhibition, the viewer is confronted by the “Hygro Curtain Wall” by Mary Ellen Carroll. The piece shows how an acre of land could be feasibly converted to create more space for crop growth without competing with living space. “The Open Source Wall,” designed by HouMinn, portrays an attempt to increase energy efficiency through heating, lighting and ventilation. The most inventive aspect of the design is the star-like clamp used to connect the horizontal beams of the wall to the vertical. As the docents point out, this is a completely new type of wall system, divergent from the stud-wall system which has been in use since 1833.

Not only does the Open Source Wall address global construction concerns, but it is also designed to be entirely self-sufficient. The wall is a collection of horizontal blocks curved to withstand strong winds and designed to accomplish various functions. Water can be stored in the bottom blocks. Other blocks can be insulated with native grains to regulate heat, and still others can serve as collapsible storage or wall-mounted seating.

Another commanding piece in the exhibit is the sensorial garden, which alerts many of the senses with materials not usually used in traditional garden systems. These materials vary in intensity but capitalize on humidity, air temperature, bloom, scent and ambient lighting. In this design, gradient zones of these variables exist beneath crushed glass, allowing furniture and pedestrian movement to occur above.
Correlating with this general idea is the creation of an artificial, self-generative version of Astroturf.

Astroturf makes it possible to have warm, fragrant grass no matter the season. The elements of this design can be combined to create a futuristic landscape. Levels of exterior thickened carpets are arranged to emit light, sound and heat to produce a pleasing environment anywhere. Also, arranged in this garden are heated rocks which allow for vegetation growth throughout the year. This landscaping enterprise is malleable enough to serve numerous climates and can be incorporated in private homes as well as in city parks, according to the descriptions at the museum.

The exhibition trumps itself as the viewer continues through, soon encountering a fuel-independent concept village. This is, by far, the most promising section of the exhibition. It sits in stark contrast to the sensorial gardens and fancy ambient lighting. Designed by Indie Architecture, the “Hydrogen House” focuses on issues of energy economics and explores the relationship between the interior and exterior nature of the suburban environment.

To illuminate the dynamic of a fuel-centered locality, a single house is constructed to serve as an example. The homeowner utilizes the energy of the hydrogen fuel cell on his or her lot to power a home and fuel a vehicle. Under this system, the individual will save at least $393 annually, ultimately providing a profit over his or her original investment and maintenance costs. The homeowner can also sell fuel to fuel-cell car owners in the neighborhood, which would allow the homeowner to make a profit and the neighbors to save money. This closed system allows villages to become independent and self-sufficient. Ultimately, this village system could eliminate our dependence on foreign fuel.

However, there is one obvious problem with the exhibition as a whole: As interesting and innovative as it is, it’s difficult to tell what its impact will truly be. The exhibition differs greatly from anything the Muscarelle has shown before and diverges greatly from the traditional concept of what an art exhibit should be.
Overall, the exhibition is a reassuring promise of more. The fact that such novel architecture is being developed and is available to us in Williamsburg is exciting, especially considering how accustomed this city’s inhabitants are to 18th century houses and beautiful brick facades. The natural progress of the exhibition could be improved, as could the balance of reading displays, but to focus on these aspects would miss the point. The concepts presented by this exhibition are literally life-changing, particularly for our generation. If these projects are paid the attention they are due, the impact could be incredible.

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