WHEN Santa Monica architects Hadrian Predock and John Frane set out to explore the Inland Empire for an exhibition looking at the area's suburban sprawl, they had little idea of the big secret they would find: massive storage facilities, some nearly 2 million square feet, built to house goods coming through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Ten such structures are scattered throughout the 40-mile-long valley.
Many residents do not know the structures exist and, even when they drive past them, have little sense of how big they are, the architects say. "We did an inventory on Google Earth of all the building types in the Inland Empire, and that's how we discovered them," says Frane.
So it is that the duo's latest exhibition, "Inland Empire" at the Pomona College Museum of Art, is dominated by a model of the area's most unique structures -- here, a 16-by-16-foot box nearest the ceiling. Filling a gallery, the entire work is composed of a series of white Foamcor model structures -- each representing a different type of building in the region -- suspended by 750 nylon fishing lines.
The show, which opened this month and runs through Oct. 19, is Predock and Frane's first near their home base. (Some of "Inland Empire" will also be incorporated into an exhibition at the new LA Architectural Forum space in Hollywood in November.) But it's by no means their first foray into a gallery space.
When Predock and Frane started their Santa Monica firm in 2000, they, like most architects, opted to build as much as they could, rather than concentrating on academic pursuits such as teaching and entering international competitions. They landed a number of significant commissions, including winning a competition to design the Family Room at the Getty Center. Their Center of Gravity Foundation Hall in Jemez Springs, N.M., was designed for the Bodhi Manda Zen monastery and won a National AIA Honor award. But the pair soon found that day-to-day practice was not giving them the freedom to answer all the questions they had about architecture and its role. "Our practice is about investigation," Predock says. "And we needed to discover other ways to expand our boundaries."
So they started making museum installations aimed at exploring these broader design questions. In the last five years, the pair have been invited to show at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Triennial in New York, the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art and the Yale Art Gallery. In 2004, their "Acqua Alta, or Just Add Water," an installation that had 6,000 lines of monofilament covering the walls of a single gallery, was shown at the Venice Biennale.
PREDOCK AND Frane, both 40, graduated from Harvard and the University of Texas, respectively, and in recent years have taught at Tulane and Berkeley. They were inspired to focus their interest in scale and site on the Inland Empire by Rebecca McGrew, the curator of the Pomona College Museum's "Project Series," a program promoting exhibitions by Southern California artists.
"I like their idea of tying works of art to a specific locality," she says. "And our 'Project Series' also aims to give artists an opportunity to create a work they wouldn't normally do."
As in all their commissions, be they art pieces or buildings for clients, the two began with an intense investigation of the site -- in this case, the Inland Empire's vast expanse, which was formed by what Predock refers to as "viral urbanism." "The area has become, without any formal planning, a fairly disorganized accumulation of small de-centered cities," he says, "but there is still some deeper intelligence afoot, which tells you, and residents, how it all works."
What they found was a range of buildings, from the giant warehouses to regional distribution centers for goods, big-box stores, mini malls, apartment buildings and houses. It's this hierarchy that's represented in their installation, which resembles an inverted pyramid, with the warehouse at the top and a 4-by-4-inch house at the bottom.
Installing "Inland Empire" was no easy task. It took six weeks, with up to eight people working at one time, to place the 750 nylon strings against the walls of the gallery, then hook them up to the series of hanging models.
Although each string was numbered and the installation "pre-designed" on computer, there were instances in which the lines of string intersected. "It was a little like weaving," says Predock, who notes that he and his partner like to mix up the high technology of contemporary design practice with traditional techniques espoused by craftsmen of earlier times.
For the highly conceptual architects, these strings play a significant role. "They stand in for all the things that connect the buildings: freeways, roads, sewers, sidewalks and so on," Frane says.
Some viewers follow the strings and see their intersections as freeway interchanges. Others see them as power lines.
"We want people to project themselves into a space and start seeing relationships between buildings they might not see on the ground," Frane adds. If they do, they are asking questions of architecture they might not otherwise. Very much like the architects themselves, they would be expanding their boundaries.
"Inland Empire," Pomona College Museum of Art, 330 N. College Way, Claremont. Ends Oct. 19. (909) 621-8283.