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Ball-Nogues makes architecture for the moment

Benjamin Ball and Gaston Nogues have built a reputation with temporary structures. But there's more to come, and one project is even permanent.

August 02, 2009|Paul Young

For an architecture firm with only four years' experience, it's surprising how much attention Benjamin Ball and Gaston Nogues have received. "It's a little crazy," says Ball, 41. "And it puts a little pressure on us because people seem to have higher expectations."

Indeed, in three short years, they've received commissions from the likes of MOMA, MOCA, Tiffany & Co., Frank Gehry and the 2008 Architecture Biennale in Venice, Italy.

Yet they still haven't built a single permanent structure.

Rather, they're known for building installations and temporary structures such as the twisting, three-story plastic form that greeted concertgoers at this year's Coachella festival in April. Most last for a couple of days, weeks or months before landing in the recycling bin.

Their latest effort, called "Feathered Edge," can be found at MOCA's satellite space at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood. Like a number of the duo's recent projects, it's a "suspension piece," as Ball calls it -- which is to say that it's mounted on the ceiling instead of the floor. The work is composed of thin pieces of string -- more than 21 miles' worth -- that have been cut and arranged into precise arcs and crisscross patterns. The designers used a computer to determine the overall shape, as well as a map that told them where to place each section by hand. (It took the artists and 15 volunteers two weeks to install.) The result is a sensuous, rainbow-colored, nebulous mass that hovers in the upper quadrant of the 24-by-24-foot interior and invites viewers to navigate through its recesses and voids.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, August 02, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 2 inches; 74 words Type of Material: Correction
Ball-Nogues: In today's Arts & Books article about architects Benjamin Ball and Gaston Nogues, a reference to their work at this year's Coachella music festival should have noted that Southern California Institute of Architecture students collaborated on the three-story plastic form; and the size of their forthcoming 18-foot project in L.A.'s Centinela Area Building and Safety Permit Office is misstated as 18 inches. Also, the smaller photograph accompanying the article misidentifies Nogues as Ball.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, August 09, 2009 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 3 inches; 102 words Type of Material: Correction
Ball-Nogues: An article last Sunday about architects Benjamin Ball and Gaston Nogues stated that the duo would be installing an 18-inch suspension project inside L.A.'s Centinela Area Building and Safety Permit Office. The project is 18 feet in size. In addition, a reference to their work on a three-story plastic form at this year's Coachella festival should have included the fact that the project was done in collaboration with students at the Southern California Institute of Architecture. Also, a photograph accompanying the story incorrectly identified Ball as the architect shown assembling their "suspension piece" titled "Feathered Edge"; the photograph was of Nogues.

The complex process included the design of original software and the construction of a machine that the pair call the "Insta_llator 1 (with Variable-Information Atomizing Module)," which can be programmed to not only cut each piece of string at precise lengths, but also paint various sections via four internal airbrushes. "The process is really about working in an architecturally scaled space, where we can marry materials with fabrication processes and computation," Ball says of the MOCA project.

One could argue that "Feathered Edge" is an extraordinary piece of interior design, and it's certainly a work of art, but is it architecture?

"I can understand how people might find it hard to make that leap from these temporary structures to what most of us think of as architecture," says exhibition co-curator Brooke Hodge. "But why does architecture have to be about solid materials? Why can't it be a piece of material constructed on the scale of architecture, or some other flexible material that redefines space and makes us rethink our relationship to it?"

Indeed, Ball-Nogues, as they call themselves, are committed to exploring those very same questions. Despite coming from different backgrounds -- Ball is from Colorado and Iowa, where his mother was a theater director, and Nogues from Buenos Aires, where his father was an aerospace engineer -- they both share an intense passion for working in that gray area where art, architecture and industrial design meet.

After meeting at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in the early 1990s and going their separate ways, they realized their first collaboration in 2005 at Material + Applications, an architecture gallery space in Silver Lake. That resulted in a 2 1/2 -story sculpture made of semi-translucent, semi-reflective Mylar petals that seemed to sprout out of the ground and spin in a circular pattern, much like a tornado, or black hole. Called "Maximilian's Schell" (a reference to the actor in the Disney movie "The Black Hole"), the project received worldwide attention and led to a number of equally ambitious projects. They include the event display for the launch of Gehry's collaboration with Tiffany & Co. in 2006, a work called "Liquid Sky" (another film reference, to Slava Tsukerman's 1982 sci-fi movie) for MOMA/P.S.1's prestigious Young Architects Program in 2007 and one called "Echoes Converge" at Venice's Architecture Biennale in 2008.

"If galleries and museums were not interested in this kind of work, there would be no forum for it," Ball says of the increasing interest in temporary structures. "Speaking for ourselves, these projects have really allowed us to experiment in ways -- and on a scale -- that we couldn't have done otherwise."

"They're basically prototypes," adds Nogues, 41, who wants to apply similar techniques to larger, permanent forms. "They're prototypes for exploring architectural ideas, exploring new ways of investigating space and exploring new fabrication techniques."

They also allow them to create forms that might express the "intent" of a particular space or existing structure. Their piece at the Architecture Biennale, for instance, used string to amplify, or extrude, the existing patterns and colors of a Baroque ceiling.

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