This vortex-shaped, temporary outdoor installation in the Los Angeles exhibition space of Materials & Applications, warped the flow of space with a featherweight rendition of a celestial black hole. Hovering over M&A’s courtyard,Maximilian’s Schell was a spectacle the size of an apartment building constructed in tinted Mylar resembling stained glass. The piece functioned as a shade structure, swirling overhead for the entire summer of 2005. The interior of this immersive experimental installation created a beckoning outdoor room for social interaction and contemplation by changing the space, color, and sound of the M&A courtyard gallery. During the day as the sun passed overhead, the canopy cast colored fractal light patterns onto the ground while a tranquil subsonic drone from the integrated ambient sound installation by composerJames Lumb entitled “Resonant Amplified Vortex Emitter” lightly rumbled below the feet of the viewer. When standing in the center or “singularity” of the piece and gazing upward, the visitor could see only infinite sky. In the evening when viewed from the exterior, the vortex glowed warmly while both obscuring and allowing glimpses of the building behind it. The assembly paid homage to a character played by actor Maximilian Schell in Disney Studio’s forgotten sci-fi adventure The Black Hole. Dr. Reinhardt is a visionary tyrant on a monomaniacal quest to harness the “power of the vortex” and possess “the great truth of the unknown.”
Ball Nogues invested more than a year into a development process that involved several prototypes, though actual fabrication took only two weeks. The result was an installation that functioned as not only architecture and sculpture but as a “made-to-order” product through a unified manufacturing strategy. The designers achieved their aesthetic effects by manipulating Mylar reinforced with bundled Nylon and Kevlar Fibers on a computer-controlled (CNC) cutting machine. Simultaneously reflective and transparent, the amber-colored film offered UV-resistance through a laminated golden metallic finish. The result was neither a tent-type membrane nor a cable net structure in the manner of Frei Otto, but a unique tensile matrix comprised of 504 different instances of a parametric component or “petal,” each cut and labeled using the CNC system. Every petal connected to its neighbors at three points using clear polycarbonate rivets to form the overall shape of a vortex. As though warped by the gravitational force of a black hole, the petals continually changed scale and proportion as they approached the singularity of the piece.
An integration of structure and skin, the vortex behaved as a “minimal surface”: prestressed, always in tension, yet definable mathematically. Its lineage is in the soap film surfaces modeled by Otto in the 1950s and ’60s; a process now typically accomplished using software that performs “finite element” calculations. After receiving hand sketches and computer models made by the designers, membrane engineer Dieter Strobel digitally crafted and refined the minimal surface model. He quickly and precisely manipulated it during the “form-finding” process while accounting for the distorting effects of gravity and enabling the finished vortex-shaped canopy to be in tension everywhere across its top surface. This gave it a pure and smooth appearance, especially when viewed from the exterior. Seen from the interior, the piece resembled an enormous transparent flower with its petals lightly draping and curling downward with gravity.
Designers and Principals in Charge: Benjamin Ball and Gaston Nogues
Construction Coordination: Benjamin Ball and Gaston Nogues
Construction Team: the magnificent volunteers at Materials & Applications
Membrane Analysis: Dieter Strobel
Structural Engineering Consultants: David Bott, Hardy Wronske
Sound: James Lumb
Parametric Modeling: Benjamin Ball
Photography: Benny Chan, Oliver Hess, Scott Mayoral, Joshua White
Curator: Jenna Didier
Special Thanks: Dewey Ambrosio, Miranda Banks, Freya Bardell, David Bott, Siobhan Burke, Scott Carter (the prince of parametric modeling), Malachi Conolly, Ben Dean, Jenna Didier, Stephanie Elliot, Rachel Francisco, Rob Fitzgerald, Linda Graveline, Andrew Hardaway, Oliver Hess, Tony Hudgins, Leigh Jerard, Tim Levin, Jonny Lieberman, Brandie Lockett, Kellie Lumb, Alexandra Isaievych, Alex MikoLevine, Fred Moralis, Jim Miller, Phil Miller, Charon Nogues, pAdlAb: Dan Gottlieb & Penny Herscovitch, Harry Pattison, Joanne Pink-Tool, Jeremy Rothe-Kushel, Edward Shelton, Dieter Strolbel, Joe Sturges, Elizabeth Tremante, Hardy Wronskie, and Bryant Yeh.