An installation at Storefront for Art and Architecture by Rob Ley and Joshua Stein

Reef redefines the role of architectural envelope by capitalizing on emerging material technology to imbue space with behavioral qualities. In this installation at Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, the public engaged in the new social nuances revealed as exhibition is redefined by exploding the perceived ‘wall’ separating private and public space. The responsive membrane created a diverse range of porous and dynamic enclosures capable of producing sophisticated, flexible responses to an existing program. Reef created an interior condition which reacted according to an exterior street-scape, and reasserted an active, willful role in shaping that public space.

Architecture’s earlier flirtations with motion and technology have often been justified by claims of efficiency through intelligence; however, this territory of rational efficiency and intelligence quickly doomed that architecture to the role of the spectacular machine or the respectful servant. The heroics of Ron Herron’s Walking City or even contemporary retractable stadium canopies rarely attempt to operate as a medium for social interaction. In these cases, technology drags with it a machine aesthetic, further distancing it from the sphere of the social. Could a different paradigm expand the possibilities for viewing the human relationship with technology and space?

Reef investigated the role emerging material technology could play in the sensitive reprogramming of architectural and public space. Shape Memory Alloys (SMAs), a category of metals that change shape according to temperature, offered the possibility of efficient, fluid movement without the mechanized motion of earlier technologies. Operating at a molecular level, this motion paralleled that of plants and lower level organisms that were considered responsive but not conscious. A field of sunflowers as they track the sun across the sky or a reef covered with sea anemones offered images of the type of responsive motion this technology affords. Its use in practical applications has been limited to the medical and aerospace fields as well as novelty toys — the super exclusive vs. the trite. Despite the potential of this technology, there have been few serious attempts to test its possibilities at the scale of architectural environments. Reef’s unique exploration of technology shifts from the biomimetic to the biokinetic while liberating and extending architecture’s capacity to produce a sense of willfulness.

Reef furthered the experimental agenda of Storefront through the investigation of a sophisticated and flexible negotiation of the public street and the typical 1st floor retail space. The original façade installation by Acconci and Holl engaged public space in a novel way by locating the art and architecture experiment at interface between gallery and street rather than sealing it off from the public life of the street. Reef extended this experiment through the introduction of a more precise and fluid secondary interface, one charged with the purpose of fostering refined social interactions through a variable and fluid porosity. Unlike the typical activities that one associates with ground floor spaces of the city — retail, office, or gallery — here the motion and sway of nature, like trees in the wind, is enfolded within interior space, drawing in the sensibility of the outdoors. In tandem with the Acconci/Hall façade, Reef questioned the negotiation between the public realms of urban space and the intimacy of the interior.

Supported by grants from:
Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.
AIA Knowledge Grant
IDEC Special Projects Grant

This project was made possible by the generous support and assistance of Dynalloy Inc.

Motion Control Software Development and Custom Electronics: Pylon Technical


Rob Ley is the founding principal of Urbana, an architecture and design studio in Los Angeles. Urbana engages current material and formal technologies to develop environments that respond to human inhabitation and experience. Mr. Ley currently teaches graduate design studios and seminars at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc). He holds a Master of Architecture from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and a Bachelor of Science in Architecture from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Joshua G. Stein heads Radical Craft, a Los Angeles based studio that investigates urban and material patterns while focusing on the intersection of traditional craft and contemporary fabrication techniques. He has taught design studios and seminars at Cornell University, SCI-Arc, Woodbury University, and the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design as well as fabrication workshops in Barcelona, Istanbul, and Krefeld (D). He holds a Master of Architecture degree from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).