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All Decks on Hand: CODA's "Party Wall" at MoMA PS1

This year's Young Architects Program installation recycles skateboard scraps to serve two different types of event.

By William Hanley
July 3, 2013
Photo © Charles Roussel

Groan if you will at the punning title of Caroline O’Donnell’s Party Wall, but the name captures the designer’s dual intent. A giant plywood brise soleil made of scap material left over from the production of skateboards, the temporary work bisects the courtyard at MoMA PS1, the Museum of Modern Art’s contemporary art space in Queens, New York. From a distance it reads like a billboard peeking up above the walls that surround the former schoolhouse. Inside the courtyard, it shades, mists, and occasionally spews water at the masses that turn out for the institution’s outdoor Warm-Up dance parties, which kicked off last weekend and continue every Saturday through September 7.

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But as the name suggests, the wall also serves another set of users. When it’s not cooling dancing hoards of happily sweaty revelers, it accommodates less raucous gatherings more typical of an afternoon at PS1. One hundred and twenty of its lower panels can detach from the structure. Some pieces with trucks and wheels peel away to become oversized skateboards. At the opening reception for the project, a few guests made awkward attempts at kickflips with the rolling planks, while children splashed in shallow pools tucked inside the wall’s structure. But other pieces become chairs and tables for outdoor performances, screenings, and other events. “For a dance party, you need as much space as possible,” said O’Donnell at an opening reception for the project. “For a lecture, you need a lot of seating.”

The Ithaca, New York-based architect, who teaches at Cornell University and calls her firm CODA, won the museum’s annual Young Architects Program competition with her design for the summer-long installation, which runs through August 31. She worked with Comet Skateboards of Ithaca to acquire the wood and, with the help of a group of volunteers, spent many Saturdays weaving scraps excised while making skateboard decks (O’Donnell calls them the project’s “bones”) into the 20, 4-by 8-foot component panels that make up the wall. “We were calling the company and saying, ‘Make more skateboards!’” says O’Donnell.

The wood screens hang from a steel trestle and form geometric archways that zigzag above the public spaces. “When you stand here, it’s kind of monstrous,” said O’Donnell, glancing up at the wooden mass. “But inside, it’s intimate and lacy.” With only a shallow foundation, the installation relies on large water-filled fabric bags—the kind used to douse forest fires from the air—as ballasts to keep it weighted to the ground. A channel running along the top of the structure delivers water to a misting device, the pools, and a spout that periodically erupts like a gushing fire hose.

The work is a return to form for the Young Architects Program. Last year, New York City firm HWKN created Wendy, a bright blue sea urchin that floated, cartoon-like above the courtyard, more of a beacon and a character than a shelter. Party Wall brings the emphasis back to function and problem solving with its strategy for serving two constituencies; by comparison to last year’s installation, the work looks staid and less polished, a quality that O’Donnell attributes to PS1’s location. “It’s a rough industrial neighborhood,” she says. “I like that toughness.”

Party Wall does, however, have a quiet playful streak. In addition to providing detachable skateboards, O’Donnell says, there is a secret message of some sort coded into the form. “I’m not going to tell you what it is,” she announced at the opening, offering only, “We’re not interested in objects, but the things around objects.”

So far, we haven’t deciphered it. But take your best guess in the comment thread below.

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