Materials & Applications sounds like the name of an engineering class, not a respected "research and exhibition center dedicated to advancing new and underused ideas in art, architecture and landscape," as its website states.
Its offices look more like a crammed hobby closet than a design studio. And yet this small Silver Lake nonprofit has helped launch some of the most innovative architecture projects in the world.
The current project up for viewing is Bloom by architect Doris Sung, a 20-foot-tall shiny metal flower that opens and closes in response to sunlight. It's body is made of laser-cut alloys and aluminum, and the tabs that resemble the flower petals are made of the same thermo-responsive metal that you can find in old thermostats.
"At first I thought it was an oversized kitchen utensil," says shopkeeper Scott Turuya of Silver Lake Liquor, with a smile. "But this one is the most impressive. I really enjoy it."
Turuya's store is right across the street from Materials & Applications, and for more than two years he's seen big sculptures come and go. For people in the neighborhood, the projects are a breath of fresh air, but they don't always understand what's going on.
"In many ways it’s inspired by the Museum of Jurassic Technology style of street presence," says Materials U Applications co-director Oliver Hess. "It’s cryptic enough that as an art project, people are not turned off by the fact that it’s an art project. If we did say that, I think a lot of people would think, ‘I’m not interested in art’ and just move along. We have a little bit of didactic literature outside, but it’s never enough for people to understand what type of operation we’re running."
Materials & Applications, began in 2001 when founder Jenna Didier bought the building and decided to turn the front parking lot into a public exhibition space. She was making a living building water features – fountains and things. As Didier told KPCC:
I purchased the property in 2000 and started working on the concept of M&A in 2001, with the first unveiling occurring in May 2002. I curated and completed several projects involving architects whose large-scale prototypes of new materials/processes were exhibited in the courtyard before Oliver Hess joined me in 2004. By then, M&A was established as a public exhibition space focusing "on building, on radical forms and experimental materials," with the public invited to participate "every step of the process." His skills in computer-aided rendering and his ready willingness to tackle the challenging work I was doing made him a wonderful partner. He was not yet a "structural artist." He learned this through working with me on projects at M&A from 2004 onward.
"Often we take proposals from artists, architects or designers," Hess said. "But we turned it into a situation where it’s about catalyzing the public’s interest. There’s the idea of engaging local craftspeople, or local hobbyists – people who are interested in construction or design – allowing them to participate in the art they experience. We have a volunteer core, a group of thousands of people who want to help build."
Their studio sits on a narrow lot between two apartment buildings, and their projects are typically mounted in their modest front yard. Inside, the office is tight — they have a hard time getting rid of old projects.
"Every room becomes a storage room, and it’s kind of a palimpsest of what we’ve been working on. That’s giant bamboo over there, the biggest bamboo you can get. This is the laser cutter. [It cuts] everything from fish to pretty much every piece of plastic, metal or wood."
The first project to make waves at Materials & Applications was a 2005 installation called Maximilian’s Schell, a golden mylar canopy meant to resemble a black hole that you could probably see from space.
"I think, without a doubt, Ball and Nogues' Maximillian’s Schell was more successful than probably anything else in the entire genre of this work. It was a staggering achievement that they could so effectively strike this nerve in the entire world. Even now, anytime I try to describe what Materials & Applications is, people who have no interest in this kind of stuff say, ‘That was amazing.’"
It’s tricky to explain the genre Hess and his fellow artists work in – generally speaking, it’s a field where wild geometric shapes meet their technological possibilities. Hess says the new installation Bloom is a perfect example.
"This is a hyperboloid made of hypars," Hess says. "It’s been pulled up in the front to give this beautiful archway entrance, and inside it tapers down like an hourglass to a very small, tight passage. It’s got thousands of these thermo bimetallic panels that overleaf each other. When the sun shines on it, those leaves actually curl up, so what looks opaque sometimes opens up and becomes a dapple light that shines through."
While architecture geeks are afforded a space to test new materials before moving on to bigger public venues, Materials & Applications also just gives people in the neighborhood a place to wander into or simply meet up. It’s a pocket park and even has a little goldfish pond.
"Some really cool kids down the street, they put those fish in there, and they still come by and feed them, and the neighborhood kids love them," Hess says.
Looking ahead, Oliver and Jenna of Materials & Applications are researching a sculpture for a new visitor center at Vasquez Rocks, and they’re heading a project to build more pocket parks like theirs in other parts of L.A.
When it comes to building things, their pockets are deep.
An earlier version of this story mischaracterized Hess' role in the foundation of Materials & Applications. KPCC regrets the error.