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Chanel’s Mobile Art Pavilion shows fabrics’ portability and flexibility

Features | March 1, 2009 | By:

Coco Chanel’s 2.55 handbag is an enduring icon of design, material, proportions and portability. To celebrate its 50th anniversary and reissue, Chanel’s artistic director Karl Lagerfeld commissioned Zaha Hadid Architects to design a traveling pavilion to house the work of 19 artists, each with a contribution inspired by the classic bag. The bag’s numeric name denotes the quilted bag’s first release in February 1955. Complete with a secret pocket for love letters (from Coco’s paramour at the time), the bag is rich in personality. The 2.55’s brown fabric liner recalls the nuns’ habits in the convent where Chanel was raised. Its shoulder strap updates the gold chains that the nuns wore around their necks to carry keys.

Engineered in partnership with Arup’s London office, the Chanel Contemporary Art Container meets seemingly conflicting criteria. Its stark white fiber reinforced polymer exterior and 530m2 of interior space are durable enough to handle large crowds, yet Chanel’s traveling pavilion also needed to be sufficiently light and compact to fit into shipping containers for a six-city world tour: Hong Kong, Tokyo, New York, London, Moscow and Paris.

Hadid’s project architect Davide Giordano describes how this mobile art museum was made possible by innovative applications of inflated ETFE “bubbles” for rooftop daylighting and Trapeze® fabric stretched over the interior walls. The flowerlike shape of the courtyard is covered with transparent ETFE. Giordano explains one great benefit of using ETFE as a skylight: “When the Art Container was installed in Hong Kong, you see the skyscrapers. When installed in New York, in Central Park, you see trees.”

Like the classic handbag itself, the Art Container has personality, but in a 21st century sense. Fifty meters long, the nautilus like form is based on a radial grid of 3m lines. The FRP exterior panels stand out along the curving facades with a pure white sheen resembling the storm trooper armor of a Star Wars movie. Fabricated by Stage 1 in Yorkshire, the panels’ FRP material is also used in ship building and aerospace. When presented in Central Park, the pavilion looked as though it had landed from outer space. In the evening, the white panels and translucent roof seemed to glow under the tree canopy. Indeed, the FRP panels were painted with several layers of car paint to ensure that their perfect surface continuity would not be damaged in transit. For the architects’ ethereal yet organic vision, the ETFE cushions offered a counter-balancing softness to the roofline that makes the walls seem all the more solid.

In several articles on the project, Hadid’s designers speak of scenography — a distinctly French idea that may now be making its way abroad. One way to think of scenography in the Art Container is to consider the design of inward and outward views, internal walls and varied lighting microclimates for art. To control light and views, Hadid’s designers set clear ETFE cushions into the structural frame to admit daylight into to the courtyard and the cloakroom. Six more cushions are scattered on the roof in gill-like shapes to admit daylight. They are also illuminated with red, green and blue LED lighting. Inside, the effect is one of varying light levels that can be tailored to the individual art works.

The designers chose white Trapeze fabric stretched over the structure to line the interior walls and spaces. Both light and flexible, Giordanso says that Trapeze offers a “warm feeling that you can backlight.” He adds, “We tested many materials, and in a typical building, one might use glass” or other more solid materials for the interior. For this application in a traveling pavilion, ETFE and Trapeze made much more sense.

The same could be said for the application of PVC panels for the remaining areas of the roof to repel moisture and such site-specific solutions as the use of geotextiles around the foundation for the Central Park installation. Because of their lightness and flexibility, contemporary textile products can adapt to varied site conditions and the widely divergent climates and buildings codes of the tour’s venues.

Appropriately, the word pavilion is related to the French word for butterfly — papillion. Like a butterfly, the Art Container metamorphasizes from a cocoon into a vibrant and much larger form that is light and reinforced by graceful structure. “The pavilion itself didn’t relate to the handbag in a direct way,” Giordano explains. Yet, in a larger historical sense, the Art Container is like a kind of handbag for art, a portable pavilion designed to move over harsh conditions while providing an oasis of calm and beauty when set down.

Unfortunately, perhaps due to the costs of transport and the 80-person European exhibits crew needed to assemble and pack up the Art Container, Chanel announced in December 2008 that the tour’s stops at London, Moscow, and Paris would be cancelled, at least for now.

To see video of the New York installation, go to: For a description and images of the Hong Kong installation, visit:

Frank Edgerton Martin writes frequently about design and urban landscapes. His piece about the Beijing National Stadium appeared in the May/June 2008 issue.

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