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Miami’s design festival features fabric pavilion

Features | March 1, 2009 | By:

The pavilion is the centerpiece of the festival.

Like the proverbial expression about rust, Miami never sleeps. From its renovated and ultra hip South Beach playground to its Art Deco and Design districts, Miami parades art, fashion and architecture in a frenzied and seemingly endless loop of exhibitions and festivals. It’s a kind of urban circus of the old and new thrust together by its sunlit shore.

One of the more ambitious of these festivals is Design Miami, which takes place twice a year: in Switzerland (where it’s known as Art Basel) the exhibition is held in June, and in Miami (as Design Miami) the exhibition is held in the historic Design District in December. Organizers selected exhibits for the 2008 event (Dec. 4–8) based on the theme of “nature and its freedom from manmade rules.” Designers responded by creating such high-end novelties as a cactus coat rack, a kelp nesting lamp, stone furniture, wood and metal screens, and a lacquered iceberg bench (the latter by avant-garde architect Zaha Hadid). At Design Miami, high spirits met high concept at play.

One of Miami’s highlights was the building designed to house these exhibitions — an immense and unusually-shaped fabric pavilion that, in the words of Alexandra Saludes, who managed the installation at the structure on-site, “almost defied the laws of tentology.” The modified off-the-shelf tent structure was designed by Aranda/Lasch, an award-winning young architecture practice from New York headed by 36 year-old Benjamin Aranda and 35 year-old Christopher Lasch, both Columbia University architecture graduates. The architects were abetted in realizing their vision by the local tent manufacturers Eventstar Productions and special events producer The Sight on Site Group.

“It is by far the most unique structure we have been involved with,” Craig Robins, one of Design Miami’s principals, says of Aranda/Lasch’s creation. “We wanted to celebrate and show the possibilities of a temporary structure, pushing the envelope with what can be done with a tent.” The architects took that envelope, raised its roof, suspended portions of it in the air, folded back its sides, and cut a pattern of shapes in a mesh overlay that they then draped down the sides of their structure like a lovely half-eaten lace tablecloth.

Design Miami, founded in 2005, has expanded to the degree that in a short four years it was too big for its traditional main staging area, the Art Deco Moore building in the city’s Design District. The temporary structure the organizers commissioned not only allowed the four-day event to stay in the district, but to move into a single space, transforming the neighborhood in the process. Faced with a limited budget, a timetable of less than six months from creation to opening, and the need to showcase design in a manner as compelling as the art and design being presented, the festival’s organizers challenged Aranda/Lasch to solve the problem. Their solution was driven by need: Do it fast, do it on budget.

While relatively new as a design firm (founded in 2003), Aranda/Lasch is no stranger to either exhibitions or to Miami. They are simultaneously furniture designers, authors of a book titled Tooling, filmmakers (under the name of their alter ego practice, Terraswarm) and lecturers. Indeed, the firms’ young principals have a high enough profile to have been commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York to produce an installation at the museum for the exhibition “Design and the Elastic Mind” (2008). They also have produced limited edition furniture that has been shown both in New York and at Design Miami (2006), which is where they first came to the attention of festival’s organizers.

“Design Miami,” says Chris Lasch, “was spilling out of its space. This [2008] was the first year they decided that they needed to get the entire fair under one roof.” The organizers needed a building that could be rapidly erected, congruent with the idea of a design fair, and on budget.

Ben Aranda adds that in solving the problem of a tent building, “We wanted to make the interior ample and light-filled. When you’re exhibiting furniture and design objects, you need a taller, more spacious exhibition area than when you’re hanging things on a wall.” They chose a standard tent, but modified the shape both to accommodate the client’s purpose and locale and to bring in light “in a way not normally done in these structures.”

The resulting structure is 4,000m2 and occupies close to a city block. Ninety percent of the structure is a standard tent made of opaque vinyl fabric and held up by slender aluminum poles. The structure can be dismantled, stored, and re-assembled in alternate configurations on other sites, significantly expanding Design Miami’s opportunities for future fairs in new, as well as the existing, locations.

“It’s like a standard A-frame, says Lasch. “We cut that in half, sliced it into two triangles and threw one away. The façade rises to a 11m high roof. The walls are clad in transparent vinyl and on top of that, we layered a transparent vinyl mesh fabric.” This top layer — which looks very much like Grandma’s special occasion lace tablecloth after the moths have eaten its edges — is draped over the building and features a novel pattern of cutouts, vaguely geometric and naturalistic at the same time, that both creates patterns of shadow and allows breezes to percolate through the outer walls.

Light sparkles through the brightly lit interior and spills out of those shapes, giving the structure the seductive look of a space that is both contemporary and antique. Laser Cutting Shapes, Columbus, Ohio, executed the cutouts from a computer disk supplied by the architects. The pattern seems reminiscent of the special interest in patterns “as a way to open up design possibilities” that Aranda/Lasch continues to explore.

Breaking the mold wasn’t easy. “One of the challenges of working with standard tent technology is that it’s hard to create a ‘public’ building,” Aranda states. The solution to the lack of public areas where people traditionally gather (such as staircases and balconies, not possible in a temporary tent) is a colonnaded breezeway around the building’s perimeter. It creates a shaded “lobby” where patrons can hang out while sheltered from the sun and, from a philosophical design perspective, it also creates “a subtle transition between inside and outside” space, a transition that both extends the building in its urban landscape, and makes it environmentally friendly and a good spot to gather, watch and be watched.

This is what Miami loves: being and watching the human spectacle at play, somewhat like a traveling circus. All things considered, perhaps the high-wire acts in the Big Tent — the fire eaters, clowns, exotic beasts and the simultaneous air of transitory celebration and spectacle that surround Design Miami — aren’t so far removed from the circus itself.

Joanna Baymiller, a contributing editor of Fabric Architecture, writes frequently on architecture and design.

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