L.A. Designer: Warren Techentin Builds an Open Cage in Silver Lake

The latest installation at Materials & Applications is La Cage Aux Folles, a steel "cage" designed and built by architect Warren Techentin in collaboration with a largely volunteer team of designers and makers. The cage explores the contortionist possibilities of steel. But it also explores ideas about confinement (gilded birdcages, and prisons) while serving all summer as a very open stage for performance and for play. DnA talked to Warren about a structure that has become a summer gathering place.

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Since its founding in 2002 Materials & Applications has offered designers and artists a venue to explore ideas about form, materials, buildings and landscape — and share them with passersby from its front yard outdoor gallery on Silver Lake Boulevard. 

The current installation is La Cage Aux Folles, a steel “cage”  designed and built by architect Warren Techentin in collaboration with a largely volunteer team of designers and makers. The cage explores the contortionist possibilities of steel (a material synonymous with the mass-produced furniture of Modernists including Marcel Breuer, Le Corbusier and Harry Bertoia). It also explores ideas about confinement (gilded birdcages, and prisons) while serving all summer as a very open stage for performance and for play. Its last public event, a screening of a Werner Herzog movie, takes place this Saturday.

DnA spoke to Warren Techentin (below) about the ideas behind cage, what he learned along the way about the installation and what delighted him most about the reaction to it.

WarrenTechentin_pictureDnA: How does Cage fit into the projects explored at Materials & Applications?

Warren Techentin: Typically Materials & Applications provides an opportunity for an architect or artist with a large-scale project in mind to build it, one that is conceptual in nature and experimental, but also that explores a particular material. Then they conduct workshops on how to work with that particular material.

In the case of our project which was steel pipes, we conducted a number of workshops over the course of late winter through early spring which offered opportunities for people to learn how to work with steel, and weld, pipe fit, grind, tap, and assemble a variety of different things that they would never have exposure to otherwise. M&A reaches people through social media,  and we got an amazing response.

DnA: Can you describe your installation?

WT: We began with a project which looked at a series of things I was interested in, such as working with small dimension structural elements, and yurts and lightweight nomadic structures that I had studied in graduate school. The project really grew to kind of encompass the whole courtyard. We tried to use the metal pipes to create an ephemeral form, one that stands within the context of the neighborhood but at the same time has an incredible transparency and lightness.

It’s a project that was developed with the idea of exploring digital practices. In this case, the making of an object’s form and a rotational sequence through these algorithms we used. Then we checked for scale and made sure that people can interact with it. Some of the curvatures and shapes are related to famous pieces of furniture; others were meant to develop the relationship between the twisting metal tubes that migrate between an inner core and an outer cage, if you will, creating these trapped, internalized bubble cages.

DnA: Explain the name. Was it inspired by the film?

WT: La Cage aux Folles is a movie that I think relates to an original nightclub somewhere in France called the Birdcage. Our “cage” doesn’t have a huge relationship to the movie other than playing with the words and the cadence of the words. La cage relates to the idea that through all these kind of slender steel members and curvatures there is a connection to a birdhouse, and then the history of cages.

Then Folles relates to Folly, and Folly is part of a grand tradition in landscape architecture, where you have these experimental structures or buildings that are constructed primarily for decoration as a point of punctuation within a landscaped garden. So we matched those two words together. A friend actually came up with the suggestion, and we said, let’s keep it.

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DnA: So it was a collaboration?

WT: That’s right. With most M & A projects it’s all super collaborative. Lots of ideas are thrown around, so it’s a really interesting process. We would love to try to redo something similar on another level.

DnA: Architects build buildings, so what’s the attraction of building an installation like this?

WT: My practice does a lot of building. The excitement about doing this is having an opportunity for the office to break out of regular practice and construction techniques, and explore something new. It’s an opportunity to do research, and develop things that you’ve been interested in that over the years that you’ve never been able to pull off in a conventional project.

DnA: So an installation is a chance for an architect to experiment without building codes? I bet that’s very liberating.

WT: It is. It’s also an opportunity to really flush out problems. You have the opportunity to understand, for example, what the seam on the inside of a metal rod means to an overall process, or how it reacts when it begins to get torqued down through weight. You can really learn something, which you can then apply, or bring to a structural engineer, on future projects.

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DnA: What does the installation tell us about architectural ideas today?

WT: I teach at USC, and certainly there is an ongoing conversation about all these new technologies — digital processes that are now available to any office, any student, anybody — and how to actually put them to use, and get them from the abstract inside the computer and into the real world.

DnA: Did you learn anything from this project that you are going to apply to another project?

WT: We’ve learned some things about steel now that are really interesting, and we’re going to push them forward in other projects.

But what I was really surprised about was the desire for interactivity. People really liked climbing it and engaging with it, whether it be through dance or film or music or a sound performance just last weekend.

For example, the dancers were the most explicit with their interaction with the structure. They would start on the top and slowly move down and snake all the through the structure to the bottom over the course of half an hour, and it was really, really beautiful.

I think we’ve learned a lot about urban interactivity, and how to think about it in an even more extreme urban environment, where you can provide something for people that is not just really cool to look at, but something that really brings a town together and brings people together. This was a really pleasant part of this project.

DnA: What has this installation been used for?

WT: It’s an experimental architecture piece, so it’s mostly to look at it and understand the processes behind the work. But we hosted performances and we had a variety of different programming. But generally on a day-to-day level, I noticed some of the same people coming by, parents or nannies with young children, and the children come in and run around on it. They walk from one metal pipe to the next.

I also find people come there for lunch and music, people listening to their iPods and the occasional cigarette smoker.

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DnA: Can you tell me something about your other work and how this installation connects to it?

WT: Most of our work is at the moment just housing and single family residences. Housing is so modular and based on spatial chunks being aggregated together.

But we’ve had some clients see this who are excited by it. They are drawn by the repetitive nature of it and some of the curves of the captured spaces that the process allows for.

I met this very nice couple just the other day who actually wanted to see if they could do something perhaps similar in their yard and give it a real program and a way to stay dry and warm in some cases. So we would basically be taking this from the skeleton it is now to a much more rich and fully fleshed out construction.

WTARCH_LaCageauxFolles_05CopeDnA: After the installation ends, it’s just going to be disassembled and then that’s it?

WT: We are trying to find another venue for it. Everybody at our office wants to put it up in Burning Man next year, because no one in our office has ever been to Burning Man, but who knows.

Cage Aux Folles is on display daily through September 7, at Materials & Applications, 1619 Silver Lake Blvd., Silver Lake; daily thru Aug. 29. (323) 739-4668, emanate.org.

Images credits from top: 1, Nicholas Alan Cope; 2, Warren Techentin, WTARCH; 3, Stephen Linsley; 4, Warren Techentin, WTARCH; 5, Nicholas Alan Cope; 6, Nicholas Alan Cope.