UM Taubman College 2008 Fellows, Gattegno and Johnson, Aurora Project discussed in The Architectural Record

The Aurora Project, an exhibit by 2008 Taubman Fellows Nataly Gattegno and Jason Johnson, is featured in the Architectural Record.

The story can be found here.

Future Cities Lab

By William Richards

Just off the heels of their Van Alen Institute New York Prize fellowship exhibit, The Aurora Project, Nataly Gattegno and Jason Johnson are putting their lives back together after nearly three years on the road. “We emptied all of our storage spaces—Detroit, Charlottesville, and New York,” says Johnson, “and for the first time in a while, all of our gear is in one place.” After four cities in three years—most recently Oakland, where they have accepted posts at the California College of the Arts—the principals of Future Cities Lab are looking forward to a productive tenure on the West Coast.

“CCA draws people from all of the Bay Area in media arts, industrial design, art—all areas that tap into what we do,” says Gattegno. “For us,” Johnson adds, “it’s about good equipment and really smart people who are trying to actualize things.”

Since founding Future Cities Lab (FCL) in 2004, Gattegno and Johnson have consistently drawn from otherwise discreet fields. Animalia, ecology, robotics, and evolution are central to the way the San Francisco-based designers have approached architecture that is, in FCL’s case, broadly defined. In the last five years, their approach have garnered considerable attention: a second-place finish in the Seoul Performing Arts Center Competition in 2005, finalists in the 2008 City of the Future competition sponsored by the History Channel, a solo exhibition at Chicago’s Extension Gallery for Architecture, work featured in three books that appeared in the last 18 months, and teaching posts at Penn, UVa, Michigan, and now, CCA.

The Princeton grads move across platforms in their work, but they are also deeply invested in collaboration, craft, and fabrication. Aurora may be a morass of cables and tensile members, but each cable and rod is painstakingly assembled. “The whole project is sewn together, literally, with stainless steel cable,” says Johnson, “It took forever and, of course, we find it ironic that even in spite of the high-tech process we used to conceptualize Aurora, this project could only be realized using a manual technique.”

The Aurora Project comprises three linked spaces, each with their own purpose in relation to the visitor. Aurora, the central piece, mapped the actions of gallery visitors onto real-time data on ice field movement culled from the Arctic. Responsive LEDs registered both environments, separated by nearly 3,000 nautical miles, onto a three-dimensional map. “One of the things that is misunderstood is that the Aurora Borealis—the lights themselves—do not change shape,” says Gattegno, “but they change their geometry in relation to the shifting dimensions of the Arctic region.”

30 people are able to move around Aurora and interact with it at one time. At several paces away, Aurora appeared to be lit and pulsing. With each advancing step, visitors would slowly dim the light in their section of Aurora, effectively mutating the entire light environment. “It’s not about a precise reading of the Arctic, but about the blurred boundaries that the region implies,” says Gattegno.

The map room, “Terra Incognita,” tracked traditional representations of the Arctic next to the designers’ own sketches that reflect the project’s genesis. Rising sea levels around New York, far from arctic waters, prompted Johnson and Gattegno to think about displacement and the interrelationships among microclimates. “We tried to find a remote system that could be overlaid onto an urban condition,” says Johnson, whose work with Gattegno uses multiple sensors. “With Aurora, you begin to understand your own intimacy with the piece and, at the same time, you understand the collective nature of 30 people determining an environmental outcome.”

Finally, the exhibition’s “Glaciarium” brings the melting floes in focus. As you step closer to a peep-hole to view the Glaciarium’s interior, you accelerate the process of its melting which can be seen and heard. “It’s a political instrument,” says Johnson,” and it’s about your individual relationship with the idea of melting and displacement.”

The Aurora Project, itself, was just as ephemeral as its subject. Gattegno and Johnson hope it will have a life after the Van Alen Institute. “Although we didn’t intend for it to happen, the entire thing can be recycled, which is a happy accident” says Johnson. Asked if they plan to send it straight to the recycling bin, the team struggled to answer. “That would be too hard,” says Gattegno, “we’re really connected to it.”