Since 1999, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival has drawn the rich and the famous to the Southern California desert for a six-day party packed with stunning installations that give the live bands a run for their money. For Los Angeles design firm Ball-Nogues Studio, the event was ideal for debuting a building material it had been developing for years: recycled-paper pulp.
The inexpensive, abundant waste material has been used in everything from disposable drink trays to furniture and sculpture, but Ball-Nogues wanted to go further—much further. “We didn’t begin with a specific architectural objective,” says principal Benjamin Ball, Assoc. AIA. “We wanted to see where the experiments would lead us.”
The studio started with shell structures. After mixing a slurry made from paper pulp and water, they used a homemade pressure sprayer to apply it to objects, tensioned fabrics, and even a Volkswagen Beetle, and then allowed it to harden.
Eventually, Ball says, “we had this intuition that we could spray the pulp over matrices or lattices of string.” By suspending rope between fixed armatures—frames, boxes, and static objects—and adding layers of slurry, they could create a rigid, self-supporting structure. The rope gave the composite material tensile strength while the hardened pulp provided compressive strength. “As we became more knowledgeable, we began to see the potential to take it to an architectural scale,” Ball says.
The technique could produce any form that could initially be made with the cordage in tension—including structures that ultimately are in compression, such as a vault. After hanging the cords in a catenary, the studio would spray them with pulp, let it harden, and then flip the entire assembly upside down. Weaving the cordage between fixed armatures, however, yielded the strongest structures. To get a sense of their structural capacity, it subjected an 8-foot-by-4-foot-by-1-foot woven matrix under different loads. “People could stand on it,” Ball says. “It was clear that the strength was there.”
Having worked with Coachella previously, the studio felt the 2015 festival, held in April, would be the right time and place to propose a large-scale pavilion using the technique. “We had the confidence in our know-how to pull this project off,” Ball says.
Ball-Nogues designed a pavilion made of seven 20-foot-tall woven “trees” that joined together in a latticed roof. But they needed to ensure their design could endure the highly public venue. Multiple failure tests on mock-ups provided information about the composite material’s mechanical and structural properties. And a finite element analysis of the entire pavilion helped simulate its performance under live and wind loads.
Construction took place near the festival site in Indio, Calif., to take advantage of the speedy drying assistance of the desert climate. Seven team members hand-wove jute rope around a removable metal-and-wood truss to create the initially upside-down trees. A plywood frame at the bottom of the formwork would ultimately connect the tree canopy at the top, while a metal plate at the top of the formwork would eventually anchor the trees to the ground. From the extensive experimentation and mock-ups, Ball says, “each of our staff became a specialist in a specific rule related to weaving” such as the density, porosity, and rope length within a given part of the tree.
The team had worked with local structural engineering firm Nous Engineering and principal Omar Garza to identify key areas in which the rope matrix had to be 4 to 8 inches thick. They sprayed 12 layers of paper pulp onto the ropes. Each layer was dyed with a different pigment, which became an indicator of how many layers each fiber had accumulated. Additional finish coats enhanced the structure’s multicolor effect. Cranes transported the trees from the staging area to the site, where the team flipped and anchored them, and then removed the trusses.
The pavilion was a hit. Covering 1,300 square feet, it offered
a shady and joyful respite from the raucous event. During the day, dappled
sunlight would filter through the latticed canopy.
After the event, but still at Coachella, Ball-Nogues
and their structural engineer conducted destructive tests with the pavilion to
validate the hypotheses of its properties. The pavilion was then sent through a
wood chipper and composted.
The project’s innovative design, ambitious scale, and novel use of a recycled material wowed the jury. “The team took a huge risk,” juror Steven Rainville said. “I've never seen this before.”
The jury also praised Ball-Nogues for working directly with a material. “They literally got their hands dirty on this one,” Rainville added. Juror Marc Fornes was inspired by the studio’s approach to discovery. “It’s fresh and exciting," he said. "It drives you to go out and do research."
Ball-Nogues' principal Gaston Nogues says the technique can be
used for indoor structures or as a temporary shelter—but only in dry climates. In
its current formulation, the composite material would dissolve in a rainstorm.
With additives and waterproof coatings, however, it may be possible for future
structures to withstand the elements. Juror Joyce Hwang, for one, wants Ball-Nogues to continue their exploration. “I can't wait to see another
project made with the same method,” she said.
Watch this episode of our visit to Ball-Nogues Studio.
See all the 2015 R+D Award winners here.
Project Name: Pulp Pavilion, Indio, Calif.
Client: Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival
Design Firm: Ball-Nogues Studio, Los Angeles—Gaston Nogues, Benjamin Ball, Assoc. AIA (project leads/designers), Rafael Sampaio Rocha (project manager); Ricardo Garcia, John Guinn, Fernando Marroquin, Rafael Sampaio Rocha, Forster Rudolph, Corie Saxman, Nicole Semenova, Ethan Schwartz (onsite project team); Andrew Fastman, AIA, Michael Anthony Fontana, Cory Hill, James Jones, Mora Nabi, Jacob Patapoff, Allison Porterfield (support)
Funding: Commission from Goldenvoice
Size: 1,300 square feet