As it has every summer for the past fifteen years, MoMA P.S.1 is hosting “Warm-Up” dance parties each week in its giant courtyard. I arrived at one last week in the sweltering heat, having already given up and pinned my bangs back as a lost cause. But perusing the young people lined up around the block, I couldn’t help but notice the many intact salon-fresh hairstyles, and more than a few people who look like they’ve never known the curse of sweat. This is marvelous and enviable and therefore, of course, kind of infuriating. With an $18 admission price, and the hypergentrified scene in Long Island City, it’s a bit churlish to express surprise at the expensiveness of the faux-grunge outfits topped by Tory Burch thong sandals that predominate here. But the body’s response to the heat ought be the great equalizer.
The goal of the Warm-Up parties is pretty simple, and even noble: to get lot of people out to P.S.1 to look at a large architecture installation in the courtyard. This was a more pressing concern back when Long Island City was more of a deserted urban hinterland than it is now, but it still can be hard to yank Brooklynites out of their bubble and into Queens, so it still makes sense. P.S.1 kicked off the parties back in 1998, but it was Philip Johnson’s 1999 pavilion design—to say nothing of his DJing of that summer’s inaugural party—that brought the kind of press coverage that transformed it into an instant fixture for what The New York Times dubbed at the time the “fashion-art-collegiate-dance-nexus.” So from the beginning it was the kind of public-architecture project that can only happen in New York, where “public” can be (and usually is) construed to mean the rich exclusively. The hipster clothing line Agnés B. was the co-sponsor that year. Johnson gave quotes to newspapers like, “I never went to Studio 54. This is a disco for the 21st century. It's a medieval amphitheatre with a science-fiction feeling.”
In 2000, the newly-merged Museum of Modern Art P.S.1 launched the Young Architects Program, an annual competition for young architects to design the backdrop for the party. This year, the winner is Caroline O’Donnell, a young architecture professor from Cornell University and the founder of the architecture and research firm, Coda. Her design, “Party Wall,” is a 40-foot high sculpture composed largely of scrap wood (from an eco-friendly skateboard company, more on that shortly), steel, and large bags of water that weigh the thing down. There’s a misting nozzle to keep the crowd cool, and a few jacuzzi-like pools of water where you can dip your feet. And when I arrived last Saturday, a few children were using the water as entertainment. Everyone else was wandering laconically around, scarcely glancing up at the architectural intervention. The beer and M. Wells corn-dog menu were subject to much more intensive scrutiny.
In truth I could understand why. There’s something about the wood scraps, their natural-wood finish, that makes the color bland. From close up it’s impossible to see that the overall design spells out “wall,” or the way it supposedly blends with the billboard-dominated Long Island City skyline. There are apparently detachable elements, but if a lot of people were using them in the crush of the dance party I confess I didn't see them doing so. As such, it’s not surprising that all most people can see to do with the structure is buy a beer at a tent and then sit in the shade, or maybe in one of the pools, though it’s impossible to do so without asking yourself what kind of foot-grunge has been tracked in from Williamsburg to greet your feet. And these are goals (or outcomes) that, regrettably, could be accomplished by way of kiddie pools and a couple of canopies.
The use of the reclaimed-wood skateboard offcuts seems at first glance like a nice touch. Then, you realize that the skateboard company in question sells itself as eco-friendly to begin with (though, to be sure, it wasn't recycling its offcuts before the collaboration with Coda). And you read Gizmodo’s Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan, who asked O’Donnell about whether transporting all that wood from Ithaca, N.Y., to Queens really falls under the rubric of “eco-friendly.” And that many of the skateboards were in fact “longboards,” which presumably did not make the press release because “longboard” just doesn’t sound as hip and with-it.
And being hip and with-it does, after all, seem more like the point of this year’s design than most. Last year’s temporary summer pavilion, “Wendy,” designed by the New York firm HWKN, at least boasted a structure with an innovative feature: a nylon fabric cover treated with a titania nanoparticle spray that scrubbed away air pollution. It possessed this feature in addition to its provision of shade and spray to partygoers. It was also a lot more striking-looking from the ground, styled as a sort of giant puppy squeeze toy with soft-looking blue spikes. It gave you something to look at as well as sit near.
Which, it seems to me, ought to be the very least that we ask of innovative, sustainable, temporary architecture that makes intelligent use of otherwise odd or inconvenient spaces. But then maybe only the rubes look at the structure, rather than gauge the outfits or catch the music or, as one young man appeared to be doing, simply move around the shadows until you have found the best angle to casually observe the women straying close to the mist.
Update: This story originally misstated the height of the structure. It has been corrected.
The article also stated that some of the reclaimed-wood longboard offcuts were sourced from San Francisco. Comet Skateboards no longer produces boards in San Francisco or Oakland and has, since 2007, sourced its wood from Ithaca, N.Y. The company has begun recycling its offcuts since the collaboration with Coda.
ARCHITECT sincerely regrets the errors.