When it opens on March 8, the Björk retrospective will be one of largest exhibitions ever held at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), in New York. The show, which took three years of planning led by MoMA chief curator–at-large Klaus Biesenbach and Björk herself, draws from more than 20 years of the Icelandic artist’s work and encompasses her instruments in the museum's lobbies, an app in the Architecture and Design galleries, mannequins 3D scanned from her body that don her iconic outfits—including her swan dress worn at the 2001 Oscars—and a newly built two-story structure within the museum’s Marron Atrium.
It is in this structure’s lower level where visitors will enter Black Lake, an immersive music and film experience that draws its name and composition from a track in Björk’s latest album, Vulnicura (One Little Indian Records, 2015) (watch the trailer for the video here or below). Attendees will view the 10-minute music video inside what is essentially a human-scale embodiment of the song. The designer behind this one-of-a-kind black box theater is David Benjamin, founder of the design studio The Living, in New York, which was acquired by Autodesk last year.
Benjamin is no stranger to high-profile clients and projects, but it was Hy-Fi, his winning entry for MoMA’s 2014 Young Architect Program, that helped solidify the commission. Andrew Thomas Huang, the video director for Black Lake, was familiar with The Living’s work, Benjamin says, while Björk and her creative team were taken by his experience with mycelium for Hy-Fi’s brick masonry.
Benjamin, who began working on Black Lake a year ago, says that Björk and Huang had a “clear but open-ended” vision for the sound and video experience of the physical space. The final design—a hybrid in many ways—is both geometric and organic, high-tech and handcrafted, and critical both to creating and then enhancing the acoustical experience. It also took 42 iterations.
The number of iterations was primarily due to the logistics of actually executing the design, which was dependent on several moving variables, such as: the space and form of the two-story structure; the location of 50 speakers and subwoofers precisely placed within the space to play the song; the location of building components such as the structural members and fire-suppression units; the room's capacity; and the desired circulation of visitors. “The biggest challenge was keeping the design and fabrication flexible enough to continually adapt to those changing conditions,” Benjamin says.
Using a computer-based analysis of the song “Black Lake,” The Living applied its sound map onto the ceiling and walls of the 41-foot-6-inch-by-25-foot room such that each inch of surface corresponds to one second of the song. The team then translated the sound map into a topological map using 6,000 unique felt cones that create an isolated performance venue fine-tuned for Black Lake.
After computers determined the shape and placement of each cone, a laser cutter trimmed the unfolded cone patterns from 16,000 square feet of black felt, which was sourced from Sutherland Felt Co., in Madison Heights, Mich. Construction then reverted back to the human hand. Each trimmed felt piece was folded and stitched using sewing machines, shaped into the cone, and then glued onto 4-foot-by-8-foot backing boards in its designated spot space. The fabrication, which occurred offsite, required 100 hours of laser cutting and 492 hours of manual assembly, Benjamin says.
It took MoMA and The Living just three days to install the custom sound dampeners, Benjamin says. The process was expedient because a version of the song “Black Lake” had to be mixed specifically for the immersive exhibition. “The conditions of the room are so important for the experience that [the sound technicians] couldn't know what it’d be like until they got in there,” he says. “Every hour that we took finessing the felt and adjusting the panels meant one hour less for mixing the song, which we knew was the most important thing.”
The result is a physical expression of the song, which Benjamin hopes fulfills the team's vision from the beginning of the project of being "an immersive experience in terms of sound, film, and physical space, where they all resonate off of each together, create an experience together, and tell a story together.”
The felt material and variation in conical shapes were specified to help create the acoustical environment of the song, Benjamin says. Because of the 50 speakers in the room, “it's very important to control and dampen the sound from multiple directions," he says. "We couldn't have known until we built it exactly how dead the room is, and how that would help you hear the directional sound. But … the deadness of the room makes you feel your own life more. You can almost hear your heart beating because there's no other sound. That was also an effect that we were going for.”
Another serendipitous aspect of the installation is how the mood and tone of the video complements the physical space, Benjamin says. The film, shot in Iceland last summer, begins with dark tones and rich blacks; as a result, the room is dark and the cones disappear in the low light. As the song continues, the film’s tones lighten and the room becomes brighter. “Then the cones become revealed more and come to life as part of the progression of the song,” he says. “The architecture becomes part of the emotional arc of the experience as a whole.”
The project highlights how architecture can go beyond designing built environments to designing experiences and their relationship to physical space, Benjamin says. “It was interesting to design a room for a single song, and to think about architecture for a single song,” he says. “And that's the only song that will be ever played in that room.
The Björk retrospective runs through June 7.
This article has been updated since first publication.