Sydney Festival 2011

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Aesthetics of the sublime

By Chris Rodley

Illustration for Sydney Festival

For months, Rachel Couper (BDes (Arch) ’09) and Ivana Kuzmanovska (BDes (Arch) ’09) had been collaborating on the design of a new venue for the Sydney Festival as part of their Master of Architecture degree.

After some false starts, they had come up with a bold plan for a Buckminster Fuller-inspired dome, which would house a 200-seat live performance space. Then, three days before their proposal was due, Ivana loaded up the USB drive containing their designs – only to discover the data had been corrupted and all their work was lost.

“I said the only thing we can do is just keep calm and carry on,” Rachel recalls. And so, the next morning, the women started from scratch on their plans. By working round the clock, they were able to recreate the entire structure from memory in just 48 hours.

Rachel now believes that the remake was a blessing in disguise because it stripped away unnecessary detail from their design. “I read that when Tim Winton wrote Dirt Music, he threw it in the bin and then rewrote what he could remember by hand,” she says. “It was a bit like that. We lost everything, but did that mean that what remained was essential?”

Now the final work, entitled The Spritz, has been chosen to form part of the Youtopia exhibition, a display of 30 models and blueprints for performance spaces developed by Digital Architecture Research Studio students for the 2012 Sydney Festival. The exhibition showcases how advanced digital technology is being incorporated into architectural design, with students using 3D modelling and computer scripting environments, and producing prototypes in the Architecture Faculty’s Digital Fabrication Lab. Proposed new venues were created for a number of Festival sites across the city, including the University of Sydney Quadrangle.

The Spritz is designed to be assembled opposite the Famous Spiegeltent in Hyde Park at the start of the Festival and then quickly dismantled afterwards, like the Spiegeltent itself. Its load-bearing structure is composed of 420 interlocking wooden modules arranged in a dome shape derived from the geometry of an icosahedron.

But the most memorable feature of the structure is its mirrored surface, made up of galvanized steel cones, which distort the images of onlookers like kaleidoscopes and also offer reflected glimpses of the performances inside. “Our aim was to create architecturally what Michel Foucault talks about as a heterotopia,” explains Ivana, “a place that reflects other worlds within it.”

Come and enter

For Lindy Hume, artistic director of the Sydney Festival, the design evokes the feeling of being inside a champagne glass. “It’s the one we fell in love with because it responds to the energy and the bubbly feeling that is part of Sydney,” she says. “It has a ‘come and enter me’ vibe: if you are looking at it from the outside, all you want to do is go in – and possibly have a drink!”

Another otherworldly structure created for the [i||Youtopia]] exhibition is Phosphorescence of the Sea by Sean Bryen (BDes (Arch) ’09). The installation was inspired by a camping trip to the NSW coastal town of Hawks Nest, where he witnessed bioluminescent plankton at the local beach.

“The plankton lights up when it is mechanically disturbed, so when you visit the beach at night, you can see the waves glow,” Bryen explains. “You might see the trail left by fish darting through the water, and if anyone is swimming they will leave a glowing blue wake.”

In response to his experience, Bryen has designed an array of hundreds of LEDs suspended from the ceiling that form “a kind of 3D monitor” through which visitors can walk.

“The lights are governed by software which simulates a wave, and they turn on at points where ‘water’ is moving,” he says. “Just as at the beach you only see the glowing wake of the organisms responding to the wave, visitors see the secondhand effect of a simulated wave.” The rippling lights, equipped with motion sensors, also respond to the movement of visitors as they walk through the exhibit.

His design is an experiment, Bryen says, in invoking the aesthetic feeling of the sublime, something more usually associated with natural phenomena: “As technology becomes so complex and unwieldy that it is out of our control, its awesome power can also take on a sublime character.”

The Youtopia project, led by architecture lecturer Dr Dagmar Reinhardt, is part of a wider partnership between the Sydney Festival and the University, which is now in its third year. As well as challenging talented young architects, this year the Festival is also inviting University of Sydney lecturers and PhD students to try their hand at stand-up comedy, among several other collaborations.

“The city’s festival and the city’s premier university are both incubators for ideas and innovation,” says Lindy Hume. “It was sort of a no-brainer that we work together.”

Youtopia is at Tin Sheds Gallery in the University of Sydney Wilkinson Building from 12 to 26 January 2012.