September 24, 2012

SOFTlab, Pentagram, and Arup are the Belles of the Beaux Arts Ball

Since it co-opted the annual Beaux Arts Ball in 1990, the Architectural League of New York has commissioned emerging architects to create a themed environment for the event, a lofty affair that dates back to 1913 when the Society of Beaux Arts Architects launched it as “the most artistic entertainment of the kind ever given in New York,” according to the New York Times. This year did not disappoint!

SOFTlab and Pentagram settled on the theme of “Tender” – a versatile word that can be read as a noun (legal tender), a verb (to propose or offer), or an adjective (soft or delicate). Gregory Wessner, special projects director and head of the event for the non-profit Architectural League, explains, “The first idea for the theme was ‘stimulus,’ but it was a little too literal.” SOFTlab’s Michael Szivos agreed: “It was the malleability of the word ‘tender’ that hooked us.”

The venue, the former Williamsburgh Savings Bank in Brooklyn, was a standout even among past sites such as the Seagram Building and the United Nations. Complete with a 63-foot-high main hall in the Art Deco and Neo-Romanesque style and original teller windows and lamps, the bank’s structure has been a staple in the Brooklyn skyline since Halsey, McCormack & Helmer built it in 1929.

Szivos’s team worked with Natasha Jen of Pentagram to transform the already impressive space into another world. SOFTlab used thin netting, illuminated in blue, to suspend Mylar inflatables over the main floor, while Jen’s contribution of small, glimmering cards dangled from the installation. Guests discovered the cards to be tickets to a special exhibit downstairs, where David Rife of Arup engineered a sound installation inside the former bank vault. Informed by U.S. financial data dating back to 1871, the installation translated economic ups and downs into clanging stock-exchange bells, jingling coins, and fluttering dollar bills.

“We liked the idea of sound being the main attraction in the vault, with the visual content of the space limited to a lounging area in the center,” says Rife. Anchored by SOFTlab’s seating in shredded paper and netting, the vault and its eerie echoes became one of the night’s most popular hangouts. Hayes and James Slade of Slade Architecture served as co-chairs for the event, and we tracked them down nearby. “The programming the League provides is critical for the design community, both for professional growth and social interaction,” said Hayes Slade.

The $125,000 raised by the ball will go towards the Architectural League’s many programs supporting local architecture, design, and urban planning.

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