A Russell Wright Encounter

A pavilion at Russel Wright’s Manitoga is a strange medication on  the human form.

By Zach Mortice

The completed Manitoga pavilion. Photo by Vivian Linares.

On a ridgeline next to a rock quarry pond at the campus of Manitoga, the home and studio of the industrial designer Russel Wright, there’s a whirling, biomorphic mass of modular figures—not quite human and not quite animal, but distinctly organic. They’re organized into a rough, habitable dome, holding each other aloft, tiptoe to fingertip. It’s a wide-eyed exploration of the architectural pavilion’s status as a fertile middle ground between sculpture and architecture.

This pavilion, part of Manitoga’s artist residency program, was designed and built by master of architecture students at the University of Pennsylvania and installed early this month. Located in New York’s Hudson Valley, the campus is the legacy of Wright, whose midcentury modernist product designs offered forms that seemed to beg for a caress while still maintaining a sense of geometric discipline.

Students installing the pavilion at Manitoga. Photo by Vivian Linares.

The pavilion’s organic and modular growth seems self-organizing, like the forest that surrounds it. Its modules look from afar like an ancient accumulation of driftwood stitched together with shamanistic magic. But focus in, and near-human figures snap into shape—a torso, four limbs. There’s a sense of floating, effervescent whimsy in the grand tradition of the pavilion folly. Mohamad Al Khayer, an instructor at Penn who led students in fabricating and installing the pavilion, calls these human-shaped modules “voluptuous,” and says his team intended for the pavilion to appear as organic as separate vines growing and intertwining together.

Pavilion design concept models. Photo by Vivian Linares.

Penn Architecture Associate Professor Andrew Saunders coordinated the five design studios that the pavilion grew out of, and his initial exercises with students had them 3-D printing Wright-designed objects from nothing more than a photograph. He also had students in two of the studios prepare to design the pavilion by exploring the architecture and sculpture of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, specifically his flowing and impossibly intricate designs for funeral monuments. “In [Bernini’s] architecture, he had elements of sculpture. He had elements of painting,” says Saunders. “They all mix together and sort of blur certain thresholds and boundaries.”

The pavilion’s fleshy foam modules have a quasi-human shape. Photo by Musab Badahdah, University of Pennsylvania School of Design.

A faculty jury that included Allison Cross, Manitoga’s executive director, selected two designs from these studios, both of them riffs on Wright’s plumpest, most expressive designs. Both were from the studio of Bittertang Farm’s Michael Loverich, and merged and refined.

The pavilion was installed next to a rock quarry pond. Photo by Vivian Linares.

The students at Penn created eight unique molds to form their pavilion modules from flexible rubber foam. The modules were reinforced with steel rods that hold the pliable material in a static configuration. The rods connect the members to each other via zip ties. The result is an aggregated set of sculptures that come together to form architecture; each module is recognizable as all members of the same species, twisting and writhing in its own way. “It’s essentially a complex 3-D grid,” Saunders says.

Cross says it wasn’t her goal for the pavilion to have such explicit references to Wright’s fleshiest designs. But she was intrigued by the circuitous route the Penn students used to get there, from Wright’s original design artifacts, to Bernini, back to Wright, via the pavilion. “[The students] were exploring human form, and Russel Wright started with the human as well,” she says. “From dinner plates, to designs for the home, to the intimacy of his house, [it’s] human-centered.”

A student carrying two modular components of the pavilion. Photo by Vivian Linares.
An early concept model of the pavilion. Photo by Penn Design.
Each modular component of the pavilion twists and writhes in its own way. Photo by Musab Badahdah, University of Pennsylvania School of Design.

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based architecture and landscape architecture journalist.  You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Clarification: An earlier version of this article implied that all five University of Pennsylvania studios working on the pavilion studied the sculpture and architecture of Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Only two of them, under the direction of instructor Michael Loverich, did.

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