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May 12, 2009
by Murrye Bernard Assoc. AIA LEED AP

Event: New Practices Winner Lecture: Matter Practice, “Reading Matter”
Location: Hafele New York Showroom, 04.23.09
Speakers: Alfred Zollinger, AIA, & Sandra Wheeler — Partners, Matter Practice
Organizer: AIA New Practices Committee
Sponsors: Hafele; The Architect’s Newspaper

Ecotopia: The Second ICP Triennial of Photography and Video by Matter Practice.

Matter Practice

Walking through a workshop everyday to get to an architecture office is a continual reminder of the interconnected processes of design and fabrication. Alfred Zollinger, AIA, and Sandra Wheeler, husband and wife as well as partners, have committed to working on at least one design/build project per year in their DUMBO studio. During these periods, Wheeler explained, the office and workshop merge into one chaotic, creative space.

Zollinger and Wheeler have developed their own approach to creating space, having completed designs for institutions including the Cooper-Hewitt and the National Building Museum. Exhibition design, Zollinger believes, “is halfway between architecture and theater.”

Matter Practice designed, fabricated, and installed an exhibition for the Anchorage Museum of History and Art titled, “Quonset: Metal Living for a Modern Age.” For this traveling show, Zollinger and Wheeler fabricated the display in Brooklyn and shipped it to Alaska. The exhibition was comprised of thin, floppy steel components that could easily be packed flat, becoming rigid when assembled.

While “green” is a serious buzzword in the design industry, Zollinger and Wheeler made light of it in their design for “Ecotopia: The Second ICP Triennial of Photography and Video” at the International Center of Photography. They designed pods to house the A/V and theater components for the exhibition. In the process of exploring materials with which to fabricate the pods, they discovered that petroleum tubing — the black foam insulation that replaced asbestos — worked exceptionally well since it sticks together and they could cut it into sections to create screens for the windows — a “toxic topiary,” Sandra joked.

Delightoscope, Matter Practice’s entry for the 2008 MoMA/P.S.1 Young Architects Competition, employs agricultural shade cloth that also serve as visual screens. In an unorthodox design approach, Zollinger and Wheeler first selected the material and then determined the form through experimenting with its properties.

While most of their projects fall in the category of exhibition design, Matter Practice has also recently completed the renovation and addition of a townhouse in Brooklyn. Operating on a small budget, Zollinger and Wheeler had to be creative. They designed inexpensive, custom, plywood millwork, and they dyed the existing wood floor to delineate a seating area in the living room rather than purchasing a rug — demonstrating that material can definitely define space.

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