ALEXSANDR MERGOLD: I am Alexsandr Mergold, Professor of Architecture at Cornell University.
MARIA PARK: I'm Maria Park, Associate Professor in the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning.
CHRIS EARLS: My name is Chris Earls. I'm a professor in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
ALEXSANDR MERGOLD: So Oculi-- well, in a nutshell, it's a pavilion on Governor's Island made up of deconstructed, reconstructed, upcycled grain bins, which have been procured from a farmer. And they're about 40-years-old at this point. We put this proposal together that included the use of these grain bins in a way that they're not designed to be used, with the idea that after-- what is it?-- six months on the island, they would come back to upstate New York.
And the idea for this house is to make it an affordable, low-income, sort of thing, and try to build a decent prototype and see if we can make a serial production out of that.
MARIA PARK: There's so many different things that could be possibilities with this Oculi project. My specific role here is as an artist, setting up the conditions in which this engagement with the viewer is supposed to take place. So it's not just an architectural construction. But there is some way that your cued to engage with the work.
CHRIS EARLS: In Alex' original plan, the silos were elevated on slender columns, almost like stilts. And so, as a structural engineer, my concern was twofold. One, these are relatively heavy. And they would be suspended over people's heads. And the second is, they're essentially parachutes. And Governors Island is a highly wind-susceptible environment. And so hurricanes pass through and so forth. And so this is a very important thing to consider with this unique configuration of circular rings elevated above visitors.
ALEXSANDR MERGOLD: So for the last 10 years, we have been working on stuff from about the last 100 years, because otherwise it takes 10,000 years to decompose. So there's this powers of 10 that comes into play. We looked at the grain bins-- how they're made. And they're made in, actually, a pretty ingenious way. And we just asked ourselves, well, what else can this thing be?
CHRIS EARLS: Grain silos themselves have an integrity, because they are cylinders that are of a certain height with grooves. And they're filled with grain. And so now, we're taking just a ring element out, with no grain to hold the sides and no roof to maintain the form, and are going to combine multiple of these ring elements, and ask them to maintain some degree of structural integrity. And so we've had to address that through cables and bracing systems and so forth, to try to preserve the shapes of the elements, while not detracting from the visual appeal.
ALEXSANDR MERGOLD: There is, I would say, a degree of poetry to this stuff too, because there's kind of an upstate-downstate connection. We see these structures a lot here. And they tend to be fairly-- let's say-- romantic settings-- like, the rolling hills, these bends everywhere.
MARIA PARK: A lot of my friends who live in the city will drive upstate for some long weekends, just to get away. And we live here. So when we're going from here to Rochester or Syracuse, we see these grain silos just dotting the landscape.
ALEXSANDR MERGOLD: And they signify many things for us. Obviously, this is the food production network that feeds places like New York City. There is also this idea that they were once very much in demand and, now, not so much. Like, this agro industry is disappearing to some degree, at least in upstate New York.
CHRIS EARLS: The sustainability part is a huge element within the project scope itself. And it's the idea of reusing that which has been left behind as unusable, in rural settings, from the upstate environments and landscape-- to transport it to New York City, which normally doesn't have the opportunity to benefit from the more pastoral setting that we all enjoy up in Ithaca on a daily basis.
ALEXSANDR MERGOLD: Because when you walk into these bins-- and I've been into them-- there's actually kind of-- I mentioned this before-- this serene quality, on par with the Pantheon. So bringing that to the city, the place where everybody's busy, everybody's running away, everybody's looking at their phone-- so bringing something like that to the city and, basically, making people look up for a second and just bracket out the city itself, bracket out all the views and just look at the sky for a second-- that seemed like kind of an important idea.
MARIA PARK: It's not just the Oculi of looking up. But he's also interested in the kind of shadows that fall with the sun that moves around it. One of the things that I'm doing at this point is just trying to produce a balance, so that the colors, when they actually are on the silo-- that they do have a very natural presence.
CHRIS EARLS: One of the wonderful opportunities you have at Cornell is the ability to combine all of your experiences throughout a career and bring them to bear on interesting and exciting projects with wonderful collaborators.
MARIA PARK: All three of us approach this with a certain level of humility. Like, we have things to learn from each other. And it's been a very wonderful experience, because it isn't like one person really try to drive a certain aspect or being kind of obstinate. But it feels really surprisingly easy, that we can just exchange different ideas.
And then maybe, at some point, we all become excited about one particular direction. And then we just start-- we're sitting around and sketching things out and just throwing other kinds of ideas out. It's been really fun.
ALEXSANDR MERGOLD: The idea of being in a sizable, big, research university-- and a really good one at that-- is very much conducive to projects like this because, like, a phone call to an art department and a email to the engineering school-- I walk over to a machine shop, have conversation at lunch with Engaged Cornell, a 3-page grant proposal-- all these things actually came fairly quickly and would have probably been very much impossible elsewhere.
Yeah, and if we can prove the concept that the stuff that we thought was gone and forgotten and old and no longer needed-- if that can still excite people and can become something else and be useful and used, instead of just going to some undisclosed landfill location and sitting there, then I think I can just go home happy. Then my job there is done. Onto something else.
Ultimately, if a lot of people show up and a lot of people just frolic around there and hang out and, then, every now and again they look up and look at he sky and, again, like I said, feel maybe a little bit more human than they felt before, that's great.
If little kids come there and start asking, like, oh, Mami, Papi, what is that-- and they have to think about what to tell them-- like, oh, it's a grain bin-- like, hey, what's a grain bin-- oh, this is where you keep the grain-- oh, what's-- so anyway, the logical chain of that will maybe lead to the discussion, well, this is where your food comes from. This is in upstate New York or wherever other rural area. Oh, what's there?
So anyway, these kind of discussions, hopefully, will lead to just a better understanding of how the world works.
MARIA PARK: All of us remember the kind of playgrounds that we play on growing up. And the opportunities for you to invite wonder into your life doesn't really stop when you stop climbing the jungle gym and being on the swing.
CHRIS EARLS: My view of success in this project, partially, has already been realized, which is that the architect and the engineer and the artist have worked very, very closely to collaborate on a form that is beautiful and functional and that will serve as an inspirational environment for the visitors.
ALEXSANDR MERGOLD: And the housing-- that's a long-term goal obviously. What I thought the unique part of this-- what we call the house-in-a-can-- that project-- is that it's actually based on the existing industrial base. It's relying on an existing industry. We know how to make grain bins. We've been making it for 100 years. There's still companies that make them really well.
So the question is how to harness that knowledge that-- at this point, 100-years-old-- and use it towards a slightly different but equally as urgent-- and actually, even more urgent-- modern condition.
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Oculi, the winner of the 2018 City of Dreams competition, is an interdisciplinary exhibition crafted of disused grain silos. The installation opens on Governors Island during the annual Figment event on June 23–24, and will be in place through the fall.
Named for the shape of the dominant material, Oculi features several circular metal grain bins, remnants of the American agro-industrial age. The bins, which were procured from the Northeast and Ohio, were fabricated and painted in Ithaca before being brought to the city, establishing a visual connection between urban and rural modes of living. The installed field of elevated "oculi" will frame unobstructed views of the sky and track the path of the sun.
Oculi was created by Assistant Professor Aleksandr Mergold, B.Arch. '00 and Jason Austin, B.Arch. '00 of Austin+Mergold (A+M); Associate Professor Maria Park, art; Professor Chris Earls, civil and environmental engineering; and Scott Hughes, principal at Silman Structural Engineers and a visiting lecturer at AAP NYC. Unistrut Metal Framing System, a part of Atkore International, donated the steel for the structure, including all the struts and hardware.
City of Dreams focuses on the future of a world that is faced with depleted economic and natural resources. The annual competition aims to promote sustainability-minded thinking in architecture and design and requires contestants to consider the environmental impact of their design from construction to demolition. The finished pavilion is a place for people to meet, learn about the arts programs on the island, and experience how art interacts with the historical context of Governors Island. City of Dreams is hosted by Figment, the Emerging New York Architects Committee of the American Institute of Architects New York Chapter, and the Structural Engineers Association of New York.