From the pages of Prattfolio, this article is part of a section highlighting the problem-solving process in the real world, from the perspective of alumni in the field. The Spring/Summer 2019 issue features the work of Vruti Desai and Avinash Sharma, both MS Arch ’18.

Vruti Desai and Avinash Sharma teamed up in an MS Architecture studio to research and design a sculptural work that could appear in the bucolic outdoor setting of Art Omi in Ghent, New York. Their concept, titled Carapace, was selected by Graduate Architecture and Urban Design faculty and an Art Omi jury to be built and installed in the arts center’s Architecture Fields last summer.

The idea: “Our thesis was based mainly on the relation of nature and architecture—where they are two separate approaches, and how they grow and evolve into one idea,” say Desai and Sharma. “We wanted to design a pavilion that sits on the landscape like an alien object with no reference to its origin and foundation,” but that over time would “incorporate itself with the nature around it and find its place in the landscape.” The “alien” would also be minimally invasive: a freestanding structure—that is, with no foundational incursions in the ground—that would allow for flexibility of orientation and site placement.

The details: The designers considered how local flora and fauna might connect with the piece as much as human visitors. A mesh “skin” would welcome small creatures to inhabit the structure, and its toothlike edges would allow plants to latch on and grow. Meanwhile, hollow and transparent areas would expose the natural characteristics of its materials and invite viewers to touch, enter, listen, and observe.

The critical challenge: While the entire process involved rigorous material, aesthetic, formal, and functional experimentation, the construction stage presented particular hurdles “as it battled between theories and practicality.” Another major undertaking: CNC—or computer numerical controlled—milling nearly 100 pieces of plywood and gluing each piece to create the structure’s individual frames, which took around 120 hours, under time constraints. Add to that the race against the sun to assemble the structure at its field site, out of proximity to electricity but well within reach of all manner of insects—which made for an unforgettable experience.

The finishing touch: One significant design change along the way was the introduction of a sapling inside the structure—hence the work’s title, Carapace (in reference to an exoskeleton or shell)—with the idea that it would grow through the piece, wrapping it and lifting it to ultimately create a reversal: The carapace becomes contained by the tree.

The discovery: “Many times we don’t realize the scale and power of other living creatures around us. We have advanced a lot over centuries and have a habit to control everything around us, but sometimes the best thing to do is to not interfere.” The design process encouraged Desai and Sharma to consider not only the relationship of user to structure and the spatial experience they create as architects but also the importance of balance, from minute details to expansive environmental context.

Carapace is on view at Art Omi through January 2020.

Images courtesy of Vruti Desai and Avinash Sharma.