ASPIRE Metro Exclusive Interview with Architect Edwin Chan

[nggallery id=63 template=”sliderview” display_content=”0”]Working as Frank Gehry’s design partner for 25 years, Edwin Chan’s portfolio included the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao; the Marquis de Riscal Winery in Rioja, Spain, and the just-opened Foundation Louis Vuitton in Paris, France. But now as the founder of EC3 architecture, one of his newest projects swapped swooping roofs and curved facades for alpacas and artists.

In 2013 the LA-based artist Piero Golia asked Chan to collaborate on an interactive art project called  “The Chalet.” Golia’s vision was to create an interactive art experience that was more salon/speakeasy than sterile gallery space. Located in the back of the Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) in Hollywood, The Chalet was a smash hit, with a nightly roster of artists, musicians, dancers, socialites and even a pair of alpacas making an appearance.  Artwork from LA-based painter Mark Grotjahn is on display, along with an aquarium by the French artist Pierre Huyghe that houses an ecosystem of giant hermit crabs and floating rocks, and a piano lent by conceptual artist Christopher Williams that was handed down through generations at the Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf.  Chan designed every aspect of the interior, including the lighting fixtures and furniture.  The space closed down in 2015 and the Chalet was transferred to the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, where it recently closed. He spoke with ASPIRE Metro writer Christina Valhouli about the project.

Chalet Dallas - by Piero Golia and Edwin Chan - reduced•What attracted you to The Chalet project when Piero Golia got in touch?
I’ve known Peiro for about 10 years and have spoken at his Mountain School of Art, but we had never worked together. When he asked me to design The Chalet, I jumped on it immediately. When I worked with Frank Gehry on projects such as the Bilbao and the Foundation Louis Vuitton, the galleries there were designed as neutral spaces. I always thought there was another way of thinking about art exhibition space. The Chalet would be more like a salon, and would expand the concept of art beyond white walls into the social realm. It would be a departure from my previous projects.
I also loved the idea of collaborating with artists, as I love having collaborative dialogues.

•What was the vision for The Chalet?
The Chalet was conceived as an ephemeral exhibit and experience. Although it was first constructed in Hollywood, the idea has always been that it could be disassembled and transported to another location. We knew it would be moved around, but we didn’t know where it would go after LA.  One of the challenges was making this ephemeral experience mobile, and letting it evoke the intimate feeling of a chalet without literally being one.

•What was the design concept?
We wanted to make the interior modular, so you can stack the wood and create different configurations. It could be site specific as well as adaptable and moveable. For the Hollywood location, we wanted to use a wood that would feel good and be very tactile. We didn’t find anything we liked at California lumber mills after searching for months, but then, we found this white oak forest in Pennsylvania and decided to re-purpose it for the Chalet.  We lucked out.

•What were some of the big differences between the LA and Dallas space?
In Hollywood, the Chalet was located in an old warehouse that was used as the storage space for LACE. Part of the magic was that the building was non-descript and hard to find.  Discovering it’s interior was part of the adventure! In Dallas, we’re going mainstream as we’re in a real gallery, the Renzo Piano designed Nasher. It’s very exposed to the outside, with one wall made of glass.

•What were some of the biggest challenges you faced when moving the Chalet to Dallas?
Re-assembling the pieces wasn’t a big deal. In Hollywood we had lots of different rooms and assigned artists to the spaces, such as Mark Grotjahn and Pierre Huyghe, as well as a hallway lined with alcohol lockers for the members. It was very compartmentalized. In Dallas, we are in one space so we had to re-create a feeling of intimacy, with little pockets where conversation could happen. I was actually very nervous about it.

2Chalet Dallas - by Piero Golia and Edwin Chan - reduced•What role does architecture play at The Chalet?
We wanted to create a tactile environment that would promote social interaction. People are encourage to touch their surroundings and it should feel good. I feel that this is a quality that is getting lost in architecture. The quality and material of the wood and the blue Venetian plaster contribute to this tactility. People want to sit on that wood!
Another example is how the aquarium was integrated into a pedestal. People love to sit around it and observe the ecosystem. We’ve created a dynamic environment in a simple way.

•What was the most difficult part of the project?
Well, there were various challenges but I welcome them! It’s what makes a project unique. What was hard was imagining how people would respond to the environment and thinking, would they embrace it?
In Dallas, the challenge was how to create a dialogue with the Renzo Piano-designed gallery. I didn’t want to cover up the space like what we did in LA because we were in a warehouse. In Dallas, we had finished ceilings, travertine floors and a wall of glass. We wanted to maintain the balance of the existing materials with the project- we had to welcome it rather than reject it. In Dallas you can see into the gallery through the glass wall so it creates a different kind of transparency. Over Christmas we commissioned the LA based artist Paul McCarthy to create a screen with two Santa Clauses on the glass, so it became another platform for art.

•You designed everything in the Chalet, including the lights and side tables. Why was this important?
It was Piero’s vision – I don’t have that kind of ego (laughter)!  I do have to thank him for challenging me to creating this kind of immersive experience. There’s a German word for that – gesamtkunstwerk – which means a total work of art. It is similar to how Frank Lloyd Wright worked, where he would design everything in a house, down to the plates and cups.

•You worked for Frank Gehry for 25 years. How did that experience influence you?
When I graduated from architecture school at Harvard, I wanted to work with him because of his reputation for working with artists, and his connection with them. Working at his office, I learned a lot about the collaborative aspect of architecture, which is often overlooked. It’s not like how the Simpsons portrayed Frank Gehry, where he scribbles a few lines and the building pops up. The success of the Guggenheim in Bilbao – and I think Frank would agree- was down to the conversations and collaboration with the museum’s director at the time, Thomas Krens, as well as with members of the Basque government and community.  It was the outcome of a very rigorous, three-way collaboration.
Every project has a story, that goes beyond anything stylistic or developing a unique aesthetic. With the Chalet, if I had been left to my own devices, I’m not sure it would have ended up looking the way it did.

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