Interview with Grace La from La Dallman Architects

Aug. 24, 2008
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Why do you feel you were chosen for this project?

One of the reasons I think [Discovery World] was interested in our work was because our firm is interested in research and work which has its root in the geomorphology of lands—the shaping and geographic considerations of land formation—and with questions like: Why does a hill look like a hill? Why does land settle that way? How does water move? These are things that have been deep in the recesses of our thinking. So in some ways, when Discovery World was ready to start a project involving the Great Lakes, it seemed like a very natural fit. It’s obviously a piece of architecture, but at the same time requires the designer to have some sensitivity to land form and how you abstract it. When you look at Great Lakes exhibit you see it’s an abstraction…

What it reminds me most of is a piece of furniture…

Yes, it’s interesting you should say that…what’s there in the space now represents all of the area which drains into Lake Michigan…and to understand it as an object, as a piece of furniture, is to give it a certain level of consciousness and a perspective of the land that you don’t always get. To objectify it is to give it a meaning you couldn’t necessarily convey in a two-dimensional map…

What was the most difficult aspect of the designing the exhibit?

There are two different things I would say were challenging. The first is that everything is specifically made for this exhibit so there’s nothing you could buy off E-Bay! In that sense one of the greatest challenges—and opportunities—was that each piece is made especially for its own purpose and a result you can innovate. You can take a piece of plastic and say “how will I make this look like the sky?”…In this way it’s perfect for Discovery World. That’s their thing—how you make things. We found a great collaborator in them.

Another challenge was one of time. It took time finding a fabricator who could make the Great Lakes. We sent three-dimensional computer drawings and had all of the formwork cut by a CNC milling machine and then had the formwork sprayed with the same fiberglass used on mini-golf courses. So it’s this mix of high and low-tech techniques so we could achieve both rapidity in process but also get it made in an innovative way.

Was it liberating as an architect to design something at this scale and with this level of interaction?

For us it feels like hand in glove. We just finished a house project in Fox Point and oddly enough that has almost the same level of research and development, a demand for tactility and spatial consciousness…

At the moment what’s interesting about working in a city like Milwaukee because it’s much more transparent. People who are interested in doing more challenging work find us, and we find them. So no matter what we take on it poses very unique challenges and impacts heavily on the public domain.

You could have looked at the Lakes from many different points of view: political, geographic, and historical. Was it overwhelming to take this on board in a fairly confined space?

Yes, absolutely. As soon as a project is finished or nearly complete the first thing we ask ourselves is “What more could we have done.” Water politics are so dynamic right now, and water quality, and I think we’ll only ever see greater focus on these areas, both politically and economically. One of the things I like about the exhibit is that from the perspective of Discovery World it might not be done. We might have to layer on additional pieces of information, change things. The Great Lakes and all of the vitrines in the sidewalls can in fact be altered. So the idea is that, should the emphasis become different, the exhibit is flexible enough that it can transform if it needs to. For example right now the sky canopy has an array of LED color changing programmable lights behind it and as soon as Discovery World can make the connection with somebody who would like to measure water quality and data from the Great Lakes we will be able to activate, through a water quality measuring device, live fed information back to our programmable controller and change the color of the lights behind the sky canopy with real-time, live fed atmospheric data. That’s fabulously exciting to us…seeing it change color and mood in response to changing conditions over the lake.

But isn’t there a danger of it becoming overly representational?

I don’t know precisely where you would draw the line, but at the same time I don’t think most people understand the atmosphere over the Lakes is different, so if it would give rise to a kind of knowledge base, not to make it look like Las Vegas, but to make people realize there’s a link between atmosphere and watershed zone which is reciprocal then it works.

Was it a deliberate move to create a marked contrast between the monumental quality of the sidewalls and the more organic fluidity of watershed?

Well we were trying to keep the sidewalls flexible, but there’s also a very strong horizontal striation of wood and what we loved about that was to understand the earth as a kind of stratum without being overly representational...It had to hold a programmatic requirement to hold fossils. Simultaneously we wanted it to be massive and understood as being carved or cut from the earth and also at same time celebrate the fact that these are man-made objects…

How was it to work within that space?

Super challenging…working within a cylindrical space is very challenging, especially because shoe-horned within this cylindrical space are other components that don’t make good bedfellows; columns, elevators, the two stairs—it’s certainly not a clean space supportive of exhibitory in general. But having said that I think one of the intuitive responses was to make the exhibit a counterpoint to these Platonic geometries that beg for something more sensual. Also the fact it’s surrounded by glass could make it engaging from outside.

Discovery World is closed on Mondays and open Tuesday-Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. On Sept. 4 they host a symposium titled “The Water Speaks” offering Native American perspectives on the Lake. From 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.


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