Tourists wandering through Jackson Square in October did not know what to make of the bamboo construction architect Tiffany Lin and a crew of student volunteers from the Tulane School of Architecture were erecting at the Cabildo. They had bent long poles into U-shapes and were installing them in sequence.
"They kept asking, 'What is it?'" Lin says. "'Is it a dinosaur's rib cage?' 'Is it a whale?' 'Is it a haunted house?'"
The canopy of bamboo is less representational than those ideas, but also remarkably simple.
"It's a spatially abstract passageway that glows in the dark," Lin says. "You walk through the space and you get a different idea of the space. Your experience of the space changes while you are in it."
It's one of 13 architectural installations on display in the DesCours exposition spread throughout downtown from Wednesday, Dec. 9, to Sunday, Dec. 13, open nightly from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Locations include private courtyards and rooftops as well as more accessible spots like the Piazza d'Italia. Some locations feature live music on some evenings. (See the Web site www.descours.us for a map, schedule and downloadable audio and video podcasts of the architects describing their ideas, materials used and the function of the work.)
The New Orleans Chapter of the American Institute of Architects initiated the event three years ago as a forum for architects to explore cutting-edge design, particularly using new ideas, materials and technologies. Installations tend to be more sculptural and abstract than formal, since buildings have requirements about plumbing, fire safety, etc. But in concept, architecture is different than sculptural art. How it functions is the designer's primary consideration.
"Your experience of a space changes when you are in it," Lin says. "It's not just you looking at it. You are part of it."
This year's participants were selected from 72 proposals from around the globe. A Japanese team headed by Hideyuki Ando uses LED lights to create the illusion of two-dimensional images, playing on the way the eye rapidly scans back and forth and retains an impression on the retina (on display in a bank lobby at 200 Carondelet St.). Boston architect Mary Hale created a plastic, floating house, conceived as a wearable structure, that will be on display at a rooftop pool at the D. H. Holmes building (810 Bienville St.).
Many of the installations incorporate contemporary and futuristic designs in historic settings or buildings, including French Quarter courtyards (hence the name DesCours, French for courtyard) and landmarks such as the Cabildo.
Lin's design was originally created for a smaller French Quarter alleyway, but it was moved to the Cabildo, where the arched canopy extends through the loggia (covered gallery) as an entrance from the side street. During the day, the bamboo appears white and provides shade. At night, various types of theater lighting combine so the bamboo stalks are a phosphorescent blue, and black and ultraviolet lights glow on the clothes of people walking through the passageway. It provides a dramatic entrance for nighttime events at the museum.
The bamboo passage has been one of the more publicly noticeable DesCours constructions. Several others are in private locations. Lin has had time to work on it since she joined the faculty at the Tulane School of Architecture in August. But she submitted her proposal to DesCours before she moved here from Boston. (Officially, the entry is credited to her Boston-based firm LinOldhamOffice.)
To create the arches, she had to improvise a method of bending bamboo, which comes from the Northshore and is an abundant local resource. The stalks were then painted to achieve a glossy surface that would glow phosphorescent blue. Working with the actual installation is a benefit for both architects and students.
"This is great because you're building what you conceive," Lin says. "All of the problem solving is at hand, instead of meeting with contractors in a trailer."
Creating contemporary work in historic spaces is also a key element of DesCours projects.
"We should preserve [the historic structures] we have," Lin says. "But to replicate them doesn't make sense.
"The technology of building has changed in the last 100 years. We don't use masonry like we did before. It's not economical."
New ideas in architecture don't always receive warm public receptions. Lin notes that some innovative post-Katrina home designs have been seen as "spaceships" that somehow landed in neighborhoods full of traditional and homogenous structures.
"When people buy computers or cars, they want the newest stuff," Lin says. "But with houses, people often want what they know, like an English Tudor."
The bamboo passageway did attract a less technological than tradition-oriented group as well. One bride contacted the state museum and Lin about using the arches as a backdrop for some wedding photos, and a couple of brides-to-be wanted to be married under it.
"It took me a long time to take that as a compliment," Lin says, laughing. "I wanted to do something profound."