Ball-Nogues, the Red-Hot L.A. Architecture Firm, Creates an Avant-Garde Tanning Booth

To construct the mock-up of a tanning booth, Ball-Nogues used a 1973 Volkswagen and a 1970s speedboat as molds. Liquid paper pulp was poured on each. Once dried, shapes were cut from the material, then attached to each other to create the shape of the booth.
To construct the mock-up of a tanning booth, Ball-Nogues used a 1973 Volkswagen and a 1970s speedboat as molds. Liquid paper pulp was poured on each. Once dried, shapes were cut from the material, then attached to each other to create the shape of the booth.
Courtesy Ball-Nogues Studio

It's Friday, May 28, at 5 p.m. Many in L.A. have already bailed on their jobs, if not the city, thinking: long, loose, first real weekend of summer.

Yet architect Benjamin Ball is not thinking any of those things. He's thinking: long weekend of work ahead. He and partner Gaston Nogues have less than seven days to complete their new installation.

Though the two are trained as architects, Ball-Nogues Studio, which they run together, doesn't center around the realization of buildings. Instead it merges the fields of architecture, art and industrial design. They create experimental works often installed in gallery spaces like LACMA, or as part of transcending outdoor environments like the desert. The piece currently occupying Ball's time is one such project.

Dubbed Yevrus 1, Negative Impression, it opened June 1 at SCI-Arc Gallery, the exhibition space hosted by the hip architecture school downtown, and is up through July 8.

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SCI-Arc is known for nurturing an ego or two -- it's headed by the legendary starchitect Eric Owen Moss, after all -- but it also frequently harnesses its gallery space to urge architects along previously untried paths.

Right now Ball is thinking about that path as it relates to his project at hand. When the Weekly asks, "Has there ever been a project that made you think, 'Oh my God, what did we do? Why did we get into this?'" his answer is immediate and instinctive.

"This one," he says.

To construct the mock-up of a tanning booth, Ball-Nogues used a 1973 Volkswagen and a 1970s speedboat as molds. Liquid paper pulp was poured on each -- as seen here. Once dried, shapes were cut from the material, then attached to each other to create the shape of the booth.
To construct the mock-up of a tanning booth, Ball-Nogues used a 1973 Volkswagen and a 1970s speedboat as molds. Liquid paper pulp was poured on each -- as seen here. Once dried, shapes were cut from the material, then attached to each other to create the shape of the booth.
Courtesy Ball-Nogues

In the most basic terms, the team is building a mock tanning booth. How it's getting there is not so basic.

The booth's cylindrical shape is constructed from 1/8"-thick panels of solidified newspaper pulp cast from that '73 Volkswagen Beetle and 1970s open-top speedboat.

While the piece crosses into the realm of art -- SCI-Arc uses the term "assemblage" in the announcement for Yevrus 1, Negative Impression -- the project began as an exploration into architectural construction and fabrication.

It also was a move away from "the tendencies in the experimental architecture world... to use digital technologies to produce novel forms," Ball says. It's a change for his firm as well, as it has often relied on such techniques. Instead of the operatic shapes spun by computer technology, the team set out to explore the possibilities of reusing "everyday objects" as the basis for architectural shapes, forms, and construction.

Ultimately, it marries the digital realm with a manufacturing-slash-craft-like process. It incorporates a futuristic, three-dimensional, computer scanning system and a literally hands-on casting process that goes back hundreds of years, and devises a new and architectural use for pulp paper.

The duo pilfered forms within the Bug and the boat to generate the shapes needed for the booth by scanning each with a state-of-the-art 3-D digital scanner. Then they devised a paneling system -- figuring out what sections of the Beetle and Speedboat's form should be connected together to create the booth -- within the computer. Using that research, they cast the outer forms of each with a liquefied newspaper pulp, before slicing out the sections that would be connected to produce the final object.

Though the process involved familiar techniques -- scan, mold, material -- it didn't come with an overall playbook. "As we got deeper into it, we started seeing how much R&D it was going to require," Ball shares.

In truth, their original goal to fabricate an entire mock tanning salon was scaled back. An idea to cast from the contours of a gigantic roadside Paul Bunyan plastic man was rejected and an attempt to use a Silver Lake swimming pool as a mold also backfired.

Though the end result will be exhibited in a gallery, the team saw the project as being more applicable to architecture than some of their other projects -- including one that involved 10,000 specially produced American Apparel T-shirts shipped and installed as a site-specific piece in Hong Kong.

Bell says the pulp has "some of the same potentials as Fiberglas but without the toxicity." And then, on what's going to be a long Los Angeles weekend, he gets back to work.

Sometime that same Friday, visitors to the Ball-Nogues Facebook page are met with the following post: "Does anyone know where (in L.A.) to purchase pigments for making colored paper?"

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