L.A. art architect Gaston Nogues is sitting outside Chango cafe in Echo Park. He’s overcaffeinated and going through some serious nicotine withdrawal.
“If I have one more cup of coffee,” the 5-foot-7, tattooed Nogues warns, “I might totally wig out.”
He and his partner, Benjamin Ball, have been awake for almost 48 hours straight, completing renderings for their latest potential project. They’ve been invited to compete with well-known architects from around the globe to design a footpath — a bridge to tolerance — in Houston, Texas.
If their design — a multilayered communal space that contains eating areas, chess tables, even an amphitheater — is chosen, it could be their ticket to the big time, with a $3.5 million budget.
“Everyone thinks we must be loaded,” Nogues says, “but we’re not. There’s great honor, but not much money, in winning competitions. We’re still waiting for the paying gigs.”
The Ball-Nogues firm operates out of a graffiti-mural-covered four-car garage in Echo Park. Homeboys swing by to hang and bum smokes. Ball, a preppy, bespectacled blond — the Felix Unger to Nogues’ Oscar Madison — actually likes the firm’s digs.
“Traditional design offices,” he says, “can either be an ivory tower or a hermetically sealed space intended to impress clients. Those are the environments I’ve worked at in the past. But where I am now keeps me stimulated, puts me outside of where I come from, and I find that inspiring.”
Ball, a Colorado native, bounced back and forth from architecture to set design (his credits include the Matrix series) before joining forces in 2005 with Buenos Aires–born Nogues, a full-time employee of Frank Gehry. Their first project was an installation at Materials & Applications, an experimental gallery in Silver Lake. They called it Maximilian’s Schell, a golden vortex of mylar petals, funneling sunlight to a single point on the ground. The piece gleaned shimmering reviews. They felt they had stumbled upon this intersection of art and architecture, and wanted to keep the momentum going, so they formed Ball-Nogues. Together they immediately scored a few high-profile gigs — an installation at MOCA’s Skin + Bones exhibit, and a commission to build display cases for Gehry’s jewelry line.
Last spring, they won the prestigious honor of being chosen, out of five finalists in a closed nomination process, to design the courtyard at the Museum of Modern Art and the PS 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York. But winning wasn’t everything. They quickly realized that the budget they were given, while adequate for a New Yorker with in-town accommodations, was not quite sufficient to house the pair during the four months required to transform the space above the courtyard into “marmalade rust” for their Liquid Sky.
“We had such a tight budget, so we basically camped out in the courtyard. I even burned wood to keep warm. I felt like a bum,” Nogues laughs. “It was kinda fun, until it started raining; that was no fun. I slept under a sheet of black plastic. Later, when my wife came, I invested in a tent.”
Ball didn’t find it as amusing. “It was a shanty,” he says. “We both put in a rough four months.”
“I don’t think PS1 liked that we were staying there,” Nogues adds. “I remember at the opening, I told one of the big wigs that I was camping [in the courtyard], and he didn’t know what to think — he looked at me and his lips turned disapprovingly. Then the director came over and told me we shouldn’t tell people that.”
So far, this year the Ball-Nogues momentum shows no sign of stopping. In February, they had a well-reviewed installation at Chicago’s Expansion Gallery (where, thankfully, they were put up in someone’s loft).
“The effect we wanted was to feel like you were in a fog,” Nogues says. “We actually based the colors on L.A. smog. They range from blue to sooty orange. I guess you could say we wanted to bring a little bit of home to Chicago.”
They also built an installation at the Coachella music festival, and even nabbed their first permanent-structure commission — a stainless-steel, 20-person teepee for a graphic artist in Woodstock, New York.
“We’re going to build it to sustain moss,” explains Nogues.
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“It will look space-age and earthy at the same time,” Ball adds.
In the last two months, Ball and Nogues have won three other competitions. They will design a permanent piece for the new pediatric wing of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore (a 3-D amorphous hanging sculpture of silhouette shapes, like shadow puppets, based on storybook characters made out of sheets of the same multicolored pearly plastic used to make guitar picks); they will give a Santa Monica parking structure a face-lift; and they will design the lobby ceiling of the Los Angeles City Permit Office, now under construction. On top of all that, they’ve been chosen to create the inaugural installation at MOCA’s gallery in the Pacific Design Center, and were asked to build a site-specific installation for Venice, Italy’s Architecture Biennale this fall, an honor granted by invitation only to some of the best architects around the world.
It’s hard to believe that the firm was established only a couple of years ago. And when you watch them work together, you’d think they’ve been partners forever. Though they met in the ’90s in college at SCI-Arc, their partnership is still relatively new and constantly evolving.
“I remember the first time I saw Gaston,” laughs Ball, “he had long hair, he was a year ahead of me. I walked up to his studio late at night. He was with a friend practicing firing X-Acto blades in the wall. I was curious. They reminded me of kids who start ants on fire with magnifying glasses . a boyish, diabolical ingenuity. It’s kind of what we still do.”