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Get to know: Q&A with Ball-Nogues Studio

With the new academic year comes a whole host of brand-new MADWORKSHOP studios. We’re thrilled to be supporting these cutting-edge design programs — one of which is led by the ever-fascinating Ball-Nogues Studio. Working at the intersection of architecture, art and industrial design, founders Benjamin Ball and Gaston Nogues will be bringing their unique creative power to their alma mater, SCI-Arc, where they’ll be guiding students through a pedestrian bridge design for the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California.

What are you planning for your MADWORKSHOP/SCI-Arc class?

Gaston: The class will be an intense, hands-on exploration of bundled fiberglass composites. The students will explore the relationship between material, technique and site, with the aim of arriving at a bridge design that fits the context of the Japanese gardens at the Huntington].

Benjamin: We will explore some key concepts in Japanese aesthetics and garden design, principles of structural bridge design, and an application of fiberglass composites. These are disparate pursuits at first glance, but to design and build a bridge concept for a real client — in such a unique setting — means that we must create exercises for the students that synthesize these three components.

In the first term, we will clarify the project’s conceptual approach. This means exploring the aesthetic peculiarities of Japanese gardens while deepening our understanding about the particular needs of the Huntington as an institution. Students will make objects at a scale between a model and 1:1, working with bundled fiberglass rods. They will need to use the material according to the rules it suggests for bending, strength, and logistics of production.The students will need to derive a structural language that abides by a set of rules while gracefully negotiating with the elements found in the garden: topography, rocks, foliage and so on. The result will be fiberglass structures that span between 3-7 feet and weigh about as much as a person. If things resonate correctly, we can then think about designing the actual, functional bridge. But first, we need to discover a set of principles that allow us to dovetail a Japanese garden with engineering.

How does this tie into your practice (of fabrication) more generally?

Benjamin: We build what we design, and our design practice is deeply informed by the process of building. The class is no different. We will be looking at how we can push the material — bundled, laminated fiberglass — into a bridge that is in step with the aesthetics of Japanese gardens.

Gaston: We developed the bundled fiberglass-rod fabrication technique in our professional practice, and have recently applied it to a couple of projects. Ball-Nogues is known for innovation in fabrication and our use of unusual materials. All of our projects seek to create a tension between concept, site, material and technique. The class will explore this as well.

What do you think the role of education is/should be in design?

Benjamin: Education should lead students to a place where they can find their own interests and proclivities. There might be failures along the way. It is not about job training, it is about honing the path of the student. We should thrust the students into a variety of operating frameworks over the course of their education — some will work for them, others won’t, but in the end they’ll be closer to finding their own way forward.

Can you tell us a little about your own design education? What has stuck with you through the years?

Gaston: I grew up around aircraft, since my father was an aerospace engineer. He’d often take me to work and I would spend my time in the hangers, watching people making sailplanes or working on various types of aircraft. From a very early age, I understood the relationship between design and fabrication. Later I attended SCI-Arc (1988-1993), which is where I learned to develop the relationship between making and meaning. After graduation, I spent a decade working at Frank Gehry’s office, where I was encouraged to think about unusual materials and use cutting-edge computers. The one constant for me has been the relationship between concepts and techniques.

Benjamin: My education was fraught with despair, honestly. That was not the fault of the institution — maybe I was just too young to be at a conservatory type program like SCI-Arc. I spent a lot of time gauging what was exciting and meaningful to me, and I tried something new every term. I didn’t always find it but I was closer to knowing upon graduation. What has stuck with me is an appreciation for creating a personal process.