Half a house is better than whole

Michelle Chang inside "A.B 1:2," her installation at the Rice School of Architecture. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

Michelle Chang inside “A.B 1:2,” her installation at the Rice School of Architecture. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

Rice School of Architecture fellow fills jury room with ideas about light, space and … BLOBs

Don’t think of it as a big, odd dollhouse. Think of it as an unusual canvas for ideas about architecture.

A new installation by Michelle Chang, the Visiting Wortham Fellow at the Rice School of Architecture, has taken over the school’s jury room. It’s a twisted half-a-house that plays mind games with the observer. It officially opens Aug. 26 at 5 p.m.

On the surface, the installation called “A,B 1:2,” is simply what happens when two cubes are carefully superimposed onto each other and then bisected. A deeper look reveals a study in light and shade. Light entering through its large, skewed windows redefines the interior with every passing minute of the day.

Chang intends for the exhibit to demonstrate how architects and artists think about space and how well (or not) representation in the form of drawings and digital renderings translates to the physical realm.

“I don’t want it to get overly technical,” she said. “I just want people to see it and understand there’s something kind of weird going on in a couple of places and imagine what that does.”

The installation will stand until Sept. 2 before the house is pulled apart and its wood and drywall are repurposed for RSA students’ studio projects, Chang said. In the meantime, new and returning students and visitors have been able to watch the construction of the 16-foot-tall structure. Most models created at Anderson Hall fit on a tabletop; this may be the largest ever assembled there.

“A couple of students, I think freshmen, just came through and one said, ‘Oh, it’s a little installation.’ Which is funny, because it’s gigantic,” Chang said.

"A,B 1:2" under construction in the jury room at the Rice School of Architecture.

“A,B 1:2” under construction in the jury room at the Rice School of Architecture. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

The installation is more than the bare bones of a house, but less than fully constructed. “A lot of my work is based on optics and perspectives, how changing certain assumptions of our representational conventions can lead to new ways of seeing,” Chang said. “What’s interesting  about doing these installations is they’re always so incredibly different from what I imagined them to be, working digitally.”

She said that while her teaching is “very invested in light,” she designed the new installation “to think about how those systems might play out in the absence of lighting, how you might read something that exists in a changing light situation.”

With sunlight pouring into the high windows on three sides of the jury room, she expects the interior’s character will change throughout the day, so the areas one might normally think of as “bedroom” or “living room” are more roughly defined by regions of changing light.

These regions show up in the low-resolution “binary large object (BLOB) detection” photos Chang took during construction to analyze how parts of the interior stand out at various times of day. “BLOB is a technical term to describe the different areas or contours,” she said. The frame, the walls, two staircases and a few bits of furniture help define the spaces, but not nearly as much as the angular interior and the play of light.

“Another way to talk about it is in how we describe boundaries in architecture,” Chang said. “We’re all familiar with boundaries that are related to architectural elements like a wall or a window. Or we can describe boundaries according to objects, like the chair versus the table and their relationship to the wall. But here, I’m trying to establish different ways of thinking about soft boundaries within an architectural installation.”

Installations like Chang’s “A,B 1:2” are a form of architectural research, said RSA Dean Sarah Whiting. “As Michelle explains, this one models different interior relations. It also advances our understanding of light as an architectural material in a way that a smaller model or a two-dimensional representation or a computer rendering simply couldn’t.”

When her fellowship ends next year, the artist, architect and musician will remain at Rice for the next step in her academic career: She will become an assistant professor of architecture in July.

A rendering of the full "A,B 1:2" by Michelle Chang.

A rendering of the full “A,B 1:2” by Michelle Chang.




About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.