Heather Roberge's En Pointe installation finds stability in eccentricity

Heather Roberge's En Pointe installation finds stability in eccentricity

“They don’t rely on anything except each other to stand up,” noted Heather Roberge, principal of the architecture practice Murmur, as she wove through the leaning, gleaming steel columns of her installation En Pointe. “There is a structural interdependence between each member, showing that you can use strategies of eccentricity to produce stability.”

Notions of stability and collective support—in visual, structural, and historical senses—return time and again in Roberge’s elegant and complex structure, recently exhibited at the at the SCI-Arc Gallery in Los Angeles. En Pointe featured a full-scale installation and a meditation on the column—a collection precedents drawn from of historical and contemporary projects.

“We used case study techniques from industrial design for the formation of aluminum to produce surface-active shells that go beyond wrapping,” said Roberge, as she explained how the project’s structural loads travel along thin steel surfaces, without frames or internal structures, assisted by precise folding and fastening.

It is telling that at the visitor’s standing eye-level is the so-called “waist” of En Pointe. Horizontal reveals for each column together create a horizon that splits them into two five-foot halves. Above, they widen and fuse to form multi-faceted arches; below, they taper to the ground. “The waist is literally the site of connection,” noted Roberge. “There’s a ring inside, to which the top and bottom halves are bolted. This stiffens the column at mid-span and allows us to make the pieces in readily available sheet sizes.”

From the gallery’s mezzanine overlook, En Pointe is capped by a single, multi-faceted, horizontal plane, where laterally supported sheets span from column to column, troubling their “individual” nature. “From above, you can really understand its mass,” Roberge added, “whereas below, we’ve found that people were really unafraid to approach it, to feel it, to squeeze it.”

This combination of angular planes, elaborate seams, and connecting details produces a form that reads as both delicate and muscular, acknowledging its debt to machine processes as well as the work of human hands.

Project components were shaped and folded using a CNC press brake, precise in its calculations but at times less predicting of the materials’ responses. “As a result,” she acknowledged, “the part is very close to the desired shape but isn’t identical to it.” But it is at these rich intersections of multiple parts that Roberge is keen to speak to, treating them not as aberrations but as documents of the eccentricity and uncertainty inherent in complex metal fabrication.

An associate professor at UCLA and director of the undergraduate program in Architectural Studies, her research focuses on both digital technology and materiality. Careful observation, measurement, and adjustment are clear sources of enthusiasm for Roberge and her team of UCLA and SCI-Arc students who helped construct the project. Predicting behavior is less about risk and more about an ongoing educational process. “I like how a material adjusts, how it strains, how it takes shape,” Roberge said. “Working with certain materials is always an approximation. Throughout the making process, we reached a level of comfort with revealing the contingency of the craft.”

The research period that led to En Pointe was conducted with students at UCLA for a design studio that explored “the history of the spatial goals of the column.” Rather than focus on a column’s load-bearing efficiency, they took a genealogical approach to examine how discrete variations on a central architectural element have come to articulate space throughout history. A pamphlet assembling the research accompanies the spatial installation, and positions En Pointe as a potential hinge in the column’s innovation and evolution.

Still, Roberge is well aware that architectural pavilions present a cautionary tale as end-goals for younger practitioners. There’s a worry of getting caught in a disciplinary echo chamber.

“The project is a form of research that does not discretely begin or end,” she said. “Architects don’t want to be their own client, that’s not how we construct our values. But with the proper support, installation becomes an amazing opportunity to treat experimentation as a form of practice.”