Danish Group Teaches Green Design

Students plan hypothetical Arboretum office

by Jennifer Kwon

Many visitors of the Perlman Teaching Museum were confused when they first walked in at the beginning of this term. Instead of seeing a usual exhibit of photographs and drawings, they encountered a group of students and two artists in matching black outfits ardently working at a huge table that occupies nearly half of the Braucher gallery.
It is, in fact, not an exhibit but a studio art class called “Critical Studies in Public Space with N55” with visiting artists, N55. For the first five weeks, eighteen Carleton students will be working with Danish art and design collective N55 to come up with a proposal for a hypothetical building in Cowling Arboretum.

N55, consisting of Ion Sørvin, Till Wolfer, and Anne Romme, questions the definition of public areas and the ownership of communal spaces through their creations. Their previous works like the “Walking House” and “XYZ Spaceframe Vehicles” emphasize a nomadic and environmentally friendly lifestyle the firm strives to achieve.

Sørvin, the founder of N55, explained his fascination with the concept of land ownership. “We all take it for granted that we can own land, but if you look at it from a philosophical perspective, it doesn’t make sense that people can occupy land and prevent other people from using that land,” he said. “Eventually, if this situation persists, some people would not be able to walk on the surface of an earth.”

That is an idea that N55 is incorporating into their project, the building of an Arb office. The students and artists will investigate the functions of the Arb for not only the immediate Carleton community but also for local Northfield residents. They will examine the Arb as a contested territory that generates conflicting interests among various communities.

It is a project that weaves in different disciplines like sociology, history, and architecture. Therefore, it challenges the students to go beyond their areas of expertise. “It is different from how students here usually work, so they have to be more self-reliant and creative,” Wolfer, another member of N55, said. “Building an office requires rather more complex process than it seems.”

The students already held meetings with local citizens to discover their general opinions of the Arb, how often and for what purposes they use the area, and complaints they have about restrictions. Some students specializing in the history looked into the changes in Arb policies through the years.
While there is no concrete plan to build a new Arb office at this time, the artists hope they can contribute to the discussion on the plan that will likely occur in the future.

“There will be several ideas pointing in various directions that people can be inspired by,”  Sørvin elaborated. “We are doing something that will not necessarily happen but will raise discussions and show different aspects of these complex relations that people have with the land and how to share the land in a meaningful way.”

N55 was invited to campus under the auspices of the Lucas Lectureship in the Arts that sponsored Salmon Rushdie’s talk last school year. The lectureship rotates different disciplines in arts and this year, its focus is architecture.

One of the few Art History professors specializing in architecture on campus, Ross Elfline saw the opportunity and contacted the artists whose works he has been following for more than ten years.

“I didn’t like the model of bringing in one famous person for a day or two and then have them leave,” he said. “I wanted to bring a group of artists and actually have them work with students in a more engaged, longer term basis.”
Elfline first discovered N55 when writing his master’s thesis on blurring distinctions between fine art and design. He never had a chance to work with them before but was impressed with their working method, very different from the traditional American model.

“There is an end goal of building an Arb office, but the process of achieving that goal is more open-ended,” he explained. “In that sense, it is very different from other Carleton classes that have a constructed syllabus with every week rigorously planned out. It is much more flexible.”

Rob Reuland, a sophomore taking the class, commented on his appreciation of their teaching. “We don’t really have any architecture classes here, this is the only class that takes an idea and creates it in a physical mode, which gives you a lot of hands-on experiences”, he said. “I like how architecture is not just making a building, but it is also creating an environment.”
This article was published by The Carletonian (January 23, 2015) and on Carleton News https://apps.carleton.edu/news/features/?story_id=1237099
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