This is the latest installment of In the Details, our weekly deep-dive into the making of a new product or project. Last week, we deconstructed an open-source dildo.
Storefront for Art and Architecture’s hinged-panel facade has been the site of countless installations and interventions since its 1993 debut in downtown Manhattan. The latest is perhaps the most audaciously bland in its history. For the ongoing exhibition Blueprint, the Brooklyn-based studio SO–IL shrink-wrapped Steven Holl and Vito Acconci’s famous facade in white plastic, reducing its apertures to a handful of lumps and bulges behind a stretchy blank canvas.
SO–IL got the idea from the seasonal storage of boats, which are sometimes shrink-wrapped for protection during the winter months. The idea also works on a conceptual level: As the exhibition is an archive of drafts and other schematics, shrink-wrapping the entire show takes a symbolic step toward preserving these delicate objects for eternity.
“After deciding that this was the way to go, we quickly made a small test model and renderings to check if this would work on a larger scale,” says Max Hart Nibbrig, an intern at SO–IL, who managed the project. To create the smaller model, SO–IL used window-insulation plastic for the similar properties it shares with real shrink-wrap material. “The only difference is that this one can be heated with a normal heat-gun instead of using a flame,” Nibbrig explains. After creating a successful test model, the team believed that the technique could be applied to the Storefront facade.
Photo © Iwan Baan. All photos courtesy SO–IL and Storefront for Art and Architecture. Photo © Iwan Baan Photo © Iwan Baan
Through a bit of online research, the studio discovered Atlantic Shrink Wrapping Inc. (ASI), a company specializing in the shrink-wrapping of large-scale objects, covering everything from helicopters to a historic train station. At first, SO–IL didn’t know if their idea was even possible. They asked ASI’s co-owner and president, Dustin Hoover, a myriad of questions around the feasibility of not just shrink-wrapping a building but wrapping one with multiple movable cement walls and protrusions. “My answer was: Yes, it is possible and, yes, I have done things like this and crazier,” Hoover says. “Knowing that this was a, quote unquote, ‘art-style’ project really got my interest. Our company’s work is often called a form of art by many, but we never really considered it like that.”
For the next month, Hoover and the SO–IL team exchanged ideas about what could be achieved with the Storefront exterior. When it came time to test those ideas, Hoover traveled from Annapolis, Maryland, to New York City to help create a mockup of the installation, focusing on making it work around one panel of the building. Together, Hoover and SO–IL tested several approaches for applying the material, building wooden frames around the building’s various panels and attaching plastic to all sides. After several successful trials, the team had a better understanding of what it would take to scale the process to the full facade.
A small test model, wrapped in window-insulation plastic A shrink-wrapping trial run on one panel of the Storefront facade
For the final installation, a strong wooden frame was built around the entire edge of the building. “SO-IL and Storefront went way above my expectations and designed and built the best frame I could imagine,” Hoover says. “It was all made of lumber and attached in different layers to accommodate my requests for a smooth and transitional frame to attach to.” Vertical two-by-fours were placed beneath the shrink-wrap coating, primarily as a burglary-preventing measure—they are strategically spaced to block off entrance to the building should anyone slice through the plastic—but they also served to distribute the load of the plastic between the top and bottom edges of the frame. The frame and vertical boards were installed before Hoover and his crew arrived, bringing with them 60-feet-long by 40-feet-wide rolls of 12-millimeter-thick flame-retardant polyethylene. The rolls were cut in half length-wise, then rolled around the two-by-fours and screwed to the frame.
Hoover and his team worked carefully, using high-intensity propane torches to heat-shrink the plastic, leaving few seams or wrinkles. “This is where it got difficult,” Hoover says. “To use such an industrial application in such a non-industrial setting required a very personal understanding of how the plastic would react to the many different angles that the panels of the building would create.”
The thickness and strength that made the 12-millimeter-thick polyethylene the right choice for the job also made it difficult to work with. “When heated correctly, it pulls incredibly hard, and when you secure all sides, it has no choice but to pull against itself,” Hoover explains. “The plastic itself is also very susceptible to overheating. Just a bit too much heat and you can thin it out and burn through it. Not enough heat and it will not get tight.” With a deep understanding of how the material would react, Hoover worked the torch back and forth to keep everything flowing—while a crowd of people gathered to watch. “Talk about being in the hot seat,” he says. “We only had one chance to get this right and it had never been done before. Well, we got it right.”
Building the wooden frame A few weeks later
While the white shrink-wrap has a nice gleam amidst the surrounding filth of New York, the material color was chosen by default—it happened to be the only flame- and fire-retardant shrink-wrap available. All the materials were donated by ASI’s supplier, Dr. Shrink, and ASI donated a portion of its time to bring the idea to life. “I was excited to show my artistic abilities and to do something different,” Hoover says. “It was never about money. We want to be recognized as the company that cared enough to make this the very best it could possibly be.”
After being up for less than a month, the installation has already been vandalized, spray-painted with a slew of tags across the originally pristine wrapper. “It is white, it is very big and in the end it is also New York, so we expected that something would happen,” Nibbrig says. “But this fast we didn’t expect.” With two months left until the exhibition closes on March 21, ASI’s work will have to pass the ultimate test of all: surviving the streets of New York.