What would an NSA 'community branch' look like?

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When pressing matters like immigration, national security and product delivery technology are raised in the media and political arenas, it's rare for architecture to play a role in the discussion.

The traveling exhibit. "5x5: Participatory Provocations," which opens Saturday, Jan. 14, at Omi International Arts Center, aims to give architects a seat at the table — and a voice to be heard.

Curators Julia van den Hout of Original Copy and architect Kyle May, co-founders of the journal CLOG, and professor of architecture Kevin Erickson invited 25 teams of young American architects to create three-dimensional models, known as maquettes, that offer both physical and critical responses to one of five key contemporary issues.

"Architecture tends to be an insular profession and a service industry," May said. "There's a lot of things culturally that are happening right now that we think architects should be taking a proactive approach to."

Participants hail from across the country, with half from the architectural hotbed of New York.

"We wanted to get a range of people and have them respond at a thoughtful and sometimes satirical conceptual level," van den Hout said.

Topics included a country-wide community network of NSA offices; structural management of drone delivery systems; unoccupied ultra-luxury apartments bought solely as investments; lunar resorts for high-end off-planet tourism; and the now infamous Trump wall along the Mexican border.

"All of these were based on headlines that we're seeing every day," said van den Hout, "real discussions that are starting to happen."

They chose to request three-dimensional representations instead of the usual two-dimensional renderings. "Models have a physicality, a way of communicating that images sometimes don't," May said.

The finely crafted results vary widely in style, suggesting materials ranging from rock to wood to airy cellular structures, with subtle and vibrant color components, and both whimsical and realistic depictions.

"They aren't necessarily feasible proposals," May explained, "there's a bit of underlying criticism in some of the pieces."

Teams portrayed a segment of the 2,000-mile "Trump Wall" as a structure of open compartments that serve as shelter to weary border crossers; an exclusive independent DMZ open only to "well-vetted millionaires;" and a draped sandy dune enclosing an inner shady "linear oasis."

With the advent of widespread commercial drone delivery — a Nevada 7-Eleven store makes regular drop-offs to customers, and retail giant Amazon has patented floating airship warehouses — Droneport models address air zoning rights, create product display cases, imagine rooftop "drone doggy doors" and ersatz pigeon coops catering to swarms of drones — even giant gumball machine-like structures dispensing packages to waiting drones.

NSA Community Branches bring surveillance to neighborhoods with buildings encased in glass, reassuring yet invisible underground security nodes, and sites for reviewing both personal security profiles and collected public data.

With Virgin Galactic already developing luxury off-planet tourism, Lunar Resorts appear as floating clusters of space, inflatable multi-sided modules, and the ultimate luxury of consumer "absence." It also ponders the peculiar promise and perils of freeze-dried astronaut ice cream.

The Investment Towers include a Jenga-like structure teetering between construction and speculation; towers that soar on stilts above ground level buildings; a dedicated diplomatic edifice leaning over Central Park; and a solid timber tower of carbon offset condos.

Previously seen at the University of Illinois, Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative and Rhode Island School of Design, following Omi "5x5" will conclude its tour at the Center for Architecture in New York.

The exhibit was brought to Omi by Warren James, Architecture Omi director since January 2016, who oversees 60 acres of architecture fields on the 300-acre campus. Current installations include a glass house balanced on a single central stilt.

"The maquettes are exquisite, and the concept was very compelling," James said. "It provokes and asks many questions, and puts young architects at the forefront of issues of today."

Part of his civic duty as an architect, he feels, is to promote the process and importance of architecture to the public, and also champion the work of the next generation of these emerging voices. "5x5" is about the future, and presents ideas that are only just beginning to take hold, he explained.

It remains to be seen if the exhibit concepts influence the evolution of the issues they address.

"We haven't got a call from Amazon yet," observed May. "Or Trump."

If You Go:

What: "5x5: Participatory Provocations" architectural art exhibit

Where: Benenson Visitors Center, Art Omi, Ghent, N.Y.

When: Opening reception Saturday, Jan. 14, from 2 to 4 p.m.

On view through March 12. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, admission free.

Information: 518-392-4747 artomi.org

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