An interview with Clare Olsen (+ bonus video!)
In this first installment of their email interview, Renee Jain, a 5th year Architecture student who is working on her thesis, asks Clare Olsen, an assistant professor in architecture, about her upcoming installation in Kennedy Library. Renee has been interested in the art of making since high school and digital fabrication since attending Cal Poly. Involved in both on and off-campus art exhibits, Renee has worked on various types of installations. Fittingly, Kennedy Library is her favorite place to exhibit!
Clare Olsen teaches in the Department of Architecture at Cal Poly and also runs her own practice, C.O.CO. Before moving to San Luis Obispo, she taught similar coursework at Syracuse University in upstate New York. Clare has designed projects at a wide range of scales, but her practice has focused on smaller, crafted works including installations and furniture. (The renderings of the installation you see here are Clare’s.)
RJ: I’ve heard and read about the installation going in the stairwell. In your words, tell me about the installation.
CO: I’m super thrilled to be working on a project for Kennedy Library. Since I’ve started teaching at Cal Poly, I’ve been really impressed with the number of students that use the library on a daily basis—the building seems to work well as a study and gathering space, and I’m happy to be working on a project that will contribute to the experience and atmosphere of a prominent space in the library, the grand staircase.
There are a number of contextual factors that contribute to the design: the academic context of the library has influenced the formal approach to the project, which consists of aggregated diamond-shaped modules that grow and spread along two walls. The stairwell context has also inspired a dynamic, diagonally moving organization of the modules across the wall surfaces.
RJ: Kennedy Library definitely has a great context. Why did you decide to use the library stairwell?
CO: I’m very inspired by the movement of natural light. Although the window wall in the stairwell faces north and doesn’t receive much direct sunlight, the space has a serene, solitary feel despite that it’s a major route of passage in the building. In order to play up the light qualities of the space, I’ve incorporated glossy, mirror-like materials and small perforations in the modules, which will subtly reflect light.
RJ: What’s the meaning behind the title, Learning is Infectious?
CO: Well, that’s the title that I gave the project in the beginning to clearly link the library with the form of the piece, which seems to spread like a virus across the walls of the stairwell. I haven’t quite decided if that will be the title that will get etched on the plaque, but because the form of the piece is very abstract—connected diamond modules—the title helps to describe the project in relation to the library, which was a big driver for the initial design. In the past, I’ve toyed with one-word titles that are a play on words, but I haven’t had the Title Epiphany yet. In any case, the piece will probably be entitled something pretty close to “learning is infectious”.
RJ: You mentioned the reflectivity of the materials and the light quality. Could you talk more about the material selection?
CO: From the beginning of the design process, I was interested in utilizing a durable, lightweight material that could be cut using digitally controlled machines. This narrowed the choice of materials very quickly and I am working with aluminum because it’s lighter weight and less expensive than steel, and can be plasma cut. I’m collaborating with Dr. Mark Zohns, who runs the plasma cutter in Agricultural Engineering, and we’ve worked together to develop techniques for setting up the file so that the machine will cut the modules in a way that they can be assembled quickly and easily.
I plan to work with a team of architecture students to partially assemble (i.e. fold up) the modules and we’ll transport them to Chad at Full Spectrum who will powder coat the pieces in two different finishes—white and clear. Powder coating will further enhance the durable, industrial quality of the modules—you’re probably familiar with the finish because it’s on bicycle frames. I also really like the intensely glossy, super smooth qualities of powder coating, which would be difficult to achieve by hand.
Check back here for the second installment of Clare and Renee’s interview, coming later this month!
Below, watch the second video in our documentary series in which Clare Olsen discusses the challenges of using color with Patrick Kammermeyer (who is behind the camera). You can watch the first video in the series, about prototyping, on our Vimeo channel.
Read part two of Renee and Clare’s interview and watch a video on color.
Learn more about Clare and the Clare Olsen Company at C.O.CO.