Sept. 30, 2021
“Helper,” an architectural installation of cedar in the Branch Museum of Architecture’s front courtyard at 2501 Monument Ave., stands 24 feet high and spans 24 feet in diameter. The spikey sculptural composition resembles an angry porcupine or an upside-down megaphone. At the base, hyacinth bean vines sprout sprays of purple flowers and shimmering pods, extending their runners up from the planters, and the foreboding spikes part in two locations that are large enough to walk through, allowing people to go into the structure and be surrounded by the cedar scent. Inside, one can closely observe the details of the octagonal creation, the patterns formed by the wood connections and the circular opening at the top.
It is the creation of An Liu, a Virginia Commonwealth University adjunct instructor and concept-driven designer at SMBW Architects. Liu, a graduate of the VCU School of the Arts master’s program in interior design, created “Helper” for the Branch Museum of Architecture’s yearly Design Build Challenge, which he won. “Helper” will be at the museum through the end of the year.
Liu spoke with VCU News about his design, which aims to address the topic of wasted building materials by highlighting people’s impact on the natural world. Liu was born and raised in China and came to VCU in 2015 to pursue studies in interior design. The structure’s concept grew out of his exploration of architectural design, community and current social issues.“Helper” the Branch Museum of Architecture. [View Image]“Helper” is located in the Branch Museum courtyard. It will be on display through the end of the year. (Allen Jones, University Marketing)
When did you start planning the design for “Helper”?
In late August 2020, I went on a path of self-exploring, going back to the first journey that drew me to VCU and the [United States]. I wanted to rethink the relationship between the made environment versus the natural environment. In architecture firms, a lot of times we care about what the building looks like, but I wanted to raise the question about the whole lifespan of architecture, materials consumed, where the material comes from and how it is going to be viewed, as well as the second life of the material.
The second thing I wanted to address is community values; what is community and how can we make community better? One thing that inspired me was a poster that said, “Hope Demands Action.” I tried to bring a sense of community engagement in the project.
I wanted to use recycled material. I was running around Richmond paying attention to construction sites to see what waste was generated, trying to reclaim wood materials. One day I saw a beautiful building facade made from red cedar. Because lumber typically comes in a rectangular shape, I was wondering, where are the cutoffs? I tried to find a dumpster but couldn't at first. Then I saw it about 20 yards away. There in a corner was the dumpster behind a concrete wall, hidden from the public. It was full of wood. So that's where I got all the spikes you're looking at here.
Were you planning the spikes already?
No. I had four or five concepts before I got the cedar spikes. After I collected all the wood from the dumpster, I went back and talked with the contractor. I ended up going back weekly with my SUV. I collected all the wood spikes into my truck. I ended up collecting about 2,600 spikes total when they finished the building construction. At first, I was trying to use the cedar to build the idea I already had. But I felt like I was forcing the cedar spikes to do something they didn’t want to. When architect Louis Kahn was building, he would ask the material what it wanted to be. I was also asking the spikes: “Spike, what do you want?” The response was: “I want to dance. I want to be pointed and I want to heal. I want to have a conversation with you.” The spikes also asked: “Why did I end up in the dumpster? I want to dance in the air. I want to feel the breeze.” I decided to change the design to celebrate the spikes’ own beauty, to keep the identity of the spikes and be pointed.
I maintained the pointy feeling of it. That sense of a threat, because I feel metaphorically the spikes want to tell us: “This is not right to treat us like that.” The spikes represent a threatening aspect that you can see in nature, but upon a closer look, there's a beauty in here.
When you are standing in front of it, you feel the threat. But when you get into “Helper,” metaphorically and physically changing your position, the “Helper” becomes a shelter, or your armor. It protects you. There's no sense of threat. There is a sense of peacefulness when you unite with the form of “Helper.” The inside, outside differences matter if it metaphorically represents humans’ relationship with nature.
The planters were donated by Richmond Community ToolBank and will be used for community gardens after the exhibit is done. All the wood used to build the “Helper” will be disassembled. The cedar will be used for community gardens and shoreland protection. The lumber will be returned to DPR Construction for future projects. That answers the sustainability part of the story.