EcoSoMo, an abbreviation of Ecological Social Modules, is a series of sculptural forms clustered evenly along the full length of University High Street between Tower and Crescent. Separately, the components are asymmetrical and dynamic shapes that fit together like puzzle pieces. Placed together, they support the interaction of people, plants and wildlife through elevated planters, seating and rain pool birdbaths. Local plantings erupt from the summits of ‘volcano’ shaped obelisks, nestled close to rain pool forms that create micro-habitats for local birds. Beneath these, seating modules and kiosk-like forms suggest a sociable platform for gathering, resting and conversation. Their placement introduces multiple rhythms along the busy streetscape: the modules repeat and recombine systematically; perennial plantings flourish and recede with the season, and precipitation gathers and ebbs away.
While there is an ancient sensibility in the architectural references of obelisk and pedestal, the light and clean surfaces, modular construction and systematic placement lend the clusters a futuristic presence and set them visually apart from the everyday context of the residential frontages and sidewalks. Fabricated from high strength and durable Ductal concrete, elements that seem weighty are able to float above the ground, revealing the beveled bases of adjacent forms. This sense of levitation is a subtle enigma noticed at a distance and draws one closer.
In relief on nearly every surface, creating interplays of light and shadow, rows and rows of text inscriptions wrap precisely around the obliquely angled corners. The technical complexity of fitting text and image to such asymmetrical forms reveals computer aided 3-D modeling as a key method in the production of the artwork. So specifically integral to the forms are these Roman characters, Braille dots and pictographic images that the components take on a sense of being machines for reading in themselves, a series of three-dimensional ‘books’ to be perused with the eyes and the fingertips.
In EcoSoMo, a new pictographic system, devised by collaborating graphic designer Ross Chandler, sits alongside Roman and Braille characters. It features a distinct image for each letter of the alphabet, functioning not as a new language, but rather as a visual code. Six of the modules contain the legend to translate these images back to letters, words and sentences. The polyglot compositions, wedded to the stone-like surface, mix up the past, present and future, and playfully tease the viewer with legible meanings and coded translations. Gleaned from a variety of sources, the texts mirror the ecological and social framework of the project. Words that describe the climate and weather patterns, the soil and mineral composition, the flora and fauna of Burnaby Mountain flow in diverse characters. Historical notes on the explorer Simon Fraser and the university bearing his name, along with formal and informal references – from lesson plans to bird-watching blogs – reiterate the role of computation and information technology in setting the parameters of the artwork, and in defining the categories of culture and nature.
EcoSoMo plays with how we have imagined the future – as a version of the past rendered new again, and just as mysterious. The artwork allows us to sit and inhabit a seemingly alien system, explore its tactility and experiment with old and new technologies of coding and holding information. As always, nature is in our proximity. A part of the world as we know it is described on smooth, expansive planes. As conditions, climates and fields of knowledge change, these groupings will stand as a record of the impulse to document, encode and assert our presence on the mountaintop.
Matthew Soules is an architect whose design practice, Matthew Soules Architecture (MSA) explores an emergent territory where art, ecology, and architecture overlap. Soules has completed projects in Vancouver and other British Columbia communities as well as contributing to projects in Beijing, Shanghai, Milan, and New York City. In addition to designing homes, recreational facilities, and offices, MSA has created a series of innovative public space installations. Vermilion Sands, a living structure for the 2014 Harmony Arts Festival, suspended 260 plant-covered modules to form a shade-providing canopy structure complete with misting nozzles and LED lighting. In 2012, MSA collaborated with AFJD Studio on Pop Rocks, a pedestrian-oriented social space that transformed Robson Street during the summer of 2012 as part of the VIVA Vancouver program. With Mari Fujita, Soules created a large scale collage and manifesto titled Ecometropolitanism for the WE:Vancouver exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2011. Distributed as a poster throughout Vancouver streets, the manifesto offers a fantastical description of a future city in which density is “intensified through the radical incorporation of ‘natural’ programs.” Soules holds a Master of Architecture degree from Harvard University and an undergraduate degree in Fine Arts from UBC. Prior to founding MSA, he worked with leading architects around the world, including Rem Koolhaas in the Rotterdam headquarters of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners in New York City, and Arthur Erickson/Nick Milkovich Architects in Vancouver. Soules is an Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture and has been an invited design critic at Harvard University, MIT, Berkeley, the Rhode Island School of Design and the Pratt Institute.