Minnesota’s Dream the Combine designs an intriguing installation for MoMA PS1 in New York City

By Joel Hoekstra

The courtyard of MoMA PS1 in New York City is surrounded by 15-foot-high concrete walls. But this past summer, people on either side of the barrier could easily glimpse and wave to each other when conditions were right. As part of Hide & Seek, an installation conceived by the Minnesota-based design practice Dream the Combine, giant mirrors were positioned like a periscope to afford views from inside to outside and vice versa.

The design was the work of Jennifer Newsom, AIA, and Tom Carruthers, AIA, married partners who launched Dream the Combine (whose name comes from a dream their young son had) in 2013. Newsom, who has worked for such firms as Adjaye Associates and Deborah Berke Partners, is also an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota. Carruthers, formerly with Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Gwathmey Siegel, operates a metal-fabrication shop in Northeast Minneapolis. The purpose of their work, they say, is to “create site-specific installations exploring metaphor, imaginary environments, and perceptual uncertainties that cast doubt on our known understanding of the world.”

Some Minnesotans may have seen the couple’s earlier work Longing, a 2015 installation that involved kinetic mirrors placed at either end of an abandoned Minneapolis skyway bridge, which created the illusion of infinite space. Other design aficionados may have visited Clearing at Franconia Sculpture Park in Shafer, Minnesota. The 2017 installation incorporated 12 repurposed lampposts and mirrors placed along paths mowed through the prairie landscape.

In early 2018, the pair got word that MoMA PS1’s annual Young Architects Program had selected them from a group of five finalists to create an installation for the museum’s courtyard for the summer. Because the space was outside, they had to incorporate seating, shade, and water, as well as create an experience that would engage people of all ages. “They were looking for a design that dynamically shaped public spaces,” says Newsom. Adds Carruthers: “We wanted to create a dialogue between the context and the people interacting with it.”

The final design, completed with the help of ARUP engineer Clayton Binkley, was composed of interlocking steel frames, canvas canopies, and giant mirrors on gimbals; the mirrors rotated in the breeze or at the lightest touch. Visitors could reposition the mirrors to get a different view, lounge in a huge polyester-net hammock, or simply rest in the shade. Children played in the space during the day, and party crowds danced there at night.

“Jen and Tom tried to take away the ‘object-ness’ of the experience,” says Sean Anderson, associate curator in the department of architecture and design at MoMA, who oversaw the project. Previous installations in the Young Architects series tended to be sculptural or architectural structures that visitors moved around. Dream the Combine built something that was more malleable, yet “participants could immediately figure it out,” says Anderson. “Sometimes architecture has the ability to disappear. Depending on who was using it, the structure might be noticeable or simply vanish into the background.”

Newsom and Carruthers say they enjoyed watching people interact with the structure, whether it was walking down the catwalk-like platform or moving the mirrors to see people outside. “People didn’t have to come into the museum to see what was going on in there,” says Carruthers. And once they got a glimpse over the walls, more than a few curious folks made their way inside—drawn to the scene and the structure.

Location: MoMA PS1, Long Island City, New York
Architect: Dream the Combine
Lead designers: Jennifer Newsom, AIA; Tom Carruthers, AIA
Structural engineer: ARUP
Lead structural engineer: Clayton Binkley
Lighting designer: ARUP
General contractor: Jacobsson Carruthers
Photographers: Pablo Enriquez; Caylon Hackwith; Andrew Latreille
Dream the Combine’s Jennifer Newsom and Tom Carruthers provide a video tour of this dynamic installation in Infinite reflections in a kinetic environment on YouTube.