May 23, 2006

Ars brevis, vita longa: Student's magic bus takes an artistic journey and meets tragic end

You might have looked at the trashed school bus as an eyesore. But Pete Klassen-Landis '06 saw art -- and his senior architecture thesis. Like all evanescent art, the bus installation's time on campus was intended to be finite. But few could have predicted its sudden, violent end.

As his five years in the architecture program drew to a close last week, Klassen-Landis spent much of his time at the Architecture, Art and Design Foundry, where he was building a modern plywood lounge chair for exhibition at the 2006 International Contemporary Furniture Fair. He could see his dismembered school bus from the Foundry window, standing at the side of the road.

Then it happened.

"I heard noise and saw a backhoe and came running out. Guys with trucks came in and just had at it. They just smashed it with no warning," Klassen-Landis said. "It was too late to ask them to stop."

It seems that Klassen-Landis' piece was removed inadvertently, the result of a bureaucratic snafu. It was to have been retired to the country property of Klassen-Landis' adviser, associate professor of architecture Val Warke.

"I disassembled the bus by myself, then reconfigured it into a pavilion," Klassen-Landis said. "I painted it all white and put white gravel on the ground under it."

From certain angles the finished piece recalled one of abstract expressionist Louise Nevelson's monochrome constructions. From other angles, it might have resembled a budget-conscious space pod that had inexplicably touched down behind Rand Hall.

"The idea was to take this discarded object and see it act as a pavilion," Klassen-Landis said. "It didn't hold anything, although you could sit in it. It was about how it acts as an object."

As part of his thesis, Klassen-Landis distributed "propaganda" on architecture department bulletin boards to spark discussion of contemporary architecture and culture. One poster collected quotes of people reacting to his work: "It looks like it's going to take us all to heaven." "Maybe it's a futuristic bathroom unit."

Klassen-Landis said, "As I'm creating the thing, I'm documenting and sort of de-familiarizing the project, and sort of commenting from an outside view as the project is in motion." A jury evaluated Klassen-Landis' work. "It was well received," he noted.

His far pavilion achieved its goals, Klassen-Landis believes, in that it provoked thinking among all who had the chance to see it and helped him earn his architecture degree. It also commented, he feels, on recycling and sustainability. An appropriate thought in light of the sculpture's demise.