The Ephemeral Nature of Materials and Light

Today we go ‘off road’ with ALEXANDER WADE COLES, a stage and space designer for electronic music events in Perth. After embarking on a trip to Europe for an architecture summer studio, Alex developed an appreciation for electronic music and events. Searching for a less restrictive and demanding career path, he found gratification in the creatively limitless nature of non-permanent installations.

Alexander Wade Coles, Stage and Space Designer. Photographer: Grace Traeger. 

What were your reasons for leaving architecture? What aspects didn’t appeal to you?

Architecture had a huge workload preventing me from being able to maintain a normal life outside of uni. It made me question the traditional pathway for architects – arduous amounts of study, before interning, and working long hours under supervision, potentially on projects that might not be interesting. Ultimately, I questioned whether there was a divergent pathway that would let me work on projects that I found genuinely interesting, without having to roll the dice on the traditional pathway.

Planet X II 2019, Outdoor Stage. Designed by Alex Coles and Kyle Woodward. Videographer: Liam Oz.

What was it about stage design that appealed to you?

Stage design appealed to me for a few reasons. From a design perspective,

  • it allows for broad creative freedom without imposing built environment restrictions,
  • it focuses on human experience from multiple perspectives: patrons, dancers, and artists, which is easily observable during the event,
  • and projects are rapid – i.e. the scale allows you to develop an idea and have it tested/installed in a relatively short timeframe.

In terms of the work itself, it combines my passions of design, music, and self-expression, it always has a collaborative nature, and with a legitimate interest in the scene, it’s relatively accessible.

Material Testings, Polycarbonate Sheeting. Prototype Displayer: Grace Traeger. Videographer: Alex Coles.

In what ways has your time in architecture informed your new trajectory? Do you apply the same knowledge and process to stage design?

My education in architecture has been hugely influential in my approach to stage design. Architecture school shaped how I think about design, and as a starting point for any project, I apply the same conceptual consideration. A lot of my focus in stage design is drawn to the ephemeral nature of materials and light and trying to create particular effects on tight event budgets through sourcing materials destined for more obscure industries or purposes. Instead of relying on walls, ordering the event space involves positioning temporary barriers such as temporary fence or fabric divides.

Applying my skills in 3D visualisation from architecture to stage/space designs has become an important tool in communicating ideas, presenting designs with a high level of complexity in a readable format, and estimating quantities of materials for budgeting. Another element of the design process that is interchangeable with my experience with architecture is rapid prototyping and testing, usually testing the interplay of materials, forms and light.

In terms of human experience, what do you aim to create with your designs?

It changes depending on the event, but generally I aim to create an experience that meshes different visual and physical elements to invoke feelings of being part of something unique; which could be visually interesting, otherworldly, dark, or safe. By playing with different elements I hope to create phenomenological intrigue, choice in experience, tactility, and intimacy. Even though what I do is just one component of the overall experience, I hope people leave thinking ‘that was cool’.

Planet X II 2019, Entrance. Designed by Alex Coles and Kyle Woodward. Videographer: Liam Oz.

Why do you think so many graduates don’t continue on to be Architects? 

I think the course and career trajectory is very demanding both mentally and physically and is definitely a barrier to pursuing a career in architecture. I also think the degree sets up graduates with a versatile way of creative thinking that can be applied broadly, so if graduates have alternate interests, they can channel their skills and knowledge into something that may be more easily accessible and/or rewarding rather than following the traditional focus of designing buildings.

“It focuses on human experience from multiple perspectives: patrons, dancers, and artists.” – Alex Coles. Planet X II 2019, featuring stage designs by Alex Coles, Kyle Woodward and Melbourne based audiovisual artist & multimedia creative Hyper Reelist. Videographer and Editing: Liam Oz.

Alexander Wade Coles, April 2019. Interviewed by Emily Lim. Images and videos were supplied by Alex Coles and Liam Oz and used with permission.