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This Duel Is Cool

By's Gina Pace and Christine Lagorio.

Some 500 New Yorkers knew they were going to a party in Manhattan, they just didn't know where. Two architecture firms knew they were going to battle it out, but they didn't know what they'd be designing.

The source of the mystery was the second LVHRD Master-Disaster Architect Duel, which pitted two firms in a build-off, while artsy types, who had been text messaged the location of the event only a few hours earlier, gathered to sip drinks, mingle and observe in the Canal Room, a sleek downtown club where celebrities such as Ashton Kutcher and Mariah Carey have been sighted.

LVHRD (pronounced "live hard") describes itself as "part private club, part flashmob, part creative salon, part social experiment," but also involves a heavy component of networking among "creative" industries like fashion or graphic design.

In 18 months, it has grown from about 100 members to a network of 2,000, who are — in signature LVHRD style — faxed e-mail rants from the heard-but-never-seen founder Beauregard H. Montgomery that provide inspiration for the twice-a-month events, that are then hosted by brand management firm The Happy Corp.

Confused yet? Happy Corp. founder Doug Jaeger said the mystery is part of the fun.

"If I don't know where something is until three hours before, it's guaranteed to be exciting," he said, wearing a costume of a chef's hat and coat, a long, white wig and white face paint. "We kept it secret at first so it's not too popular and can be experimental."

Take a video tour of the duel.
Check out photos and learn more about the architects.
Baruch Levy, 30, a hedge fund analyst who lives in Manhattan, likes the secrecy of the gatherings, which in the past have included hipster-goes-mainstream events such as models competing against scientists in a trivia competition or fashion designers facing off a la "Project Runway."

"As embarrassing as it sounds, that keeps it pure," Levy said. "I stood in line for a half an hour to get in here, and I don't stand in line for halves an hour."

Tuesday night's battle billed itself as the traditional "big guy vs. little guy" match-up. Grzywinski Pons Architects, a young firm founded in 2002 who designed the Hotel on Rivington in the increasingly trendy Lower East Side of New York, went head-to-head with two architects from Arquitectonica, a 400-member firm that has regional offices in Europe, Asia and Latin America.

Arquitectonica didn't shirk its Goliath reputation. Before the competition, architect Daniel Colvard said he was working on a 5 million-square-foot project in Seoul, South Korea.

"That's roughly 1,000 times the size of the Hotel on Rivington," he said with a smirk.

In dramatic fashion, the hosts announced that the competition was to be held in 2056, when the earth has been flooded by global warming, but there was no time to build retaining walls around metropolitan areas. The teams must build a model of a massive entertainment center that floats on water, is mobile and can house artists.

Each two-member team was given materials including glue guns, exacto knives, foam board and a video iPod to incorporate into their designs. The competition was divided into three rounds: half-hour to sketch, and two 45-mintue sessions to construct models. Mirrors were rigged above the stage where they worked, stage lights blazed down on the competitors, and a curtain separated the teams to prevent any cheating.

A DJ planted in the back of the club played dance, pop and techno while the attendees, mostly in their late 20s and many wearing blue and donning boat-themed hats — at least those who got the text message in time — talked and flirted.

One man admitted to scoping the place for women likely to sleep with him. The sheer number of asymmetrical haircuts and people taking cell-phone-camera snapshots to post on blogs indicated this wasn't a typical after-work happy hour.

Arquitectonica's duo donned grey jumpsuits over their black suits and ties. But the exolayer didn't last long. Soon, the heat and the pressure got to them, and they stripped off the jumpsuits and shed ties.

The crowd cheered. They guzzled Stella and water as sweat poured and glue dripped off their model. The pair from Grzywinski Pons, on the other side of the stage, kept cooler, working more slowly and steadily in blazers, jeans and sneakers.

"I want to root for the underdogs," said Makoto Mizutani, 27, who works at an architecture firm in Brooklyn. "But it's hard because the Arquitectonica guys are sweating and stripping and putting on a good show."

Arquitectonica's design looked like a spaceship amphitheater, mounted on rods that used paper rolls as floating bases that double as a boat dock for attendees.

"We took inspiration from the water strider that holds itself up with air pockets on its legs," said Arquitectonica's Eric Hofmann. "The buoys provide structural support and circulation to bring people up."

Grzywinski Pons created angular, detachable pods that were to work "not so much like islands but an archipelago," said architect Matthew Grzywinski.

A random audience vote of 22 to 17 picked Grzywinski Pons' moveable design as the winner. The prize was some orange water wings — sticking with the underwater theme — and the iPods.

Philip Nobel, a critic who writes for Metropolis and Architectural Digest and has written a book on the reconstruction of the World Trade Center, said the renegade design showdown is good for the firms as it helps them get back to their creative roots.

"Architects are famously fun people who get their good spirits beat of out them by school and harsh jobs," said Nobel, who was a commentator on a Podcast of the event. "Things like this — it's good for them to have fun."

Gina Pace and Christine Lagorio