At the intersection of classic architecture and unusual artistic experiments, the artist/potter Adam Silverman is currently in the process of developing an art project based on the clay found around the Kimbell Art Museum in the context of its new Renzo Piano-designed expansion (previously reviewed by me here). Silverman hopes of exploring the artistic dialog between Piano and Kahn, as well as the “concerned observer” found in Tadao Ando’s nearby Modern Art Museum, by collecting samples of clay and other raw materials found at the sites of the three buildings. So far he has excavated tons of earth from the construction site for the new building, taken trees from the site home in his rental car trunk, and even filled buckets of water from the Kimbell’s fountains, all to be shipped back to his studio in Los Angeles as fodder for his project.
The artist’s statement describes his project as a continuation of the traditions of ancient pottery, where works were informed by the particulars of the clay available at their site. This connected the art to its particular geography and climate in a way that seems distinctly architectural.
To quote the statement:
The traditional country potter works by setting up his or her studio near a clay deposit and making pots from that clay. As you might imagine, different areas offer up different clay, and these differences cannot help but inform the end result, the finished pots.
Archaeology is the study of cultures through the analysis of their artifacts, usually artifacts that have been excavated.
How I’m thinking of this project is a combination of the country potter’s practice with a reversed archaeological practice. Or “Reverse Archaeology”.
Reverse Archaeology proposes a cultural version of the country potter’s practice—to harvest materials from a culturally significant site and imbue the work with that significance. For me, it is hard to imagine a more culturally (architecturally speaking) significant and complicated place to try this idea out.
The artist is currently studying the specific properties of the clay found at the site in a manner which seems true to Kahn’s own inquiries into what a brick “wants to be”:
After seeing s0me examples of the artist’s previous work, such as his Boolean Valley (with Nader Tehrani) at the nearby Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas …
… I can’t wait to see what he discovers that the clay at these excavation sites “wants to be.”
Whenever I begin to sketch out a design idea while using a nice pencil, I immediately feel inhibited. The problem is that most of the nice pencils don’t include an eraser. I suppose it makes sense; pencil erasers are universally thought of as cheap, disposable annoyances. They inevitably harden or wear out. Serious artists making serious drawings would prefer the reliable control of a mold-able kneaded eraser. And on the next occasion that I find myself with enough leisure time to draw photorealistic fruit, I probably will too.
Let’s get back to reality. When I am attempting to sketch out an idea that I just had as quickly as I can before I forget it the time required to put my pencil down and pick up an eraser feels like ages. I prefer the eraser on the other end of my writing utensil, where I can easily turn it around to use it. Whether it’s a temperamental $15 mechanical pencil with a little eraser under the chrome cap at the end or one of the pedestrian old #2 pencils from your elementary schools days, having an “undo” option close at hand gives me the confidence to work more fluidly.
The following is re-posted from my Curating Architecture class blog.
I waddled into my dorm room in the kind of contended daze that can only come from having just digested a full meal of dining hall food. Little did I know, however, that my state of pleasant complacency was about to abruptly end, as soon as I noticed the strange orange glow lurking on my wall …
Puzzled, I look around for the source of the light. Could it have been reflecting off of the nearby Sulzberger tower, which happened to stand across the courtyard from my room’s window …
… and was now soaking up the last rays of a setting sun? Apparently so. I had no idea that bricks could project a light reflection approximately 100 feet away, but I guess you learn something new every day.
I looked back up to see that the light on the wall had changed. All exuberance dissolved as the tower shifted back to its usual businesslike poker face of gray:
The spirit of the moment had vanished. My vision darted back to the spaces of my room as I frantically searched for any last glimpses of the fading magic, only to find that my walls had safely returned to their usual state of dreariness. It was as if nothing interesting had ever happened.
Although I have now landed back within my standard expectations of reality, I cannot help but remember the moment. It was almost as if the tower’s familar brick face had, for just an instant, managed to slip free of its daily toils of firmitas and utilitas and beam me a wink as a sign that the world can be a more beautiful experience, if only one finds the right places and times where unexpected events can happen.
But then I realized that it was time for me to stop pondering by the window and get back to work.
Like boomerangs, questionable fashion styles, and self-indulgent ornamentation, some things seem to always come back. I was sure that I wasn’t meant to be a blogger, but more recently the urge to express myself has kept returning to me. This phenomena usually occurs on the night before I am supposed to complete something that I am actually being graded on.
So, I’ve decided to start posting again. It’s a little dusty in here, and I almost couldn’t remember the password to log in, but the lights still turn on and everything seems to have remained in one piece. If you ever feel like Xanadu is getting to be too complacent for you, you know where to come.
If you like your state of architectural complacency, on the other hand … that I can’t help you with.
The mainstream adoption of augmented reality-enabled contact lenses and related devices could liberate architecture from the practical necessities of physical construction by simply encoding the designs as three-dimensional electronic visions projected onto any observer’s eyes. Form would literally become independent from function, likely provoking a wave of unprecedented design risk-taking exacerbated by the chaos of networked distribution. Marriage-destroying remodeling ordeals might be supplanted by 99-cent home façade downloads, while holographic pop-up ads could stop traffic in Times Square.
Such a revolution seems decades away, but the possibilities have become technically plausible enough to be worthy of consideration by future architectural visionaries. Mobile location-based applications such as Foursquare have already begun bridging the gap between the web and physical reality, ticket sales for 3D-enchanced movies are climbing, and University of Washington researcher Babak Amir Parviz has developed augmented reality contact lenses that solve many of the biological interface problems involved in placing an LCD screen next to a wearer’s eyes. Organizations such as the military, having already spent decades using “head-up” information displays to enhance their air combat operations, could represent a likely future developer of such emerging systems. From there, the technology could trickle down to civilian use through numerous compelling possibilities. Automotive applications could reduce traffic accident rates, while educational software might transform a stroll down a city street into an interactive museum of local history. As these new augmented reality technologies proliferated, they might eventually, with the exact time frame of adoption dependent on our society’s collective level of squeamishness, be seamlessly integrated into our everyday experience through direct brain implants. Ultimately, our perception of the world, one of the most basic of human senses, would now be influenced by the mutations of a massive international network.
The result would be a new type of space unlike anything that architects have ever drawn before. In a future where any building’s appearance could potentially be designed or changed in true independence from its function, both the historical Modernist union between form and function and the ancient Virtuvian equation compelling architects to balance between firmness, commodity, and delight, would now be shattered. The shifting nature of these electronic visions would undermine the field’s even older values of stability and permanence, with building designs transformed into fleeting, temporal visions that could fluctuate in response to changes in society, market demand, or the will of any three-year-old viewer who imagines his or her dream house. The results might transcend architecture’s primary known language of space, time, physicality, and even meaningful purpose.
Architects, however, would not face these challenges entirely unprepared. As far back as Le Corbusier’s free plan and free facade concepts, modern designers have supported the separation of form and function; new-found steel technology was used to structurally support Corbusier’s buildings on pilotis, or columns, artistically liberating the facade and plan from the weight of gravity. Louis Kahn similarly segregated his buildings’ mechanical and electrical systems inside defined corridors, or “servant spaces,” to prevent their functional needs from intruding on outside aesthetic decisions. Separatist rebellion continued after the demise of modernism with Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s 1972 publication, Learning From Las Vegas, which advocated a “decorated shed” building typology where ornament was applied on top of a basic generic framework to address a building’s specific informational and emotional needs independent of its universal structural engineering. Memorable symbolism was as crucial to the success of such a postmodern building as its ability to function as a basic shelter.
Venturi and Scott Brown’s architectural adoption of ornament and pop culture references was inspired by the exaggerated features of roadside architecture, whose primary method of viewing was a fleeting glimpse from the highway rather than the more immersive levels of engagement previously found when appreciating a building at the slow pace of walking on foot. The partners rendered their buildings’ elevations in bold, bright, attention-grabbing lines designed to be clearly noticed at 55 miles an hour, but an even faster method of viewing architecture arrived near the turn of the millennium. Our last decade’s spectacular attention-seeking contemporary museums erected by Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, and other “starchitects” have likely been seen by more people on the Internet than will ever visit the actual buildings in reality. Designers such as Diller/Scofidio + Renfro and Jean Nouvel have further blurred the lines between the architecture and the virtual by integrating displays and projections into their buildings. Although Kazys Varnelis and Anne Friedberg argue, in their Networked Publics article, “Place: The Networking of Public Space”, that the rise of electronic architecture is unlikely to provoke a complete elimination of physical space in favor of virtual reality, it still seems likely that increasing portions of our buildings will become virtual in the years to come.
Further augmented reality developments, although ambitious, could also be motivated by pragmatic financial incentives. As smaller and more mobile electronics insinuate their way into expanding portions of our everyday lives at the same time that our economic recession continues, architects and developers might begin to approach virtual reality as a more affordable means of creating radical facade shapes than physical construction. Liberated from such concerns as finances, engineering, and lawsuits, virtual elements could enable exponentially higher levels of architectural risk-taking than were witnessed in even the competitive icon-generating atmosphere of the early 2000′s. Architectural culture would likely respond by placing greater emphasis on superficial exterior style, with the potential for buildings to adopt the more rapid pace with which trends change in faster-moving fields such as fashion.
Eliminating most of the risks and requirements involved in creating architecture would also lower the barriers of entry into the profession. Architecture would transition from a field that demands as many as eight to ten years of schooling and internships before one obtains a practitioner’s license, to a medium in which anybody with the appropriate easy-to-use computer software could participate. With opportunities to alter the appearance of our built environment no longer restricted to those financially secure enough to hire or become architects, such a development could potentially transform architecture into a relevant mainstream cultural medium, and perhaps even achieve the old Modernist holy grail of applying architecture to address public social issues.
Alternatively, the democratic proliferation of architectural design could just as easily spell the death of the profession. Just as computer networks overturned all previously known methods regarding how music, films, and print media are created and distributed, architecture’s transition into a partially digital medium would undoubtedly disrupt the field’s existing power structures as a flood of untrained newcomers projected their most impulsive and willful architectural fantasies while rapidly sharing (not to mention pirating and hacking) other users’ designs from around the world. As with the shortfalls now facing graphic designers who often struggle to compete with cheaper non-schooled competitors, professional architectural practice might recede from a legal requirement on serious building projects to an entirely niche luxury tailored for a few dedicated remaining connoisseurs.
If architects lose their relevance, computer programmers are inadvertently preparing to fill the void. Their first foothold is language. Countless architectural job seekers have labored to unearth opportunities to practice their ancient field amidst a morass of technology company propositions seeking the many programmers who have now styled themselves as “information architects.” With most augmented reality developments currently originating in the technology sector, programmers and web designers occupy a natural position from which to pioneer the Internet’s expansion beyond the edges of the computer screen and into the three-dimensional outside world.
How will those digital designers react upon leaving their familiar domain? According to Varnelis and Friedberg, current precedents would suggest that they may be unprepared for the new form of perception: “Although the Web has become graphically more sophisticated, when we visit it we navigate a two-dimensional interface. Corporate presences on the Internet appear to us as brochureware, not as virtual structures that we can enter into and inhabit. Indeed, the Web is curiously nonspacial …” Such an analysis would suggest that, when spatial augmented reality finally arrives, the predominately two-dimensional experience of the web’s traditional designers could create a vacuum of unmet demand for the three-dimensional spatial skills which thousands of hungry architects have spent years perfecting. This could become architecture’s next opportunity to reassert its relevance to society, and from a Modernist point of view it would indeed be our imperative to join this emerging technological revolution.
Finally, from a less altruistic angle, architecture’s expanding audience and new digital format could potentially revitalize the profession with greater market demand and higher salaries. What if tomorrow’s architects found themselves recruited as high-flying employees of Microsoft or Google, or even dreamed up their own augmented reality start-up companies? After all, the creator of the term “information architect,” Richard Saul Wurman, originally emerged from an architectural background, and our field could still have an opportunity to reclaim that title if the next generation of designers possesses sufficient vision to imagine our future possibilities.
(Note: Several people have compared this article to the premise of the movie Inception. I saw the movie a few days after I had finished my penultimate draft of this article. As I watched the movie, my growing realization that comparisons could be made to my ideas did much to undermine my film-going experience.)
According to a recent Fast Company article, the recent detection and arrest of an 11-person Russian spy ring was essentially made possible by the Russians’ failure to consider the kind of human factors that are so often overlooked in all types of organizations:
“In the end the downfall of this computer-based system was apparently the password needed to encode and decode the messages–it was 27 characters long, and was so hard to memorize that some of the suspects had written it down on a piece of paper that the FBI found during a search. This proves how even the highest tech can be defeated by simple human failings …”
Although the password error alone was not entirely responsible for the detection of the spies, it is interesting to note that design played a role.
While browsing the internet for potential opportunities, I came across an innovative series of design competitions. The simple format and democratic transparency of the Spontaneous Architecture project, run as a collaborative experiment between Pre Office, GSAPP’s Studio X, and Good Magazine, aims to maximize the potential for the form of the architectural design competition to provoke discussion, debate, and new ideas. This freedom is achieved, perversely, through the use of a highly restricted competition format; each contestant has only a single 8.5″ x 11″ sheet of paper with which to show the world his or her ideas. That minimal format, combined with the contest’s quick timetable and low $5 entry fee, encourages risk-taking and innovation among the competitors. As a result, each month’s entries can often be highly abstract and experimental …
… or theoretical:
This proposal, for the US/Mexican border, provokes the following question in its descriptive text: "What is a border? Conceptually, it's a line, separating one side from another. But in architecture a line always gets a thickness."
Other entries have even more ambiguous meanings:
Other contestants may take the alternate approach of honing their message through simplicity. The results often resemble the visual equivalent of a one-liner:
Some other entries, meanwhile, are just plain bizarre:
Regardless of each entry’s psychedelic value, however, they are all displayed for public viewing and voting on the competition website. In an interesting blend of the digital and analog worlds, the entries can also be discussed in real life at a monthly Studio X event. These venues for debate and discussion ensure that each contestant has the potential to make a statement, provoke thought, or contribute to a larger dialog, regardless of whether or not they win or even necessarily intend to win:
I was also surprised by the thoroughness and passion with which many of the competition entries addressed the pressing issues of today’s society. Although their awareness was undeniably kick-started by the format of each month’s competition brief, which inevitably highlights a particular social or cultural challenge, the resulting entries suggest inventive new solutions that rise above and beyond the rehashed political arguments typically associated with those themes. A proposal to place medical offices and waiting rooms on trains, for example, pragmatically reinterprets the unpleasant urban reality of long commute times as a tool for positive health care improvement:
"Combine idle time. Use time during the commute for visual checkups on specialized checkup trains."
Such competition briefs encourage architects to think beyond the design of individual buildings, and instead consider the overall systems of society and how design can impact the future. That approach is also reflected in the elegant diagrams that back up another health care proposal:
Decentralized health care kiosks to serve local communities.
Some other dreams embark on a more idealistic direction, resembling the kind of dramatic utopian visions more often associated with Modernist planning schemes than with the pessimistic postmodern environment of our current recession:
Immigration infrastructure designed to link unemployed workers with countries that have demand for their labor.
Regardless of how spectacular some particular entries appear, however, the discussion-focused nature of the competition seems to lend its entries to be judged by the critical fiber of their ideas rather than the presentation of their surface imagery. Andrew Miller David Ruperti’s winning entry for the March 2010 Olympics-themed competition, for example, is hindered by the foibles of a distracting background and inconsistent illustrations. Its overall idea, however, makes you think:
"Identity Games proposes that Olympic teams be allowed to identify themselves with non-nationalistic groups. This change would invite a flood of new teams representing both geographic and non-geographic communities."
January 2010 winner Daniel Georges’s dystopian prediction of how beachfront areas might be visually transformed by global warming is similarly challenging:
"Even the things that will be saved won't be the same any more."
Regardless of the merits of any individual submission, however, the contest’s overall spirit of headfirst risk-taking creates an atmosphere that I haven’t quite found in any other design competition that I have ever seen before. This is the kind of ambition that the world needs more of right now, and as this generation (my generation) of emerging architects grows and develops, we hopefully will see much more of it to come. If you’re interested in joining the project, there’s still time to propose your solutions to this month’s topic, the Gulf of Mexico oil leak, before the competition deadline of June 15.
A glimpse inside the lobby of Renzo Piano's planned Kimbell Art Museum expansion. Rendering by Renzo Piano Building Workshop.
Here’s a question for you: What do Amsterdam, Atlanta, Basel, Bern, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles and San Francisco all have in common?
Answer: The presence of a McDonald’s, a Burger King, and a museum designed by the architect Renzo Piano.
With additional Piano museums completed in such Burger King-deprived corners of the world as Paris, France, and Noumea, New Caledonia, along with Japanese airports and Manhattan skyscrapers and countless under-construction projects rising around the globe, the architect’s office should be ready to put up at least a “millions served” sign. While such ambitious business expansion might initially seem like an unusual feat for an architect who is also widely acclaimed at an artistic level, his success was rooted in the simple economics of the recent worldwide demand for big-budget museums built to increase their cities’ tourist revenue. Although Piano’s work is subtler thana some of the trend’s most outrageous advances, from Frank Gehry’s visual explorations at the Guggenheim Bilbao to the uncharted new ethical territory now being breached by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s planned Barnes Foundation expansion, the Italian architect’s worldwide expansion inspires a similar level of awe in its own way.
Renzo Piano's mammoth extension to the Art Institute of Chicago. Photo credit: happy_stomach
The city of Fort Worth, Texas, however, seems destined to become one of Piano empire’s most difficult conquests. The designer’s scheme for an addition to the Kimbell Art Museum, unveiled yesterday, must attempt to apply the contemporary art world’s commercial demands to the work of an architect who resisted such material temptations with an almost religious level of conviction. Much to the dismay of his few customers, Kimbell designer (and former Piano employer) Louis I. Kahn operated, at a certain level, without regard for the particular specifics of what his clients wanted, or even for what his personal instincts as a designer suggested. Instead, he considered his architecture to be a search for the elusive essence of what, in his words, thebuilding “wanted to be.” What was the basic, essential character of a school, or a church, or an art museum? His pursuit of an answer was always exhaustive, conducted through a design process that involved drawing up and rejecting scores of different schemes for each project before finding a balance that he felt was right.
In Ft. Worth, Kahn’s process resulted in a museum design which revolved around the singular purpose of creating optimal conditions for the perception of art. The building appears at first glance to be a simple row of ground-hugging vaults, modest in comparison to most recent cultural projects:
What the Kimbell lacks in exterior spectacle, however, it makes up for with its functional effectiveness. The museum’s one-story design enables it to take maximum advantage of the strong Texas sun, using natural light from above to more accurately render the colors in its displays of artwork. Sophisticated light deflectors, which the architect referred to as “daylight fixtures,” shelter the collection from the sun’s damaging side effects and glare.
What more could a cultural institution wish for? Tourist revenue and attention, perhaps. Where the Kimbell design was primarily concerned with displaying art, other landmark buildings before and since have placed emphasis on attracting visitors through their ticket lines in the first place. The Guggenheim museums in New York and Bilbao, for example, sought popular spectacle through their use of unusual curved forms, which stood out in contrast to their more traditional urban surroundings. The results still appear shocking today:
Frank Lloyd Wright's landmark Guggenheim Museum in New York. Photo credit: grytr
Frank Gehry's contemporary Guggenheim successor in Bilbao. Photo credit: disgustipado
Santiago Calatrava’s more recently completed Milwaukee Art Museum can even lure unsuspecting tourists with its motorized flapping wings:
After decades of watching larger and more extroverted buildings draw greater crowds, the Texas art museum directors understandably wanted to expand their institution’s capacity. The temptation would be familiar to anyone who has ever visited the drive-through window of one of the local fast food chains: “Would you like to supersize?”
The first time that they said “yes” was in 1989. As with yesterday’s proposal, that plan was inspired by a desire to better accommodate the crowds attracted by lucrative traveling exhibitions. The idea’s implementation, however, was crude; additional vaults would have simply been slapped onto each side of the Kimbell building, creating a chimera which critic Paul Goldberger described as “the architectural equivalent of a stretch limousine.” Vehement reactions from historic preservationists and Kahn’s relatives led the museum board to quickly pull their proposal.
Yesterday’s attempt took a more careful approach. Despite Piano’s prolific business success, design quality remains his primary objective; each of his projects is crafted with a subtle elegance and intense tectonic rigor likely inspired by his years spent working for Kahn. Piano’s diverse background will hopefully enable his interpretation of a Kimbell expansion to more effectively bridge the creative and commercial worlds.
The site plan of the future Kimbell complex, by Renzo Piano Building Workshop.
In order to achieve that goal, Piano’s new building must shoulder the burden of the institution’s ambitious expansion program while also tiptoeing around the serenity of his former master’s original museum. The resulting compromise, to be erected above the original Kimbell’s location in the previous site plan, hides its commercial scale by burying significant portions of its mass underground:
Section of the Kimbell expansion by Renzo Piano Building Workshop. Piano's new addition is on the left.
This move prevents the new building from overpowering the delicacy of its older predecessor, while also retaining some of the greenery of the original museum’s lawn as a gesture to the public. A look at Piano’s previous California Academy of Sciences project, however, reveals that the architect is also capable of envisioning more creative manipulations of a ground plane:
Although those grassy knolls were actually constructed on the roof of Piano’s California museum, not its ground level, the basic concept would have had interesting applications at the Kimbell. Slopes of earth could have been carved and stretched to create places to sit, perhaps in an effect similar to Maya Lin’s Wave Field, replacing the lost stretches of the old museum lawn. Where such an organic design might have posed a contemporary challenge to the Kimbell’s conservative styling, it would have done more to preserve the spiritual intentions of landscape architect Harriet Pattison’s current tranquil environment…
… than could likely be rescued in the wake of the glass and steel barge now slated to land there:
Rendering by Renzo Piano Building Workshop.
Although the new building’s axial alignment and fine details respect the old Kimbell’s proportions, the attempt is in danger of stepping a bit too far into the past; its stiff classical allusions and starched orthogonal lines could almost recall the monuments built by the Italian Fascists, or at least an Edward Durrell Stone building.
Other aspects of the new Kimbell are nicer. Piano at least keeps his creation a respectful distance away from Kahn’s work, 90 feet, although my gut reaction is that it should have been moved back even further. That placement will also supposedly bring more visitors to the Kimbell’s porches, which would support Kahn’s original intentions for the garden on the gloomy days when the excessive crowds don’t completely overrun it. In a world where every other museum aims to turn itself into a bustling circus, why not keep one good place to sit and think?
Ultimately, Piano seems to have tried his best to minimize the collateral damage of the aggressive program that he was given. Maybe the resulting museum will even has some positive effects if it liberates the old Kimbell from tourist loads that it wasn’t designed to handle. But ultimately, the situation reminds of a quote by the architect Cedric Price. As recounted by Lebbeus Woods, Price would ask his clients: “Do we really need this building?” If the new Kimbell is indeed necessary, then the public benefits provided by its spaces might even represent a continuation of the Athenian democratic values evoked by Kahn’s original museum. Otherwise, the Kimbell could go down in architectural history as an institution that fell for the kind of expansionist imperial hubris often associated with its first building’s Roman predecessors. We can only hope that Piano has been drawing with a very careful hand.
A layover in the Detroit airport did not sound particularly enticing. Everything I had recently heard about the city involved horror stories of empty homes and economic depression. And I would be there for three hours. I soon found out, however, that my worries had been exaggerated, and not just because my Kindle battery was still holding a charge. Upon stumbling into the airport terminal, I encountered a pleasantly optimistic surprise: an entrance to another world.
A tunnel of blue, as though I was descending under the ocean. I crossed the threshold. The experience inside was something beyond whatever emotions you might typically hold for an airport moving sidewalk. I was floating through the dark, surrounded by spectral echoes …
… while the world shifted around me. One moment I was amidst the greenery and bird chirps of an enveloping forest, the next I might be inside a raging red inferno. I stood there mesmerized.
Other travelers seemed oblivious to the performance as they hurried past me on their way out of the city …
… but I paused to take in the fact that the local citizens who built this installation were, in spite of their present struggle through their darkest hour, still unafraid to contribute something beautiful to their city.