Architecture’s uneasy relationship with art has always been difficult to dissect. The media increasingly promotes individual architects as the premier artistic geniuses. Conjuring up an architecture that transcends real world restraints and enters the vaunted arena of art, many architects become caught up in the illusion that their work somehow subscribes to a “poetic notion." The realities of architecture—the manner in which it is made, the conditions of its production—define it as the opposite, and in fact align it in a tradition that more resembles that of craft.
Several museums and galleries have recently mounted exhibitions by inviting artists to tackle issues of architectural practice. These shows aim to question the artistic dimension of architectural form-making. As artists have gained access to and adopted software and other technologies designed for architects, they have begun to directly engage with the strategies of architectural production. That several of the exhibitions showcasing this work took place within months of each other at disparate locations in North America points toward a current trend in the art world—an obsession with interdisciplinarity and the desire to conflate art and science, or art and technology.
Concurrently, other exhibitions have taken the artifacts of architectural practice and displayed them as art objects in their own right. Far from a documentary attempt to describe the architectural process to the audience, this particular breed—exemplified by drawing shows at the Museum of Modern Art, Max Protetch Gallery in New York, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, or the exhibition Perfect Acts of Architecture organized by Ohio’s Wexner Center for the Arts—removes the position of the drawing as a product of architectural process and allows it to float freely as a fetishized object to be collected and displayed.
Many of these shows trace the trend in which practitioners turned to the production of drawings as a useful tool to explore ideas of architecture. One could view the Continuous Monument projects by Superstudio (late-1960s conceptualists), Bernard Tschumi’s Advertisements for Architecture (a post-spectacle embrace of medium), and most of the work of Archigram (architecture’s Pop legacy) as early examples of architecture engaged in actively cribbing from contemporaneous art practices in order to question both the traditional foundations and representational limits of architecture, as well as to expand the role of the architect. As these early experiments were filtered through the lens of Postmodernism, the artifact increasingly became the focus, supplanting unbuilt, perhaps unbuildable, architecture. One glance at the meticulous drawing-paintings of Zaha Hadid or the painstaking hand drawings of early Morphosis or Neil Denari demonstrates the end result: the emergence of the architectural drawing as collectable art, where the means of production becomes the commodity. While it’s true the intended purpose of these works is to allow the architect to remove herself from the constraints of commerce and the physics of building in order to explore (we hope) social, political and perhaps formal conditions that would not be feasible as architecture, that this took place in roughly the same period that saw the explosion of the art market is not coincidental.
At the outset of the catalog for the recent exhibition Trespassing: Houses x Artists, museum directors Peter Noever (MAK Center for Art and Architecture) and Kathleen Harleman (Bellevue Art Museum) state that the exhibition offered its artists “optimal creative conditions.” The intent was to remove the external demands of program, scale, site conditions, finances and architectural preconceptions—in other words, the very foundations upon which we as architects operate on a daily basis. The goal of this liberation was to ensure that artists could examine the house in “absolute terms as a spatial and social hypothesis.”
What Houses x Artists offers are already-ran ideas about the nature of the single-family house. Kevin Appel is concerned with transparency and the gaze, and his glass house in a garden recalls the many iterations of the type since Philip Johnson beat Mies to the punch with his own Glass House of 1949. Chris Burden’s quasi-legal skyscraper for L.A. County is not embedded in the city, but rather on a cliff, a mesa or “deep in the land.” (Perhaps he will build one on the site of the Eames House, whose removed, but still-part-of-the-city, plot has been institutionalized as the ideal location for a case study.) Jim Isherman lifts the roof of Le Corbusier’s Heidi Weber Pavilion above the structure, creating a home with “unique triangular clerestory light condition(s)” and a plan resembling Hejduk’s nine-square Texas House below. David Reed proposes a house for an art collector. The rough-edged model is littered with dollhouse-sized reproductions of carefully annotated paintings by artists who must be his friends. All of these projects skirt an underlying question of professionalism and technical expertise and instead propose a dialog that is firmly rooted in the nature of the art object itself.
Of all the proposals set forth, Chris Burden’s quirky high-rise appears to be one of the only ones that might be built, albeit expensively. And Jessica Stockholder’s is the only one to engage, if conceptually, with the problems that construction, coordination and client present to the architect. I am not arguing here that the aforementioned conditions are integral to the production of an architectural solution. But what are we left with to judge these works as architectural proposals? How can these works, which diagramatically quote Modernism—a ribbon window here, a glass box there—possibly make a serious contribution to a new concept of living, or in any way advance the concept of the house? What puzzles me is that given the extreme lack of limit, there wasn’t anything offered to react with or against, to accept or challenge, or to hold as measures against the solution.
Unfortunately, the exhibition succeeds in reinstating the house as an idealized container in an even more idealized environment. Without exception all of the artists have chosen the single, detached house as the locality of their investigation. Perhaps it is a fault with the title: Houses x Artists rather than Housing x Artists. I had hoped that the model available to early modernist architects—that of individual houses for individual clients—would at least be challenged by a group struggling to question its dominance at the outset of a new millennium. Yet there is nothing here that suggests the development or distribution of any of their ideas in mass housing strategies, or is there much to suggest that the products delivered accomplish what the directors had hoped they would. The choice of the unique object—the house—is not surprising, given that the cult of originality has never strayed far from the field of artistic intervention.
The artists, curators and essayists of Houses x Artists tend to refer to the site as a displaced entity. Historically, the site, for architects and builders, is a sacred, moral thing. To lose it as a motivating factor seems to fly in the face of those who would ascribe sensation and the beginnings of architecture to it. It is interesting to note that once these artists become un-tethered, the nature of the pieces float in a netherworld that does not emphasize or critically place the object produced. It is virtual, removed, somehow unimportant. Actually, unimportant is not quite correct. The absence of the site in this body of work could be construed as constituting both the freedom of choice and its subsequent anxiety in the “artist.” In many instances the limitation on design that site provides formally, aesthetically, and, most importantly, architecturally is left to languish in the shadow of the artifact itself.
In fact, it is only Jessica Stockholder, in her insulation-inspired, tectonically feasible yet humorous Pink Concrete Timber Model, who states quite emphatically that her design will be affected—read made different—by a relocation to a different site. She acknowledges the hermetic qualities of the terrain in which she is operating. At first this loss of site seems like a willing enough distraction to let the artistic mind wander, to allow readings of interiority, psychology and indifference actually dominate. Imagine the opportunity to not be tied physically to anywhere. The artist is released from the boundaries of specificity to a ground and allowed to wander a new terrain of both undetermined and perhaps unprecedented analysis. But what do the artists make of this opportunity? In the case of Burden, there is nothing other than the coy tactics of finding a loophole in the zoning code that allows him to build his skyscraper. What he doesn’t engage in any way is the nature of the building type, the evolution of the need to condense the value of property vertically, or the manner in which it has primarily shaped the urban development of the twentieth century.
Barbara Bloom’s project, Game/Maquette, is a parody of domesticity. The site, while not abandoned, is critically virtual. The house is only present through a lens or computational metaphor, where the icons of organization on the computer are transferred onto the contents of the house. For Bloom, building is not the aim; what interests her is the theoretical construct of the house—the problems that inspire building rather than the solution the built form represents. This alone is provocative: without an existing architecture, there is no possibility for “trespassing.” Ultimately it is Bloom’s ideas that most closely resemble the interests that Houses x Artists initially set out to investigate.
The artists in the exhibition typically engaged in the same types of representation that architects use to describe their work to both the trade (i.e. the scaled, annotated and delineated plan and section) and the client (the subjective perspective, often coupled with collage or some other medium belonging to a tradition of “fine art”). The plans presented in the show were drawn by the group OpenOffice, architects of the recent Dia:Beacon and collaborators in the development of the exhibition. The catalog reveals that many of the models and drawings were also prepared by OpenOffice in consultation with each of the artists involved. This collaboration can be read as an attempt at cross-fertilization with the intent of producing conditions outside of the standard realm of architectural practice.
But this strategy is the architect’s attempt at playing artist. The plans are a dizzying array of colors, much like an AutoCAD file printed without proper pen settings. Perspective images are taken from screen captures, and as such their resolution confuses the typical way that these drawings are presented. Models are left as studies, reflecting not only the lo-res aspects of many of the project details, but also the desire by the artists to remove themselves from the traditional rigor of architectural representation. The catalog further elucidates that the representational strategy might have another, not so hidden motivation. According to Alan Koch, a partner in OpenOffice, architects are “always struggling with the problem of representation. As an architect, you plan and you need to sell your idea visually as a representation of what you are going to do, whereas an artist can make a whole string of works and then doesn’t need to represent what they are going to be like.” This conflation of the nature of representation and the idea of commodification is an important one given the circumstances of this exhibition.
Ideally, as architects we are called on to give spatial and representational intent to ideas—ideas about form, materiality, space, sociological and political circumstance. Our use of representation can be thought of as the true substance of our work. The actual making of architecture—the piles of paper construction documents, the cataloguing of clarification memos, the mess of administering a building as it leaves the printed page—filters our labor through the labor and expertise of a contractor. The building—as fact—is not what we are paid to do. All of our communication is structured around being able to clearly and analytically transmit the idea, through drawing, into concrete form. It’s true there are many practices that one can point to where architecture moves away from this standard relationship of drawing to artifact, and blurs the boundaries of the process. But for the most part, they serve to emphasize that the majority of us rarely get our hands dirty.
What is it, then, that we can take from this interaction, this mixing of identity between the artist and the architect? Is it capable of making collaborations that profoundly affect our understanding of space and form? Is it simply an attempt to make relevant both practices? Can there be a way of looking at this collaboration beyond the Richard Serra-Frank Gehry paradigm? (The latter’s Disney Concert Hall is beginning to seem more and more like a Serra with a program—the slipped, warped planes revealing very conventional window wall systems.) There are many examples of art practices informing the work of architects, but I am not so sure of the reverse being true. Perhaps it is a case of the architect trying to make a more economically viable career?
Despite my critical assessment of the Houses x Artists exhibition, I do believe that there is an intersection of art and architecture that can be productive and socially engaged. But in the exhibition and its accompanying catalog there is too much speak and not enough action. By removing the responsibility of site and client—in the rather naive hope that this might give a free space in which the artist-architect can create—the curators have removed the vitality from the production and experience of architecture.