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Esposizioni

Installing space

Hani Rashid



Architectural exhibitions tend to assume a number of guises; they can be exhibition work, utilizing drawings, and models of built or proposed projects. Or interventions into a given space or situation used to investigate and challenge. The latter being articulated as built installations that afford architects the opportunity to test their ideas at a scale that is well beyond the limits of conventional modeling, or the newer limits of virtual models and computer generated imagery. In a real space intervention is a powerful and engaging way to build, occupy, and test new ideas for architecture.

[25oct2002]
During the Italian Renaissance, Bramante's perspectival experiment in Santa Maria delle Grazie, a small church in the center of Milan was not only an elegant architectural solution for a confined space but (more importantly for the architect) was a test environment for the future Saint Peter's Cathedral in Rome. This precise intervention, predicated on the new found geometric principals around perspective projection, afforded Bramante the opportunity to envision his ideas in something approximating full scale, a diorama of the great cathedral potential interior. Another predecessor to our modern notion of installation architecture was found in theater design, in particular Andrea Palladio's Teatro Olimpico built in Vicenza in 1584. Effectively this 'permanent ' intervention into the theaters structure was a full-scale test environment. The Teatro, again utilizing perspectival geometry, was used not only to investigate architectural motifs and proportional systems, but also for envisioning a 'perfected' model of city space, again allowing the theater installation to act as a surrogate for a new potential for architecture.

There are many similar examples of interior interventions that are not simply decorative but are architectural constructs utilizing the 'controlled' environment of a given situation to enact architectural experiments at full scale. The ideal of transforming interior spaces continued from these origins through Baroque and Rococo ornamental interiors. These interior architectures eloquently and precisely reenacted a perfected natural state beyond their interior spaces interpreting the external worlds condition through the use of ornament, paintings and furnishings. These interior worlds were lenses on a delirious exteriority that could be drawn inside and presented as an architectural 'actuality' beyond.

In modernity, the installation as architecture was perhaps seen most vividly through the research of Gaudi and his experimental laboratory used to investigate his extraordinary ideas and experiments with materials, structures and forms. Gaudi's workshop was essentially a constant installation work with countless experiments testing the limits of his approach to architecture. Frederick Kiesler also employed the experimental nature of architectural installations through his theater stage sets and exhibition designs in order to understand the limits of his ideas and aspirations for an 'endless' architecture. The list of early modern architects that experimented with full-scale installation work that, in effect, became meditations on architectural futures includes Theo Van Doesburg, André Bloc, and Moholy Nagy. These artists and architects sought new forms of expression through experimental installations with light, color and space.

Technology and form continued to become intertwined and critical to architectural interventions. This is seen in the work of Russian Constructivists such as Vladamir Tatlin with his large-scale models of the Monument to the Third International and El Lissitszky with his elegant Proun Space installation work. Another Constructivist, Gustav Klucis made intriguing architectural installations in the form of Agitation Propaganda machines (Agit-Props) using architectural installations as works unto themselves, self contained structures to be deployed throughout small towns in the Russian landscape. These structures showed documentary films captured by filmmakers like Vertov, the architecture itself becoming a dynamic intervention, a device inserted into the landscape. This work heralded the beginning of what we could identify as the fusion of media and space into architectural manifestations.

Ray and Charles Eames' magnificent manifestations of imagery, technology, media, and spectacle were obviously influenced by the Russian Experiments, but also established a new scale and scope to which the architectural installation might aspire. The Eames' experiments, like those at the 1964 world fair in Moscow, in effect initialized the advent of an interactive multimedia environment. Their installation utilized film imagery that spanned across five immense screens high above the exhibit halls crowded floor. They presented on these surfaces a montage of scenes, icons and imagery that for them typified and made vivid life in America. Along with sound, special lighting effects and installed artifacts, the space was transformed into a veritable diorama of contemporary American urbanism, thereby situating the installation as a place of virtual occupancy through mediated experience.

Extending the Eames' strategy, perhaps the grandest architectural installation/ experiment enacted to date was that of Buckminster Fuller's dome at Expo '67 in Montréal. The immense geodesic dome housed the American Pavilion and in total encompassed a volume in excess of three hundred thousand cubic meters. This engineering feat in many ways was the ultimate expression of architecture as installation being used to manifest the prowess and possibilities of technology.

Three years later an installation at the exposition in Osaka, Japan entitled simply 'Pavilion' was used to further experiment with the interaction between art and technology. The 'Pavilion' was built by a Japanese-American collaboration that included seventy-five engineers and various industries, and also included the artists Robert Rauschenberg, Allan Kaprow and Terry Riley. This project was built with a mandate to carry out 'experiments in art and technology'. The endeavor was a sort of 'space program' equivalent for artists and engineers, incorporating various new technologies into architecture constructed as spectacle. The Pavilion, although a celebration of technology, was not centered on the role of new technologies in a futurist utopian scenario as Fuller's engineered magnificence was, but rather on the impact of new technologies on the human condition and their inherent potential for an evolving humanity. The Pavilion's geodesic structure accommodated an interior skin of Mylar and within the space fog machines, laser lighting systems and sound environments created a dynamic, fluctuating interiority. Here experiments were carried out with artificial weather systems, artificial intelligence and manufacturing techniques such as robotics. Each 'happening' was carefully engineered and choreographed to display the impact and potential of these technologies on our evolving spatial environment. The notion that an installation such as this could evolve past the parameters of structure and form to occupy and reveal phenomenological territories anticipates the digital future that lay ahead. Other important architectural installations and research of this nature included Coop Himmenblau's "Football de Rue" enacted in the streets of Vienna in 1971, Haus Ruckers & Co's Viennese happenings in 1970 that incorporated air filled structures and performance art and Archigram's "Maison Gonflable" of 1968. Today, particularly with the advent of digital technologies and the new spatialities they reveal, we are experiencing radical shifts in how we define spatiality and installations such as the 'Pavilion' built some 30 years ago set an interesting and intriguing precedent.

In the 1970's another sort of architectural intervention emerged with the work of Robert Venturi and his postmodern discourse. For Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown the space of the gallery itself was often a site, and their researches into roadside America and Las Vegas certainly paved the way for another type of architectural experimentation. Here iconography and symbolism were tied to commerce and the generic, anticipating what today seems to be an insatiable interest in branding and advertising as a means for comprehending and even proposing new architectural formations. Rem Koolhaas in his Prada store designs or his immense new museum for the Hermitage/Guggenheim museum in Las Vegas could be interpreted as installations where Koolhaas, the architect, has stripped away all semblance of technology, experience, and spatiality and replaced these with image brand and a celebration of the experience of shopping.

An interesting tendency today in installation work by architects is a blurring between building and art. For artists the installation has very different purposes, where the work is often centered on the notion of effects and narratives. The works of Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio serve as a vivid example of the overlap between an art installation and an architectural intervention. For these architect/artists the installation reaches a level of self-containment and mannering centered on simulation and the making of pseudo-environments, where visual experience is pushed to the extreme. Diller and Scofidio's building propositions owe a great deal to their installation experiments, using the built environment to incorporate 'installation' procedures.

In close proximity to this understanding of installation, yet approaching it from another direction, is the work of Vico Acconci an artist turned architect by virtue of his installation work. For Acconci, the installation has always offered the opportunity to experiment with spatial shifts and programmatic alterations. While his early gallery installations were more purely art works, Acconci's later work evolved into architectural issues through the insertion of inhabitable automobiles, containers, and even buildings themselves into gallery spaces. Acconci today runs an 'architectural' practice and his urban parks airport interventions, and large-scale works are all effectively installations implemented into urban space.

For Asymptote, architectural installations usually in gallery settings have always served to inform and reveal the theoretical intentions behind Asymptote's other work, which have included buildings, city plans, objects, and virtual reality environments. The early installations by Asymptote tended to be thought of as one to one built worlds, where narratives or programs could take hold. These installations such as the Kursaal for An Evacuee c.1986, (Artists Space in New York), the Optigraph Installation in Berlin (Aedes) and Paris (L'Arsenale) were formed out of an understanding that the gallery experience is essentially a transformational one. That such a space is controlled and delineated by the separation of an art space from the 'real' city. Here Asymptote was able to suspend reality and reinterpret a world that was autonomous and introspective. A world where architecture could transport the occupant to another place where paper proposals could not take them. Other installations such as the "Ocular New York" installation in Berlin at the Aedes gallery in 1994 was another take on creating spaces and architectures that could encompass and contain the experience of spatiality and meaning in architecture. The space of the exhibition hall was transformed into a veritable machine for viewing and comprehending, a 'suspended' reality involving New York urbanism and architectural assemblies at the end of modernity.

In June of 2000 the American Pavilion at the Venice Biennale was transformed through collaboration between Asymptote and the students under my tutelage at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture. Through a process of computer digitization, a gymnast moving through the interior space of the Pavilion was recorded and the information concerning the body's movement was transferred to a computer using modeling procedures and re-constructed utilizing C+C manufacturing technologies. The resulting architectural intervention into the space was effectively a full-scale work based on the intricacies and nuances of movement through the actual space of the US pavilion.

Another piece in Venice that Asymptote built for the Biennale was a large structure entitled 'Fluxspace II. Measuring 30m in length and standing about two stories tall, it allowed a visible and tangible oscillation between the physical presence of the exterior with that of the fluid constantly reconfigured state of the interior. The work was constructed as a large pneumatic structure in which we housed two 360-degree Internet cameras within two circular rotating mirrors. One approached this building with a certain kind of expectation and upon entering found instead a much more intimate space. The rotating one-way mirrors were constantly moving, locating the interior space ambiguously somewhere between the real condition and its altered contorted reflection. Another way of experiencing the interior through the Internet where the images were stored and captured at a rate of one image every thirty seconds for five months. This procedure of capturing catalogued some 1.6 million variations on the space's interior condition over the five-month period of the Biennale.

A related installation that was carried out by Asymptote in 1999 as part of CCAC artist in residence program in San Francisco was entitled FluxSpace 1.0. This attempt at creating a full-scale interactive architectural work was predicated on the notion that the installation could act as a conduit between physical experience and virtual manipulation, particularity in respect to spatial entities. As one approached the work and touched its surface, the 'architecture' would respond and change its entire physical and morphological state. This change was brought about by tethering the large construction to computer systems, which responded by way of proximity sensors embedded in the structure surface. The notion that the installation is a place for the housing of an 'artificially intelligent' architectural entity afforded Asymptote the opportunity to use the gallery as a sort of conceptual and spatially privileged 'wind tunnel'. This insertion was effectively an enactment of an architectural experiment prior to its full-scale implementation as a building or an urbanism.

Virtual architectural environments as augmentations of physical space offer the opportunity for unique spatial experiences and challenge our definition and understanding of what constitutes movement within 'real' environments and 'actual' spaces. The evolution of these fluid architectures will be interesting to follow as architects become less concerned with differentiating between physicality and the virtual, increasingly becoming preoccupied with redefining what actually constitutes the spatial, and how we in fact move within this new spatiality. And ultimately it is within the space of the installation where these sorts of theses and assumptions can be tested. For certain architects the space of exhibition reinterpreted as a place for experimentation is crucial for research and envisioning architectural futures and possibilities.

Hani Rashid
info@asymptote.net
Previously published in The art of Architecture Exhibitions, Kristin Feireiss (ed.), NAI Publishers, The Netherlands, 2001.
> ASYMPTOTE

 

ARCH'IT books consiglia

Kristin Feireiss (ed.)
The art of Architecture Exhibitions
The Netherlands 2001
NAI Publishers
pp144, $29.50

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