Installations by Architects: Experiments in Building and Design
“Like paper projects and competitions, installations allow architects to comment on and critique the status quo, and to imagine new forms, methods and ideas in architecture. And as ephemeral constructions, they also offer precious freedom to experiment…”
- From the book’s introduction
Edited by Sarah Bonnemaison and Ronit Eisenbach, Princeton Architectural Press (2009)
Reviewed by Sean Ruthen
It could be argued that architecture is one of the most propitious of professions, as to practice it is to have the opportunity to experiment with building design – making a detail work, trying out a new material, challenging a construction assembly – in essence encouraging a spirit of innovation discouraged by most other professions. Doctors would frown upon a colleague experimenting with new surgical methods in situ, or bus drivers of their co-workers improvising new routes during their shift. Yet quite to the contrary, architects on a daily basis have to provide workable solutions to problems that have no rulebook or roadmap, and engage themselves in the immediacy of their physical resultant. The product of this experimentation is a kind of architectural detritus - piles of scribbled tracing paper, study models, mock-ups – all are themselves a kind of art which the architect creates, and so have architect/editors Sarah Bonnemaison and Ronit Eisenbach done there best here to present a few examples of this phenomena they call ‘architectural installations’.
Comprised of fifty projects ranging from traditional gallery fare to more novel performance/public art, Installations by Architects: Experiments in Buildings and Design (2009)
is the ‘first book of its kind’ according to Princeton Architectural Press
, and boasts some of architecture’s most innovative designers, including the likes of Diller+Scofidio
, as well as the late John Hedjuk
. With one of the book’s editors also an associate director at the Dalhousie School of Architecture
in Halifax, she features many Canadian projects, as represented by her firm, Filium Ltd., along with projects by fellow Dalhousie professor Richard Kroeker
, and the Quebec based Pierre Thibault Architecte
. International projects are represented from New York, London, Paris, the Netherlands, Berlin, and Tokyo, in all offering a sampling of significant projects of this oeuvre from the last twenty-five years.
Divided into five sections representing the architect’s palette – tectonics, body, nature, memory, and public space – these five categories are broken down further into sub-categories ranging from the physical to the phenomenological, the objective to the subjective. In some instances, a third sub-category is necessary, as in the case of ‘immaterial tectonics’ and ‘postmodern bodies’. With a small group of architects and designers representing each sub-category, the book offers a marvelous collection of architectural curiosities, existing somewhere between installation art and architecture. Not surprising, all of the architect’s skills are present in each project – the exploration of the relationship between space and the body, the utilization of sustainable strategies, environmental stewardship, material experimentation, and always a sense of play and discovery.
It is not surprising that the editors of the book choose to begin with the category of ‘tectonics’, as the word shares its origin with the word ‘architect’ itself, both derived from the Greek tekton
. And with a short exposition about Gottfried Semper
and his contribution to the origins of architecture, the editors begin their book with fabric-formed concrete sculpture, bent wood constructions imitating movement, and a house made of phone books, all examples of material exploration. The second sub-category, ornament, looks at the aesthetics of design and its visual excess - a new Rococo for an age that can build anything. As one of the featured designers comments: “I am really fascinated with the question of excess – there are subliminal codes embedded in the work that can be received in many different ways.”
The second category – body – is the yin to the yang of tectonics. Where one is about material, structure and enclosure, the other is a response to the environment we create, the receiver of the decisions we make when we design. As the body is both physical and perceptual, installations in this category range from constructed mappings of movement, like Parmenides’
arrow caught in mid-flight, to spaces that force those who encounter them to rethink their relationship to their environment. A third sub-category, entitled ‘postmodern bodies’, uses the tongue-and-cheek typical of postmodernism to elevate banal human activity to a performance art. One of these installations, FEMMEpissoire by Yolande Daniels, humorously examines the relationship of the female body to architecture, creating a whimsical sequel to Duchamp’s Fountain
Following these first two categories representing human activity is ‘nature’, the canvas upon which all activity is painted. Divided into three sub-categories depicting land art installations, nature as a pictorial phenomenon, and variations upon the ‘primitive hut’, this is visually the strongest part of the book, with ‘Marking the Land’ featuring the poetic land art of Pierre Thibault Architecte’s Winter Gardens
, and yielding some of the book’s most breathtaking images. Likewise, Philip Beeseley’s Geotextiles
is a mesmerizing display that has its origins in the observation of nets on the rocks of Peggy’s Cove, and the materials that collect in the nets with the retreat of the tide. Imagining an artificial landscape where the landscape and artifact interact, this biomimicry
is seen as a new window to nature. Ultimately, however, all installations in this category recognize the impact architecture has on nature, whether it is the building’s footprint or resource extraction, and how it is the duty of the architect to ‘shape a more responsible attitude towards nature.’
The last two categories of the book, memory and public space, are polar opposites in the world of architectural installations. One is psychological while the other is social and political, with each category providing some of the most intellectually challenging projects in the book. As the editors explains with memory, “The works invite us to consider ways in which memory is a critical component in how people experience the built environment and understand change… as well as the attendant sense of loss.” One of the most stunning projects in the book, under the sub-category ‘Abandoned Landscapes’ (also providing the cover for the book) is Marco Cassagrande and Sami Rintala’s Land(e)scape
, where the architects put three dilapidated barns on stilts, following which, as a kind of architectural performance art, they light them ablaze to symbolize the decline of the rural farm in Finland’s landscape.
As the relation of memory and architecture have long provided the theoretical armature for many architect's work, from Aldo Rossi
to Peter Eisenman
, it is no surprise to see a project by John Hedjuk, former dean of architecture at Cooper Union
. As found in the book’s sub-category of ‘Reframing History: Counter-Memory’, The Collapse of Time
is an exploration of collective memory as opposed to the individual’s personal memory, in this case a public event in Berlin to commemorate victims of the SS. As realized by the students of the Architectural Association
and exhibited at Bedford Square when Hedjuk came to the school in 1986, they constructed one of his mobile town clocks that would've traveled from village square to village square throughout the countryside.
While memory is ephemeral and commemorative, public space provides the most obvious and expeditious site for architectural installations. Broken into the sub-categories of ‘boundaries’, ‘perceiving’, and ‘spectacle’, projects range from performances of light, as in Lab[au]
’s light art on the sides of high-rises, to retrofitted town squares, as in the case of Pink Ghost
in Paris by Peripheriques Architectes
. In the end, it is public space that is the most accessible kind of architectural installation to the public at large, as the spectacle of the shopping mall and freeway are themselves kinds of public spaces that people navigate on a daily basis. Like the hearth in a home, the public square is the most important open space in our cities, providing a relief to the mass of building and traffic around us.
Overall, Installations by Architects: Explorations in Building and Design
is a collection of thought provoking architectural miscellany to appeal to both architects and the general public alike. Furthermore, as the publishers suggest, one can hope that this is only the first of many more volumes of this kind to come. For as the editors conclude, these projects “demonstrate that installations have become important and pedagogical tools that advance the discipline in ways that conventional buildings cannot.” Much like the objects of the world expositions that began with Paxton’s Crystal Palace
in 1851 (and which visited our fair city in 1986), the projects assembled for this book push the envelope of conventional design methodology, challenging the world to realize the next frontier of our built environment. So then does Installations
do a formidable job of documenting those architects the world over who would imagine this brave new world beyond the status quo.
Sean Ruthen is an architect working, living, and writing in Vancouver. He is currently assistant co-organizer for TownShift, a City of Surrey sponsored international ideas competition.