Matters of Sensation
38 Greene Street
Perhaps by way of apology, the description accompanying Matters of Sensation, the current architecture material exhibition at Artists Space, explains that the project “attempts to answer no questions, solve no problems, and broach no oppositions. It is, rather, about a fascination with architectural forms that induce sensation—about fantasy, intimacy, and sci-fi and, above all, about experiencing pleasure.”
In other words, do not expect anything terribly discursive, critical, or analytical. More disappointing, one shouldn’t expect anything terribly innovative, original, or valuable—especially unsatisfying given the list of 14 young and attention-generating practices involved.
The exhibition seems to struggle to find its purpose. The pieces contained within are defined more by what they are not (not answers, not problem solvers, not structural, not necessarily for immediate installation) than what they are—a disappointing choice given the potential richness of a show all about materials and sensation that could have addressed issues of tactility and materiality as the interface between user and building.
Entering the exhibition, visitors first see a pearlescent, CNC-milled high-density foam panel coated with a ChromaLusion finish. Klex 1 is by New York–based Ruy Klein, which, along with Klex 2-4 (all 2008), are the strongest works in the exhibition. The latter three are 3-D printed alumide (an aluminum-nylon composite): beautiful, silvery-black pieces that are both intricate and sturdy, and imagining them in architectural application is quite easy.
courtesy artists space
One of the strongest aspects of the Klex series is its combination of effects. The patterns read as mathematically generated and predetermined, but the web-like shapes are dramatic and gothic. There is a timeless quality to the prototypes: In use, they could age beautifully and decompose successfully. The work is precise but does not come off as overly pristine. That is true for the hundreds of bristling birch-plywood panels in Hirsuta’s Raspberry Fields (2008), a model of a schoolhouse-to-residence conversion.
The same cannot be said of the other pieces in the exhibition, which tick all the right boxes of contemporary design. They are simultaneously organic (think shapes based on sinews, synapses, axons, networks, and fractals) and completely artificial (composite multi-syllabic materials whose processes of fabrication must be well beyond the comprehension of the materials’ users), without feeling in any way usable.
And perhaps this latter point conflicts with the point of the show, which, let us not forget, is not about answering questions or solving problems. But even as aesthetic objects it is impossible to disaggregate the idea of seeing these projects and accounting for how they wear, for example. Right now they are mostly flawless, from the unscratched and perfectly glossy white polypropylene ribbons of Höweler + Yoon Architecture/MY Studio’s Enstasis (2008) to the meticulously cut and preserved petals of SU11’s acrylic Changeling (2008) and the deliberately placed folds and unscuffed orange of the CNC-milled, high-density foam, vacuum-formed PETG vinyl and cast urethane wall installation by FPmod (Alice, 2007). But while they may hold some appeal on a computer screen, as physical objects they seem untenable, particularly when trying to imagine a chip here or a scratch there.
Which raises the question: Should designers ignore the reality of the physical world to pursue other conceptual or intellectual goals, or should they confront actual conditions with something usable? The exhibition shirks responsibility for these types of questions by declaring itself about beauty and sensation, as if those aren’t loaded terms themselves—not a particularly helpful approach. It’s a fundamental problem in the profession that not enough architects think in terms of usability and the ageing of materials. A show like this reinforces bad habits. Here, instead of interesting ideas about what innovation in materials might mean for architecture, it’s all—forgive the pun—surface.
Even if we were to swallow the curators’ intentions for the exhibition at face value, however, the end result remains underwhelming. We’ve seen a lot of this before, from FPmod’s Alice (in the work of Greg Lynn and Karim Rashid) to Emergent’s Batwing and Gage/Clemenceau’s Pleonasm 4 (both 2008, and both descendants of Zaha Hadid), and even in Xefirotarch’s Pitch Black (2008), the spawn of Louise Bourgeois. Given that these are young firms with the mission to look at beauty and ornament, and to be playful, what really disappoints is the lack of wit, humor, and creativity. Perhaps it’s just a case of “ask a stupid question,” but the work here suggests that the same problems that have long persisted about materials and ornament remain unresolved among this most recent generation of designers.