Romantic notions would have us imagine finished sculptural forms as trapped within raw, unhammered rock until the artist who divines their truth liberates them. Isamu Noguchi had a more nuanced understanding of how sculpture might emerge from stone. He saw the final work as the result of a dialogue between subject and object, with the outcome contingent on their chance meeting. Happenstance, as stone was sometimes to Noguchi, was the medium of his friend and occasional collaborator John Cage. Known for setting up frameworks to embrace unintended occurrences, Cage’s work put forward incidental manifestations within parameters he set up as the finished outcome.
Naomi Frangos, professor and curator of Inhabiting Surface, an exhibit at the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT), had the student authors of the exhibited works study Noguchi’s sculptures as part of a collaborative project with professor Rennie Tang. As a visitor to the exhibition, familiar traces of Noguchi’s dialogue was apparent in their work. While spending time with artifacts of the process by which they were made, Cage’s chance became palpable. Yet what made the long trip to this remote show in Long Island worthwhile were the ways that these architectural experiments went beyond the work of canonic thinkers to stir the more nebulous topic of specific human bodies that architecture usually neglects.
Casting any material is usually done using rigid formwork that sets up stable negative spaces that will produce the same outcome over and over again. Frangos, however, directed students to sew flexible, woven, plastic fabric into sacks of their own design to restrain the concrete while it was still in fluid form. Scaffolding made of the same rebar usually inside the formwork was installed around the flaccid sewn bags and served as restraints to influence the final form as the liquid concrete engorged them. Lime slumped over steel, concrete hardened against plastic to make it appear forever wet. Fabric removed, the shapes that emerged evoked Noguchi chats, yet this time he might have been speaking with a younger stone still plump with baby fat. With Frangos’ technique in the students’ hands, a direction for spatial production opened up to the same uncanny collapse of the distinction between building and body sought by Aziz + Cucher’s mole-ridden interiors, festooned with follicles, or more directly akin to Andrew Kudless’ P-Wall. Displayed alongside the sculptural objects were the flayed formwork skins themselves. Like the Shroud of Turin, efflorescent traces of the casting’s seepage furthered a sense of how imperfect human bodies might find their way into how architecture is made.
Inhabiting Surface’s greatest promise was the hint toward an architectural future that might become through the process of play, discovery, and openness to the unintended that Frangos and Tang encouraged. As these young practitioners set the agenda for the way buildings are to be made, their next experiments will move up in scale from the sculptural to the inhabitable. In a couple of decades, it is my hope to walk in to a building designed by one of these young people that makes me feel at home in the same time-based body that will certainly have sagged by then as well.
Inhabiting Surface, Studies in Variable Formwork Design
New York Institute of Technology, Center Gallery, Education Hall, Old Westbury Northern Boulevard, New York
February 26–April 2, 2018