The Avant-Garde Moves Ahead
Philip Berger -- Interior Design, 11/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
All design disciplines balance art and commerce. So imagine the wildly experimental work that results when creativity is freed from the pesky requirements of the client picking up the tab. Since opening in 2006, Chicago's nonprofit Extension Gallery has set itself the mission of mounting projects that deal with architectural issues, minus the permanent buildings.
Extension's board comprises names from the major Chicago architecture schools. The gallery also benefits enormously from the largesse of family-owned real-estate operator Podmajersky, which for decades has been a force in creating the artist-friendly Pilsen neighborhood's abundance of appealing live-work spaces. For Extension, the Pods—as the family is known—provided not only 1,700 square feet of space in an early 20th-century commercial building but also a hefty percentage of the exhibition funding.
On the curatorial side, Israeli-born architect Paula Palombo is Extension's driving force. After stints with Studio Daniel Libeskind in Berlin and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in London, Palombo arrived on the shore of Lake Michigan and, she says, set about extending "perceptions about architecture and space—experimenting, introducing, discussing." And she's managed to do just that in a facility open only on weekends, run by a staff of primarily student volunteers.
Conventionally, architecture exhibitions feature drawings, plans, and models. Much of what Extension has shown falls in the category of site-specific installation—it's hard to think of a format more resolutely uncommercial. However you categorize Extension's exhibitions to date, they have offered a fresh take on architectural creativity and new ways of looking at spatial concepts.
The inaugural show, "G3," was the work of the U.K.'s Plasma Studio. The installation comprised approximately 70 triangular white sheets of smooth and textured polypropylene, gracefully spiraling through Extension's interesting three-level interior, which starts out as storefront space and eventually descends to a garden at the back. The sheets caught sunlight in surprising ways; at night, color slide projections on the surfaces created effects of mesmerizing beauty.
Film critic Jonathan Miller, also an instructor in the architecture department of the Illinois Institute of Technology, curated the next show. His "Traps" consisted of groups of dismantled television sets suspended from the ceiling. The TVs showed continuous loops of film and video clips, some familiar, others obscure, some historical, others contemporary—but all dealing with questions of spatial relations. Palombo's husband, SOM senior designer Eric Schall, designed the installation with the sets configured in ways that related to the clips being shown. For example, an image of a confined space might be viewed in an equally tight spot.
If "Traps" approached architecture in the abstract, the gallery's third show, "The Descent," was more direct. The namesake principal of Philippe Rahm Architects built three white rooms, one nested inside the next, in order to explore values of temperature, light, and humidity as well as volume. As visitors moved deeper inside, their surroundings became first cooler, then darker, and finally drier, an experience Philippe Rahm describes as a "vertiginous descent inside atmospheric parameters of space."
"Build, don't talk," Chicago's own Ludwig Mies van der Rohe famously admonished his colleagues. Extension, Schall says, follows a different dictate by opening a dialogue intended to "become the connective tissue between the city and the rest of the world."