Form follows fantasy
Once again, Paris's Centre Pompidou turns architecture inside out
Ian Phillips -- Interior Design, 3/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
"Elimination of all concept of form in the sense of a fixed type is essential to the healthy development of architecture and art as a whole. Instead of using earlier styles as models and imitating them, the problem of architecture must be posed entirely afresh." So wrote De Stijl cofounder Theo van Doesburg in his 1924 manifesto, Toward a Plastic Architecture.
If Van Doesburg were still around, he'd no doubt have been delighted by the recent "Architectures Non-Standard" at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The exhibition presented weird and wacky models by 12 of the world's most avant-garde architectural practices, among them R&Sie from France, Asymptote and Greg Lynn Form from the U.S., Kovac Architecture from Australia, and Nox, Oosterhuis.nl, and UN Studio from the Netherlands. Participants may change if the show travels to the Yale School of Architecture Gallery in New Haven and the Museum of Contemporary Art at the Pacific Design Center, Los Angeles—what won't change is the design philosophy, defying both the imagination and all comparison to anything seen before.
For curator Frédéric Migayrou, the challenge was to ascertain what all the architects had in common. "There's no manifest discourse, as there was in the 1930's or 1960's," he says. Aesthetics also seem rather disparate. One major link turned out to be process rather than product: the use of software in ways unthinkable just 10 years ago. "We're all sketching with computers and using calculus," says Greg Lynn, touching on a theme that the exhibition examined in depth.
Take Servo. Based in four different cities—L.A., New York, Zurich, and Stockholm—the group's four collaborators exchange material digitally through FTP sites. Designing on a computer, says R&Sie principal François Roche, allows him to "lose control. It helps me detach myself from historical preconditions and styles of the past."
Migayrou believes that the computer revolution will eventually give rise to buildings that move biomorphically rather than mechanically. "It will be possible to distort spaces," he predicts. Already, Servo's installation integrated responsive light and sound technology into clusters of vacuum-cast polyethylene. The group's Zurich member, Marcelyn Gow, says that the next step could well be the introduction of pneumatic systems to move cluster elements in relation to one another. In fact, an Oosterhuis.nl prototype at the Pompidou featured 94 pneumatic "muscles" that can be distorted in all directions.
"The projects we chose clearly show a renewed interest in the organic, the dynamic, and the animated," says associate curator Zeynep Mennan. Kovac Architecture's proposal for a new World Trade Center in New York is another perfect example. Its tortuously twisted forms represent a high-tech assimilation of two sets of data: the shape of Manhattan Island and circulation patterns from the destroyed twin towers. Designing an extension for a Connecticut house, New York's KOL/MAC Studio entered data pertaining to the traditional saltbox into a computer, then did a little bit of stretching. "Like chewing gum," says Migayrou.
In addition, there was Roche's glacier museum for the Swiss village of Evolène. At first sight, the model might look like a complex for troglodytes or the intestines of an unidentified animal. Roche's starting point, however, turns out to be an Alpine chalet.
A number of projects in the show took their forms directly from mathematics. The Klein bottle, a doughnutlike construct obtained by twisting and joining the opposite ends of a cylinder, became the starting point of UN Studio's railway station for Arnhem in the Netherlands. Oosterhuis.nl's pavilion for the Dutch horticultural festival Floriade resembled the carbon C60 molecule, flattened and stretched.
The nonstandard forms of the assembled prototypes were echoed in the design of the exhibition as a whole. Each participant's display was delimited by lines digitally printed on the floor—their whirls and curves calculated with a differential equation. And flowing through the space at eye level was a thermoformed "ribbon" offering a historical perspective on today's nonstandard architecture.
Migayrou sees its roots in the movement studies of photographers Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Etienne-Jules Marey as well as in the mathematical theories of Abraham Robinson, whose use of infinitesimal numbers in equations opened up the way to artificial intelligence, fractal theory, catastrophe theory, and morphogenesis. Sound esoteric? It may be. But you know it's also infiltrating popular culture when Steven Spielberg expresses admiration for the work of Nox principal Lars Spuybroek. Sound far-fetched? Greg Lynn swears it's true—and he consulted on sets for the blockbuster king's Minority Report.