PRINT November 1990



A work is initiated with the following collaborator:
a person who has an age of several hours or days.


The joinery used in this work can continue into the formation of a city.

Every element is joined with the others,
so that none is separate or apart. The building of the new
city is possible with the cooperation of at least three persons.

Every element that is disengaged appears separately in
another time and another place. (Unpredetermined by

Every element will stay near to every other one, without
touching the others directly. (Inside a building.)

If “sun” is synonymous with “light,”
then the metropolis is constructed by its
inhabitants in concert with the qualities
of the sun, which arrives in any place,
and is open to any person.
The city of light is conjunct with what
exists, a spectrum of its existing tools
as choices; it can be called the construction
of sculpture on the following basis:

the sun that strikes the ground
the sun that strikes the feet
the sun that is taken into the cells
of the body
the sun that is in the air
the sun that is in the exchange called breathing and talking
the sun that is unpredictable in all
its conditions

Three passersby at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 60th Street, New York, June 1990. (After Leopardi.)

First man: I see they’ve put up this little house here, right at the entrance to Central Park. It seems rather Japanese to me, with that bare wood, the screenlike windows, and the movable partitions—it has the refinement of traditional Japan. What’s it doing here in the middle of Manhattan?

Second man: I have no idea, but it’s a striking piece of architecture. It wasn’t here just a few days ago. I like its lightness, its reserve. Actually I went in yesterday. From inside you realize that the design isn’t concentric, like Japanese houses built around a courtyard, but symmetrical. It has two square rooms, both the same size, but one has glass walls and the other wood paneling. The rooms are separated by the entranceway and a lavatory, which are symmetrical with each other as well. The room with the gridded windows makes you feel plunged in the light of the urban landscape. In New York, there’s as much of that by night as by day. In the other space, though, you feel immersed in a whirlpool of darkness. The city seems far away, but you’re connected to it by the sounds of the street, which you can easily hear through the walls. And since the panels are thin, you still get a sense of the changing light outside. It’s an introspective, intimate space, and it made me feel isolated. But I also felt that it sensitized my emotions and responses, as if they were expanding.

First man: My girlfriend’s in there now—maybe I’ll take a look as well. But this exterior is interesting too. Look at the way the building is raised a little off the ground, as though the sidewalk were a swamp, or a river. And of course any New York pavement gets an incredible daily flow and tide of people. The wood seems to be a red cedar, with some yellow cedar as well, and I don’t see any nails. That makes the house organic, as if it were mirroring a plant or a tree over there in the park. Yet it stylizes the tree, just the way it stylizes architecture. So it stylizes both nature and culture. That kind of abstraction is another thing that reminds me of Japan. Second man: Its structure is exposed, both inside and out. And the wood is unpainted, so it’s like a skin, porous to the urban and human environment. This is a handsome building, but it isn’t decorative—or at least there’s nothing decorative about it that can’t be separated from some function. The seats are cabinets, the windows are walls. Everything’s interchangeable. The symmetries among the parts carry all the way through.

First man: There are symmetries outside as well, I think. We’re midway between the street and the park here, right where they meet. We’re on the boundary between the natural and the artificial. So this is a kind of threshold, a visual and physical filter. Instead of invading its space, this little house sits halfway into somewhere else, crossing over. Maybe this is also why it’s raised off the pavement: unlike every other building in Manhattan, it doesn’t try to take over the ground it stands on. It respects and reveals its terrain. You could imagine it set on a lawn without damaging the grass.

Second man: That fits, in a way, with the fact that it has not only a skylight inside but also a kind of window in the floor, so that you can look down at the ground as well as up at the sky. I spent some time in both rooms, and whatever this building’s purpose, it really affected my everyday experience of being in New York. It’s a small space, but I really liked it—it made me treasure it. It seemed like something to be saved from the usual city rhythm, which is truly brutal. And though it’s tiny, once I’d been inside for a while it seemed to flow and expand. Maybe the alternation of sound and light with darkness and silence made it seem larger. So it has an indefinite, elusive kind of feeling. It can be light and transparent or opaque and hard. It has an amazing depth, both emotionally and physically.

First man: That’s surprising, because it doesn’t exactly invite me to go in. It looks too bare and empty to be comfortable inside.

Second man: I have just the opposite reaction: the emptiness and silence attract me. But I’m the type who’s always more interested in the spaces between things than in the things themselves. This is such a crowded city we all live in. So empty space is a magnet: it gives you room to express yourself, or even to be yourself. I know the house is empty, but to me that just makes it the more sensual. This is a very physical space—it treats your body the way you’re treated in the womb.

Woman, joining the others from inside: The house has no door, so I just assumed anyone could go in. That’s an extraordinary gesture in New York—a space that doesn’t push you out, but invites you inside. It’s this delicate thing that will shelter you somehow from the city, which is so hostile, glaring, and loud. Also, the space makes no distinctions among its visitors. It’s a non-privileged place.

Second man: Its openness makes it collective, like a public common, but when you go in it becomes “yours”—it seems personal and unique to you. Since the glass walls frame the street, like a picture that only comes into focus when there’s someone there to see it, the house is almost a case for a sort of life-size painting in constant motion. And when you go in, it’s as if you’d created that painting yourself, as if it reflected your vision and no one else’s. The same thing happens with light and sound in the wood-paneled room, though since the walls there block out the city skyline, the space is more tactile. The pleasure of that room is more physical, sensual, and intimate. It seems to reduce the distance between people.

Woman: It’s a sort of cavern of the self. It makes you lose all track of time, so you almost forget to leave. The view through the windows changes from minute to minute, but nothing inside seems to change.

Second man: In one of those seats-cum-cabinets I found some folded pieces of red, blue, and green cloth. I thought they might have something to do with color theory, or with some notion about the act of seeing, but I haven’t been able to articulate the idea.

First man: After the rain yesterday, there was a rainbow. Do you think those fabric colors relate to some natural phenomenon like that? Like layers of light, folded and stored in a place where light is at its strongest?

Woman: Right now, in June, we get more light than at any other time of year. Maybe the house is a kind of demonstration of light.

First man: You know, we’ve been standing here talking a long time. It’s as if we’ve become the building’s protagonists. But everything about our reaction to this thing depends on how we’ve been prepared for it by our culture, as well as by our own life experiences. Have you noticed anyone else’s response to it?

Second man: I spend a fair amount of time around here—I work nearby, and often pass this corner. I saw one woman who seemed infuriated by the house, though I couldn’t tell why. And I saw another woman, a mother with her child, take the opportunity to rest in it for a while. I’m sure there must have been homeless people who’ve seen it as a possible shelter. The cops, on the other hand, just want to know it’s legal. I’m sure there have been lots of interpretations.

Woman: The more we talk, the more I see this structure as a kind of crossroads of culture. It’s open to everyone and imposes no behavior on anyone. It’s a sum of different places, even opposite places, that it somehow makes inseparable from each other. It’s a spatial shell there for anyone to wear—you can put it on like a temporary case between yourself and the world, or like an onion, with lots of layers around yourself.

First man: It seems to me to lay out a path between the private and the collective. It contains both the intimate and the social.

Woman: The house is a life space. It tunes you in both visually and psychically. But at the same time, it’s completely everyday. It’s a sum of all these different vital fragments, all very personal, but it keeps them all distinct. And it also seems feminine to me. There are rhythms here that are as much biological as social. I feel myself in sympathy with this building somehow.

First man: I know what you mean, but there are also all these symmetrical dualities in the house. They’re dualities in which all the roles are interchangeable. There are dialogues between female and male, transparent and opaque, park and city, open and closed. And so on. This is a structure that seems not so much to add to space as to grow inside it. It could stay here a day, a week, a year, a decade, or it could vanish in a minute, like someone you see in the street who turns a corner and is gone. It’s a body among the city’s bodies, interrupting the urban fabric and being interrupted by it. It’s like a light-footed traveler who sees and is seen, who perceives and is perceived.

Woman: But aren’t seeing and perceiving what art is all about?

Germano Celant

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.