PRINT November 1999


“A BICYCLE SHED is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture.” Although written in 1943, these opening lines from An Outline of European Architecture, Nikolaus Pevsner’s textbook history of the discipline, still sum up the way most design professionals distinguish architecture from ordinary structures. Buildings become “architecture” when they transcend the utilitarian—when, in other words, they approximate “useless” works of art.

If my colleagues aspire to the validation commonly accorded works of art, who can blame them? Every aspect of the architectural profession—clients whose tastes are even more limited than their budgets, contractors who resist unconventional construction techniques, building codes that dictate conventional formal and programmatic solutions—conspires to reduce buildings to their lowest common denominator, to “mere sheds,” functional enclosures that shelter human activity. No wonder Tony Smith, an architect by training, abandoned the discipline out of frustration, opting instead to pursue his ideas as a sculptor, free from the constraints imposed by contractors, codes, and clients.

What then of the crop of artists currently embracing precisely that aspect of the discipline that, for better or worse, so many architects either take for granted or strive to overcome: use? Not only have a number begun to make work that employs materials and methods typical of the building industry, they’ve done so with a keen eye to the way in which the built environment helps engender specific human activities in space. Of course, when artists, overturning viewer expectation, create “useful” objects within the context of a gallery or museum—whether it is Glen Seator’s obsessively crafted duplication of the Whitney Museum director’s office, dramatically displayed at a 45-degree angle in the institution’s exhibition space for the 1997 Biennial; Andrea Zittel’s much-discussed A–Z line of custom-built trailer homes and faux, gray-foam rock formations; or Jorge Pardo’s full-fledged home constructed for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles—they inevitably deal with a different set of issues and preconceptions than those confronted by architects building at a construction site. Further complicating matters, all of these artists come at the problem of “use” from different perspectives. Pardo twists the tradition of the “readymade” while Rirkrit Tiravanija treads the fine line between art and life, serving pad thai to gallery visitors, or, more recently, installing his replicated apartment at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in New York. Nevertheless, although they draw on a diverse set of influences and theoretical interests, these artists have something compelling to say about the politics of use that resonates beyond the narrow precinct of the art gallery.

WITH ITS EXPOSED studs and Sheetrock, Glen Seator’s Three, 1999, at Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles, might at first be taken for a Tiravanija project. But Seator’s work suggests an entirely different approach to the problem of use, one relying not on viewer engagement but on the spectator’s detached scrutiny of familiar structures normally taken for granted.

Three echoes some of Seator’s earlier projects, like Cabinet, 1995, NYO+B, 1994–96, and B.D.O., his contribution to the 1997 Whitney Biennial, all obsessively crafted duplications of gallery offices pitched at dramatic angles for display. As he extends modernism’s reflexive concern with exposing the process of its own making, Seator reveals how ordinary buildings are fabricated. The exoskeleton of wood studs, Sheetrock, screws, and wiring, normally concealed within the interior cavity of the wall, uncovers the abject side of architecture. More than just a lesson in the art of construction, Seator literalizes the architectural term “interior,” inviting us to crane our necks and peer within his upended volumes.

Occupying an ambiguous territory between sculpture and architecture, Seator’s objectified offices seem familiar, evoking not only everyday places but also well-known Minimalist sculptures. Standing before them, we forget for a moment that they are readymade replicas and encounter them instead as we might monumental abstract works by Robert Morris or Tony Smith. Like these earlier sculptures, Seator’s room-commanding work affects the gut (one critic said the effect literally nauseated him); it possesses the capacity of sculptures to abdicate their self-sufficient status and activate the space, and ultimately the sense perceptions, of the viewer. But where Minimalist sculptors like Donald Judd, Carl Andre, and Richard Serra appropriated materials (aluminum, steel, plywood, Formica) and utilized anonymous fabrication methods in order to create large-scale works that ultimately act on the perceptual experience of viewers, Seator’s architectural extractions disorient us conceptually as well, explicitly addressing cultural issues only implied by Minimalist sculptures.

Seator’s approach to “use” becomes clearer when contrasted with, say, the strategies of Tiravanija, who in his most recent New York show entertained viewers in a full-scale mock-up of his East Village apartment, open twenty-four hours a day. Tiravanija, recognizing that situations do not just spontaneously take place but depend on the artist’s radical reconfiguration of context, worked hard to facilitate hanging out, going so far as to erect a facsimile of his own home, complete with plumbing, working kitchen, and video equipment. Drawing on the legacy of the environmental and performance-based practices of Allan Kaprow, Robert Morris, Dan Graham, and Vito Acconci, for whom altering physical space became a strategy to transform the gallery into an arena that promoted active viewer participation, not detached aesthetic contemplation, Tiravanija coordinates “useful” environments in the hope of promoting specific social exchanges, knowing full well that the outcome of their detailed preparations is ultimately incalculable. Seator, on the other hand, highlights use by draining all utility from his precariously tilted structures. If culture typically genders buildings male, then Seator presents us with emasculated spaces, powerless because purposeless. Now stripped and propped, the spectacle of these normally concealed sites of administration invites us to consider the spatial and social interdependence of private power and public display.

In the Gagosian show, overcoming objections raised by members of the Beverly Hills Department of Planning, Seator again created a displaced architectural facsimile, this time one geographically and culturally removed from the world of Rodeo Drive—an Eastside Los Angeles check-cashing store. He painstakingly reproduced not only the store’s Formica-lined interior but also its sign-covered exterior, inserting both facade and interior space of this banal commerical structure through the high-tech garage doors of Richard Meier’s pristine white space. Abandoning the gravity-defying effects that made previous dislocations literally spectacular, Seator creates drama by juxtaposing materials, not geometries. Unpainted two-by-fours and wood-grained laminate vie with Meier’s elegant white and metal surfaces.

Like mismatched Russian dolls placed one inside the other, Seator conflates two Los Angeles locations that, although normally separated by class, race, and driving distance, are nevertheless culturally interdependent: The work force employed by Beverly Hills resides in districts like Echo Park. But Seator highlights rather than breaches the geopolitical gap between these two neighborhoods. Forming a new address on North Camden Drive, the fully outfitted but unmanned check-cashing interior can be accessed directly from the street but not from the gallery’s interior. In his most ambitious and controversial project to date, Seator foregrounds action through absence, powerfully demonstrating the interrelationships between unseen architectural infrastructures and the forms of social life they support.

LIKE SEATOR, another New York–based artist, John Lindell, makes artifacts that imply rather than solicit use. Lindell’s contribution to a 1998 exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam taps directly into his architectural training. Based on extensive research into the architecture of sex clubs, conducted in response to New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s closing of the city’s sex establishments in 1997, Lindell’s project imagines an alternative to the formulaic design of gay male sex clubs, “dark, gloomy and nondescript” spaces that the artist believes promote negative self-images. Instead, he proposes creating “sex positive” spaces through the introduction of his “Social Sculptures,” ambiguous objects that exist somewhere between architecture, built-in furniture, and sculpture. Seamless extrusions of the gallery wall, they subtly demarcate spaces that promote cruising, coupling, and self-surveillance.

While he has yet to realize his sex club proposals at an actual site, Lindell used the Stedelijk installation as an opportunity to construct full-scale versions that serve as companions to his signature wall drawings. Over the years the artist has refined his elegant lexicon of black-and-white symbols denoting male erogenous zones—testicles, nipples, glans. Unlike their previous incarnation in wall drawings that subverted the social-science logic of “flow charts,” the symbols are now more chimerical; rendered in various intensities of black and gray lines, they appear like constellations of swirling stars. When decoded, these abstract shapes drawn directly on the gallery wall map the ecstatic, even delirious geometry of gay male pleasure.

Installed at the Stedelijk, Lindell’s “Social Sculptures” facilitate the fantasies his murals delineate. By wrapping the room’s existing brown wood base molding at the juncture where sculpture meets floor, both Social Sculpture 8; (Butt Shelf), 1998, and Social Sculpture 9; (Sex Corner), 1998, quietly insinuate themselves into the Stedelijk’s galleries, instigating ambiguous meanings: Are these protuberances purposeful architectural elements (radiator enclosures, pilasters), display surfaces (empty pedestals), reductive sculptures, or simply awkward design glitches? Subtle zones of high-gloss white paint cleverly wed object to wall, demarcating a precinct that invites physical intimacy––stations for bodies to lean, sit, or lie on. Although the “Social Sculptures” were originally designed for use, Lindell, like Seator, respects the gallery as a space dedicated to vision, not action. Rather than turn the gallery into a makeshift sex club, Lindell encourages viewers to conceptually utilize his props in any public setting, real and imagined.

SLYLY FLOUTING the conventions of unapproachable public sculpture designed for windswept civic plazas, Tom Burr’s sinister but accessible work acknowledges without giving into America’s phobia of public places. His Private Property, at the Galerie Almine Rech in Paris in May 1999, was directly inspired by the memory of an outdoor sculpture (Carnegie, 1984–85) by Richard Serra. Shown at the 1985 Carnegie International, Serra’s sculpture was unexpectedly strewn, as Burr remembers it, with spent condoms and syringes. Drawing on the implications of the sculpture’s use as a receptacle, Burr invites viewers to inhabit three monolithic black painted rectangular volumes, plywood mock-ups for outdoor garden pavilions that share an uncanny resemblance to wooden mock-ups made by Tony Smith.

Private Property extends Burr’s ongoing interest in private enclosures for public settings. Like his 42nd Street Structures, an installation shown at American Fine Arts in 1995 that explored the architecture of the sex industry, Burr’s Minimalist cabanas evoke confessionals, bathroom stalls, telephone booths, and closets: cubicles scaled to the single human body, which in the guise of facilitating privacy instead promote voyeurism and display. Each of Burr’s abstract sheds is outfitted with a single smoked Plexiglas window that offers the concealed spectator framed views of overlooked elements of gallery architecture—most prominently, wall, ceiling, and floor. Burr has proposed building the pavilions outdoors, where the windows will capture forbidden glimpses into private gardens. Film-noirish photographs documenting Burr’s proposed site—the sidewalks of a residential Palm Beach neighborhood dominated by upscale houses sequestered behind tall hedges—promise an investigation of public and private space beyond the walls of the gallery.

CONTRARY TO Tiravanija’s hands-off approach, and to Burr’s and Lindell’s degree-zero aesthetic, Andrea Zittel boldly cross-pollinates design disciplines to create domestic hybrids: blankets that double as tents, beds that function as conversation pits, and, most recently, boats that function as private islands. No matter what the medium or scale, her well-crafted utilitarian artifacts always address the physical, psychological, and social needs of the body.

The serial, geometric forms that characterized Zittel’s earlier work reveal her debt not only to Minimalism but also to the architecture of the European avant-garde. Her “Living Units,” modular collapsible trunks that unfold to accommodate basic living requirements like eating, sleeping, and bathing, recall the work of modern architects who were similarly obsessed with minimum living standards, mass production, and (in the case of Le Corbusier) Louis Vuitton trunks. Yet even an uncompromising figure like Le Corbusier, who proposed monasteries as modern housing prototypes, seems downright sybaritic in comparison with Zittel. Clearly, her Spartan ethic fashioned austere and compelling artifacts. But it remained unclear whether her valorization of discredited modernist tenets like purity, hygiene, and control was intended to be comic, parodic, or nostalgic.

Whatever the answer, ever since Zittel temporarily relocated from New York to Southern California, her work has decidedly loosened up. Her interests have shifted from control to comfort, purity to pleasure. She has traded in her reductive formal vocabulary for a less polished, more freewheeling palette that embraces biomorphic forms and popular culture: Archigram meets Frederick Law Olmsted. For her exhibition in 1998 at Andrea Rosen’s new Chelsea space, Zittel unveiled a user-friendly habitat titled “Raugh”—an ersatz rock formation sculpted out of soft gray foam, strewn with magazines and videotapes. Like Tiravanija’s mock apartment, “Raugh” transformed the gallery into a homelike environment conducive to hanging out.

Zittel’s understanding of the disciplinary nature of architecture, and her recognition that furniture enforces codes of conduct by dictating body postures, is still evident in “Raugh,” but now she sets out to empower rather than regulate viewers. Inspired by the monkey house at the Berlin Zoo, she intends her ergonomically contoured rock furniture to promote freedom—“climbing, reclining, perching and just plain rolling around.” In a video “infomercial” outlining the rules of “Raugh,” Zittel, sounding like Martha Stewart on Paxil, ironically acknowledges the contradictions of prescribing user self-control: “Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you have to be an expert to make the things we use every day.” And most recently, she has brought her rock furniture (now constructed out of concrete) outdoors, to the southeast gate of Central Park. Arguing that Americans regard nature as “recreation,” she mines pop-cultural references to theme parks, zoos, and climbing walls in her spectacular, multipurpose geological simulation, soliciting pedestrian use—lounging, concerts, public rallies—in the hope of encouraging uninhibited and spontaneous sidewalk exchange.

Just a stone’s throw away from the faux rocks, the Public Art Fund also recommissioned Zittel’s A–Z Deserted Islands, 1997, a work originally conceived for the 1997 Münster sculpture show. Prototypes for mass-produced recreational vehicles, the “islands” articulate what Zittel identifies as American ambivalence concerning autonomy and community, nature and artifice. The shiny, curvaceous surfaces of these surreal boats, floating on Central Park’s sylvan artificial lake like dollops of whipped cream, capture even more convincingly than her rock furniture the slippery distinction between manufactured and organic form. This recent turn in Zittel’s work from hard to soft forms echoes on a smaller scale the preoccupations of many contemporary architects (e.g., Greg Lynn, Kolatin/McDonald, Preston Scott Cohen) who create continuous surfaces digitally derived in response to the complexities of human use. And like Rem Koolhaas and Jean Nouvel, who also choose to confront rather than hide from consumer culture, Zittel continues to grapple with seemingly irreconcilable contradictions (discipline and freedom, nature and artifice, individualism and community, and high and mass culture).

IN CONTRAST to Zittel’s usable hybrids, Jorge Pardo’s elegantly designed tables, chairs, and light fixtures (unabashedly inspired by European and American modernist design classics) would be right at home in any number of SoHo furniture showrooms. Inviting us to look but not use, his visually seductive household objects privilege form over utility. In Halley’s, Ikeya-Seki, Encke’s, 1996, the artist deploys two blue bentwood chairs, a glass-top coffee table, and four hourglass lampshades, all of his own design, to tackle a problem that previously occupied sculptors like Richard Serra: how to make objects that animate a room’s corner. At the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, Pardo powerfully commanded a vast curtain-walled exhibition space by installing at the same height 105 glowing glass lamps, producing an effect reminiscent of the rows of glittering rods in Walter de Maria’s Broken Kilometer.

Last fall, Pardo borrowed some of the Boijmans’s light fixtures for his most ambitious project—his own house, located on a hilltop setting in the Mt. Washington section of Los Angeles. Prior to touring the property with the artist, I expected that the house, like his furniture, would borrow from midcentury sources, particularly the California Case Study Houses. To my surprise, he eschewed the outward-directed transparent glass box raised above the landscape and instead created an inward-turning live/work dwelling, a chain of linear rooms arranged around a C-shaped courtyard that hugs the steeply sloping site like a segmented caterpillar.

Commissioned by LA MoCA, which contributed $10,000 toward the $350,000 price tag, Pardo’s “house that is also a sculpture” has impressed local journalists. But considering that museums have been commissioning, collecting, and promoting architecture as art for some time now, the project does little in the way of redefining institutional boundaries. Nevertheless, Pardo’s home-improvement project does effectively bring to light the different ways of thinking and working that govern art and architecture. Working in conjunction with a licensed architect and a local contractor, Pardo was forced to untangle the web of building codes that necessitate the development and documentation of a project prior to its on-site erection, a process that leaves little room for experimentation and change. Bringing his sculptor’s background to bear, Pardo persevered where most licensed professionals would have given up.

Unlike his finely executed furniture objects, Pardo’s house is frankly a mess: Awkward junctures where different materials come together highlight shoddy craftsmanship. Yet from the perspective of a sculptor, these unresolved details are entirely consistent with Pardo’s incremental design approach, an approach derived from his experience of walking the site. Rooms bend and twist, not in response to overriding compositional or programmatic ideas, but according to questions of light and view perceptible from the scale and standpoint of the body. In the end, seeing house design from a sculptor’s perspective, Pardo challenges ingrained disciplinary preconceptions about use, construction, and the entire architectural- design process.

IN MUCH the same way that artists have tested the limits of their own discipline by exploring what were once considered uniquely architectural concerns, at least a few architects have been taking cues from the art world. Some design professionals have begun to make site-specific installations for museums and galleries, while others, expanding definitions of architectural space, turn to digital and video technologies to colonize virtual sites. Still, most architects have remained largely indifferent to the problem of utility. The besieged notion of “functionalism” surely gave the concern with “use” a bad name.

But the interests of a recent generation of architects are beginning to converge with those of artists. To varying degrees, Rem Koolhaas, Jean Nouvel, MVRDV, Smith-Miller + Hawkinson, and Michael Bell erect buildings driven by the recognition that programs, as well as the spaces that house them, are culturally inflected. Yet interestingly enough, the most rigorous exploration of the politics of use comes not so much from active practitioners but from those like Mark Robbins, Diller + Scofidio, Mabel Wilson and Paul Kariouk, LOT/EK, Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis, and Jürgen Mayer Hermann, who, pursuing alternative practices, are largely known for their gallery installations. Ironically, these architects share with artists a freedom from the constraints of clients and building codes, an independence that allows them to push the envelope and to imagine usable structures that sponsor alternative modes of human interaction. One can only hope that the traffic between art and life works both ways, and that the research conducted within the art gallery will eventually transform the architectural profession at large.