PRINT October 2003


Anthony Vidler on Dia:Beacon

Left: Dia:Beacon, basement before renovation, 1999. Photo: Michael Govan. Right: Richard Serra, Torqued Ellipse II, 1996, and Double Torqued Ellipse, 1997. Installation view, Dia:Beacon, 2003. Photo: Florian Holzherr.

THE RECENTLY OPENED DIA:BEACON, its permanent collection installed in galleries inside a converted box factory, is by all accounts a major success. Despite the obvious gaps in the collection, tied to the vicissitudes of the last twenty years of collecting, critics have cited a number of factors contributing to the exhilarating effect of a visit: the appropriateness of the huge former printing sheds for art that demands a spacious setting, the ability for living artists to collaborate in the installation and in some cases provide new site-specific work, the elegant gardens designed by Robert Irwin, and the museum’s Hudson Valley location.

What has been only cursorily noted, however, is the role of the architecture in supporting and in some cases constructing this effect, a dynamic role that asks audiences to revisit the thinking behind Minimalist sculpture. Perhaps this omission is a result of the way in which the “architecture” makes less of a statement and, in the face of the art on display, is more recessive than in many recent museums. Certainly at a moment when the iconic design of a building typically plays so strong a part in its public success and that of its institution, as in Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao, one would have hoped that such recessive architecture would have gained more praise as precisely reacting against this tendency toward the spectacle—the trend, as Hal Foster has observed, toward museums as images that in themselves become “cultural capital.” But apart from the necessary acknowledgments to master planner Irwin and occasionally to the architectural firm Open Office for its internal and technical realization, the Dia:Beacon architecture has received little attention.

Of course the prior existence of the 1929 factory building contributes to this oversight. For other than the low, monumental entrance and the surrounding parking lot and gardens conceived by Irwin, the architects would appear to have intervened only in the original interior structure (and very slightly at that), preserving the long, brick-walled machine shops, the top lighting, and the basement, with its stunning colonnade of mushroom-capped columns, like some Egyptian hypostyle temple in modern dress. Nevertheless, the architects have accomplished a considerable triumph of sensitive intervention, technologically and aesthetically, in support of two interrelated conditions—the existing factory and the architectural demands of Minimalism.

First, what is not generally understood in the phrase “converted factory” is that the original building was in itself a work of modern architecture. Built a decade after the enthusiasm of the early Modern Movement for the simple structures of factories and grain elevators, it nevertheless resisted the developments of the free plan and curtain wall already embedded in the International Style of the late ’20s. Thus the Dia:Beacon architects started with a structure that was at once modern and premodern, and so were able to develop a spatial organization that was suited to that called for by Minimalism, one that had emerged following the architectonic redefinition of modernism by Louis Kahn and others.

It might be argued that at Dia:Beacon the architecture, abstract and spatial, is coordinated to the art on display and tied to the imbricated history of Minimalism and its reciprocal relations with architecture in the ’60s. As explored by Robert Morris in the late ’70s, these relations dealt with a new definition of the object in space with respect to the viewer: Morris wrote of the constant polarity formed by the difference between viewing an object and viewing an architectural space, between surrounding space and being surrounded. In Morris’s terms, the sculptural object generates a kind of force field that extends into and takes over its surroundings, thereby creating a new spatial and architectural condition.

In this sense, as demonstrated by the work of Judd, Heizer, Smithson, Serra, and others as they are installed at Dia:Beacon, the work of sculpture demands its own space—one representing its own internally generated field of force—but also an architectural or other space against which and within which to assert itself; reciprocally, the architectural space that acts as site for the sculpture generates an equal and opposite experience, as architectural space for its own sake, without the existence of which the sculpture would have little to tussle with. The traditional “gestalt” conception of the object in space thereby breaks down, energizing what was formerly a polarity through ambiguity. Dia:Beacon’s long halls of apparently infinite depth, cross-cut by axes that break them out, sometimes into static squares, sometimes into horizontal passages, defined as much by carefully calculated light from top and side as by enclosures, thus work toward what Morris called an almost “baroque” effect produced by the play of distance and depth, multiple views and perceptual complexity.

If the architectural achievement of Dia:Beacon has been largely invisible to commentators, it may then be that the architecture of the museum has been self-camouflaged, so to speak, by its entirely sympathetic resonance to the work exhibited. This is work that demands of its spaces a new kind of unity, one that, at Dia:Beacon, goes beyond the original expectations of the artists to construct at once a site for an object that is surrounded and a space that surrounds.

Anthony Vidler is dean of the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at Cooper Union in New York.