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VANISHING POINT: THE CONTEMPORARY PAVILION

Dan Graham, Pavilion/Sculpture for Argonne, 1981, two-way mirror, glass, steel frame. Installation view, Argonne National Laboratory, Argonne, IL.

THE PAVILION IS EVERYWHERE in the contemporary cultural landscape. Indeed, these structures—generally freestanding but temporary, typically without a prescribed function but often with an intensely aesthetic posture—are one of the few species on this terrain whose numbers are growing. While such growth is normally understood to signal the health of an ecosystem, the abundance of the pavilion today instead signals the end of an era—and a new kind of ending, one that challenges our modes of evaluating cultural production as a whole.

Confronting endings has long been a central function of criticism: This task has been essential to art and architectural history since the modern fields began. From Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s notion of decline to today’s understanding of the limit conditions of possibility, endings have been assumed to result naturally from a loss of cultural relevance and so have played a more pivotal role than beginnings in understanding historical change. Yet theories of endings have also been used to privilege the new. For example, Heinrich Wölfflin made his classic distinction between the linear and the painterly in neutral but comprehensive terms; one was not better than the other, but each described inescapable historical forces limiting the options available to artists and architects at a given time. For him, a linear work of art made in a painterly period constituted an aberration, a category error. But a corollary to this historical structure was the high value he placed on objects that anticipated impending change; the gothic shoe foretold the naturalism of the Renaissance, in his view, and so was celebrated for its proleptic function. Decreasing numbers thus proved the loss of dominance of a set of aesthetic operations as surely as the rara avis, alone but ahead, foretold a swell in alternate modes of production and so proved the always self-correcting vigor of the zeitgeist.

But this situation has now changed entirely. In the complex ecology that characterizes our contemporary culture of excess, we can no longer assume that a population will die out simply because it has lost its connection to the most pressing issues of the day. Paradoxically, evidence of irrelevance instead lies in overproduction and superexposure: A new typology now waxes when it is on the wane.

Pavilions are being constructed, assembled, installed, and jerry-rigged in astonishing and rapidly increasing numbers. Schools have students build them, museums have young architects compete to design them, and pop-up pavilions are rapidly becoming a favored form of retail space. Individual pavilions become famous, with collectors lining up to buy them and blogs tracking every step of their often-brief lives. The sheer quantity of pavilions built the world over is staggering, but perhaps even more impressive is the equally vast assortment of institutions, arts programs, biennials, and expos that commission them. And so what was once a rara avis, awaited expectantly and with collective hope that it would substantiate some previously only imagined architectural possibility—Le Corbusier’s 1924 Esprit Nouveau Pavilion made plausible what was merely a hypothetical scenario for living—is now a giant flock less interesting in terms of the differences between individuals than in terms of the behavior of the whole.

This dazing proliferation of pavilions indicates not only a general cultural change but a significant shift in the architectural discipline. In the early twentieth century, the pavilion was firmly established as a place of architectural experimentation. Arguably, the pavilions of this era shaped future architecture more than permanent buildings, because their very temporariness freed them from prevailing habits, enabling them to materialize concepts not yet readily available. For example, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s famous Barcelona Pavilion, whose glass box seemingly hovered in a fairground otherwise covered in weighty monuments at the 1929 International Exposition, presaged the development of a media-driven culture not only insofar as its legacy was propagated more through the weightlessness of photographs than through the material of the building but also because of the way it interpolated this future dematerialization in its very design. The pavilion was the Wölfflinian gothic shoe of the early twentieth century.

By contrast, today’s pavilions are for the most part vestigial adaptations to this no-longer-extant environment. The architectural pavilion now has an identifiable market and hence constitutes its own niche within (rather than outside, posed critically against) professional practice. The result is that while firms specializing in hospital or stadium design would once have been understood to be separated from pavilion architects by a vast ideological divide, today they increasingly operate in accordance with the same values of efficiency, service, and art as added value. Furthermore, even though the pavilion is still reflexively associated with experimental projects, its camouflaged historicism places it fundamentally at odds with advanced modern ambitions. For example, Jürgen Mayer’s 2011 Metropol Parasol in Seville, one of many recent not-quite-buildings, exploits the historically progressive attributes of the pavilion—artful compositional looseness, the visual openness of garden structures, and even the image of immediacy (the egg-crate structure of the Parasol evokes a common technique used by architects to make models in paper)—to mask a regressive urban intervention with a massive scale, dense program, permanence, and infrastructure reminiscent of a monumental nineteenth-century train station. While the size of their population is indicative—and can in fact teach us much about why they flourish—today’s pavilions are no longer proleptic, having lost any connection to an advanced cultural or historical project. Without a teleological motivation rooted in the belief that architecture’s role is to realize the zeitgeist, these “pavilionized” buildings cannot function as an index of disciplinary ambition for the future. The pavilion is thus simultaneously an acutely contemporary symptom of the forces shaping our cultural landscape and—perhaps more provocatively—an anachronism.

Jürgen Mayer, Metropol Parasol, 2011, Seville. Photo: Sama Jim Canzian.

The pavilion’s fall from project to party decor is making odd bedfellows of once-estranged parts of the architectural world, and this interbreeding results in a weakened version of architecture. Ironically, the ascendancy of the pavilion in the art world may be in part a predatory response to that very weakness, as architecture in this enfeebled state is increasingly susceptible to takeover by a new kind of hybrid art practice. Indeed, the principal source of the pavilion’s overproduction is the almost viral fecundity of the complex ecology that has come to characterize current relations between art and architecture. While pavilions were traditionally the purview of architects, today they are equally likely to be made by artists, architects, or both working in collaboration; the pavilion’s proliferation is in part simply due to this expanding population of producers. But it is even more fundamentally linked to the changing nature of the relationship between art and architecture. Of course, the two fields have always been related (both conceptually and, more literally, through direct collaboration), but sometimes this connection is only casual, or coincident to their common status as liberal arts. At other times, art and architecture intertwine more profoundly. For example, theories of mimesis linked the arts for centuries, but when the invention of perspective cut a window onto the pictorialization of nature, it both unified representation and—in the form of this window—created a threshold of difference separating art and architecture both from each other and from the world. Recognizing the very differences between architectural and other forms of imitation became essential for understanding this development. The window’s multiple ontology as architectural element, conceptual scheme, representational frame, and philosophical structure served as the means by which multiple systems worked themselves into order. It was, in other words, the vehicle through which perspective became an episteme rather than merely a visual device.

The state of the contemporary pavilion can be traced back to another acute moment of change in the relations between art and architecture, when, in the 1970s, the room rather than the window became the vehicle for ontological recalibration. A notion of the “real” became the era’s perspective: a symbolic form, an epistemological regime, and a diagram of power. At this point, artists and architects made different claims about how to understand the real, which rested on different conceptions of the room. Both rejected the pictorialism of the window, favoring what was then understood as the more phenomenologically and socially robust conditions offered by the space of a room. But artists argued that to act on the room—by sitting directly on its floor, exposing the studs in its walls, or peeling off drywall and tar paper and paint—was to leave a trace in the world rather than to construct an image of it. As a result, they sought rooms that they could present as coterminous with the real, seeking building in a state of nature (hence their preference for lofts, factories, and other raw industrial spaces in a post­industrial world). For this staging to be successful, the room had to be distanced from architecture, which was cast as a bad object, the institution to be critiqued—and, moreover, as a prison house of language, the apex of structure and modernist rationality imposed on some purer, prelinguistic state of the real.

Meanwhile, architects were doing precisely the reverse, developing architectural theory as opposed to buildings, focusing on semiotics, distancing architecture from the mundane realities of building, and working especially hard to turn architecture into language and thereby earn autonomy, divesting themselves of the inarticulateness of building. Within the architectural discipline, the raw room favored by art appeared to be an unattainable utopian fantasy of the precultural. Architecture sought instead the reverse utopia, a purely cultural sphere from which all economic and other contaminants of the “real” were evacuated, and for this they needed a room as close to a virtual envelope as could be constructed: a room for the unreal.

And so a notion of the real—which Rosalind Krauss, writing at the time, called “sensuous immediacy” and Dan Graham, speaking of his own pavilions, referred to as the “actual”—became the primary art/architectural separatrix of the era and in fact still haunts the production and reception of pavilions today. Indeed, just as the window in part determined the problem of the room, the room in turn shaped the horizons of the pavilion. For example, in 1967, when Carl Andre was installing his “Cuts” in the single-room Dwan Gallery in Los Angeles, covering its entire floor with flat concrete bricks, he made a drawing (used for the exhibition poster) that reversed the voids and the bricks. In other words, even when his work was doubly mediated and looking like an architectural artifact—it was technically now a floor plan represented on a printed poster—Andre seemed to conceive of it as a photographic negative, the plane of the world on which the bricks had left a physical imprint. That same year, Peter Eisenman began work on the Barenholtz Pavilion, later known as House 1, which was also in effect a single room, but a room without actuality: Here there was no program to control the use or deployment of space (its original function was to display a small collection of antique toys), no site peculiarities to determine massing, no context requiring response. And the more than three hundred drawings Eisenman made for the project show him laboring to evacuate any and all traces of the actual world—its toilets, its human subjects, its gravity, its building—leaving only what he called “a new mental image of an environment different from that which we are actually seeing,” or what amounted to his understanding of architecture. While artists were resisting the commodification of art by emphasizing the built room as an instantiation of real material conditions, literal experience, and direct means of construction, architects rejected the reality of program and structure as leading inevitably to commodification, simplifying architecture into a virtual pavilion.

Henry Flitcroft, Temple of Apollo, 1765, Stourhead Gardens, Wiltshire, UK. Photo: Delta51/ Wikicommons.

This dynamic between artists treating the room as real space and architects striving for the room as an ideated world initiated a productive period during which the material products of art and architecture began to approximate each other, first in scale and then through other means. The eventual result was the pavilion as an intellectual project, a kind of air lock controlling the passage between two isomorphic but incompatible environments, and this subtends the current proliferation of pavilions. A chart tracing the development of this air-lock model could follow Andre’s “Cuts” and Eisenman’s cubes with the landmark 1976 exhibition “Rooms” at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center (now MoMA PS1) in New York. Here, building as medium was sundered from architecture as discipline, in a series of works made principally by the often dramatized removal, displacement, and repurposing of building detritus. A quarter century later, the 2001 pavilion called The Predator by Greg Lynn and Fabian Marcaccio explored the kinds of postmedium collaboration newly engendered by the use of digital tools across mediums. Here, using massive digital printers and computer-guided mills, the plastic panels of the pavilion walls and the images covering them were computer generated, printed, and vacuum formed as a single entity, producing a material index of the collapse of medium-specific rationales. And yet Marcaccio applied a thick impasto to the shell’s surface by hand just as Lynn used a deliberately rough assembly of twist ties to structure the panels, reasserting disciplinary distinction, manual labor, and material values at the very moment that digital-fabrication tools seemed to dissolve them. A few years later still, in 2003, François Roche of R&Sie Architects, Philippe Parreno, and Rirkrit Tiravanija put together Hybrid Muscle, one of many pavilions that comprise Tiravanija and Kamin Lertchaiprasert’s Land project in Thailand. Harnessed to a water buffalo, this diaphanously skinned skeletal frame with movable wings was a biotechnical apparatus designed to generate power for cell phones in the local community. Here the pavilion was reterritorialized as the generator of a diverse art-architecture ecology where “culture” and the “actual world” cohabitate.

But these productive, postmedium investigations into pavilion, structure, and environment are the exception. While Hybrid Muscle imagines the eventual disappearance of building and architecture into environment, a complex reimagining of culture and ecology, mostly we see one pavilion after another, a never-ending “pavilionization” series spreading into a homogenized field of cultural production. On the one hand, the pavilion is the apotheosis of installation art, now so conceptually expansive that its ultimate medium is necessarily a small building (that must therefore meet accessibility codes); on the other, architectural design has been largely reduced to pavilion making, as the economic collapse has meant that few can afford anything but a tiny building (and are glad not to have to pay for plumbing). These trajectories explain a number of shifts: Take Frank Stella’s move from canvas, to canvas in 3-D, to 3-D container for painting in his unrealized design for the Costantini Museum; or, more broadly, the material and conceptual shrinking of architecture from complex and manifold structure to politically eviscerated shed, as exemplified by Oscar Niemeyer’s 2003 Serpentine Pavilion—Brasília rendered petite. They also explain, but do not excuse, the pavilions by artists such as Jorge Pardo and architects like Jeanne Gang, which merely formalize technical and aesthetic inventions of more exploratory practices. That both projects have yielded unfathomable MacArthur prizes only serves as a reminder that the pavilion is in many ways emblematic of the proclivities of the art market and of technocratic instrumentalization.

In its proliferation and professionalization of all cultural services, pavilionization is propelled forward by hyperpositivistic promises that each structure will provide ecological amelioration, social utility, structural efficiency, and “real experience.” These certainties derive from but have also perverted the “real world” concerns of the 1970s into pseudoscience, hijacking (and thereby terminating) the potential of the pavilion as an experimental paradigm. The days of quixotic and experimental pavilions—Experiments in Art and Technology’s Pepsi Pavilion at the 1970 Osaka Expo or Haus-Rucker-Co’s Oase No. 7 at Documenta 5—that dreamed of offering immersive experience in utopian bubbles have been replaced by the more expansive and omnireaching model of projects such as Olafur Eliasson’s, whose work has ranged from fans in small galleries, to solar flares across the global archipelago of Louis Vuitton store windows, to weather-altering devices inserted into existing spaces, to a series of works in which an entirely new structure has been built to produce the environment (Your Rainbow Panorama, 2006–11, or, with David Adjaye, Your Black Horizon, 2005). While the pavilion once generated interest as an interface between art and the world—most experimental pavilions of the 1970s were in fact predicated on a clear distinction between the two—interface is now the total surround. The difference between art and the actual world pivotal to Graham’s reflections cannot obtain in an environmental paradigm filled with cultural diffractions, economic particulates, and atmospheric variation.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Barcelona Pavilion, 1929, German pavilion for the International Exposition, Barcelona. 1986 reconstruction in original location. Photo: Steven Zucker.

Even though the pavilion as production of a singular discipline or as isolated object is no longer viable as either an interface between art and world or as an instantiation of the “real” in this hybrid situation, the pavilion’s displacement from its privileged position of prolepsis has made new options available. The most important of these generate a complex interaction between art and architecture that produces objects, of which the pavilion might be one, that seek to be situated within complex and extensive networks. For example, the photographs of Thomas Demand require both the construction and the demolition of pavilions—his paper models are full-scale, temporary architectural environments—but these pavilions are only one element in a system of interlocking paraworlds: adjacent and isomorphic productions, spaces, and experiences that produce new forms of disciplinary interaction. For a recent work, The Dailies, 2008–12, the twenty-fifth Kaldor Public Art Project in Sydney, Demand rejected all given display options. Instead, working like an architect, he toured the city to select his site, using an urban dérive as the first step in his design process. He chose a midcentury architectural oddity, a pavilion-scaled, circular eruption in the grid of downtown Sydney, a tiny hotel for a private club of ever-shrinking numbers of traveling salesmen, a modernist fossil in the shape of a ring of single rooms, in each of which he hung a single photograph. Demand treated every room as a natural habitat: His photos (smaller in scale than his typical works, placed in frames, and made after apparently casual iPhone shots he took while traveling through various parts of the world) were hung as if native examples of hotel art, the grooming behavior of the cleaning staff was put into evidence, and the invigilators were asked to remain in the hallway so that the visitor could “happen upon” each room as if discovering an undisturbed water hole. But Demand also had these primitive huts repainted with high-quality wall paint, refitted beds that had been covered with cheap linens with uniform spreads made of luxurious cloth, and mechanically spritzed the air with bespoke Prada perfume. The net result was that each photograph hung in the space became attenuated across a network of increasingly diffuse atmospheres, behaviors, populations, and objects. This even included a catalogue with concertina pages and a leporello binding, which, when open, approximates the shape of the building itself: a small and portable postpavilion with a vast butterfly effect on its cultural ecology as a whole.

Like most butterflies, Demand’s paper pavilions have only an ephemeral presence, a delicacy totally at odds with the serial monumentalization of the pavilion that continues unabated. If the exchange between art and architecture that produced the conditions of possibility for the contemporary pavilion began in the “Rooms” of P.S. 1, now MoMA's Young Architects Program and its many imitators are hypertrophied symptoms of its conclusion. Having been evacuated of every conceptual distinction, the pavilion is reduced to a travesty of Krauss’s “sensuous immediacy” or Graham’s “actual,” mistaken for a naturally occurring site of authentic experience or an actual environmental control, but really just an opportunity for museums and other commissioners to get “real” architecture (and a fantastic branding opportunity) at a steep discount. A regrettable impact of this category error is that young architects approach the pavilion as a stepping-stone to professional practice rather than as experimental projects, even though the construction of these pavilions is usually woefully underfunded. Young architects are often forced to spend their own money, exploit the labor of even younger student architects, and donate the models and drawings produced along the way. That Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei, two unquestionable superproducers in our cultural landscape, chose to entomb this year’s Serpentine Pavilion, burying half of their structure belowground and devoting much of their effort to excavating the foundations of all previous Serpentine pavilions, perhaps suggests that pavilionization is approaching a state of self-referential exhaustion. Endings often do provoke such mourning, but this would be a better occasion for architects to recognize the need for inventing a new model of action, one not predicated on the difference between art and the world, but rather facing their profound imbrication. There is much to be gained from the cross-fertilization between architecture and the arts that is enriching the contemporary cultural ecology, but the pavilion, now no more than a professionalized product without a project, has reached its limit.

Sylvia Lavin is the Director of critical studies, graduate programs, and the newly established Curatorial Project in the department of architecture and urban design at the University of California, Los Angeles.