New York

“Building Machines”

P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center

During most of the 19th century architecture either exploited technology for invention or erected itself as a barrier to the machine’s increasingly omnipresent nature. In the 20th century, mechanistic processes began to provide a metaphorical language, a hard-edged imagery, making buildings look as if they had been turned inside out; the guts and the service core became a new public iconography. Since the advent of the industrial age, machines have altered inorganic structure, organic life, and most of all the human mind.

“Building Machines,” organized by Glenn Weiss, examined the implications of machinery on human life. The show included work by Neil Denari, the collaborative team of Ted Krueger, Kenneth Kaplan, and Christopher Scholz, and the partnership of Wes Jones and Peter Pfau. These designers did not simply appropriate machine imagery, but looked to the concept of mechanization with originality, intelligence, and some irony. Much of the work possessed a compelling Duchampian banality. The various projects included mechanized devices set into real or implied motion by the architects’ wills. But there is an irony here; all of these architects have the craftsperson’s obsession with humanized processes, rather than the product-preoccupation of mechanized systems.

Kaplan, Scholz, and Krueger focused on objects composed of elements that can be arranged or recombined to satisfy different functional circumstances. Crib-batic, 1986, is a small vehicle—a tool cart. It is designed for a child and is filled with manipulable instruments. A separate, free-standing, wooden frame construction can be used to form a corral or an archway, creating distinct geographic regions within which the vehicle may move. This exquisite little construction acts as a symbol of the humanized machine.

Jones’ and Pfau’s ambitious range of work included plans for major housing projects, a series of investigations of the primitive hut/machine, and a proposal entitled “Housing for the Homeless,” 1985. This project suggested using the leftover chinks between city buildings—the narrow caverns and alleyways—as slender volumes to house New York City’s homeless population. The architects devised makeshift, improvised forms of street habitation, including dumpsters, abandoned cars, and trains. With directness, poetry, and irony, Pfau and Jones employed a mechanistic assemblage to show the great breakdown of the city machine, its physical as well as political impairments.

Denari and the team of Jones and Pfau included texts with their work, sometimes as explanation, but more often as parallel and independent investigations. One of Denari’s current projects is Solar Clock, 1986. This large, yellow capsule is set on a track that loops through the city of London once every 24 hours. Its function as a timepiece is discernible only relative to its location within the city. Denari’s theoretical proposals are incisive studies in philosophy, exploring the anarchistic qualities of mechanical systems.

Many contemporary architects are once again looking to the machine as part of the oppositional backlash to the depthlessness of post-Modernism. It is as if the mechanical drawing has become more interesting than the perspectival illusion. But the fallacy of much current work in this vein is the superficial exchange of one set of images for another. The architects included in this exhibition look beyond the appearance of mechanistic properties to more profound questions of rationalization and symbolism in the late 20th century. What a relief to see something other than a fear of, or nostalgia for, some technological promised land.

Patricia C. Phillips