New York

Siah Armajani

Max Protech Gallery

Siah Armajani began his “Elements” series in 1986, after completing a 12-year project, “Dictionary for Building.” Elements are the constituent parts of a product or process—the ingredients that go into its formation or the components to which it is reduced when analyzed. Armajani’s new research and constructions appear to flourish in the implied freedom of their generic, open-ended title. Freed of specificity, they are filled with ambiguous potential. Here, Armajani has expanded his quiet dialogue with the conditions of architecture into a more complex exploration of its grammar and syntax. Far from diminishing the richness of his ideas, this move away from more obvious representation intensifies the dialectic between the domestic and public faces of architecture.

The exhibition included three of the new constructions—Elements #10, #11, and #12, all 1987—and 14 small cardboard-and-wood models of various architectural conditions, all from 1974–75, which are his generative “sketches” for the “Dictionary” series. In the new pieces, Armajani continues to investigate issues of residential architecture, especially the ambiguous conjunction of furniture and buildings; but, unlike many of his earlier works, they express a more unified esthetic. Elements #12 is an amalgam of Modernist, industrial, and domestic forms and materials. Pressure-treated wood, brick, terra-cotta, and embossed aluminum are assembled to create an abstraction of a building that articulates especially the elements of invention and the process of construction. At first glance this project appears to be industrially inspired (in much the same way that early Modernist architects looked to the engineered quality of American industrial buildings) but one quickly begins to see Armajani’s references to the idea of the house and habitation. Instead of the idiosyncrasies of vernacular architecture, it evokes the horizontality and open, uninterrupted spaces of early Modernist houses. Armajani even gives an idea of the site conditions with his use of certain elements: a long row of overlapping, angled terra-cotta bricks, glazed turquoise on one edge only, that seem to flow beneath the structure’s “foundation”; various panels that suggest fences or partitions; and a single window on the top “floor.” The scale is intimate, and the way the various elements relate to each other is more fluid (and human) than the rigid patterns of most industrial designs. The domestic iconography is stronger in Elements #10, which features a table with chairs sheltered by a roof with a dormer. The tabletop, roof, and supporting elements are made of embossed aluminum, and the chairs and the dormer are of wood and of strips of dark and light stained glass in an alternating pattern. Here, the rough, dense qualities of the wood and the embossed aluminum contrast with the delicate translucency of the stained glass.

The small models were lined up on a narrow shelf. Armajani does not draw, so these constructions are his sketches to test ideas—his shorthand, spontaneous notation of signs representing larger, more layered concepts. Each model is a small, specific analysis of the conjunction of architectural form, building program, and human expectation. He is particularly interested in the marginal and leftover spaces in architectural design such as the spaces beneath stairs, within dormers, and under and around furniture. There is an urgency in these tiny studies. They may represent short-lived exercises or abandoned ideas, but they communicate something essential and characteristic about all of Armajani’s work.

In The Poetics of Space (1958), Gaston Bachelard suggests that we all cover the universe with drawings we have lived. Spaces can evoke poetic imagination, and imagination shapes other spatial encounters. In this exhibition Armajani challenges the limitations of conventional representative and narrative structures by redefining their fundamental matrices through his own ambiguous structures. The materials and forms in his works trigger memories of space that are distorted, embellished, and also simplified; these memories generate new ideas about space. Bachelard also believes that the drawings we create need not be exact.

Patricia C. Phillips