New York

Hani Rashid, Liseanne Couture

The estheticization of architecture is an uneasy condition because it neither resides comfortably, nor functions agitationally within the art world. At the same time, it has lost its purpose with respect to the Modernist project; it rarely even begins to engage the ambitious social and political objectives characteristic of early Modernist practice. Architectural production is really in a fin-de-siècle condition—tentative with respect to both closure and new possibilities, alternately neurotic and hopeful. But the energetic work of Liseanne Couture and Hani Rashid provides a reason for optimism, for their architecture is born of a productive state of puzzlement.

Their small, aggressive exhibition was tucked in the south gallery of Buell Hall, while the more prominent West Gallery was devoted to a strident architectual investigation entitled the “History of History.” This spatialization of agenda suggests that the study of American architecture is a pretty safe, predictable affair.

Couture and Rashid deformed the conventional geometry of the small South Gallery with specially constructed walls that slope and lean, engendering an experience of mild vertigo in the viewer. The temporary walls slice the rectangular space, crop doorways, and obscure existing architectural details.This exhibition, which radically reconfigures the observers’ frame, includes two projects. On the north wall, nine complex prints, entitled “Optigraph 3: Berlin Readouts,” 1990, are exercises in urban analysis, in which a series of symptoms in evidence in Berlin undergoes diagnostic tests. The architects use a layered system of drawing, photography, and print techniques to create a provocatively idiosyncratic analysis of place.

The only other project on display, entitled “Steel Cloud,” 1988–90, is the architects’ entry to a Los Angeles competition to create a center for the study of immigration—a site to celebrate the West’s diverse and shifting population. A series of drawings embedded in the distorted walls describe, in plan and section, the complex phases of development of the project. The inked drawings are done on both sides of glass sheets to create a complex spatial effect, as well as a bewildering pattern of shadows cast on the dark gray backgrounds behind each drawing.

The constructed walls double as cabinets for prints and drawings. Placed perpendicular to the room’s preexisting alignments, they surround the equally dizzying spatial model for “Steel Cloud.” Couture and Rashid’s center reaches out and over an existing highway. The program requires an enormous variety of spaces, to accommodate activities and cultural agendas ranging from the instructional to entertainment, that raise questions about strategic assimilation and protected diversity. This is a vision of a floating, almost disembodied center where mobility and activity suggest a vast processing plant. The byproducts are citizens both over stimulated and perhaps resigned to the American way, and the architects have not avoided the impossibilities and ironies of the program.

Couture and Rashid’s propositions boldly challenge preconceived notions of how architecture functions, engaging sophisticated cultural ideas, while simultaneously admitting personal vision. From certain points in the gallery viewers can peek behind the veer-ing walls the architects added to see the ordinary stud construction. It was odd to see such bold forms created by conventional means, and yet this disjunction of inspiration and implementation is exactly what makes Couture and Rashid’s work compelling. The projects are both in and out of the world, programmatic and prescient. It is architecture for theoretical study, but it is also architecture meant to be realized.

Patricia C. Phillips