New York

“Light Construction”

As the millennium approaches, everyone in the architecture world is searching for a new high concept, but no one seems willing to hazard what it might be. In the wake of deconstructivism (which, we are now told by the very publicists who turned it into a movement, was never supposed to be one), the very idea of a period style raises suspicions. Such a climate leaves the Museum of Modern Art (the cultural institution responsible for transforming nearly every formal variation in the architecture of this century into a “style”) face-to-face with a fundamental dilemma: how to present a thematically organized exhibition of contemporary architecture while resisting the urge to manufacture a movement.

MoMA’s attempt at addressing this problem took the form of “Light Construction,” an engaging but confused show as burdened by the museum’s institutional legacy as it was by the metaphoric possibilities of its own title. Terence Riley, Chief Curator of MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design, actively refused the traditional curatorial role of tastemaker. The closest he ever came to a definition of “light construction” was this: “a coalescing of disparate elements—cultural, technological esthetic—and, indistinctly; the gradual emergence of an as-yet scarcely definable sensibility.” If anything, Riley’s catalogue essay seemed an unlikely revival of one of the most famous Modernist manifestos—a less aggressive version of Le Corbusier’s Towards a New Architecture, 1923—that attempts to document a sensibility, perhaps even an esthetic, that our eyes cannot yet see.

“Eyes which do not see,” to borrow a phrase from Corbusier, is an apt metaphor for an exhibition that at its most inspired moments displayed an architecture that doesn’t allow itself to be seen. Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron’s Goetz Collection in Munich, at first glance a retro-Modernist glass box, dissembles its structural support system between two layers of frosted glass-sheathing. A deliberate contrast to classic Modernist work such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, 1946–51, or Philip Johnson’s Glass House, 1950, which uses glass-curtain walls to reveal the building’s structural clarity, the Goetz Collection plays on the expectation of transparency, but conceals a complex interplay of levels beneath the building’s surface.

“The hidden fascinates.” So writes Riley in his catalogue essay, citing the opening sentence of Jean Starobinski’s 1961 essay “Poppaea’s Veil,” in which the theorist and critic analyzes how the veil in concealing what is beautiful renders it more precious. The theoretical axis of the show, Poppaea’s veil becomes for Riley a metaphor for the way in which the surface of a building masks its structure, holding the viewer at bay in a state of restive anticipation. The sensibility Riley sought to define was necessarily an elusive one. A translucent skin that simultaneously reveals and masks an older building beneath it, cloth scrims and etched glass behind which silhouettes of bodies appear, layers of “transparent” glass that serve to disorient more than they reveal, electronic images projected onto a facade that doubles as a screen—the object of analysis is not the surface itself but the interdependent relationships engendered between the structure and the spectator.

Viewed within this framework, “Light Construction” could almost have been a provocative show of architectural projects and site-specific public sculptures that place viewers in a variety of unexpected relationships to their surroundings. The “art” projects documented in the exhibition—Michael Van Valkenhurg’s Radcliffe Ice Walls, 1988, Dan Graham’s Two-Way Mirror Cylinder Inside Cube, 1991, Dennis Adams’ Bus Shelter IV, 1987, and Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s backlit scrims for the dance performance The World Upside Down, 1990–91—all address the complex visual interplay between viewer and object, shifting the exhibition’s focus away from a strict examination of architectural form. Rarely—and certainly never before at MoMA—have architecture, site-specific installation, and performance been grouped together.

For such an exhibition to work, however, it would have had to take into account the uneven development of visual theory in these three spheres of production. Feminist artists and critics have called attention to the element of fantasy operative in the notion of a clear distinction between perceiving subject and perceived object. Had Riley smuggled some of these concepts into his consideration of recent architectural practices, “Light Construction” could have opened up a whole discussion of vision that has barely been broached in mainstream discussions of architecture. Take Joel Sanders’ Kyle Residence, 1991, a modern glass house transplanted to the suburbs and reconceived as a frame that constructs a series of “natural” vistas. The lower-level roof, covered in AstroTurf, tilts up to create the impression that the lawn meets the horizon without obstruction from neighboring homes. A witty response to Modern architecture’s utopian fantasy of a communion with nature, the Kyle Residence reveals the complex orchestration of views required to produce that illusion in a contemporary suburban setting. Clearly, closer attention to the multifaceted ways in which architecture directs and constructs vision would have resulted in a more satisfying exhibition. Regrettably, Riley’s catalogue essay, with its repeated allusions to Poppaea’s veil, finally claims nothing more specific for the projects housed in MoMA than that they engender a “subjective” reaction from the “beholder.”

In addition, a number of organizational and institutional problems intruded on these promising, if undertheorized aspects of the exhibition. “Light Construction” wanted to be a broad exploration of the possible meanings of its title, but these meanings remained diffuse, like light itself. Visitors were hard-pressed to discern the conceptual connections among different projects. Does light construction refer, in the most literal sense, to the kind of lightweight construction evident in the thin, tensile enclosures of Toyo Ito’s Shimosuwa Municipal Museum, 1990–91, or Nicholas Grimshaw’s Waterloo International Terminal, 1993, in London? Perhaps it refers to recent projects that exploit the possibilities of natural and indirect lighting, as is the case with both of Steven Holl’s contributions, the Helsinki Museum of Contemporary Art and D.E. Shaw and Company Offices? Or is “light construction” to be understood conceptually as a belated departure from the Modernist ideal of transparency and its premises of visual objectivity and structural clarity? Perhaps “lightness,” a concept recently introduced by John Rajchman and Rem Koolhaas, is already in its second life as a catchall term, destined to make its way through contemporary architectural discourse in the most unrigorous and stereotypical of ways? (A case in point: Renzo Piano’s explanation of his Kansai International Airport design—“lightness is what Japan is all about.”)

Admittedly, given that there were at least four exhibitions going on at once, “Light Construction” was a surprisingly legible show. Oversized, close-up photographs and the accompanying descriptions seemed to have been lifted right out of the catalogue and onto the museum walls. While appropriate for the broader museum-going public, which tends to be repelled by plans and elevations, this homogenizing presentation style could not begin to bring out the nuances of such a heterogeneous range of projects in a way that would allow the many meanings of the show’s title to play off each other in an illuminating way.

The exhibition’s loose conceptual focus was further compromised by some questionable curatorial choices. The inclusion of Philip Johnson’s Ghost House, 1985—an absolutely unremarkable plant nursery enclosed in a chain-link structure with a pitched roof—makes sense only as metaironic tribute to Johnson himself. The mastermind behind nearly every MoMA architecture survey from “The International Style” in 1933 to “The Deconstructivist Architects” in 1988, Johnson seems destined to haunt the museum for years to come. And what were visitors to make of the garish, oversized photograph of Frank Gehry’s Weisman Art Museum, 1993, in Minneapolis? A gorgeous assemblage of stainless-steel ducts overlooking the Mississippi River, Gehry’s museum seemed to bear only a superficial relationship to the show’s fundamental premise—a connection supported, one suspects, only by the distorted reflections of the surface material. Perhaps in a show that claimed to be an exploration of architectural surfaces connections can go no deeper.

At its most successful moments, the exhibition began to theorize an esthetic of visual deception widespread in architecture and other spheres of contemporary visual culture—from the buildings housed in MoMA to digitalized imagery to the scrim in Unzipped. But because “Light Construction” set out to cover themes that could not be, or at least were not, adequately developed in either the space of the gallery or the catalogue essay, it unwittingly succumbed to what it seemed most anxious to avoid: the taste-shaping motives that traditionally drive such survey exhibitions. An emerging architectural sensibility? Most eyes probably saw nothing besides a lot of cool buildings.

Ernest Pascucci is senior editor of ANY magazine.

“Light Construction” was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from 21 September through 2 January 1996.