Graz, Austria

Latente Utopien” / “Enactments of the Self”

Landesmuseum Joanneum / Various Locations

How I live equals who I am. So architectural issues are also questions of identity. And utopian thought, which is nothing other than the reflection that the way one lives and who one is might well be otherwise, demands new kinds of building to support new ways of living. Given the theme of this year’s headline exhibition for Steirischer Herbst, the annual cultural festival in the southeastern Austrian region of Styria—“Latente Utopien: Experimente der Gegenwartsarchitektur” (Latent utopias: Experiments within contemporary architecture)—it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the show was curated by architects Zaha Hadid and Patrik Schumacher, one of the partners in her firm. What is surprising, though, is how little the individual exhibits (by such notable practitioners of architecture and design as Asymptote, Coop Himmelb(l)au, Greg Lynn FORM, Ross Lovegrove, and Karim Rashid, as well as a good number of less familiar names) evoke any truly utopian aspirations. Instead, one senses that this profession has become bewitched by the alchemy of the new computer programs that are available for them to play with, entering into what the curators call, putting the best face on it, “a phase of pure mutations.” Utopia, for many of these designers, seems to be little more than the ability to imagine buildings and details formed of complex curves—“blebs,” as Lynn likes to call them. To the extent they can be realized, like Hadid’s seductive Domestic Wave interior, 2002, they are fundamentally ornamental additions to standard forms. Where genuinely new structures are imagined, as in the proposal for a new World Trade Center, 2002, by the English firm Foreign Office Architects (“the coolest architects in the world,” according to the Times Magazine [London], they cannot actually be built, nor, more important, is there any clear reason why they should be, other than as gigantic follies.

Apparently we need artists to help us imagine not just new shapes and surfaces but different ways of life. From an architect’s viewpoint the structures an artist envisages for such purposes might look naive, adventitious, even primitive—for instance, the enormous disc that I saw a young woman rolling down the streets of Graz. This object turned out to be part of another Steirischer Herbst exhibition, “Enactments of the Self,” curated by Maia Damianovic: Snail Shell System, 2001, by N55, a four-artist group from Copenhagen. Their mobile one-person living capsule is equipped with an oar so that it can be used on water as well as land. Would I want to live in and travel with one? No, but this resourceful adaptation of an existing polyethylene tank certainly makes me consider how I might live and travel more flexibly and less wastefully. Although Damianovic’s show is ostensibly concerned with performative views of identity, building turns out to be as close to this exhibition’s core as it is to that of “Latent Utopias.” Perhaps the most striking work in “Enactments” was The Tunnel, 2000/2002, by Americans Ward Shelley and Jesse A. Bercowetz, a performance consisting of the construction of a jerry-built crawl space through and around an office building, with the work done entirely from inside the tunnel. Materials were brought in from the “entry” point at which the work began and carried inside the tunnel to the outlying point where the construction continued—with the artist living inside the tunnel for the duration of its making: a sort of inversion of Kafka’s burrow. Such willfully alien ways of living, however temporary, and the constructions that go with them, are powerful incitements to utopian desire.

Barry Schwabsky