New York

“Reconfiguring Space: Blueprints for Art in General”

Art in General

In a conversation with Allan Kaprow published in Arts Yearbook’s “Museum World” (1967), Robert Smithson speculated about the possibility of a museum composed of different kinds of emptiness. How to create flexible, supportive open space remains the fundamental challenge for architects and designers who hope to build museums or galleries, as the recent exhibition “Reconfiguring Space: Blueprints for Art in General” made evident. Five finalists—kOnyk, Acconci Studio, Freecell, Leslie Gill Architect, and Natalie Jeremijenko/Laura Kurgan Design—were selected from an open competition to redesign the artist-founded Tribeca alternative space, which recently celebrated its twentieth anniversary. (After the initial selection, finalists Gill and Jeremijenko/Kurgan joined forces to compete for the big prize.) All were charged with the same question: how to connect an art space located on two separate floors (the fourth and the sixth) of a six-story building?

The design team kOnyk would take over the building’s exterior with a “performance surface,” a facade and canopy made from metal grating. This is intended to function as both stairwell and exhibition space while it visually and physically connected the floors. The proposal also includes an oversize elevator (more gallery space). The design offers Art in General something it apparently believes it needs: a distinctive urban presence.

Acconci Studio proposes the equivalent of an architectural tapeworm, a tube of space that snakes through the building. Intended to be both multipurpose and self-contained, the glossy shaft bulges to make rooms and offices. This is a slick caricature of contemporary architecture that disregards the demands of construction, structure, and function; it works in visual terms only, seen from outside. The proposal states, “Leftover spaces become office, resource-rooms, storage,” but all the space appears “left over,” and if the mock-up installed in the gallery gives an accurate impression, the narrow interior of a tapeworm is an inhospitable context in which to work—not to mention to display art.

The Freecell team would link the building’s main stairwell to the existing exhibition spaces. The design establishes a flip-flopping loop based on an interconnected relationship among discrete rooms; the visitor would move between white-walled galleries and resource rooms gridded with shelving and storage. The strength of the proposal is its promotion of circulation and localized interactivity within the building’s interior; it’s probably the most feasible overall.

Punning on the word “programming,” the Gill/Jeremijenko/Kurgan proposal distinguishes itself by offering a media-driven future. Their vision for Art in General, which recasts the venue as a broadcasting media hub not only for local radio but also for the LED displays atop taxis circling nearby, should be seriously considered. Interior spaces are interchangeable; this is due to a modularized grid surface that’s as much a signifier of flexibility and expansive continuity as it is an actual office organizational system. The project establishes transparency through the iteration of this grid, which dissolves from floor to floor up through the building, finally becoming a pergola/antenna on the roof. Here, the visual manifestation of technology seems as important as the actual technology.

Art in General must decide between these different kinds of emptiness, knowing that whatever it picks will at least partially determine what artists will be able to do in the space. Which context is best? The active emptiness of urban/public space? The uncomfortable emptiness of leftover space? The solemn emptiness of the white box? The virtual empty space of airwaves and information? Or the systemic and mechanical emptiness of flexibility and changeability? Or, of course, there is always Smithson’s suggestion: all of the above.

Michael Meredith