New York

Michael Rakowitz

Lombard-Fried Projects

Architectural modernism is often said to have breathed its last with the dynamiting of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in Saint Louis. Constructed in the 1950s as a monument to shared space and racial integration, Minoru Yamasaki’s Corbusier-like vision of a utopian urban community deteriorated into a vast slum and was knocked down in 1972. This front-page event was attended by a transfixed mob (including many former Pruitt-Igoe residents) that reportedly let out a dull roar as the buildings fell—and it is this spectacle of collective catharsis, more than the simple fact of the buildings’ demise, that drives the drawings and sculptures in Michael Rakowitz’s New York solo debut.

The pencil drawings here outline a set of parallel events with the compelling complexity of a conspiracy theory. In one that forms part of the installation Dull Roar (all works 2005), Rakowitz re-sites the falling Pruitt-Igoe to the center field of an arena, referencing the crowd bemoaning the Cardinals’ loss at Busch Stadium at the moment that the housing project came down. In another, incorporated into the installation Monument to Penn Station, he sketches the lonely death of Louis Kahn in a bathroom in the doomed Penn Station, a spectacle of a more pathetic kind. Inevitably, Rakowitz also links Pruitt-Igoe’s choreographed collapse and the attacks on the World Trade Center (another ill-fated example of Yamasaki’s high modernist aesthetic). The centerpiece of the show, another component of Dull Roar, is a large inflatable model of the Pruitt-Igoe that puffs up and deflates every four minutes, reminding the viewer of the Twin Towers falling over and over again on television. A plywood ramp spirals around the piece, affording a vantage from all sides in a miniature adaptation of Diller + Scofidio’s controversial Ground Zero viewing platform, which some argued manipulated and sensationalized the visitor’s experience.

As much as this installation mines the idea of spectatorship, whether sporting, rueful, or grieving, Rakowitz’s earlier work is all about function: In particular, his freely distributed individual inflatable shelters made from plastic bags are an innovative and biting response to epidemic homelessness and the measures that cities take to keep public sleepers inconvenienced and invisible. What these very different projects share is their critique of the power structures maintained by the aggressive control of public space. From Yamasaki’s management of living quarters (which in practice reinforced the classism and racism that dogged Pruitt-Igoe’s poor) to Diller + Scofidio’s solution to Ground Zero’s overcrowded perimeters (which homogenized and politicized a supremely emotional visit), architectural solutions to complex social problems can wind up forcing the human subject into unnatural patterns of living and artificial modes of experience.

Rakowitz’s visions of the destruction of one’s own previous home as a spectacle to attend, the horrific climax of September 11 as emptied of meaning by endless repetition, and the pile of smoking ash and twisted metal that was relentlessly stared at from a seemingly privileged but actually predetermined and repressive vantage point bring out the full import of the so-called death of modernism: After utopian aspirations comes not just bitter reality but a guided tour of it from an alienated distance, the displacement of one kind of control by another. Rakowitz’s references to sports in his drawings contribute an idiosyncratic wryness, and his witty sculptures made from vintage vacuum cleaners betray a contagious fascination with the cutting-edge objects of yesteryear. But his real strength lies in his earnest appraisal of our self-understanding in the face of the tarnishing of one beautiful dream after another, and our constant awakening to the manipulation of those dreams.

Nell McClister