New York

Amie Siegel, Double Negative, 2015, two 16-mm films (black-and-white, silent, each 4 minutes), HD video (color, sound, 17 minutes). Installation view. Photo: Miguel de Guzman.

Amie Siegel, Double Negative, 2015, two 16-mm films (black-and-white, silent, each 4 minutes), HD video (color, sound, 17 minutes). Installation view. Photo: Miguel de Guzman.

Amie Siegel

Simon Preston

Amie Siegel, Double Negative, 2015, two 16-mm films (black-and-white, silent, each 4 minutes), HD video (color, sound, 17 minutes). Installation view. Photo: Miguel de Guzman.

“A house is a machine for living in.” So declared Le Corbusier in his revolutionary 1923 book Towards a New Architecture, thereby providing the burgeoning modern movement with one of its most famous maxims. Yet this pronouncement was as enigmatic as it was aphoristic, ripe for misinterpretation. Corbusier’s text was lavishly illustrated with images of automobiles, airplanes, and ocean liners, and in this context it was easy to understand his statement as a call for buildings to share the same sleek look that made such industrial technology so visually arresting. Indeed, the house to which Corbusier most directly applied this principle, the Villa Savoye (1931), eventually became one of the most iconic works of twentieth-century architecture and played a significant role in defining the visual language of modernism, figuring prominently, for example, in the definition of both Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson’s International Style and Reyner Banham’s “machine aesthetic.” Ironically, however, Corbusier’s ambition was far greater than simply changing the way architecture looked—his statement in fact proposed a fundamental shift from aesthetics to performance. His obsession with an activated architecture even led him, in the same volume, to move beyond the mechanical into the biological, arguing that an architect should not be a mere maker of things but a giver of life: a “creator of organisms.”

This fundamental contrast is the crux of Amie Siegel’s Double Negative, 2015, recently on view at Simon Preston Gallery (where it appeared alongside the video Fetish, 2016). The work compares Corbusier’s villa with a copy built by the Australian architect Howard Raggatt to house the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra in 2001. Raggatt has devoted his career to extending the linguistic plays and historical references pioneered by postmodern architecture into rhetorical gestures aimed at undercutting the dominance of the Euro-American canon; here he inverted Corbusier’s icon by rendering the white exterior walls of the original building in black. In the gallery, Siegel redoubled this inversion with a pair of black-and-white 16-mm films, one of each building. Both are printed in negative, producing an unsettling confusion that underscores the subversive implications of Raggatt’s translation. If we can’t tell the difference between a house in France and a cultural institution in the South Pacific, surely the form they share is arbitrary, with no inherent connection to their function, and whatever meaning we think they have must be primarily a matter of context and interpretation.

But in the merciless precision of HD, this seeming equivalence vanishes. In the work’s video component, which is in color, carefully framed shots of the Villa Savoye catalogue the elements that make it such a faithful expression of Corbusier’s vision, for example the slender reinforced concrete columns that allowed the architect to lay out floor plans based solely on the contingencies of inhabitation rather than in the demands of engineering, or the massive ramp and exuberantly spiraling staircase that catalyze fluid movement between floors. The following sequence of views of Raggatt’s building offers a total contrast: The walls are flimsy corrugated metal rather than cast concrete, and there is no correspondence between the building’s appearance on the exterior and its functions on the interior. In fact, Raggatt has housed the institute in utterly generic office space, right down to the ugly drop ceilings and cheap fluorescent lights.

Yet Siegel’s camera seems more comfortable inside Raggatt’s space, lingering on the technical equipment that the institute’s staff use to document and digitize their collection. Siegel has long been fascinated by the various apparatuses, both technical and cultural, that constitute any medium, and her previous works have included incisive examinations of both architecture and film. But in Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, her lens seems to have encountered some resistance—her signature slow tracking shots are conspicuously absent here, presumably at least in part because the rigid linearity of the technique is foreign to the freewheeling energy of Corbusier’s ramps, stairs, and open plans. Not only by revealing the limitations of Raggatt’s translation, then, but through the mechanics of its own production, Double Negative suggests that architecture may not quite be reducible to image or technique. At its best, architecture is not just one more vehicle for meaning but another living thing.

Julian Rose