Visitors to Greene and Greene's Gamble House in Pasadena, California, that imposing emblem of the American arts and crafts movement, are warned beforehand not to wear high-heeled shoes. The pressure of the heels could stress the carpets, aging them out of their prime over the course of daily tours. This past October, artist Asher Hartman visited the what is, in fact, being preserved? Is artistic intervention capable of affecting the physical structure's nature?Gamble House (presumably not in high-heels) to perform a psychic reading, communing with its foregone spirits in wood and flora. Hartman's reading was an outright performance, harnessing the House's historical status to riff on emotional and spiritual potentials. His piece is based (in part) on the House's history, preserved by footwear restrictions and velvet ropes, but pulls on alternate realities for the space – the indigenous people native to the area, children running in the yard, the domestic help. His reading of the House changes its status, and puts into question what is, in fact, being preserved? Is artistic intervention capable of affecting the physical structure's nature?
This question formed the basis for the two-day "Intervention" conference, taking place this past October in three of Los Angeles' historic modernist homes. Subtitled "Contemporary Artists and the Modern House", the conference grappled with the changing trends around modern architecture preservationism, in regards to how experimental art installations within the houses recast the structures' identities (both historic and domestic). This discussion makes quick reference to surrealist methods of juxtaposition and intuition, and how these impressions match up against the static, preserved, presumably hallowed homes. Asher Hartman's performance, part of the Machine Project Field Guide to the Gamble House, was loosely associated with Intervention, which took place (in parts) in Rudolph Schindler's Kings Road House, Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House, and Richard Neutra's VDL House.
The conference was motivated, in part, by "Competing Utopias", a preceding exhibition held at the Neutra VDL House that furnished the home’s interiors entirely with Cold War-era objects originally from within the Eastern Bloc. Scenes were set in each room with the precision of a set designer, depicting the life of an East German family right down to the children's toys littering the floor (Dora Epstein Jones, theorist and professor of architectural culture, likened the installation to non-narrative film). The exhibition ran for two months, during which visitors to the VDL could continue touring the home as per usual, but with the added dimension of an alternate utopian vision; Soviet communism overlaying American (by way of Vienna) modernism.
As noted by the curators Sarah Lorenzen, David Hartwell, Bill Ferehawk, Justin Jampol, and Patrick Mansfield, this added dimension wasn't always properly interpreted. Some tourist took the intervention as a face-value historical replication, depicting the little-known time Neutra spent in East Berlin. Others conjectured on Neutra's personal political beliefs, interpreting the the idea of visiting a historic home and seeing a fantastical supposition would be irreverent, or almost profaneintervention as an "outing" of the architect's pinko-leanings. But what's fascinating about the misinterpretations is that they insist on seeing the intervention as reality. It's as if the idea of visiting a historic home and seeing a fantastical supposition would be irreverent, or almost profane, rather than artistic, so the viewer does whatever set of mental gymnastics to reconcile the two worlds. Anthony Carfello, programs manager at the MAK Center, testified to this, in regards to one of the Center's prior exhibitions linking Schindler to the Black Dahlia murder. And despite being clearly built on rank conspiracy, the link turned out to be difficult to break in the minds of some visitors, thanks to the context of the Center's authoritative presence.
For pilgrims to historic homes, the desire to reconcile experience with historical accuracy can overwhelm imagination and impressionism. This is largely due to the fact that, after a piece of architecture becomes monumentalized for its historical or aesthetic prominence, visitors come to experience its role in a greater piece of fiction – the folklore of whatever the curatorial narrative d'jour has deemed necessary, regardless of its absurdism. This informs the initiative behind the 1975 restoration project for the Acropolis, which aims to rebuild the significantly decayed and destroyed structures (due to modern and ancient incidents) using original stone, collected in fragments from around the site. Most likely, this reversion is to a time and significance deemed most significant and effective for tourism.
This practice is made more absurd when projected into an imagined future. The "Jurassic Bark" episode of the show Futurama, which takes place in the year 3000's New New York, features an exhibition at the Natural History Museum of an authentic 20th century pizza parlor. The pizzeria happens to be the one where Fry, the show's protagonist, used to work – before he accidentally cryogenically froze himself to end up in the 30th century – and he takes issue with a tour guide's interpretation of an artifact found at the scene: a wooden pizza peel. The tour guide claims the paddle was used to "gently discipline" delivery boys, but Fry objects, saying the paddle was also used to "move pizzas and crush rats". A silly example for sure, but quite apt – future historical interpretations, whether aesthetic or anthropological, must pick and choose which elements to persist and obscure.
The problems with this synecdoch-ial method come alive in the present time with things like façadism, prioritizing superficial qualities as representative of three-dimensional spaces. As in the case of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien's American Folk Art Museum, where the façade was placed in storage as the rest was demolished, façadism does little to convey the significance the Villa Savoye must become a kind of sitcom set-piece version of itself; an inflated icon of dressed-up authenticity, perpetuated to "institutionalize culture"of the actual space, and seems like more of a concession to the demolition's opponents than a triumph of curation. In the case of an “integrated juxtaposition” style of preservation, which Competing Manifestos subscribes to, the statement is bold but risks being easily missed, invisible to those passing through with the wrong glasses on. With more explicit interventions, where the objective difference between architectural preservation and art installation is more obvious, the dynamic can be more improvisational; that of partners playing off one another. This style of preservation could even suggest an additive process, where new structures are built in a style that is at once contemporary, reverential and harmonious to the original's context.
One such purposeful juxtaposition is the artist Santiago Borja's "Sitio" project at Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye. As discussed at the Intervention conference, the project takes three forms: two "palapas" (a shelter made from palm fronds) are installed on the grounds; "tapis" (rugs) are placed inside; a woven "suspendue" ceiling covers the terrace. Each intervening object has a root in traditional Mayan artisanship, and Borja has his own thesis as to why he chose these objects in particular, related to a reputable interpretation of the structure's pilotis as derived from a child's fantasy. At the Intervention conference, Borja framed Sitio in conversation with writer and critic Mimi Zeiger as commentary on the tourism industry, and how institutionalized cultures will shave and mold the original structure's existence into whatever object is most palatable within that touristic, architectural narrative. Borja argued that, for the sake of the touring public's eye, the Villa Savoye must become a kind of sitcom set-piece version of itself; an inflated icon of dressed-up authenticity, perpetuated to "institutionalize culture". Borja's Sitio tries to combat that, inserting objects incompatible to the Villa's time and place, casting it in sharper relief.
In the end, nearly all complications of architectural preservation hinge on a what is effectively a time travel paradox. Preservation is opposed to passing time; it attempts to deny the existence of a changing world around it, and adheres to its curator's chosen historical epoch. But when anyone, for this case an artist, comes in and tries to re-engage with that preservation, they are effectively coming from the future, from the perspective of the building. future interlopers and past historicism sitting together at the dinner table.So what happens if that interlocutor creates such a splash in the preserved building's history, such that the structure becomes better known for that artistic intervention than for that status in which it was initially preserved? Is it suddenly the curator's responsibility to include that intervention in their future preservations?
This essentially creates a paradox of timed preservation, where if the intent is to keep something in its state of highest significance, then that may include multiple spaces in time – future interlopers and past historicism sitting together at the dinner table. In the light of these interventions, a preserved space may have to be completely re-imagined with the currents of the intervening tide, collapsing dimensions of past and present as necessary. Preservation is living history, and with any life, it has to die.
Former Managing Editor and Podcast Co-Producer for Archinect. I write, go to the movies, walk around and listen to the radio. My interests revolve around cognitive urban theory, psycholinguistics and food.Currently freelancing. Be in touch through email@example.com