We're in "full Piper" with a full house for the GSD's first public event of 2012, called "Museum as Genealogy"--and it's all Scott.
[Added note as of Jan 29]: For many of us as GSD architecture students, this kind of event is anticipated as a moment when some of the most important ideas that have guided our education are tested.
In this case, the ideas are those of Preston Scott Cohen, who teaches in the first (very formative) semester of the M.Arch.I core program. This is his practice and his project, to borrow a distinction that Peter Eisenman insisted on last year. For those of us heading into our M.Arch.I theses, this is Scott's thesis; it's an example of how a design can comprehensively address a complex range of requirements while remaining focused on certain set of questions. We see the work pinned up in the lobby; we hear its author present it in his own terms; and we witness as he vigorously defends and interrogates his own work under the questioning of an outside critic.
Some of the excitement around these events is specific to being a part of this particular institution: this is our education, after all. We have been shaped by the critiques these professors have given us on our own work. We also know many of the personalities involved, and anticipate the spectacle of seeing our familiar professors and mentors joust and jest with their peers--some known to us personally, some known only through their work and reputation, or not yet known not at all.
These conversations are part of a wider architectural discourse, and I hope that the content makes this clear. But my point is that these events (and my blogging of them) are the way that they are because they take on a personal significance for us at this school. In no way is this a neutral examination of some remote historical circumstance--whatever that might mean. It is the act of an institution, made of many different people and agendas, representing and assessing itself. Celebrating the achievements of its own people and being critically self-aware of its own agendas are two tasks that define the work of an institution, and this is what we are up to in this event. [end of added note]
I've never seen Ouroussoff live and am very curious to see how this will go--there aren't that many people who can match wits with the chair of our department when he's on.
First, here are some images from the exhibition, whose opening this event marks:
[Nader Tehrani contemplates a model of Lightfall, the building's central, tortuous atrium]
6:40pm: Mohsen is making introductions. PSC will speak for a few minutes, then NO, then they'll talk to each other, then the rest of us can ask questions.
"I must admit that I feel very unprepared for introducing Scott Cohen. Those of you who know Scott are fully aware that his introductions are beautifully written, very precise, quite long--and often more precise than the lectures. So I am unprepared."
"But it was pleasure, a few weeks ago, to be in Tel Aviv to see the museum...it was part of a trip with several people from Harvard [and he mentions the Dean of HBS (business), the Dean of HGSE (education), and several other deans]."
He's talking about how important it was to see the building in person and close-up, on the site. "It's very interesting how the building deals with compression, and other phenomena that Scott is interested in, such as distortion. ...and the compression happens in the context of the near-normalcy of the galleries, and also sets up a relational condition between the galleries."
"And I also feel a little nostalgic tonight. Seeing Scott's drawings (etc.) is a reminder of an earlier moment in the school when I witnessed Scott's development, and his friendship with Robin Evans. ...And we both miss Robin Evans very much, as he died so young." [Scott is nodding.]
"The third thing is pedagogy." Scott has been very precise in his relationship with pedagogy [yep]. "There's something incredibly didactic about this exhibition...and it's very rare to find this kind of tour de force of a relationship between pedagogy and practice."
"It's also an incredible opportunity as Nicolai is here. As you know, for many years Nicolai was the architecture critic for the NYT and has on many occasions been nominated for the Pulitzer."
Scott takes the podium and starts by thanking all involved, too many for me to transcribe here.
PSC: "...I'll start with the dialectic between the museum and architecture. If the museum tries to be anything other than neutral, it runs into difficulties. We can look to the founding of the museum and realize that neutral spaces, of one form of the other, become the only option." When art objects become torn from their original contexts, they move into a neutral context of the art museum, which is like every other neutral art museum in the world.
"There are a few exceptions: the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and the Guggenheim in NYC."
PSC: "The site makes the building practically invisible."
"It may be useful to think back to eight years ago, when this project started. We were still feeling the shocks of two competing visions." One was the Guggenheim in Bilbao, and the other was the MoMA in New York, about which, as PSC notes, Ouroussoff wrote: "museums are as much about the stamp of legitimacy as about aesthetic pleasure.'"
"This opposition was on my mind," and made PSC think that the museum should be both: an inversion of the Guggenheim, "but not in the way that the MoMA is."
6:57pm: PSC is now analyzing the Guggenheim. "It is essentially an extremely tall picture gallery." And he sets it in a lineage with dioramas and cabinets of curiosities. "The cabinet of curiosity inhabited a curious scale: larger than an object, smaller than a room." Similarly, the Guggenheim, is caught in-between, larger than a room. It both invites people in for a private viewing, and puts these people on display, like on a shelf. "It is this model, the cornucopic microcosm, that corresponds to the cabinet of curiosities." It is, given its exterior form, also an object of curiosity within the city.
7:03pm: Comparison of the 19th century enfilade type museum with the Guggenheim, as an "enfilade in half."
7:04pm: "The Tel Aviv museum (TAMA) works like the cabinet, but differently. First, TAMA's interior can be seen as the two shells of a Renaissance domes: one coarse and the other smooth. The inner represents the infinity of the heavens and the outside represents itself to the city. In TAMA, Lightfall "formally enacts the contortion necessary to bring about a series of galleries on a constrained site." "Lightfall amplifies each to opposite extremes, exhibiting what was once called 'perverse functionalism.'"
"TAMA's facade behaves like the Guggenheim ramp, as if it were turned inside out. ..It's anamorphic form intensifies a series of movements to and past the building. A complicated reading complicates this, however. ...The Lightfall and the facade are two equivalent surfaces; and the walls of the surrounding buildings constitute a third set of surfaces."
"The contemporary museum does not try to bring in and organize the world, subjecting it to a teleological directory; it no longer follows its earlier didactic impulse but explores a wider range of subjectivities."
Another subject: "the way that interiors and exteriors are related to each other in large institutional buildings." "The systems for control and organization for such buildings" [conflicts with] the need for the building to actually function as more than one building, each independent of the other (and each program with its own entrance).
TAMA has two functions: it is both a museum and a library. Yet a library in a museum, without its own entrance, just becomes a room in the museum.
Now there is a great animated sequence of views of the model and drawings, talking about these tensions, as retroactively theorized--check these out in the video. [Scott acknowledges that this part of his argument was developed as a collaboration with Carl d'Apolito-Dworkin, my studio TA from last semester! Woot!]
"But...the library fails to...match the power of its nemesis, the Lightfall." The Lightfall eludes particular association with any one space.
"The contest would now seem to be between horizontality and verticality..."
7:17pm: PSC is comparing this kind of tension and hybridity with a similar condition in his Los Gatos house.
7:19pm: "TAMA is a multi-program building that cannot be isomorphic between its interior and exterior, but in which each program tries to dominate the exterior, making it isomorphic with itself."
"One of the most rewarding elements of this has been to witness that which could never [be predicted]," that is, how the curators have inhabited the building with various art installations. "...And I hope this may represent the beginning of another genealogy."
7:20pm: Applause. Ouroussoff and PSC sit down.
NO: "First, I'd like to say how refreshing it is to hear an architect talk about genealogy, which most architects don't want to acknowledge."
"When I think of the Guggenheim Bilbao in the mid and late 90s, we think about the fall of the Berlin Wall, [various political and economic circumstances], brand art, etc. For the first time, the architect put himself on an equal footing with the artist." "That was a huge shift for architects, because for a long time they felt that their voices had been suppressed."
MoMA is different. It was reacting to Bilbao as well as anxieties of modernism. "Trying to figure out a new narrative without letting go of the old one." "And yours comes out as a response to both buildings."
"The third historical, and hysterical, moment was the competition at Ground Zero."
NO: "The second issue" is the lack of a middle ground in thinking about what makes an appropriate space for viewing art. NO discloses that he's married to an artist.
"And the third thing to talk about is execution. Both in terms of issues such as entry...and in the most pragmatic way, gallery spaces--and how it is we look at art, and how gallery spaces reflect our understanding of that."
"So let's talk about what it was...you were trying to avoid, when you got the competition."
PSC: "I was probably trying to avoid...something about the will of the architect." Ambivalence. "It's a sublimation, in a way, that needs to be deployed through techniques."
There's a discipline in the building that marks it off from buildings [like Bilbao] that are born in gesture.
"I enjoy--and I think many at the GSD do--there's a culture here of enjoying how the constraints of architecture will bring us into new solutions. And to discover constraints as a source of invention. You've seen the site, but the most important constraint was the curator who tragically passed away months before the opening of the building. He was very protective of the way that lighting worked; we went to many galleries so he could show me what kind of light he didn't want. He didn't let me have natural light. He didn't like any of the museums in Boston, by the way, mostly because of lighting. He showed me how light hit objects...from three different directions, casting shadows..."
"We saw the new ICA which was under construction--I won't tell you what he said about it."
NO: "You restrained yourself to rectangular galleries, then distort them by ripping them open. ...Was the rectangular requirement from the curator?"
PSC: "He did say that, and he knew given the site that it was a problem. ...And the building ultimately betrays some of its principles, because of the way [it deals with its various constraints.] But those were not volunteered from the outset."
"I'd like to talk about material choices, and how political and cultural those choices are. It was mandated almost from the beginning that this building be stone, and thus be identified as a civic building, identified with Jerusalmen more than Tel Aviv. So the panelization was dedicated to the problem of making it stone." That eventually became impossible because they were hanging upside down, etc., so it had to become concrete in the end. "But it recalled either the bad brutalist architecture, or military interventions. ...But the form overcomes it; the potential to see it alive."
"...It looks almost metal, because of their size and how smooth they are. But this internationalizes the building; it's somewhat alien [to its site], in that sense, even though its so tightly knit into it."
"He did invite a foreign architect--and I never got to the bottom of that--because he was so dedicated to this being an Israeli project, but hired a foreign architect."
"One day he did explain his vision to me, which had to do with bringing a foreign [representation of Israel to itself]."
PSC: "There was a point in the process when he looked at the project and said 'What are all these cockamamie shapes?' And he was lost. But he trusted me. So this makes the difference between whether you're going to make a great building or not--whether you are trusted."
"At one point, people didn't like [that PSC and the curator had so much control over the design]," but now people are really excited, seeing how many ways there are for art to inhabit the building."
NO: "The entry sequence is very interesting: you lose control [when people enter and can decide to go various ways]. It's a problem at Bilbao, where you have to choose where to go, and then always return to the atrium."
PSC: "Yes, there are moments of multiple choice. It almost killed me in the competition when a juror said 'I'm lost and everyone's going to be lost.'"
"But there are multiple collections, different kinds of galleries for different things. The building is small enough, with a centralized focus, and the section [motivates you to move up and down through it]."
Questions from the audience.
Q: "All of this brings to mind a cinematic process. Is the building the last frame in the sequence of negotiation, or is an intermediate frame catching the negotiation as it is taking place?"
PSC: "I wouldn't say it's the last, but it might be all the frames, or the optimal compression of the whole stories. I don't think of it as a fragment of the process, as if we picked a place to stop." "And it could have gone forward. Lightfall is a mature space, in the way that it occupies the building; but there's another space in the library, that could have gone on [if it were not for other contingencies]." [Fancy way of saying that there were spaces that he'd liked to have developed more?]
Q: "Could you explain more what the aesthetic is based on? Some of the imagery reminded me of the beauty of a glacier, despite all its complex geometries--but the geometries of a glacier are natural."
PSC: "I might not be so refreshing when I say that I'm not willing to admit, or I don't know why, I want the building to look this way." [laughter] "I know what I want the building to do, in terms of epistemological subjects [etc.], but I can't quite say why I want it to look that way."
[end.] Scott thanks Nicolai Ouroussoff.
[After the softball game pitched by Ouroussoff: Mohsen Mostafavi, Nicolai Ouroussoff, Preston Scott Cohen, and Ben Prosky.]
Lectures and exhibitions, life in the trays, happenings around Cambridge...and once in a while, some studio and course work. Please note that all live blogs are abridged and approximate. If you want to see exactly what happened, in most cases a video of the event is posted online by the event's hosts. If you have concerns about how you are quoted, please contact me via Archinect's email.