Art As Architecture


Preston T. Phillips, Architect
My first brush with the concept of art becoming architecture was in the early 1980s at the Emmerich Gallery in SoHo.
An exhibition of Patrick Ireland’s work included an installation of his “Borromini’s Portal,” an assemblage of disparate ropes hung in space converging on a single spot so that when the viewer stood at that location, a perfectly proportioned “Portal,” right out of a Renaissance painting emerged from the otherwise randomly strung lines. I have never forgotten it.

Shortly thereafter, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music premiere of the Philip Glass Opera “Satyagraha,” I experienced a career-altering experience through the stage set designed by the late architect Frank Israel. His use of kinetic theatrical scrims and dramatic lighting took on a life of its own in this minimalist set, creating solids, masses, planes and voids, as well as a mood as ethereal as the music. I have incorporated scrims in my work ever since in my corporate, retail and residential designs.

While at the summer Olympics in 1984 I visited the newly opened “Temporary Contemporary” in Los Angeles designed by Frank Gehry. The Museum of Contemporary Art was undergoing a radical, decade-long reconstruction and the collection decamped to this 1940s-era warehouse building in downtown Los Angeles.

Now The Geffen Contemporary, it was a groundbreaking exercise in the museum experience. The vast space lent itself to many artistic expressions, including performance art and video art, and provided unthinkable square footage for installations, including one massive cardboard structure that would have put a Cecil B. DeMille movie set to shame.

I still recall walking through, around, under and over these monumental cardboard constructions. As one of the pioneering loft architects in New York, this exhibition informed my work in ways that I still employ decades later. The concept of creating an autonomous built environment within a larger envelope of space fascinates me still.

Fast forward to Bilbao, Spain, and the installation of the enormous steel arcs by Richard Serra. For those who have yet to visit the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, a space roughly the size of a football field is devoted to a collection of Mr. Serra’s compositions. Each is different in the torque designs of his steel plates, but all provide unique and unforgettable spatial experiences.

The entrances to each volume takes one through a narrow space where two parallel walls move diagonally together around the arc until one is literally thrust into the central volume. His use of the oval footprint is rare in architecture and amazingly calming when inside.

The tactile patina of the steel plates is also a factor in the success of these spaces, as the surface of the steel takes on a delicate, almost “don’t touch” quality. I likened them to a vast, tilted and shaped Morris Louis stain painting where the pours of the stain becomes one and embedded within the canvas. Sublime.

I recommended that one client consider purchasing a small Serra for his lawn and then give dinner parties inside. What a dramatic and delightful experience a candlelight dinner for 30 would be inside one of these tilted and torqued ovals. The oval oculus to the night sky would be dramatic and memorable beyond the telling.

The recent “Inventing Abstraction” show at the Museum of Modern Art had many notable artistic constructions that could easily be seen as architecture. Works by Hans Arp, Georges Van Tongerloo and Kazimir Malevich, among others, took on architectonic qualities that could be transferred to a building, whether residential in nature or a skyscraper.

At the landmark “Malevich Retrospective” at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam (the first time the then Soviet Union had allowed his work to be exhibited), I was astounded at the degree to which Malevich investigated architectonic forms on a massive scale. I keep the catalogue from that 1989 show at within arm’s length in my studio to this day.

Who knew that his suprematist investigations of form and color on flat canvas also had deep architectural roots? In his 1928 essay “Painting & The Problem of Architecture,” he explores the relationship between artists and the elements around them that influence the solution of architectural problems. Heady stuff indeed.

But perhaps the greatest example to my eye of “art as architecture” comes from an unlikely source: Picasso.

For years I have kept a small black-and-white image of a maquette of his on my desk. I see it many times a day and always delight at its playful yet perfectly composed and proportioned components.

His cardboard, string and wire “Maquette for Guitar” from 1914 is a masterpiece of cubist expression, and it is a fabulous building. When viewed from above, the “plan,” if you will, has all the elements of a built environment. But when viewed from the sides, or ends, the building comes into perfect three-dimensional resolution.

The recent show at MOMA of the three extant versions of this theme was amazing to see, particularly to compare them and see the evolution of this idea. If Le Corbusier ever saw these, it would be easier to understand his work more completely, as the many forms and elements found in his work are all found in these small cubist constructions. Masses, tilted planes, lines and voids are all expressed with great dexterity, tension and a cohesiveness that effortlessly holds all the pieces together.

Like at the “Temporary Contemporary,” I often imagine walking around, under and through the maquette, and wondering what the experience would be if it were a building. How interesting the strings (cables) would be to walk under as they span the angled neck of the guitar. Is the music hole a spiral stair or light well? Both perhaps.

The composition represents great strength, yet lightness and delicacy at the same time, a remarkable balance of elements, shapes, materials and form.

The next time you find yourself at the theater, an art gallery, opera, or museum think “what if that idea were a building?” You might be surprised at the answer.

Next time: East End Works In Progress, An Update.

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