Architects, Artists Debate Who’s In the Now

Event: TOWARD “ANARCHITECTURE”: A Conversation between Architects and Artists
Location: Center for Architecture, 09.16.09
Speakers: David Ruy — Co-Director, Ruy Klein; Ferda Kolatan — Director, su11 architecture + design; Oscar Tuazon — Artist; William Menking — Founder & Editor-in-Chief, The Architect’s Newspaper
Moderator: Farnaz Mansuri, Assoc. AIA — Principal, De-Spec
Organizer: AIANY New Practices Committee

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Biaxial Bouquet.

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“Architecture doesn’t start with function; it starts with an idea. It’s something you have to live with, and that takes a commitment,” stated artist Oscar Tuazon at the second of a multi-part series of discussions about the gray area between art and architecture. Moderator Farnaz Mansuri, Assoc. AIA, principal of De-Spec, contemplated whether contemporary artists and architects are too comfortable in niches, which didn’t exist prior to the Renaissance when architect and artist were often one in the same. It’s hard for architects to say they are artists, she claimed, and pondered whether artists are more “in the now,” while architects are “in the future and disengaged from the present.” Ferda Kolatan, director of su11 architecture + design, disagreed, explaining that his firm is interested in the past, present, and future: “It’s crucial to go beyond the systematic in order to explore current ideas and technologies.”

Kolatan, who founded su11 with Erich Schoenenberger, AIA, defines his firm’s work by “features, expressions, and character.” In su11’s work, underlying systems guide surface conditions and spatial relationships. “Our work is based on experimentation, but I wouldn’t really call it research,” Kolatan explained. Rather, like sculptors, they carve out a project from an initial condition. Digital renderings of projects included Chromazon, su11’s finalist courtyard design for MoMA/P.S. 1 Young Architects Program in 2008 that transformed floral and faunal forms into digital hybrid modules that combine into a canopy, and Scaled Skins, a prototype roof structure comprised of a skin and armature derived from the cellular structure of armadillo skin and dragonfly wings.

Most clients aren’t willing to pay architects to experiment, said David Ruy of Ruy Klein. In between real-world projects, his firm, which defines itself as “an experimental design practice,” indulges in research to hone their creative skills. The partners also moonlight as artists creating sculptures for a gallery in Washington, DC. They hide that they are architectural designers, as the gallery feels that buyers might be less interested in their work.

Tuazon, the only artist and non-architect of the group, began: “I want to live, somehow… I want to survive.” His work reflects primitive needs, and many of his installations focus on the simple concept of shelter. He described an art piece where he and his brother traveled to a remote island near Kodiak, AK, with only a chainsaw and guns in tow. “We tried to live and build something from what was there.” While he prefers to build into the earth, Tuazon typically creates installations in stark white gallery spaces, which, because of the pre-defined space, he criticized as “hard to create function or necessity.”

William Menking, editor-in-chief of The Architect’s Newspaper, served as commissioner of the U.S. Pavilion at the 2008 Venice Biennale. He worked with 16 architects to create the exhibition, which was challenging in such a historically significant venue for art. “Venice is a spectacular show all the time,” he said. Showcasing designs for underprivileged populations, which was the theme of his show, seemed out of place in a city known for decadence. Perhaps architects could learn something from artists. And they may have the chance — next year, AIANY New Practices New York, which is hosting this series, will be open to non-licensed architects and other designers, including artists.