There can be few more mysterious and daunting creative tasks than designing new buildings. In recent centuries, the process inevitably began with the shape of a box, the result of natural construction materials, the need for stability, and for the final product to fit with existing usage. The sudden explosion of building shapes in the last quarter century testifies to how restrictive things were in the past, but the freedom granted by computer-assisted design and radically innovative materials and techniques has created challenges of another sort: challenges to the harmony of cityscapes, the usefulness of interior spaces, and always a major problem, cost. Any construction project tends to be complex regardless of its size, what with accommodating human, physical needs and anticipating all the demands of its function now and into the future. Furthermore, few if any buildings are autonomously designed the way more familiar artworks are: except for the most conspicuous jobs, and often not even then, clients are more concerned that the structure represent and serve them than the designer.
Michael Graves, one of the best-known practitioners of the brief Postmodernist school, published not only the extensive thumbnail sketches that led to his Portland Building, but did the same for his teapot designs, which helped connect the visual characteristics of architecture with more mundane design challenges. When the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao set off a sensation in world awareness of architecture as giant sculpture, Frank Gehry not only shared pages dense with spontaneous and sequential exploratory sketches, but also the 3-D sketch-models that followed and sometimes led the way: there were lumps of crumpled paper and other materials that gave his imagination something real to grasp in the round.
Perhaps in response to the general ignorance of how they and their peers proceed, Sparano and Mooney Architects, of Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, are presenting A Way of Working in UMOCA’s Exit Gallery. The show is a fitting complement to Haimaz, Heir, Hjem, Helm, Hām, Home, a typically expansive and wide-ranging UMOCA exploration of the realities currently surrounding homes and homelessness. A Way of Working utilizes the two media suggested above: sketches and models. Both provide what are essentially snapshots — and only snapshots, really — of the work, because while sketches and notebooks may contain much of the narrative, they need to be displayed in vitrines that prevent handling, but also turning the pages. The models, on the other hand, are for the most part what they call “heuristic devices,” which means they were intended to allow their makers to discover for themselves how to accomplish the work. They are eloquent objects that speak a more complete and accessible visual language, but may or may not tell viewers anything about specific projects. Those that do are labeled with the name of the project.
All that said, this exhibit offers a window into a process it shows to contain more than a little bit of magic, and it should not be overlooked. The models are marvels of craftsmanship and material expression in their own right, and incidentally offer an entrance to a whole range of miniature representations, which is one of the more engaging, but largely untaught, modes of contemporary art making. And this is also material no self-respecting artist should be without. When I was asked to construct a model of the six floor atrium of a skyscraper in Seattle, along with the sculpture my client was hoping to hang in it, I had to reinvent several wheels to get it made, and in the process supplemented my income with some of his.
Probably, though, the most important realization is that some of Sparano and Mooney’s innovations have become part of the vocabulary of Western buildings, and recognizing them will enrich the experience of anyone who lives here with open eyes.
A Way of Working, Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Salt Lake City, through July 15
Geoff Wichert objects to the term critic. He would rather be thought of as a advocate on behalf of those he writes about.
Categories: Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts
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