Installations are a critical tool for understanding architecture. They can initiate conversation, encourage public interaction, promote new perspectives and memories of architecture and create new relationships between body and space. Much like Cerith Wyn Evan’s “Neon Scribbles”, forces you to look up and take in the walls of the Tate Britain’s Duveen Gallery which would normally go unnoticed in light of an artwork.
Installations sit between art and architecture, however I wonder whether it is important distinguishing the practice from either. The occurrence of architects designing installations is quite common and they provide a freedom from limitations such as function and permanence.
Aaron Betsky, Director of the 11th International Architecture Venice Biennale widened the definition of architecture through his exhibit and said of the work presented, “Architecture does not mean raising a building, but giving life to the space around us… the work of an architect is primarily experimenting and imagining.” He goes on to write in his catalogue introduction, “This text is about architecture that is not building, that has no function, that does not endure… it evokes pieces of architecture that attempt to reveal, to open up, and to engage.” The exhibits “are not building, but about building.”
Similarly this concept is explored through Doug Wheeler’s synthetic desert in the Guggenheim Museum. The completely white room with curved edges, soft lighting and a spiky foam floor absorbs sound and gives the impression of vastness. The installation is made to replicate the feeling Wheeler experienced standing in the desert of Arizona however not to represent the landscape in any physical way.
Sou Fijimoto’s creates a “Forest of Lights” for fashion brand COS with spotlights, mirrors and sound that responds to visitor movements. Located in the Cinema Arti in Milan’s San Babila district, the installation references the building’s former use and creates an endless immersive space. The architect comments on his installation much as Betsky comments on the 11th Architecture Biennale, “The reason why we finally didn’t use any physical things – only light – is kind of a representation of a really short moment…It happens there, and then it’s gone without anything left.”
A playful installation that craves public interaction is German artist and architect J. Mayer H’s “XXX Times Square With Love”. Three ‘X’ shaped lounges encourage people to relax with three others and gaze up to the lights and buildings of Times Square. The installation engages people to look at their city differently and also participate in a moment of rest amongst the busyness of the street.
The idea of learning and teaching architecture through installations has been done year after year at Curtin University in Bentley. First year architecture students participate in “The Kinetic Aesthetic” which requires small groups to build an installation that moves energy from one project to another, which is set off in a once only show for visitors and participants to watch. By participating in 2011, I learnt about collaboration, public interaction, materials, forms and the playful nature of architecture. This not only informed participants but also the audience.
The definition of installation is again put into question with OMA’s Manus Machina for The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A scaffolding cathedral type structure wrapped in white translucent material was inserted into a brick building. Depending on which side the fabric is illuminated it either becomes a perfect white backdrop or exposes the existing materials of the building behind.
This ambiguity of architecture and installation are blurred due to the scale and complexity of the design however the materials hark at impermanence. Visitors are aware of the structure of the installation and can compare this against the construction of the costumes. This awareness of architecture is a learning tool in itself and can impact the public profoundly.