In recent years, the connections between architecture, art, and design have, in many cases, become inextricably bound to another in a kind of symbiotic relationship. For some observers, architecture appears relevant to the twenty-first century only when it emulates an abstract sculptural presence. But for architecture to unite with sculpture in this way, the balance between its respective function and non-functional components requires the formative clarification of design. What is often lost or missing from the equation is the overriding technical authority of engineering, which has gradually been given less attention than the overall, external appearance of the building. Does this mean engineering still resides in the Industrial Age with no relation to the present? I would disagree — primarily because engineering is what gives attention to detail, and detail is what signifies the manner in which things are made to work coherently even when not visible on the surface.
Where architecture merges with art, and consequently, art with design, the structural joints and modular units that contain aspects of the structural whole and thus hold things in place may become too far-sighted, which means that attention to such functional details begins to move outside the central idea of architecture rather than being integrated with it. This appeared evident to me upon visiting three architectural sites over the past decade: Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, Zaha Hadid’s Opera House in Guangzhou, and Rem Koolhaas’ Casa da Música in Porto. In each case, a faltering attention to details included problems with proportions in scale relations, unmatched seams between walls, acoustical distortions, and stress points near window mullions that result in leakage. These and other related problems tended to interrupt my perception of the whole. When such details are overlooked or are taken for granted or misunderstood in terms of the necessity of balance, my sense of comfort within and around the space of the building is diminished. The balance between function and non-function literally depends on engineering, which serves as a fundament for all existing genres of architecture + art and design, even when highly imaginative, software-ridden forms are present.
While tactile theorists may strive for a greater conceptualization in designing their buildings, they may understate the lingering demands of specialization that will not diminish in importance. For example, the height of a ceiling is not incidental to the acoustics in a room, the plumbing fixtures in the basement require clarity of access, and the slope of a ramp for the handicapped cannot be too steep in relation to the entry. Conversely, the kind of specializations that engineering provides become necessary once the concept has been clarified through art and design, and once the continuity of the proposal is clearly established through the integration of material software. In other words, clarity of concept precedes specialization, not the other way around. But without specialization, it is unlikely the concept of a building will succeed on functional terms.
In this respect, the concepts of artist/architect Allan Wexler intrigue me as they continue to flourish and evolve in all their fundamental permutations as revealed in his current exhibition at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in lower SoHo. Titled Breaking Ground, Wexler’s exhibition makes clear the connections between architecture + art and design, together with engineering. For my eye, it is all persistently clear, as in two major installations: one titled “Adams House in Paradise” and the other “Shelter” (both 2014). Here as in his remarkable hand-worked inkjet prints, which constitute the overwhelming majority of the exhibition, Wexler reverses the terms of his practice. Although trained in both fine arts and architecture, he opts for the former that includes a bevy of knowledge, insight, and wit that he perceives in the latter.
Both “Adams House” and “Shelter” focus on tree branches in which he transforms the negative spaces between the branches and twigs of a tree into an assortment of abstract planar modules. In “Shelter,” he uses plywood, while in “Adams House” the inextricably poetic construction is assembled with durable cut-paper. Both of these constructions relate to two sources: one, an early Tree painting by Mondrian from 1911 in which the negative spaces between the branches are foregrounded; and two, a series of work by Wexler from 1975 involving small cut-branches that are thematically mounted together in two equidistant rows, each of which is attached to a flat corrugated cardboard backing. Prime examples would include “Tree Transformation Cut” and “Tree Transformation Becoming I-Beam” that describe the passage from nature to becoming a unit of construction that eventually will emerge as architecture.
Wexler’s inkjet prints, Breaking Ground (2012–14), further suggest thematic and sequential relationships that contemplate the origins of the built world. They appear as a retraction or return to the source of physical structures in which one dwells, works, moves through, or simply occupies. These works carry a certain oblique logic, not unlike the work of German sculptor, Franz Erhard Walther, whose current exhibition at the WIELS Museum in Brussels focuses on the positions of the body that reveal a proto-architectural space. Wexler’s work deals less with the positions of the body than with a lexicon derived from spatial thinking, specifically in relation to decision-making processes that ultimately effect the manner in which architecture begins to coincide with art + design. In order to achieve this, Wexler works with a clay model of an empty landscape on a worktable in his studio.
As he manipulates the terrain of his model, various architectonic permutations begin to emerge. Often these will occur sequentially, as for example in early works, such as “Level” and “Up Lift” (both 2012), where, in each case, a square slice of earth is cutout from the center of the “landscape” and slightly raised. In another work, “Footing” (also 2012), a windowless cube with an open door is positioned on a slight recline with arrangements of stones to stabilize the foundation. Despite their primary technology, the engineering details in each model are precise. Once the structure on the “landscape” is complete, it is photographed and then printed in sections that are later reassembled on a panel. Eventually the artist will rework the surface of the printed image using paint and protective binders.
Two of the most remarkable work from Breaking Ground are titled “Interior” (2013) and “Sheathing the Rift” (2014). In each work, the emphasis is given to elongated cuts within the landscape. In the first, the surface of the print is dark, suggesting desert nightfall. The incised elongated cut in the center has light emanating from the interior with a ladder at one end.
In “Sheathing the Rift,” the cut is even longer. Flat rectangular plates line the side of the crevice that offers stabilization to this linear interior form. In either case, the tactile connection to architecture is felt both on a literal and figurative level. The wisdom of these works takes us back to basics where, in spite of the new advances in architecture being made possible through state-of-the-art software, we are confronted with the fundamental engineering that makes these structures functional and habitable.
With art and design rapidly entering into advanced forms of architecture, Allan Wexler reminds us of what remains essential. What comes from nature and the physical properties of the universe cannot be neglected. Rather our understanding of these principles will prove increasingly indispensable if the architecture in coming years is going to function not simply as a virtual phenomenon, but on the level of practicality and comfort in order to meet our fundamental tactile and psychological needs.
Allan Wexler: Breaking Ground continues at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts (31 Mercer Street, SoHo, Manhattan) through May 3.