Curated by Felix Burrichter, the Swiss Institute’s second annual architecture and design exhibition, Pavillion De L’Esprit Nouveau: A 21st Century Show Home, attempts to recapture the revelatory voice of Le Corbusier from his 1924 Paris exhibition of the same name for the technological age. The results are more cumbersome than visionary.
The famous Swiss architect envisaged a world where the mechanization of industry and labor would lead to pure forms of architecture and design. Furniture was not just furniture, but equipment: practical machines capable of bringing humanity closer to efficiency and easy living. Beauty, then, was in an object’s cohesive simplicity and utility.
In the Swiss Institute exhibition, Burrichter complicates Le Corbusier’s goals with the hindrances of the technological age. Themes of the exhibition run the gamut from self-surveillance to faddish, low-fi kitsch. Overall, the tone eschews Le Corbusier’s utopianism for a more glitchy resonance.
Take, for instance, Jessi Reaves’ “I just live here.” Set up in one of the main causeways of the gallery, this couch will catch your eye for its tumor-like appearance. It is made from materials such as foam, plywood, glass, and “studio dust,” and it seemed to be caught halfway through the process of fabrication. One could almost view it as a factory reject, a couch turned inside-out. In this age of mechanical perfectionism, Reaves seems to ask, is there room for the defects?
Like all my favorite pieces in the exhibition, Patricia Urquiola’s “Serena” is unjustly sequestered into one of the gallery’s nooks and crannies. Urquiola’s object may look like a glass mirror, but it’s actually made out of reflective aluminum. Unfortunately, the mirror is placed a little too low; to get the full effect, the viewer must squat down to reach it at eye level. It’s worth it, though: as you gaze into “Serena,” your face vanishes into your own reflection. It is a vanity without vanity.
Another of my favorite pieces was Nicoletta Rossia and Guido Bianchi’s “Ipnos Lamp.” This, I imagine, is more what Le Corbusier had in mind for the future. Fashioned with aluminum and inconspicuous LED lights in the sleek outline of a rectangle, the piece surrounds itself with a halo of light. It is understatedly sculptural, a quiet modernist triumph that exhibits just how small our technology has shrunk in the past 15 years.
The standout piece in the exhibition was definitely Studio Drift’s “Fragile Future.” The group has deconstructed and reconstructed a field of dandelions into a light fixture, exploring the liminality between nature and technology. It could pass either as a close-up view of a computer chip or an uprooted system of dandelions. The message here is a protest against mass production and throwaway culture, and with this piece, Studio Drift suggests that technology, as it advances, will regress back into nature. While rebutting the supposed virtues of mechanized industry, there is something very Corbusian about the cohesive vision of new design that “Fragile Future” imparts.
The biggest draw of the exhibition is, in fact, the gallery itself: Shawn Maximo and Filip Setmanuk have transformed the Swiss Institute into a giant green screen. With the help of cameras, gallery attendees are transmitted to virtual interiors displayed on nearby television monitors with whacky names like “Soft Surrender Lounge” and “Soul Collation Center.” Perhaps this is a comment on society’s shifting domestic life to virtual spaces like the internet; perhaps it is spectacle, domineering the entire exhibition and muddling the message of the artworks. On opening night, gallery attendees were enthralled by it, awkwardly shifting their bodies in the virtual space for that perfect selfie pose. These days, all galleries need selfie moments, right? All hail the Insta-gallery.
The Swiss Institute’s exhibition fails to provide a cohesive response to Le Corbusier. Based on these pieces, I’m not sure the man has much relevance today. When new technological advances, like the 3D printer, return the modes of production to individuals, what is left to say for industrial design? For his part, Burrichter seems to confuse the artistic machinations of futuristic designs with where we’re actually going.
Pavillion De L’Esprit Nouveau: A 21st Century Show Home continues at the Swiss Institute (18 Wooster Street, New York) through November 8.