In Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard envisions the house as a “vertical being,” with two symbolic poles: the irrationality of the cellar and the rational consciousness of the roof. “Up near the roof, all our thoughts are clear … Here we participate in the carpenter’s solid geometry.” The same can be said of Mauricio Pezo and Sofia von Ellrichshausen’s “Mine Pavilion,” a radiant wooden structure constructed in downtown Denver, which recalls the mining settlements erected when gold prospectors flocked to what would become Denver City.
“Mine Pavilion” is part of Draft Urbanism, a public art project sponsored by the Biennial of the Americas, where artists and architects were invited to examine the human relationship with urban areas, using interactive works of art. The Biennial website states that “the architects’ approach is to create an urban zone in the grassy plain of the median,” yet “Mine Pavilion” seems to this viewer to be more of a memory theater, in the same vein as large-scale works by Martin Puryear, where the use of wood conjures an almost lyrical energy.
In “Mine Pavilion,” viewers are able to walk through the gargantuan structure (50 feet high, 50 feet long, 10 feet wide) which is lined on the inside with bookshelf-type constructions, filled not with books, but with large rocks. Even though the installation stands in the middle of a busy thoroughfare (Speer Boulevard and Larimer Street), its proximity to the city becomes less and less apparent the further one walks into the structure, which, on the day I visited, was virtually flooded with light. Crossing its threshold allows the viewer to enter a space where the urban context of Denver is diffracted by historical allusions. At the same time it acts as a gestural bridge across Speer Boulevard, attesting to the unceasing development of the modern metropolis.
Draft Urbanism is comprised of three other installations, a few of which were not fully fleshed out on July 16, the first day of the exhibition. I looked, fruitlessly, for “The Mirror Stages,” by June14 Meyer-Grohbrügge & Chermayeff. Cages full of butterflies were to be set up on the bustling 16th Street Mall. I discovered later that the installation’s holes were too big, allowing a mass exodus of the winged creatures.
In “Skyline Cloud,” by plan:b arquitectos, upturned umbrella-like canopies have been set up in Skyline Park, an underutilized grassy area hemmed in by office buildings. The park feels like an airy tent-encampment, a verdant space transformed into a public gathering place. People were eating lunch, playing ping-pong, and checking their mobile devices. The teal-colored canopies suggest sky, but create a respite from the sun. “Skyline Cloud” melds the practical and utilitarian with the poetic; a dialog with the natural world that in turn subtly humanizes an urban backdrop.
I was particularly disappointed not to be able to go up in Alex Schweder’s “The Hotel Rehearsal,” a transparent, inflatable hotel room that lifts in and out from a white van (via scissor lift) parked in a lot at 15th Street and Welton. Schweder’s work (in architecture and performance art) is heady and playfully arresting. A 2011 piece, “Roomograph,” is comprised of photosensitive fur, vinyl and fan-blown air, and like many of his works, encourages audience interaction.
When I asked to enter “The Hotel Rehearsal,” a friendly woman said “Sure! If you take your shoes off!” but a man, whom I took to be the artist, disagreed. I asked repeatedly to go in, but was told, somewhat inhospitably, that it wasn’t ready, they were still testing it, even though I had waited some time, unrewarded, in the midday sun. “The Hotel Rehearsal” investigates the way people interact with living spaces, in this case a mobile, bubble-like pod, that when elevated flaunts views of the city. Intimate, yet exposed, the work is a roguish take on the dynamics of personal vs. urban space, not to mention an astute satire on the economic “bubble” where occupants of luxury, high-rise condos reside.
Draft Urbanism displays how architecture is never static. Informed by history, shaped by society, the city itself is an ephemeral structure. Denver’s proximity to the Rocky Mountains, its existence as a metropolis on the western edge of the High Plains, makes it a model location to examine the evolution of urban fabric as it meets the natural world.
Draft Urbanism continues throughout downtown Denver through September 2.