This title is a quote by James Turrell from the speech he gave  at the Guggenheim, New York, on Thursday at the opening of its latest exhibition, James Turrell. One of three major shows of his work being held across the US this summer (Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston) it also marks the first solo show he’s had in a New York museum since 1980. And it is no quiet come back. The main installation, Aten Reign, stands in the centre of Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic atrium, a tower ascending in concentric ovoid rings of light that echo the Guggenheim’s own spiral rotunda. It is also the Guggenheim’s most ambitious installation to date, according to associate curator Nat Trotman.

Aten Reign, 2013. James Turrell at The Guggenheim Museum, New York. Photo: Gwen Webber

Aten Reign, 2013. James Turrell at The Guggenheim Museum, New York. Photo: Gwen Webber

Aten Reign itself is a hybrid: both part of the Skyspace family – a series of openings in the ceiling or top of an installation that are subtly affected by the shifting sky – it is also Ganzfeld (German for ‘complete field’), his immersive, tone-shifting works that feel like you’re walking into a luminous substance. It is particularly striking because of its relationship with the museum. There is no doubt that the Guggenheim is tough for any artist (indeed, Turrell’s title quote is a responsive to this). Unlike the white cube, which can purposefully pull away to let a work sit in it, the Guggenheim’s overwhelming grandeur and peculiarity contends with the work, sometimes compliments it, but never truly allows it to breathe. This wasn’t a problem for Turrell, it seems. He covered it. In some instances artists’ creations can’t compete, however.

Turrell’s pieces tend to involve a lot of construction to build the frame or manipulate the space to successfully generate the sensations of floating, intensity, reflected light and changing colours, characteristic of his work. The rotunda space that is expressed from the outside in Wright’s Museum has been replaced with a wash of hues that glow and drench the people beneath it, standing dead centre, lying underneath and reclining around the floor’s edge. Around the edge of the balcony, Turrell’s team has stretched a white fabric so that it is an enclosure – a matryoshka doll. By building within it, Turrell has reclaimed the space for the light. At the same time, the space and installation are well matched: craning your neck to take in the full winding lines of Wright’s elegant interior, one’s eye follows the spiral to the top, the glazed roof, while Turrell’s Skyspaces draw your face towards an impossible flattened sun, in both the viewer bathes in a gently pulsing light, artificial or real. “Frank might even like it.. so it’s ok,” he said of the famously fussy architect.

Aten Reign, 2013. James Turrell at The Guggenheim Museum, New York. Photo: Gwen Webber

Aten Reign, 2013. James Turrell at The Guggenheim Museum, New York. Photo: Gwen Webber

It’s a struggle to describe Turrell’s work. Sensual comes to mind most often, but so does consuming and calm, as in Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project. Perhaps the sensation that you are being enveloped in anything not tangible evokes these words, though, and for each of the piece’s continually shifting hues, there is a slightly different set of imagery, all tunnel-like: blue is futuristic chamber, peach and pink womb-like, while the white speaks to religious ascension. As Wil Hylton writes in The New York Times Magazine, it is difficult to describe Turrell’s work successfully without sounding cliched or eagerly jargonistic, echoing the sometimes impenetrable language for which Turrell himself is known. The “thingness of light” and the “alpha state” are examples Hylton gives, but observes as well that “without these terms, it would be nearly impossible to discuss his work. It is simply too far removed form the language of reality.”

Light is difficult to describe. Turrell makes it sound easy. In his speech to a flock of keenly captivated press in the bowl-shaped basement auditorium, Turrell talked about the eye, the pupil’s mechanism and how people are not made for the light, instead we are accustomed to the dimly-lit caves from which we crawled. His mediation of light and creativity to make voids, solids, spaces that don’t exist as well as illuminating those that do is incisive, specific, and humorous.

But Turrell has done something more powerful than just place his work around the landing-like gallery spaces and overwhelming balcony interior – he has filled the space. The Guggenheim is a notoriously difficult space to work with, it prompts noxious attitudes towards the ego of the architect as much as eliciting a degree of reverence for such a singularly stylised museum. It seems that with a lot of installation work, there is an effort to respond to this overwhelming shape and structure. It is inspirational but also obstructive – it is hard to see the art for the building. In the past, artists have employed ambitious devices – Cai Guo-Qiang‘s I Want to Believe, 2008, installed a pack of wolves winding their way around the balcony rotunda used the inherent movement in the space; more recently, Maurizio Cattelan: All, 2011, filled the atrium with a cacophony of suspended objects, paraphernalia (and a horse). Still, the museum was at the centre.

Aten Reign, 2013. James Turrell at The Guggenheim Museum, New York. Photo: Gwen Webber

Aten Reign, 2013. James Turrell at The Guggenheim Museum, New York. Photo: Gwen Webber

The show is also, like many atmospheric, time-based media and public installations that seek to evoke a feeling, accessible, completely enveloping and all consuming. People are bathing in the conical atrium under an ever-changing glow. An assistant at the museum is talking to the security guard about how it feels like you can almost touch the space. This kind of art is truly public. It is intimate and open. Although the periphery spaces along the museum ramp hold some of Turrell’s oldest and most profound work, such as the illusionary Afrum I (White), 1967, a bright light projected into a corner that seems to form a solid cube, serve as a certain context, they are somehow weak – perhaps it is the burden of the Guggenheim itself again, or that in the day the rooms are not dark enough to do justice to the impact, but they don’t sing like the main piece. Perhaps they aren’t meant to. It is a great shame, though, because these are in essence the stuff that Turrell is made of – the roots and the genius loci for his obsessive creativity. Indeed, for this author their lo-fi, home-grown origins (Turrell played around with pointing projectors and making holes in painted windows in the Sixties) speak to his ongoing land art project, Roden Crater, where Turrell is scratching at a surface trying to invite light and bring the sky in.

Klaus Lutz‘s work is brimming with infectious urgency. Before his death in 1993, the Swiss artist spent 16 years in New York, developing an indecipherable alphabet based on ancient symbols and making fantastical space travel-inspired films from his studio flat in the Lower East Side. Little known in his time, the Zurich-based Rotwand gallery has been working to revive Lutz’s vision and work with a recent retrospective at Museum Haus Konstruktiv and their first appearance at the Armory Show this year. Showing a selective collection, Rotwand has captured the spirit of Lutz’s passion to share a message he spent shaping at home. “He was convinced that our language and grammar was not enough,” said one gallery representative.

kl_93:13_Field_of_Powder_16mm Film Still_30x40in

Field of Powder, 1993. Lutz’s photograph of film, C-Print

Always beginning with drawing, Lutz’s work  illustrates his obsession with complete process. Beautiful compositions of stark white chalk lines and shapes on black plastic tamper with the viewer’s grasp of texture and material and whose starkness is similar to Man Ray‘s monochrome images, like pale silhouettes of measuring instruments or mathematical scrawls. Lutz would photograph each drawing and then wipe the plastic clean to start anew. When this became too costly, he took to filming each picture. On one fortuitous occasion, he left the film running and inadvertently began an ongoing fascination with developing films of himself making marks and moving objects.


Almagest (9358/9). Gelatin-silver print

The two films – Caveman Lecture, 2002 and Vulcan, 2004, are screened onto a white balloon to emphasise his pursuit to break borders. The clickety-click 16mm quality makes them feel dated, though they were only made in 2004. Gazing on, one silver-haired onlooker said quietly: “I miss that sound.” The films are layers of different reels, showing himself in red, black, grey or white jump-suits – an apt uniform for a man engineering his own virtual space travel – climbing the star systems, spinning and maneuvering large, abstract wheel sculptures. It is a mystery, but one that is reminiscent of the adventure of early cinema and the possibility film affords a ground-anchored citizen.


Almagest (9358/16). Gelatin-silver print

In contrast, the other drawings on show are more formal – instructive story boards for the films and symbols lined up as stick men. The gallery representative shows me a precious piece in their collection, an ‘accordian file’. She has gloves on to handle it and the care that goes into unfolding the thin strip and its explanation is testament to the treasure that she holds. It is a strip of thick, textured paper with a sequence of drawings, small and intricate of shapes, scenes, kinetic stills. It is like a scroll, a clash of comic-strip story-telling embedded with a coded, ancient wisdom. Though they are keen to share his work, Rotwand is acting as archaeologist and code breaker, as much as guardian of Lutz’s legacy.

James Capper’s Ripper Teeth series, Hydraulic Power Tools for New York, is a curious thing to behold. Inanimate, sitting heavily on pale plaster cubes, they promise a raw and dirty act. Their industrial form and uncannily shaped blades, grinders, diggers and some other tool heads that evade description, are made more intriguing by the lack of power that they so desperately cry to surge through them. Their cables hang impotent and waiting. When I tell one gallery representative that I think they look aggressive and medieval, he points out that they also share a likeness with natural imagery: bird beaks, bunched fruit and, if you look hard enough, some primordial skeletal silhouettes become apparent.

Cropper by James Capper

Cropper, 2012

Though functional as cutting and shaping tools, displayed like this they are also nostalgic art pieces. Capper’s work is part of an ongoing investigation into land-marking and mark-making that recently cumulated in a installation performance at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Here he maneuvered a clumsy cabin to crab-walk on its hydraulic, raft-like feet, stamping textured indents into the earth. By developing carnivorous, mark-making machinery, Capper joins a line of land artists, but unlike Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson and Doris Salcedo, he builds the tool to cut the land and affect the change. His focus is on the maker maker as much as the mark itself. Capper’s use of a farm machinery aesthetic harks back to Britain’s traditional relationship with the land and an industry that, despite waning to near-depletion, still symbolizes a formative topography and productive history.

Tread Toe by James Capper

Tread Tow, 2012

Though there is a generator in the corner of Hannah Barry Gallery‘s stand, where the ‘teeth’ are being shown at this year’s Armory Show, for the majority of the time (the show runs from the 7th to the 10th of March) they will remain as latent mechanical objects. Farming equipment gone awry.

Robert Indiana’s 1928 HOPE, partner of LOVE, in front of the Sears Tower, Chicago / Credit: Gwen Webber

The Modernist idea that technology can democratise production and liberate workers has been eroded by the lack of risk-taking and experimentation on a large scale. Although the d-shape 3D-layering machine has the potential to revolutionise the way buildings are produced, in trying to gain support from investors its inventor Enrico Dini came up against emphatic rejection. Having touted the technology around architectural practices and private equity firms in London, Dini appears finally to have found a customer in the Architectural Association School of Architecture, which has expressed interest in testing a working prototype. But others’ reluctance to get involved with the technology highlights an attitude that is endemic in both construction and mass-production.

The situation is symptomatic of a wider problem of parochialism in architecture. Historically, technology was used in Modernist ideology as a tool to improve the quality of life through labour-saving devices and the democratisation of production. When Reyner Banham wrote A House is Not a Home in 1965, it was with the intention of highlighting the possibilities of a specific technological phenomenon, services such as heating and ventilation, to create new ways of building. As with Buckminster Fuller, this enthusiasm for experimentation to bring about change reflected a belief in technology’s ability to create alternative living environments. Experimental architecture should not necessarily imply just the shapely buildings and attention-seeking landmark architecture that has been built over the past 12 years. In most cases it is the product of a climate of social change in which risks are taken with novel modes of practice.

It was through forward-thinking investors that Le Corbusier made manifest his claims to modern living in the Unité d’Habitation; and a sense of excitement about what architecture could symbolise that enabled Richard Rogers to build the Lloyds building, the first high-profile high-tech architecture in the UK. Today there is little evidence of enthusiasm for experimental architecture. Instead, ambitious projects are tainted by vitriolic criticism on moral grounds, as in the case of the recently completed Burj Khalifa, now the world’s tallest building. It often falls to engineers to maintain a sense of ambition about the future. Discussing the controversy over the Burj Khalifa, its engineer Bill Baker who is a partner in architect SOM (the firm that designed the building before chief architect Adrian Smith took it over in his own name) said defiantly: ‘I think all skyscrapers are symbols of hope. People who build skyscrapers are optimistic about their times and their future. Skyscrapers are dreams rendered in steel and concrete.’

It seems a gross contradiction that technological experiments in the production of luxury commodities are deemed acceptable, while large-scale building projects that may bring wider benefits directly or indirectly, are not. Thomas Heatherwick’s use of manufacturing machinery from the aerospace industry to make limited edition art works, and Basso and Brooke’s digital printing process that creates bespoke high-fashion find themselves exempt from such carping.

So where is the democratic impetus of Modernism? Where is the ambition to use those technologies to make building components and inexpensive products for mass production? In 1853, when the elevator was unveiled in New York, its inventor Elisha Otis offered a chance to change the existing concept of inhabitable space. The sky really did become the limit. Now that ambition had access to technology, people were able to raise the bar. By the middle of the 20th Century, with the failure of social revolutions and growing dissolution with the project of socialism, Modernism become bound up with technological determinism. Later, the link between technology and dystopia became a favourite subject for writers and filmmakers, and by the 1970s modernist architecture was being held up as a warning of the danger of experimentation.

One area in which technology-driven design still has a firm footing is in the consumer goods market, where constant innovation means that access to relatively inexpensive, novel products is wider than ever before. Amazon’s most ‘gifted’ item last Christmas was its inelegant Kindle e-reader, while the iPhone’s inexhaustible apps are changing how we navigate our environment, as well as affecting how we communicate.

Often it seems that designers are held back by the conservativism of builders, yet there is new evidence that contractors are introducing technology for economic reasons. Contractor Laing O’Rourke recently announced plans for a factory using Japanese robotic technology to make prefabricated housing. In January the firm was given a boost by the announcement of a government agreement to build several thousand new homes, laying the basis for the firm to make a multi-million pound investment in the technology. However the design of the homes, which is based on a timber and steel-frame system and looks identical to homes built using traditional techniques, is at odds with the technology behind it. Architects should be knocking at their door with ideas about how to use this construction method in ways that no one has yet imagined.

This article was published as the View opener in Blueprint magazine, March 2010.

There’s something that really works about architecture on film (and vice versa). Even the dry stuff is compelling. I think this is partly because they are kindred in their obsession with choreographing space and defying dimensions. There’s also something attractive about follies. This week I visited Philip Johnson’s New Canaan retreat and seeing that the egotism that often pervades architecture’s most prolific makers can be directly paralleled to the way 18th Century monarchs behaved and orchestrated their land with pavilions for entertainment and pleasure gardens was a revelation to me. Continuing this tradition – a recent screening at the Noguchi Museum, NY, focused on two very different approaches to pavilion building.

The spectacular museum in Long Island City showed two short films – Public Farm 1 and Ghost – as part of its First Fridays summer screenings. Focusing on two design-build projects, they give the audience rare access into the workings of two North American practices, WorkAC of New York and Mackay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects of Canada. The shorts, which will be screened at the New York Architecture and Design Film Festival (ADFF) 18-21 October, join a growing archive of films being used as a device for exploring architecture and unpicking the discipline. They are small gestures, but, like Johnson’s follies, provide entertainment and a glimpse into what architects can do when given a space to play with.

Unlike the rather drab 2010 film, How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr Foster? and the triumphant 2008 Koolhaas HouseLifethese lower budget documentaries pin the personalities and vulnerabilities of the architects to the process of making. Here, the architects get their hands dirty. And then have a beer.

PF1 at MoMA PS1 by Work Architecture Company, 2011

Lilibet Foster’s Public Farm 1, is an energetic and personal narrative that follows the architects Amale Andraos and Dan Wood of WorkAC as they grapple with the structural challenges and fallibility of building their temporary city farm, Public Farm 1 (PF1), which won MoMA PS1’s Young Architects Program in 2011. This fallibility is never more evident than when the duo realize that their inspiration behind the cardboard-tube building, Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, never used the material as the only structural component. The comedic drama is delightful and the approach of the two architects endearing. However, it is never revealed how they overcome this challenge.

The film starts somewhere in the middle, which makes it both compelling as well as disorientating. There is so much to be gained from understanding where design ideas and forms stem from and what pushes an architect to make the decisions that shape our environment, albeit in the short-term. It is clear, though, that these architects understand their role in this, and the premise of PF1 is to bridge the divide between context and user by building a structure that gives something to the locals as well as the fly-by-night hipsters who have chosen to visit the Long Island City gallery before heading home to the comfort of cool in Williamsburg or Greenpoint.

The value in portraying the human side of a Man-made craft and using a fly-on-the-wall approach that makes it accessible is undermined by the lack of ‘formal’ interviewing – leaving more questions than answers. One can’t help but feel a bit dissatisfied with what seem obvious questions: How is the structure put together? Why did they choose to do it this way? What did they learn? Did it work as a ‘connector’. The work itself is part of a bigger picture and the film denies the audience even a brief glimpse at this. The film does achieve a level of intimacy not experienced in other architecture flicks – the wonderful personalities behind WorkAC glow as do their anxieties – but whether this project is a microcosm of how the practice works is left unexplored. It is a bonus, however, that as a viewer I want to know more.

PF1’s cardboard-tube structure was planted with vegetables / Photo credit: Raymond Adams

Complementing this DIY theme, Ghost introduces architect Brian Mackay-Lyons’ design-build summer programme. Every year, a group of students apply the skills they are taught at architecture schools across the world. Called an “experimental architecture laboratory” by Mackay-Lyons, the expectation is that the work being created from scratch will push the boundaries of design or technique in some way, but it is hard to tell whether this is the focus or the purpose and success of the annual project is something much less grand.

Ghost Lab cabins started by students at the 2005 summer workshop, completed by Mackay-Lyons Sweetapple, they are rented out during the rest of the year

There is an appeal to the programme and a value to it: it is his own land in Nova Scotia and it is a permanent building. In its earlier years, Ghost buildings would be torn down and its materials used for the current year’s project but Mackay-Lyons says it began to get more serious and eventually people wanted longevity to drive the project as well as experimentation. By the looks of it, the result is more sober buildings. Perhaps less interesting and playful. But they are considered and the team must respond to changes and modify the design accordingly. Surely one of the advantages of a project without a client?

While in Ghost, we are told that changes must be made, in PF1 we actually see the struggle of the architects’s ambitions not quite matching the material’s integrity. Buildings are fallible and vulnerable and at the whim of the designer’s ability to cut, bolt and sand their follies into reality.