A new architecture of transparency and translucency exemplified by the recent work of thirty international architects and artists is explored in Light Construction, which features more than 30 projects from ten countries, representing a broad range of building types, scales, and technologies. In this architecture of lightness, buildings seem intangible, structures shed their weight, and facades appear unstable and ambiguous. While much of the work recalls the visionary projects of such early Modernists as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Pierre Chareau, it is also profoundly influenced by such aspects of contemporary culture as computers and electronic media.
“In recent years a new architectural sensibility has emerged,” states curator Terence Riley. “After three decades of architectural debate on issues of form, contemporary designers are now investigating the nature and potential of surfaces and the meanings that may be found in them.” Many of the structures in the exhibition are sheathed in semitransparent glass or other translucent materials, such as plastic, metal mesh, or thin alabaster, whose physical properties allow some visual penetration but, unlike plate glass, possess myriad aesthetic properties of their own.
Light Construction consists of 34 large-scale photographs, 14 models, and six backlit transparencies that investigate both the projects’ theoretical bases and their material qualities. Principally comprising built works, such as the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art by Jean Nouvel (Paris, 1994), the Goetz Collection by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron (Munich, 1992), and the Shimosuwa Municipal Museum by Toyo Ito (Shimosuwa, Japan, 1993), the exhibition also features projects that go beyond the traditional definitions of architecture. Projects include Radcliffe Ice Malls, a landscape installation by Michael Van Valkenburgh (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1988); Two-May Mirror Cylinder inside Cube, an urban park pavilion for a New York rooftop by Dan Graham (1988); and theatrical set designs by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien (Amsterdam and New York, 1990–91). Dennis Adams’ Bus Shelter IV (1987), originally constructed in Miinster, Germany, is installed in the galleries.
In many of these works the facade acts as a veil, distancing the viewer of the building from the space or forms within. The heavily screened facades in Kazuyo Sejima’s Saishunkan Seiyako Women’s Dormitory (Kumamoto, Japan, 1991) provide few hints of the open interior spaces and the light filtering through the facades and descending from above. The open facades of Fumihiko Maki’s project for a new Congress Center in Salzburg (1992) reveal the internal spaces as nesting inside one another, removed from the viewer’s grasp.
The use of transparent materials in these structures indicates an attitude that is distinctly different from classic Modernist projects of the past; these works achieve extreme visual complexity through multiple surface reflections. The Goetz Collection, for example, whose supporting structure is enclosed within its frosted double-glass facade, appears ghostlike, a complete reversal of the so-called Miesian glass box. In the Cartier Foundation, three parallel glass surfaces create an overlapping buildup of views and reflections.
By focusing attention on the surfaces, many of these works diminish the importance of overall form. The sheer scale of Renzo Piano’s mile-long Kansai International Airport (Osaka, Japan, 1994) prevents the viewer from even grasping it in total; its silvery, undulating skin is more critical to its design than its formal composition. Similarly, Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners’ Waterloo International Terminal (London, 1994) resembles a sinuously curving snake with crystalline scales that move when the high-speed Chunnel trains brake to a halt.
The pervasive presence of film, television, video, and computer screens, representing a unique sensibility of light, movement, and information, has found its way into current architecture. In Herzog and de Meuron’s Olivetti Bank project (1993), which is represented in the exhibition by a model, the building’s facade literally becomes a screen for the projection of financial quotations. Among built projects, Bernard Tschumi’s Glass Video Gallery (Groningen, the Netherlands, 1990) and Mehrdad Yazdani’s CineMania Theatre (Universal City, California, 1994) demonstrate the ability of architecture to both incorporate and be transformed by the flickering image of the electronic media.
In addition to being technologically advanced, this architecture of lightness is visually compelling. “This recent architecture can be described as beautiful—a word infrequently heard in architectural debates,” writes Mr. Riley in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition.
Organized by Terence Riley, Chief Curator, Department of Architecture and Design.