Beyond Buildings


Contemplating "Contemplating the Void"

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It is the most famous atrium in architecture, save perhaps for the Pantheon, which it unfurls into a modernist spiral. The Guggenheim rotunda gains its definition from the ramp that opens up in one continuous motion from the New York sidewalk (if it wasn’t for that pesky door and the ticket-buying stuff). Like the Pantheon, it is what we remember, but it is just a void. It has no real function, other than to accommodate those milling around to gain admittance. It does not bring much light to artwork that usually does not want any, nor does it help circulation. It is a space Frank Lloyd Wright’s schemes necessitate. It just happens to be the place through which and in which we understand the peculiarity—or genius—of his design.

Now the Guggenheim Museum has asked nearly 200 artists, architects and designers to re-imagine that space. The results are on display both online and in the museum (there through April 28). What is more, you can own the sketches, doodles, and collages: the Guggenheim is auctioning them off on March 4.

Some of the participants in "Contemplating the Void" just did their thing: word artist Lawrence Weiner proposed words; collagist Sarah Sze wants to fill it with a construction of dime-store toys, decorations, and hardware pieces out of which she creates her constellations; Richard Meier just made a collage showing how much he loves the place. Philippe Rahm, the Swiss designer who conjures architecture out of hot air, wants to alter our perception by fiddling with the air conditioning system.

Some took what they do a little bit further. Video artist Pipploti Rist answers Wright’s bravura gesture with a proposal for a giant clitoris suspended in the space.  Landscape firm West 8 proposes a garden, of course, but here it is a rainforest completely filling the art palace. WORK Architecture, already in touch with the more ludic sides of OMA’s legacy, wants to turn the whole thing into a waterslide. The sculptor Anish Kapoor turned, like Rahm, to the air conditioning that hides behind the smooth forms, but proposes using the smoke evacuation system to create a swirling mass of red particulates rising up through the void.

Some of the proposals that interested me most look at the logic of the place. Toshio Mori very sensibly proposes installing a net in the space for all of us who have wondered what would happen if we were to die for art as we lean too far over the ramp’s edge. Snøhetta unfurls the ramp out into Manhattan, imagining a “G-String” spreading up and down Central Park. Zaha Hadid produced one of her more subtle proposals, a delamination of the ramp itself into layered curves. Powerhouse NL, a young firm from Rotterdam, the Netherlands, proposes taking the atrium back to its roots or forward to its utopian destiny: it could be a panoptical prison or a scene for a mass orgy.

My favorite proposal, though, is the simplest and also visually the least compelling. Once a year, on the anniversary of Wright’s death, the conceptual artist Cerith Wyn Evans suggests hiring a witch to make the Guggenheim disappear during opening hours. I like this idea not because I hate the building—nor does Evans, I believe—but because it takes the void to its logical extreme while making us realize what we would be missing if this absurd, non-contextual, non-functional building and its useless atrium were to disappear.



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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.