Beyond Buildings


The Long Thin Legs of Architecture

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Doug and Mike Starn have gotten to Manhattan's bones. Their new piece of art, Big Bambu, is a construction of over 18,000 pieces of bamboo (and counting) lashed together with climbling rope and currently rising on the Metropolitan Museum of Art's roof. After being under construction for over four months you can now finally get a sense of the whole artwork, even though it has as much to go.


It is not only a forest that creates vistas among moments of intensity, but it also seems to me like the essence of Central Park. Or rather the essence of its many trees that right now form a carpet unfurled in the middle of the city's grid, combined with a delirious deformation of the surrounding skyscrapers’ skeletons. It is as if the island’s very rock has risen, blossoming into lines snaking up to the sky and creating an alternative to the split between natural and the human-made that New York usually celebrates with such vaunting ambition.


Photos: Aaron Betsky


I had the pleasure last week of walking through Big Bambu with the Starn brothers, artists who first made their fame with photo-based work, and I have to admit that the artwork’s greatest drawback is that only 180 people a day can climb through it, and then only under strict supervision. Then again, it is a miracle that such a structure is rising at all from the roof of such an institution as the Met: You can just the see the steam coming out of the Museum lawyers’ heads when they heard of this project.


Those of us who have had some training in architecture and have been aware of the new uses to which bamboo is being put today might realize the material’s immense strength, and we might also be aware that the kind of massive redundancy the Starns are building into the construction, as well as the sheer density of the elements, makes it a very safe structure. But how do you translate that into legal guarantees? The engineers convinced the Met to at least let some people in while they and the team of rock climbers they assembled keep extending the forest’s reach up above and even beyond the classical box that contains all the art below.

From any angle or place, Big Bambu is an complex piece of architecture. It might not be a building with plumbing and a roof, but it is construction that makes a place—or rather, many of them—and opens up new vistas from the roof into Manhattan. From the terrace where the public at large can move through it, it appears as a thicket of verticals, many of them slanting, that mass together, open up, angle, and create pathways while filtering light and views. Look up, and you will you see those lines either coming together to shelter or contain you, or opening up to carve views out into the sky. Ramps lead up into the forest, their floors made of closely spaced stalks that curve as they lead you up. Above, rooms appear, cradled by the bamboo, and the rock-climbers-turned-artists even created little nooks, crannies and benches where you can hang out and begin to explore the compositions that unfold all around you (if the guides let you).  

hole in sky

The structure teaches us that sometimes the best way to solve for forces is not to abstract them, but to splay them out into what Wolf Prix of Coop Himmelb(l)au once called “the long, thin legs of architecture.” It shows us a new kind of fluidity of which those who try to get their computers to semi-automatically produce form can only dream. It reveals new compositions out of space and construction, form and sequence, that, for me at least, were exhilarating. Take a look, Big Bambu will keep rising and changing from now until after the leaves have fallen and revealed the stalks of the forest around this human paean to Manhattan.




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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.