Beyond Buildings


Outer Space (Canada Galaxy)

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Why do you have to go to outer space to see great space? OK, let me relativize that: Why do you have to go to Montreal, Canada, for heaven’s sake, to see the most experimental architecture? It’s all the fault of the Canadian Center for Architecture, which continues to pump out show after show, mining the Center's archive and combining it with smart displays of cutting-edge work. This is especially since Mirko Zardini took over as director five years ago.

I recently stole a few minutes during a business trip north of the border to see "Other Space Odysseys," the tripartite exhibition that currently fills the postmodern building’s main galleries (through September 6). It brings together three unlikely exhibit-fellows: Greg Lynn, he of the blobs, splines, and children’s toys turned into furniture; Michael Maltzan, the former Gehry-ite who has developed a strong practice of his own; and Alessandro Poli, a former Superstudio associate.

Of the three exhibits, I am afraid to say Maltzan’s is the least interesting. It consists of models for the new home of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and, though the models are nice and the building promises to be good, you are basically looking at models of something I would like to just see once it is built, at real scale and in real life.

Greg Lynn Form


Not so the work of Greg Lynn, which here consists of pure science fiction. Some of the models are sets for Divide, a film in that genre that was never made. Others are designs by Lynn’s students in L.A. and Vienna. They depict continuous constructions at the scale of planets, in which forms fold in on themselves.  Lynn’s is a warped version of our world, marrying a continuous landscape to a vessel. That, to me at least is its point: These models do not so much present a possible or impossible future as they show us what may be the properties already inherent in the vast urban landscapes we are constructing for ourselves.

Alessandro Poli. Photo: Antonio Quattrone

Such is certainly the point of Poli’s’ work. The architect was fascinated by space flight, and in the late 1960s and early 1970s did collages combining NASA photographs with architectural fragments. In the images, the incisions of geometry and abstract form cut through the lushness of these images, which once so startled us with their otherworldly clarity and saturation, Poli proposed highways back to the earth reflected in Armstrong’s helmet as he stands on the moon, and a “luna park” that would turn the true lunar surface into part of our themed culture. The visual commentary manages to be filled in equal parts with awe and cynicism, beauty and the apparent clumsiness of space equipment.

The most lyrical part of the whole show for me was Polis’ ruminations on Zeno, a Tuscan peasant he befriended. The architect collected and drew the tools he found in Zeno’s hut, marveling at their awkward inventiveness. In one collage, Zeno Meets Aldrin in Riparbella, he explicitly contrasts the way in which the two very different men explored their landscapes, both of which were so alien to Poli, through their tools. Space exploration turned out not to be something that new, but only an extension of our quest to figure out, manipulate, and manage space so that it would support our bodies as well as our souls.

Alesssandro Poli

The drawings are stunning, and their handcrafted qualities offer a wonderful contrast to Lynn’s hyper-slickness.  It shows us that not all architectural inventiveness is about the future. Some of it is about understanding and using the past in relation to the future. I would suggest using whatever technology you can to get up to Montreal to see these shows.



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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.