My dog Mortimer loves to play with balls. He especially likes the kind that squeaks when you bite down on it, but he’s not choosy. He’ll chew on or chase pretty much any ball, pretty much all day long. I used to laugh at Mortimer’s single-mindedness, until a friend at the dog park pointed out that humans have basically the same obsession, just with fancier names, like baseball, basketball, golf, and tennis. And of course with less chewing. The point is, everyone needs to play, not just dogs and children, but grown-ups as well. Neuroscientists will tell you that play is biologically essential at all ages, affecting how we invent, socialize, and adapt to circumstance. Play also makes us happy. Alas, few of the adults I know feel like they have the luxury time right now to blow off steam, what with the recession, unemployment, two wars, a paralytic government. … The laundry list of possible and bona fide calamities facing our nation goes on and on, and the effect on individuals can be devastating.
“The opposite of play is depression,” psychiatrist Stuart Brown said, in a talk at the 2008 Art Center Design Conference. Current circumstances would suggest we’re a nation in desperate need of some time in the sandbox. I got some myself recently, in a rather unlikely venue: the sober-sounding exhibition “Contemplating the Void: Interventions in the Guggenheim,” at New York’s Guggenheim Museum.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fifth Avenue landmark, the museum solicited proposals for its famous spiral atrium from artists and architects around the globe. Curator Nancy Spector describes the show as a “self-reflexive folly,” and more power to her for encouraging lightheartedness in these dark days, and in such an art-historically loaded setting. All work and no play makes Frank a dull boy. Many of the artists whom Spector invited really rose to the occasion. I guffawed at Christian Marklay’s suggestion to release thousands of ping-pong balls, golf balls, and marbles from the top of Wright’s corkscrew ramp.
The show is pretty evenly split between designers and artists, but alas, many of the architects—perhaps daunted by the prospect of tinkering with Wright’s late-career masterpiece—failed to find humor in the situation. There was an unfortunately high incidence of gee-whiz digital designs, as though eccentric, abstract form was the only thing architects’ imaginations are capable of producing nowadays. Cool renderings of cool shapes once seemed like a taste of architecture’s future; increasingly, they seem like remembrances of things past, when form followed fashion with little thought for function. Standards have changed, for the greener good.
Thankfully, “Contemplating the Void” included architectural exceptions to the rule of blobular banality. Two submissions in particular stood out. If they were jokes, in the conventional sense, both could begin something like this: “Robert Venturi, Ruth Buzzi, and Al Gore walk into a bar … ” Los Angeles–based Ball Nogues Studio suggested converting the museum into a “breathtaking and sustainable” candy factory, dedicating the rotunda to an enormous sugar-pulling machine. New York’s WORKac thought the Guggenheim would do well as a green water park, aka the Flow Show, capturing rain on the roof and channeling it down Wright’s ramp as a water slide. Both firms’ renderings recall the work of Charles Moore and Robert Venturi circa 1970, all Pop enthusiasm and social irony, but with a thoroughly modern attitude toward the environment.
I hope Ball Nogues Studio and WORKac’s smart-but-playful thinking rubs off on the profession at large. It would be all too easy to dismiss the schemes as silly pranks, to overlook them because they don’t conform to the sustainability movement’s unfortunate default positions: Chicken Little anxiety about the future and an unwelcoming air of gravitas. Both make for bad PR, no matter how grave the prospect of an increasingly unlivable planet. Green architecture doesn’t have to be painfully earnest, the structural equivalent of a hair shirt. Why not save the world and have fun while we’re at it? The more the merrier.