I often write in this space about architects who do what some people might call art: sculpture, paintings, or drawings that neither enclose nor have a function, remain un-built or are impossible to build. Then there are makers who come out of an education in media such as painting and sculpture and move towards architecture. Nobody in this country has been making that motion for longer and with more conviction than Alice Aycock, who, since the late 1970s, has been making what she calls “nonfunctional architecture.” Two chronologically sequntial exhibitions, on view at the University of California at Santa Barbara Art Gallery and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art , survey that career.
Aycock started out doing work that had more akin to the land art of Robert Smithson with works such as “Maze” and “Architectural Project, Summer ’73 (Low Building with Dirt Roof)” of 1972 and 1973, respectively. The former is what the title implies: a hexagonal labyrinth made out of wood slats. The latter resembles a sod hut, reminding me that landscape historian J.B. Jackson said that such an earthbound structure was the only true vernacular form of dwelling.
In meticulous axonometric drawings, Aycock then proposed a series of structures in which proposed materials (block, wood, concrete) made them appear to be building blocks for a structure of a scale and purpose we will never know. Repetitive and serial, their fragmentary nature evokes that something else while holding the ground.
In the next decade, her projects became more elaborate, until they evolved into whole complexes of “Project Entitled ‘I Have Tried to Imagine the Kind of City You and I Could Live in as King and Queen’ ” (1987) and the various iterations of her “Project Entitled ‘City of Walls’ ” (1978). They consisted of towers, tunnels, and elements that looked to be either ruins of some more finished structure or the beginning of such a metropolis.
The next phase of Aycock’s work became more mechanomorphic. Projects such as “The Miraculating Machine in the Garden” consisted of assemblies in which you could recognize blades, exhaust fans, funnels, and light bulbs along with various tubes, plates, and sections of circles or cones Aycock made out of sheet metal. These machines did not produce anything more than her buildings housed. Instead, they made us look at and think about the elements and process of creation.
By the 1980s, Aycock was making maps, constellations, stupas, and mandalas from "The New China Drawing (The World Above, the World Below)" of 1984 to "Wars on the Starry Night" from "Eaters of the Night" of 1993. The cities and machines condensed the taxonomies of geometric permutations and gestures into holy shapes, and presented them in drawings she was by this point creating on the computer. Since then, Aycock has been spinning those forms out both formally and compositionally, creating roller coasters and swirling constellations of metal that she then hand-colors or proposes as public art pieces. A few of them have been built: “Star Sifter” installed at JFK Airport in 1998 and "Game of Flyers Part Two" installed at Washington Dulles Airport in 2012.
I have always been fascinated by the obvious parallel between the work of Aycock and, among others, John Hejduk, Peter Eisenman, and Lebbeus Woods. In that sense, I always categorized their works as “weak” architecture: experiments in the making of forms, structures, and building elements for something other than housing and functioning, but without the “strong” form or, frankly, the sophistication of which I felt these architects were capable. Seeing the work together (though divided between the two venues, which are about ten miles apart) made me realize Aycock’s fascinations and the beauty with which she pursued them. Forms and materials have remained consistent, even as she has used them with ever more freedom and abandon.
In a kind of mythical world of her own creation, her work makes sense and pulls you through these iterations of blocks, assembly lines, swirls, and funnels. Aycock has, for over a third of a century, offered us an alternative way of looking at and making our human-made environment—one that is both scarier and more ideal than what we have actually constructed in that period.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.