When I grew up in architecture, blobs were rare. There were a few amoeba shapes in the work of Alvar Aalto, and we had heard about sinuous forms appearing in buildings in South America, but rectilinearity reigned. Then came the computer to liberate us from the tried and true—and the straight and narrow—and since then we have found ourselves sashaying through undulations and curving our way out of the ordinary. The problem is that many of these blobs are uncontrolled and, when translated into building traditions based in the assembly of things at right angles, awkward. Blobs promise more beauty than they have until now been able to deliver.
Three current exhibitions on display in New York present some historical roots for three-dimensional curving shapes that might offer blobists some perspective and perhaps even discipline. Two of them—the fashion exhibition Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (through Aug. 14th) and the monographic snippet of a show on the work of Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist at The Jewish Museum (through Sept. 18th)—focus on work that is not buildings (on the whole). The third, A Japanese Constellation: Toyo Ito, SANAA, and Beyond at the Museum of Modern Art (through July 31st) displays buildings designed by architects who might use computers to realize their curves, but who generate those forms outside the processor.
The Met’s exhibition, which fills segments of the octagonal Lehman Galleries with white walls, scrims and projections to a design that was generated by OMA but could have been put up by any good museum crew, is not particularly revelatory. It shows the ways in which advances in technology have given couturiers new tools of construction, whether to further existing craft techniques or to add new materials and forms. It is always a pleasure to see the skills embedded in the great couture houses, and a disappointment seeing them as often as not used to just come up with new ways of fastening flowers to dresses or complicating a pleat.
The excitement comes when designers such as Issey Miyake, Hussein Chalayan, or, most recently, Iris van Herpen, marry those technologies to visions about the body and its social relations. Van Herpen’s forms in particular use computer-aided design to create exoskeletons, elongations of the human form, or just inventions of whole new biomorphic types that are disturbing in their radical departure from what we know. They get under your skin and smooth the way into bodily extension in a way of which architects could, until now, only dream.
Burle Marx also produced forms that mimicked and abstracted nature, but in his case he was using, grouping, and connecting plant material. His undulations were both pathways and planting areas, and ways to evoke the forms at the heart of the jungle’s abundance, bringing its beauty into the heart of the city. The exhibition, which is weak on evoking the core of Burle Marx’s work as a landscape architect, is strong in showing how he could take those same forms and turn them into decorative patterns, tapestries—a huge one, from the Santa Andre Civic Center (1969), overwhelms the one-room show—and jewelry. What you realize is that Burle Marx could control those extremely complex forms, curving and cutting the blobs so that they seem to have a tightness, a completion, and a tension that still lets their sensuality run rampant along the canvas, the carpet, or the small little ring.
At MoMA, the curves are not so much sensuous as they are ethereal. In the hands of the two elder states-people of the exhibition, Toyo Ito, Hon. FAIA, and Kazuyo Sejima, they serve to, more than anything else, not be squares. It is as if the architects are less interested in the beauty of the blob themselves; at times, the amoeba shapes seem purposefully out of proportion and clumsy. Instead, they serve to frustrate our expectation of surface, volume, structure, and even propriety, as they seem to float and slither around what should be separate rooms or floors.
There are plenty of boxes and rectangles in the exhibition as well, and they make it clear that this is not an exhibition of Blobism. Rather, it is a display of architects who refuse to make solid, finite form, and who find that use of curves is just one of the ways they can escape from conventions and clichés. Along the way, they let us realize that the blob has another root: Rather than a conventionalization of nature, it is the gesture that frees itself exactly by not allowing itself to be restrained.
Either one—the biomorphic blob rooted in natural beauty, or the willful and snaky curve—has an integrity to it that comes not out of the logic of splines or the shortcuts offered by a computer program. I hope those manipulators of mice and makers of fly-throughs will go see these exhibitions and feel the flow.