"In Orbit" installation by Tomás Saraceno at the K21 Ständehaus. 
Photo courtesy Studio Tomás Saraceno "In Orbit" installation by Tomás Saraceno at the K21 Ständehaus. 

Architecture is commonly distinguished from art in at least two ways: one being the pragmatic construction of inhabitable buildings, and another concerning the creation of occupiable spaces (as opposed to two-dimensional or three-dimensional, nonoccupiable works). Of course, these are generalizations subject to critical interrogation. In fact, some of the most compelling works blur the boundaries between the disciplines in unexpected ways.

A new project entitled "In Orbit" by Tomás Saraceno exemplifies the melding of art and architecture. Installed within the K21 Ständehaus of the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Dusseldorf, Germany, the work consists of three levels of giant steel cable nets suspended 25 meters above ground. The nets, which include strategically placed voids that allow movement from one level to another, are held apart by six large inflated PVC balls.

The visual effect of "In Orbit" is staggering. The steel cables nearly disappear from view, due to occupying little space and reflecting light. The vinyl spheres—despite their large diameter—are made of transparent or reflective material, similarly diverting attention to the surrounding space. As a result, a spectator focuses on the occupants of the work, who appear to hover miraculously between an enormous glass cupola above and a multistoried atrium below.

One is reminded of Mies Van Der Rohe's abstract drawings of the Resor House, in which the architecture entirely disappears, instead privileging views of paintings and the surrounding landscape. In this case, however, the inhabitants of "In Orbit" are themselves the spectacle—frozen in mid-air like the bowler hat–clad men depicted in René Magritte's "Golconde." This is Saraceno's real achievement: he dispels disciplinary questions by drawing our attention to the human subject, whose presence is intensified by the apparent defiance of gravity's pull.

Blaine Brownell, AIA, 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.