On July 1, the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery will reopen its Grand Salon with a new installation, “Parallax Gap” by Los Angeles firm FreelandBuck. FreelandBuck—lead by David Freeland and Brennan Buck—won the gallery’s 2016 design competition "Above the Renwick" with a 2,500-square-foot trompe l’oeil–inspired suspended ceiling submission, depicting a composite of sketches of historic ceilings from buildings around the U.S. To accomplished this "drawn" effect, the team stretched and stacked 10,000 square feet of colorful CNC-milled synthetic fabric across metal frames to convey line drawings of ceilings from iconic buildings including: the Princeton University Changellor Green Library, Minneapolis City Hall, Cincinnati Union Terminal, the Chateau-sur-Mer dining room in Newport, R.I, the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, the Philadelphia City Hall Caucus Room, the Philadelphia City Hall Council Chamber, and Federal Hall in N.Y. Freeland and Buck also installed LED tape on the various layers of the structure for up-lighting to further convey the dimensionality of the piece.
"We’ve been interested in drawings since we started our practice," Buck says. "We’ve been trying to think about ways that our building work relates to our drawing work, and ways that the two can inform each other."
However, the intention of the installation is not to simply represent the historic ceilings, but also to create a new whole. “All of them do begin to coordinate together into a new ceiling for the Renwick,” Freeland says.
In anticipation of the opening, ARCHITECT spoke with guest curator Helen Bechtel about the work.
How did you get involved with the project?
I actually approached the Renwick after the "Wonder" show. I’m an architect by training and I moved to Washington, D.C., hoping to work with museums on a more architectural scale, and when I saw "Wonder," I thought, well, the Renwick looks like a really great partner for this type of curatorial work.
They brought me in to help them think in particular about how to use this room, which is the biggest room in the gallery. The Renwick is trying hard to expand its curatorial reach into new interpretations of contemporary craft. We certainly have a lot of wonderful examples in the collection and in other temporary shows, but like many artistic disciplines, architecture is experiencing a chance for architects to regain some control over the actual building and making process, in large part because of technology. So with that in mind, we conducted a competition over the course of the fall.
What excited you most about FreelandBuck’s submission?
We were really excited by their notion of building a drawing—crafting, materializing a drawing. There are lots of traditional ways that you think about crafting a piece of furniture or crafting a vase, but to craft a drawing? We didn’t really quite know how that would play out and we were excited by that provocative definition.
They started with many drawings which we ultimately whittled down to nine different iconic ceilings of works of American architecture. And these are well-loved, celebrated ceilings that we hope many visitors will actually recognize. FreelandBuck built a composite drawing, starting with a drawing technique called constructive perspective; they took three-dimensional perspective drawings and skewed them, distorted them, overlapped them, ran them together, and started to create a really rich, composite drawing of these nine different ceilings. The "ceilings" run into each other and borrow line work from each other and you start to get really rich moments of distortion and abstraction.
What else set them apart?
The Grand Salon is a little bit tricky in that it’s also the event space where we host lectures and film series, and as a result, the floor space needs to be either clear or very flexible. And what I came to the museum saying is, you have extraordinary architectural volume here, so why don’t we think more volumetrically about the space. Let’s say these works have to be ceiling-suspended. Let’s think more about the upper area of this room, and let’s focus on ceilings and see what we might get. That’s a very loaded architectural concept. Lots of architects spend decades understanding how to design ceilings, and what’s great about FreelandBuck is that they really took that literal notion of “Above,” of looking up, and looking at ceilings, and abstracted it into a really contemporary piece. So it feels very site-specific—very linked to our ambitions to think of creative interpretations of craft.
Everyone will remember the Janet Echelman piece and what a social media frenzy that became. Do you anticipate that reaction again?
Yeah, so everyone’s questioning, do we bring back the beanbags, right? We’ve thought a lot about it. David and Brennan, and Abraham [Renwick’s curator in charge] and I felt strongly that part of the substance of the piece is actually in the movement around it and underneath it. We really felt strongly that the visitor feel a sense of agency in choosing their own adventure. We asked ourselves, “Should we put indicators on the floor of certain views that people should try to see?” But at the end of the day, we really want this to be a chance for individual self-discovery.
I suspect we will get some people lying on the floor as we did with the Echelman piece, just because it continues to grow in richness the longer you stare. But I really hope there’s a real circulatory, active nature in this space as opposed to something more static.
“Parallax Gap” will only be up until Feb. 11, 2018, do you have plans for another competition once it comes down?
I very much hope so. It is still up in the air with respect to our funding but I very much hope that this provides something that’s needed in the architectural community and really excites the public at the same time.
In the big picture, I continue to feel that architects increasingly have a lot of research that’s really spectacular and doesn’t have many opportunities to flex its muscles. To build on this scale with this degree of complexity takes a lot of time and effort and funding, and there are many practices that have a work that [complements] what is happening in contemporary art museums. We are giving architects a place to play, an opportunity to experiment on this scale and that is really great, and I hope we continue to do more of it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.