Kris Graves

New York is supposed to be a concrete jungle, but it turns out it’s difficult to turn it into the real thing. That is what the office of Pedro y Juana, who won the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) 2019 Young Architects Program (YAP), found out this summer when they installed their entry, rama Rama, in the museum’s P.S. 1 location in Queens. Meant to evoke the jungles of southern Mexico, the piece consisted of a cyclorama covered with photographs of jungle foliage printed on fabric and held up by scaffolding. A recycling waterfall below the circle of leaves and flowers provided the soundtrack; handwoven hammocks lulled you into lazing away the afternoon. Yet the back-of-the-stage construction was considerably more powerful than the public space itself.

A major caveat to that claim: I visited the site on a hot summer afternoon, not on the evening of one of the parties that MoMA hosted to attract the hipster crowd. YAP was established to produce stage sets for those parties, even if architects come to the program ever year with their own agendas. Maybe during those evening affairs Hóroma Rama really did turn into a jungle of sweating dancers, alpha males, and eye-catching creatures, and I just missed it.

Kris Graves
Kris Graves

On the afternoon I was there, the printed circle, hovering high above the concrete walls enclosing the MoMA courtyard, was empty except for a few people lazing away in the hammocks. They were quickly joined by a member of our party, who decided that the shade and the repose was a better alternative to looking at contemporary art in the actual museum. What the rest of us admired was not so much the art of the space as of the scaffolding behind it. In the video MoMA has released about the installation, one of the firm’s partners, Ana Paula Ruiz Galindo, says that she wishes the construction workers could have stayed on the scaffolding for the exhibition, and you would have to agree. That open structure of steel tubes and planks gave you all the excitement of a construction site without the dust and dirt. Pedro y Juana seemed to have realized this because they impaled the exterior with countless wood beams, which appeared to have no function other than to turn the cyclorama’s exterior into a crown of thorns of great expressive power.

The craft of the whole installation was, in other words, better than the image. That seems fitting for a firm led by two architects, Galindo and her partner Mecky Reuss, who not only met at SCI-Arc but worked together for Jorge Pardo, an artist who combines native handicraft and decorative patterns in abstractions of furniture, architecture, and sculpture. Meuss and Galinda collaborated with Pardo in Merida, Mexico, where he has established a craft community built by local artisans, and the architects have continued that interest with the rough, local, and the expressive power of their handmade work in Mexico City, where they’re now based. From the dizzying array of lamps strung up on crisscrossing strings they installed at the 2016 edition of the Chicago Biennial, to the courtyard houses and furniture they are now creating, Galindo and Meuss have spotlighted an approach to architecture that depends on the visible evidence of craft and the use of complex patterns for its often quite sensual effect.

Hórama Rama was all pattern on the inside, but that imagery faded in the sun and loomed so high above you that you barely noticed it. What you did see was the scaffolding and those beams bristling above you, which looked as if they meant to protect the space from the spate of high-rise towers that, in recent years, have replaced the landscape of shops, workshops, and rowhouses around P.S. 1. Visible from outside of the paid admission area of the courtyards, the crown was a celebration of construction that continued inside through Pedro y Juana’s use of left-over construction materials as benches.

If the YAP program is a yuppie stage in search of a true function, then Meuss and Galinda apparently decided that what they were going to get out of it was a celebration of the elements of construction. Raw and unfinished, their architecture stood in contrast to the grids, closed boxes, and smooth surfaces of New York’s concrete jungle, offering instead a place of visual and sensual exploration that was open (once you paid for your ticket) and not bound by function. As an added bonus, the designers’ emphasis on the raw and the useless avoided the fetishization of materials that has all too often become the hallmark of critical architecture. Instead of either a concrete or a real jungle, Pedro y Juana gave us a jungle gym, at least for the eye. I only wish that we, like those construction workers, could have inhabited its true spaces rather than being marooned on the dance floor below.

Kris Graves
Hórama Rama by Pedro & Juana.
Rafael Gamo Hórama Rama by Pedro & Juana.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.