In 1919, the German architect Bruno Taut organized the Crystal Chain, a correspondence linking about a dozen utopian architects who delighted in naturally occurring forms such as thrusting geological formations, spirals, billowing clouds of air, cresting waves and mist-producing crystal ca v erns. (Crystals offered a metaphor for the unity of the material and immaterial.) Only a few years later, the anti-utopic “machine aesthetic” that occasioned the Bau haus School’s establishment would eclipse Taut’s coterie. Despite Bauhaus-founder Wal ter Gropius’ claim that one should build in one’s imagination, “unconcerned about technical difficulty,” the Bauhaus led the more pragmatic march toward functionalism and away from a spiritual architecture that paradoxically required (and inspired) miraculous technological developments.
Paradise-scapes proposed by architects associated with the Crystal Chain were all but forgotten until contemporary ar chitects started disrupting “the box.” Extravagant wonders like Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and Nationale-Nederlanden office building in Prague attest to technological innovations that have once again sparked architectural imagination. However, as recently as 20 years ago, French architect Claude Parent abandoned his utopic principles due to the “overwhelming difficulty of building an oblique habitat.” Parent, whose Woog I proposal from the late ’60s bears an uncanny resemblance to several recent Gehry works, stands as one of the first architects to upend the steady box and then actually build it (Villa Drusche, Versailles, 1962-63).
Local polyglot Chloé Ziegler has assembled a diverse array of Parent’s drawings, which span his most productive decades, the ’60s through the ’80s. It is doubtful that Parent knew about the Crystal Chain when he produced these drawings, yet both generations seem ensconced in similar ventures, due in part to their pivotal role as bookends to Modernist architecture (immediate ancestors and heirs to ’20s and ’30s ideals). Although Parent once described his architecture as “menacing in appearance,” his drawings engender joyful jogs that certify his imaginative prowess. Recurring motifs such as elongated waves, spiraling ivy and oblique chunks (reminiscent of crystals) rekindle the potential marvel and dynamism that architecture once sought.
Now, along comes New York–based artist Stephen Hendee, whose Shadow Proxy (1999) fills a 30-foot-square space. Once inside, one imagines what it would be like to visit a molecule, a futuristic hub or some precipice suspended deep in the cosmos. This otherworldly interior, at least his sixth massive “cyberbau” in two years, was constructed from hundreds of obliquely cut and taped foam-core splices, whose translucent skin glows pink or green. Floating shadows, generated by a rotating disco ball and gyrating mechanisms (similar in effect to a faux fire’s flicker) positioned above the glowing cave, energize and mesmerize participants below. Despite the shell’s futuristic appeal, Hendee apparently shares Parent’s interest in built environments that encase and protect interior activities; this warm carapace beats and breathes like a live hive. Whether one is seeking communion with fellow hubmates or protection from the outer elements, harmony seems sustainable here. One may wonder whether uto pic ventures and futuristic fantasies skip a generation: Hendee is 45 years younger than Parent, who was only 43 years young er than Taut.
In contrast to Hendee’s human-scaleendeavor, Maura Bendett’s equally habitable wallworks (at Post earlier this month) transform enchanting reveries into spark ling fairyscapes. “–456° Fahrenheit,” the exhibit’s title, refers to the temperature at which molecules no longer move. While the title evokes a frozen world, dangling droplets, dripping icicles, springy limbs and wiry antennae ensure a movable feast. Bendett’s aesthetic exploration of budding, branching nodules began in 1997 when she built a 21-foot-high papier-mâché stalk for Post’s elevator shaft. Since then, seemingly related cuttings have sprouted up all over town. Having explored the cartoonish, she’s now approaching the elegance of glass art. When We Were Young (all works 1998-99), the exhibit’s larg est treescape, suggests a succulent nursery
replete with nests, breasts, grape clusters, pink clumps, melting icicles, ’60s chandeliers and yellow tear-drop pears. Del Mar’s world includes sea anemone– like tentacles and the alien/insect antennae that have graced Bendett’s work for years. Torrun contains a creature whose head, a colorless resin globe, alludes to crystal-clear thoughts. Just standing beside these microcosms musters fantasies about landing down on their idyllic sites.
At Sandroni Rey in Venice are three other nature-inspired life-size architechtonic installations. Carrie Ungerman’s Vine Structure (1999), a veritable winter anomaly, is a sprawling tree teeming with colored plastic-clip leaves that offer cover, but not fresh air. Kim Lee Kahn’s A Trace Below (1999) features sinuous reliefs crawling along walls, as if varicose veins or worms were wiggling beneath its surface. While this piece appears eerie, its super-smooth white surface connotes tranquility, though it’s perhaps the calm before the storm. Mara Lonner placed Proposal D to the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety for Improved Construction Regulations (1999), a carved-plaster wallwork, and several drawings of ordinary wood joints atop Allowable Span, an intimate installation of ornamental patterns stenciled on the wall with powdered carbon.
Here, Lonner links the ornament and function of architectural motifs to the natural world (itself a vast storehouse for ornamental devices). To its credit, Proposal D itself seems like the net effect of some missing regulation. But what’s truly curious about this show is the prospect that Kahn and Lonner have exchanged aesthetic
prac tices and concerns! Throughout the ’90s, Kahn’s work has mostly explored emergency joints (crutches, Band-Aids, Ace bandages and string), and about a year ago Lonner plastered an exhibition space with white ornamental molding. Nonetheless, each artist’s approach to her switched practice remains entirely her own — Kahn cares more about function, while Lonner focuses more on form.
Just at the moment when the popular press seems eager to accept painting’s return, artists are still branching out to envelop the body and arouse the brain. The trick is to comprehend nature’s variegation, so as to avoid repetition, which dominates today’s super-square retro-minimal ity. All kidding aside, the trend toward arcadia thrives on individuality!