Retrospection, Projection, and Introspection at the Storefront for Art and Architecture

For several very surreal seconds, while Storefront for Art and Architecture director Eva Franch was leading me through her “Past Futures, Present, Futures” exhibition, I lost sight of her. I was treading through what felt like a forest of mirrors — a small corner less than 10 feet square in which slats of silvery, highly-reflective vertical blinds swung beneath the glow of pink fluorescent lights, stopping just short of crashing into the mirrored wall.

Storefront for Art and Architecture, Past Futures, Present, Futures, 2012, photo by Cameron Blaylock

The disorienting yet stunning effect of the space’s arrangement, designed by architectural firm Leong Leong, follows the theme of fragmentation on which the exhibition (on view through November 27 January 12) is based. In a very deconstructed manner, it explores 101 New York City architectural proposals by various local and international firms for past, present, and future societal conditions, real and imagined.

Written on each mirrored panel is a year and its cultural context: In 1969, for example, the population of New York city was 7,894,86; Michael Crichton’s “Andromeda Strain,” had just been published; and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” was on the airwaves. The next step for visitors is to imagine the effects of these societal conditions on the architecture of the moment, before finally scanning a QR code to reveal a proposal that actually emerged. In this case, it was Florence-based Superstudio’s “The Continuous Monument” drawings, a concept for  a single piece of architecture that would extend over the entire world and “put cosmic order on Earth.” Amid this climate of suspicion of the establishment, their idea was to provide order through rational, unifying structures in hopes of putting forth a peaceful, rather than dystopian future.

Superstudio’s “The Continuous Monument”

This high-concept exhibition also turns its lens towards the future, having invited contemporary architects to imagine the conditions of years to come and provide an answer to our future city’s needs. Oslo-based architects Snohetta, responding to the needs of the year 2031 and its projected 20,341,689 inhabitants, designed a floating, metallic balloon that would float over New York City.  In their forseeable future, peers MVRDV develop space housing, and the Wu-Tang Clan release a “Samurai Christmas Album.” In this crowded future where the population has exploded, but landmass has remained finite, the wealthy live in luxury on lighter-than-air materials, high above “the obsolete world of architecture below.” Status is not expressed through our current notions of architecture, but instead how far above it you dwell.

Storefront director Eva Franch in the forest of mirrors

The proposals — others include imagined New Yorks that consist of buildings connected by elevated gardens, or enormous geodesic domes that coexist with familiar cultural landmarks like the Empire State Building— are given to visitors disassembled rather than as neat exhibits on display. Franch compares this forced mental exercise to going to a dumpling house and being offered your meal in pieces — first the taste, and then the texture, and then the smell — then reconstituting the experience in your mind as a single unit. It’s culinary experimentation for architecture at its finest.

This simultaneously retrospective and projective exhibition of paper works that have never left the page arrives amidst a trend of shows that examine architecture that was never built; in April, there was Ide@s Gallery‘s “unMade in China: Architecture Undone in P.R.C.” in Shanghai, and in March we can look forward to “Never Built: Los Angeles” at L.A.’s Architecture and Design Museum. It raises the question, then, of the value of looking at buildings that have been rejected by builders for one reason or another.

The answer takes into account the fact that artistic aspect of architecture separates it from mere buildings, and architecture’s functionality (plausible or otherwise) separates it from art. It carries with it an added set of social and political obligations, and like the mirrors, it’s a reflection of its citizens. Besides, “A building that has been imagined and has been put in the collective imagination is already built,” according to Franch. “There are more people in the world that have not been to New York than have been to New York. It could be an imaginary place, but it exists. ‘Unbuilt’ is irrelevant.”

“Past Futures, Present, Futures” has been extended through January 12.

— Janelle Zara