Last night I attended the opening of Coop Himmelb(l)au‘s Beyond the Blue exhibition at the Wexner Center in Columbus, a retrospective of forty years of work by Wolf Prix and his firm taking the form of a large model collection and detailed displays on the Akron Art Museum and Musee de Confluences in Lyon, France. It was a nice distraction from much current architectural discussion uncomfortably dominated by the economy.
While it’s always nice to see projects in detail, Coop’s model collection was the heart of the exhibition, encapsulating a position statement I’ve not heard Prix make before, namely that his work isn’t about sculptural form, but creating public space. This point was underlined by placing the models not at a normal level, but on a pair of oversized pedestals to force viewing them as a city all their own. It made a convincing case, but unfortunately the models I was personally most interested in seeing (specifically those from the mid-80s) were near the center of these tables, out of effective viewing range. This “model city” was accompanied by a video of interviews with Prix, highlighting the projects in the show and some of his process.
Though it seems a bit ridiculous for Prix to suggest that projects as ostentatious as the Musee de Confluences or the BMW Welt in Munich are driven by public space rather than form, the exhibition aims to convince us. The models show that they do indeed provide such space, but the question of ownership is overlooked. Can a corporate-owned indoor space really provide the kind of interactions and surprise as a Viennese platz? I’m hardly convinced.
The opening was marked by a conversation between Prix and consulting curator Jeff Kipnis. Their discussion ranged from softball questions — who his biggest inspirations were (Keith Richards) and the reasons for the firm’s name (a plane ride in 1968, and lots of drinks) — to more poignant and unanswerable ones, cutting to the depths of the now decade-long debate around “starchitecture.”
Perhaps the most interesting thing Prix said concerned his process. “The most vulnerable moment in architecture is the moment of design,” he said, and in order to transform architecture, one must open up that moment to forces outside architecture. This realization led to things like the blindfolded sketching he used in the eighties. Though unsuccessful in producing an architecture that changes as rapidly and easily as clouds (his stated intent), Prix has produced some highly unconventional forms since this transformation. The versatility of his language is another question, however.
Often diagnosed as a peculiarly Viennese architect, a product of the milieu that also shaped Sigmund Freud and Gustav Mahler, Prix was also asked how well such a specific language travelled, specifically to Akron. What, after all, can a contextually-uninformed Austrian contribute to Northeast Ohio? Prix had no answer.
This seems to me to be the central problem of the kind of cultural imperialism architects have proffered since Bilbao. We’ve been blind to the emptiness of the stars, content to merely import architecture rather than fostering it at home. This has to change, and it will. For now, however, I’m content with the occasional ostentatious distraction such as this exhibition provided, a respite from the recession blues.
Beyond the Blue is on view at the Wexner Center through the end of July.