Out of the Yards

Cities, buildings, and the people who live in them.

Three Excursions in Artificial Existence

The creation of a true artificial intelligence is likely still decades away, but as limited forms of machine intelligence become increasingly ubiquitous, questions about the relationship between we humans and our semisentient creations will become ever more pressing. NEAT: New Experiments in Art and Technology , on view this past fall at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, offered a few compelling explorations of artificial existence. Arranged among unremarkable interactive visualizations and video artworks, these artificial beings were both formally inventive and technologically topical.

The most emotionally arresting piece for me at NEAT was Alan Rath ’s Forever , a robotic sculpture with long brown feathers that could rotate forward and back on mechanized hinges. The feathers were attached at regular intervals to a lens-shaped frame leaning against the wall of the gallery; they looked like the legs of a giant beetle or the eyelashes of a great empty eye turned on its side.

When I turned the corner and saw Forever for the first time, I felt a flash of irrational fear. I’m not normally afraid or disgusted by insects, but my heart was pounding fast and hard as I stood in front of Forever . The movement of its many feathers, like the skittering legs of a giant, empty beetle, roused in me a primordial panic. The expressive power of this piece came from the way that the feathers moved in concert, sometimes undulating, sometimes flapping, then standing straight out and wriggling frantically before flattening abruptly against the wall again. The movement of the sculpture was purposeful, if unpredictable.

Forever was a hybrid creature, an eerie combination of organic and mechanical materials. As such, this sculpture offered a tantalizing (and uncomfortable) sketch of the kind of biodigital being that some scientists believe represent humanity’s most promising future. The springiness of the quills made the sculpture lively as it moved, even as the natural brown-and-white patterning of the feathers recalled the hapless pheasant or turkey from which they originated. Forever was an alchemical creation, one which appropriated and reconfigured the discarded artifacts of one creature in order to create a new being. The resulting creature was both beautiful, and a bit melancholy: pinned to the gallery wall like a framed insect, the sculpture appeared almost as if trying to climb the wall, to flee the museum. I was both fascinated and repelled by Forever , and I found that I couldn’t look at it for long before discomfort pushed me away.

Paolo Salvagione ’s Rope Fountain was a welcome relief from the intensity of Forever . Salvagione had constructed a sequence of sculptures, each consisting of a loop of white rope spun rapidly by a motor on the floor. Each loop appeared almost motionless, hanging in midair, its movement betrayed only by a penumbra of vibration about its silhouette and the humming of its motor. Each motor was on a pivot which allowed it to rotate parallel to the wall behind it. In addition, each motor had a nozzle controlling where the rope came out which was allowed to move forward and back. The regular motion of the motors along these axes caused the rope to move in unpredictable ways, swaying from side to side, stretching out horizontally, or rearing up to hit the wall behind.

(Left) The rope was drawn into each motor at the bottom, and spun out again via a nozzle at the top. The motor and the nozzle were both free to pivot 180 degrees. (Right) Rapid rotation allowed each rope to twist and turn in midair.

The strength of Rope Fountain was the simplicity and transparency of the technology used to produce its complex, lifelike behavior. Standing in front of Rope Fountain , it was natural for me to attribute human motivations to the actions of the rope sculpture: curiosity, hesitation. The sculptures weren’t in the least anthropomorphic in form, but in their behavior, they reminded me of nothing so much as a line of dancers, moving freely and unselfconsciously. When a loop of rope twisted to dab at the ground, then recoil, I was reminded of a ballet dancer, eyes closed, exploring the world with their feet. Each rope sculpture was a line drawing, animated and lifted from the page, sketching a schematic being into existence. Each sculpture was also a creator, intermittently leaving faint smudges on the wall which collected to form dusty halos behind each loop of rope.

The technology used to produce these pieces was old - just a few motors, some rope, and a set of timetables to regulate the movement of each motor and nozzle. By exposing the technological apparatus that animated each sculpture, Salvagione demystified their behavior and allowed each piece to appear self-sufficient, autonomous. In all this discussion of Salvagione’s piece, I’ve struggled with “each” and “they”, and I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge that I’ve been describing Rope Fountain in the singular, trying to convey the essence of the ideal form realized in each spinning loop. In short, Rope Fountain used technology, but it was not about technology - this was a piece about artificial beings and which questioned the minimum of what was required to represent a being.

Rath’s second robotic sculpture, called Soon , was a single enormous jointed arm mounted on a tripod. A floppy pink feather, of the kind used to make feather dusters, was attached to the end of the arm. As with Forever and Rope Fountain , the sculpture was capable of only a limited range of movement: the arm could rotate on its tripod and extend and retract, while the feather at the end was able to pivot freely in three dimensions. The sculpture was cordoned off from viewers by a circular border, like a circus ring. It was elegant, ungainly, absurd, pathetic.

Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom writes in Superintelligence : “Normally, we do not regard what is going on inside a computer as having any moral significance except insofar as it affects things outside. But a machine superintelligence could create internal processes that have moral status…there is at least the potential for a vast amount of death and suffering among simulated or digital minds, and, a fortiori, the potential for morally catastrophic outcomes.”

Soon suggested the possibility of a tension between the dual nature of artificial entities as tools created for human benefit, and as autonomous beings in their own rights. The robotic sculpture was far from a superintelligence - indeed, the feather duster attachment riffed on the dumb domestic devices that are ubiquitous today: dishwashers, dryers, washing machines, and vacuum cleaners. Soon was no more than a simple machine. Yet the gallery setting and the circus ring-like enclosure reframed the appliance as an actor, an individual (though a bit of freak): worthy of attention.

Sometimes, Soon would dance, spinning gracefully and then stretching to unfurl its feather with an elegant flick. These were the movements which seemed to elevate the robot above the level of “device”. Yet, at other times, Soon performed an absurd sketch of domestic labor, senselessly and ineffectually dusting the air before rotating to begin again. The circular movements of the arm, tracing the outline of the ring on the floor, echoed this temporal loop in which the device was trapped. It was the contrast between these two attitudes which made Soon appear forlorn, futile, pathetic. Strange as it seems, I almost felt able to sympathize with Soon .

Missing from any of these works (though handled beautifully by Camille Utterback in Entangled ) was a convincing mode of interaction. Both of Rath’s pieces hinted at the possibility of interactivity, with Soon seeming to dust the noses of viewers, and Forever fluttering in time with sounds from the gallery, but in both cases the link between the environment and the actions of the sculpture was so subtle that it was unclear whether the appearance of responsiveness was due to accident or intention. Salvagione’s Rope Fountain didn’t offer even the suggestion of interactivity. The disinterested stance of these creatures was still compelling (though not altogether unfamiliar - think of teenagers or cats). Yet today, it’s the machines that can interact with (and track) us that are most interesting and frightening. Perception is an integral part of human existence; future artworks exploring artificial existence should use interactivity to engage this more deeply.

The Death and Life of Dante-Harper Townhomes

While Spike Lee’s Chiraq plays in theaters, Theaster is playing out a different vision of life on Chicago’s South Side, driven by Black culture instead of ‘black-on-black’ violence, and animated by art, rather than guns.

Chicago artist Theaster Gates bought an abandoned bank building for just $1 from the City of Chicago in 2013. Since then, his fans have eagerly awaited the debut of the Stony Island Arts Bank , an exhibition space and archive which opened in October to much fanfare. Though it’s an impressive demonstration of Gates’ fundraising chops (it cost $3.5M to make the building structurally sound), the building is architecturally underwhelming at present. Except for the lavish library at the back of the building, the Arts Bank is little more than an empty shell.

While design blogs and Instagrammers slaver over the empty Arts Bank, an important project just two blocks South has gone largely unnoticed. This project, a renovated mixed-income housing development called Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative (DA+HC), deserves attention. Gates and his nonprofit Rebuild Foundation partnered with Brinshore Development and architects Landon Bone Baker Architects (LBBA) to create DA+HC, and the playful, generous redesign by LBBA makes it a star example of mixed-income housing redevelopment in Chicago. DA+HC is an important step in Gates’ overarching project to turn Greater Grand Crossing into a cultural hub.

Buildings owned by Gates or hosting Rebuild’s programs are marked in blue on this map. The map shows the corner of Greater Grand Crossing where Gates has focused his attention.

Once a bustling working-class neighborhood, Greater Grand Crossing was hollowed out in the 1960s and 1970s by white flight, and never fully recovered. The neighborhood today is poor ( 25% of residents are below the poverty line ) and sparsely populated. Brick walk-up apartment buildings and single-family homes front on Greater Grand Crossing’s quiet one-way streets. On a closer look, many of these buildings are neatly boarded up with weathered plywood. There are vacant lots on every block - not the trash-littered and graffittied asphalt lots of the proverbial “inner city”, but green plots taken over by grass. It’s a neighborhood that has seen hard times.

DA+HC was closed down and boarded up in 2007. Image © 2015 Google.

Gates has sought to transform the neighborhood since he arrived in 2006. He recalled in a 2014 interv: “You know my block is a violent block…When I moved there, people didn’t want to visit…I was really determined for Sixty-Ninth and Dorchester to be the most important place in the city…There’s still extreme violence, and yet beautiful things should happen in black space, because violent things happen everywhere. Right?”

DA+HC sits on 70th Street between Dante and Harper Avenues in the middle of this community, across from an elementary school, a playground, and one of those verdant vacant lots. The housing complex was originally designed by the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) in the late 1970s, and opened in 1981 with 36 units of public housing in seven two-story brick buildings.

This birds-eye rendering of Dante-Harper Townhomes was featured in a 1981 issue of the Chicago Housing Authority Times.

The buildings are arranged along the sidewalk to create semi-enclosed common spaces at the back, away from the street. These shared, sheltered outdoor spaces help foster a sense of community by providing a space for residents to gather. On the larger block, between Dante and Harper Avenues, the sheltered interior of the block is subtly divided into two smaller spaces by a building that is set back from the sidewalk. With ten (originally twelve) units opening onto each of these smaller spaces, this division creates outdoor spaces which are more sheltered and intimate, but still provide opportunities for community interactions.

The gaps between the buildings serve as passages which visually and acoustically link the sidewalk to the gardens in back, helping to integrate the residents into the social fabric of the neighborhood.

Simple variations in the plan of the CHA townhouses make the spare, undecorated facades attractive. The facades step gently to and from the sidewalk, creating elongated bays and shallow recesses to shelter the front doors. This articulation of the facade serves as a kind of economical decoration for the building, creating patterns of light and shadow and giving each unit a sense of individuality. The materials matter, too. The red bricks used to cover the facades of the townhouses are standard-size fired clay bricks, not the larger concrete bricks often used by the 1980s to cut labor costs. These construction details help the CHA units to blend pleasantly with the older brick apartment buildings and single-family houses on the neighboring blocks.

The beveled corners, entryway niches, and modulations in the plan of the facade lend visual appeal to the spare brick wall.

The Dante-Harper Townhomes reflect the complex and sometimes contradictory history of the CHA with respect to race, poverty, and housing in Chicago. The townhomes were built by the CHA as a result of a court order following the 1969 housing desegregation case Gautreaux v. Chicago Housing Authority. Gautreaux required the CHA to increase its stock of low-income units; to build or acquire public housing in white areas of the city before further development in racial minority areas; and to ensure that 50% of residents in each new development were drawn from the local community. Dante-Harper Townhomes failed in at least one respect: by the time it opened in 1981, the neighborhood was 70% - 90% black (hardly the integration required by Gautreaux!), and the CHA was building less housing, not more, than before. Despite this, the buildings avoid the banal, “poverty-oriented look” criticized by housing historian J. S. Fuerst. Perhaps inspired by developments commissioned by the CHA during the 1950s and 1960s, the Dante-Harper Townhomes was well-designed to invest the lives of its residents with dignity and foster a sense of community.

The Rebuild partnership made a number of important changes to the townhome development which further improve it. First, the central four-units between Dante and Harper were demolished to create an art center. Rebuild Foundation determined from a neighborhood survey that there was a need for performance space in Greater Grand Crossing. In response to this need, the art center at DA+HC houses a purpose-built dance studio and a craft space. Both will be open to residents of the neighborhood and to the arts elementary school across the street.

The dance studio is a beautiful space, with a high ceiling, spring-loaded wood floor for dancing, and lots of light. The front and back walls are all glass, save a vintage sliding door in front, and the resulting visual connection between the front and back of DA+HC helps link the semi-private spaces behind DA+HC to the public life of the neighborhood.

The landscaping created by site design group in collaboration with LBBA, is another significant addition to the development. In the original design, the sidewalk at 70th and Dante stretches twenty feet from the curb to the front doors of the townhomes. In the redevelopment, the expanses of concrete are replaced by generous front yards.

In the back, LBBA has replaced the grass backyards of the original design, which opened directly onto the alley, with two rock gardens containing seating and landscaped with shrubs and young birch trees. The architects also introduced a fence and a sidewalk along the back of this yard, heightening the sense of enclosure by dividing it from the alley. The parking spaces along the alley are surfaced using concrete brick pavers, rather than asphalt, which, from the rock gardens, creates the impression of a terrace that extends beyond the sidewalk.

The rear of DA+HC encloses a rock garden planted with low shrubs and young birch trees.

Finally, some small details - mustard yellow doors and a crimson band at the roofline - provide a playful touch. In short, the interventions of the Rebuild / LBBA / Brinshore partnership complement the existing strengths of the building and strengthen the possibilities for community formation by improving the shared spaces.

Residents of Greater Grand Crossing and critics alike have wondered whether Gates’ ascendant practice will gentrify the neighborhood in which it is anchored. Historically, artists have often been in the vanguard of displacement in neighborhood change - in the words of art historian Rosalynd Deutsche, artists are “the ‘shock troops’ of gentrification.”

The twelve CHA units at DA+HC do increase the neighborhood’s stock of affordable housing - but when compared with the 358 units CHA delivered in 2014 , it’s clear that they are a drop in the bucket. DA+HC is, at best, a gesture towards affordability. The reality of Greater Grand Crossing, according to Gates, is that gentrification still seems an unlikely and distant danger to most people on the block. Gates says: “People wanna leave if they can, and people have a right to leave. It becomes tricky…am I trying to trick people into staying? What can I offer?”

Perhaps the best way to understand the strategic position of DA+HC in Gates’ practice is as an incubator - a word that Gates himself has used elsewhere. Gates has long been interested in building communities of Black artists. In 2013, Gates opened the University of Chicago’s Washington Park Arts Incubator (WPAI), two and a half miles northwest of DA+HC. In the two years since it opened, WPAI has organized gallery shows by Alexandria Eregbu , Caroline Kent , and other Chicago artists, run training programs for local high-schoolers, and hosted community events. In 2013, Gates and artist Eliza Myrie hosted the first Black Artists Retreat (B.A.R.), which brought dozens of Black artists together at Dorchester Projects for two days of conversation and collaborative work.

At the Arts Bank, Gates has collected a vast (though uncatalogued) archive of Black history, literature, and media. Rebuild has a rotating artist residency program which brings artists to the neighborhood for a few weeks. Each resident artist is asked to use Rebuild’s collections at the Arts Bank in the work they produce during the residency.

Looking down into the atrium of the Stony Island Arts Bank. The pillars around the atrium are a temporary installation by artist Carlos Bunga. Photo by Steven Vance.

Unlike B.A.R. or the resident artists hosted by Rebuild Foundation, DA+HC is a sustained intervention which can be a source of stability and longevity for the artistic ecosystem in Greater Grand Crossing. Hopeful residents must apply to a panel of community members, and artists are given priority. Rebuild Program Manager Demecina Beehn says that DA+HC currently houses eight artists and curators, including a ceramicist, a filmmaker, and a makeup artist. In this way, DA+HC will bring artists who have a long-term involvement with the community - and, Gates is betting - with Rebuild’s collections. The best piece at the debut of the Arts Bank was not an artwork by Gates, but a monumental installation in cardboard by Portuguese artist Carlos Bunga . Similarly, in years to come, Gates’ most important work may come to be not his framed fire hoses or tar paintings , but the artistic activity he fomented on the South Side of Chicago.

Permanence and Program: Farewell to the American Folk Art Museum

Architectural critics and preservationists have been working themselves into a frenzy since the Museum of Modern Art announced last Wednesday its final decision to demolish the American Folk Art Museum building. MoMA’s announcement comes at the end of six months of extended deliberation, and MoMA has made it clear that this is their final decision. In light of this, the mainstream critics’ self-righteous outrage does more harm than good and obscures valuable insights into permanence, program, and flexibility in architecture.

The folk art museum building was designed by New York-based Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects in 2001. Underlying the design was the belief that the building should be tailored to the character and needs of the institution it was to house and that form, materials, and structure should respond delicately and exactly to the program.

The façade of the building is paneled with heavy slabs of tombasil, an alloy which critic Herbert Muschamp likened to, “travertine marble alchemically rendered into bronze.” The opacity of this façade and the rugged quality of its panels with their molten wrinkles and bubbles make a harsh contrast to the smooth glass façade of the MoMA next door. The façade of the Folk Art Museum is a gesture of solidarity with the art within, suggesting that the collection inside might be rougher around the edges, but also more sensuous and sincere than the modern stuff next door. The bronze face of the Folk Art Museum is a declaration of difference.

Inside, the architects created a winding pathway up through the museum, with extra-wide stairways displaying artwork and tall open spaces allowing views between different floors. Artworks are hung in unexpected places, and the sightlines through these tall open spaces let viewers experience pieces at different distances. Artworks are placed on balustrades and hung on concrete walls several stories up, as well as in traditional galleries. The collision of hanging styles made possible by the architecture captures neatly the mixed nature of the artifacts themselves.

Image from archatlas .

At the same time, the architects sought to create a sense of permanence. Tsien said, “one of the things we learned is that we want, more and more, buildings that last. We want to avoid sheetrock and use materials with resonance and character .” The building is created using poured-in-place concrete , which means that the walls, the floor, the ceilings are all essentially part of the same continuous structure. This type of construction has the feel of permanence as well as its actuality – concrete is one of the most difficult building materials to destroy. In addition, because every part of the building is structural, it is much harder to modify.

When the MoMA announced its intention to demolish the building, it cited the distinctive (i.e. non-glass) façade and the disconnect between the floor plates at the folk art museum and the MoMA next door. If it was the idiosyncrasies of the folk art museum that created the conflict, it was the deliberate permanence of the building that made the problem intractable, even after six months deliberation. The New York Times reported that, “Because the floor plates support the façade, a reconfiguration would require much of the building to be dismantled and reconstructed.” Elizabeth Diller of Diller Scofidio + Renfro admitted , “We can’t find a way to save the building. You pass a tipping point where there’s not enough of the original structure to actually maintain its identity.”

Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s proposed replacement for the American Folk Art Museum.

There is a sense, then, in which the building contained the seeds of its own destruction. The folk art museum building was designed to fit its original inhabitants forever, not to adapt – but change is inevitable. True; with a different purchaser, the building might have been repurposed despite its resistance to change. Even a building as idiosyncratic as the folk art museum might have been converted to offices, residences, or performance spaces. But the architects’ design philosophy gambled the flexibility and future of the building against the ideal of creating a perfect space for the folk art collection. The dreadful paradox is that what made the building great – the sense of permanence it evoked, the rich materiality of concrete and bronze, the unique interior spaces it created – also led to its destruction.

Those who have vilified the MoMA argue that, as a museum, the MoMA holds a public trust to safeguard the folk art museum building as a work of great architectural value. Some critics have even imagined the building as an item in the MoMA’s collection . This conception of the building is a mistake. Reducing the museum to an object, a piece of art, is to consider only its aesthetic and formal qualities, and to do so is to ignore those qualities which make it a building. A building is such because it is designed to be used: Vitruvius’ utilitas .

The section drawing of the building reveals its idiosyncratic structure. Image from Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects .

The MoMA is demonized because its decision is judged by a standard which disregards the present context of the folk art museum in favor of the architects’ good intentions and the fit for the original occupant of the structure. The pens of the critics suspend the life of the building in the instant that it left the drawing board. But try as critics might to hold back the press of time, the fecund city pushes on relentlessly. The building must be judged in its current context, and part of that context is its usefulness as a space to be inhabited.

Ah, the protesters say – but the building would be perfectly useful if not for the damned expansion of the MoMA. Expansion is made a dirty word. Yet – if anything, expansion should be good. Paul Goldberger admits , “MoMA is as compromised by overcrowding as any museum I know…Lowry [the director] envisions the expansion as a way of creating much needed breathing space.” So while the expansion of the MoMA is regrettable in its consequences, it is not the sign of moral corruption that critics would have us believe.

The MoMA must bear responsibility for the tragedy of the demolition of the folk art museum – and it is a tragedy, if only because the building was loved dearly by many museumgoers. But it should bear that responsibility as the sad result of a Hobson’s choice forced by the nature of the folk art museum and not as a badge of ‘cultural vandalism’ .

The folk art museum was an eccentric, friendly building that enlivened and enriched the urban life around it – Herbert Muschamp once called it “companionable” . We cannot do without such structures, buildings that are dynamic, brave, and richly memorable. It is true that the construction of such precious buildings is a gamble, that it comes at a price – but the worst that could come out of this demolition would be a swing to the other extreme: in place of the folk art museum, a building that is generic and utterly all-purpose. We hope that, as it moves forward with plans for a new building, the MoMA will bear the responsibility of the demolition thoughtfully and look for meaning in its loss, mindful of the architectural promises and perils it embodied.

The cover image for this piece is by davidgalestudios .

Light Makes Wright: James Turrell at the Guggenheim

Light is everywhere, and yet too often familiarity blinds us to its power and possibilities. In his monolithic new installation Aten Reign artist James Turrell provides a striking reminder of the power of light to affect our spatial experiences. The exhibit remains at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City through September 25.

Exploring light and the way we perceive light is Turrell’s life’s work. His first insights came from experiments in projecting white light from a slide projector onto the bare walls of his first studio. Turning the projector to face the corner of the room, Turrell discovered that from a distance, the planes of light actually seemed to pop off the walls, forming a luminous cube nestled in the corner of the room. Insubstantial light came to occupy physical space in this piece, which he calls Afrum .

Turrell spent the year after creating Afrum covering the windows of his studio with black paint and cutting careful apertures in the walls. In his Mendota Stoppages (1969 – 1970), he led groups of visitors through his darkened studio in the evenings, opening the apertures in the walls to reveal light from the outside: orange, emerald green, pure white. At the end of the performance, which lasted several hours, the visitors were allowed outside, where they discovered that the fragment of orange light had been a neon light in a store window, the green a traffic light, the white a street lamp. Afrum and the Mendota Stoppages reveal two attitudes that pervade Turrell’s work: his treatment of light as a material, and his desire to enrich and deepen viewers’ experiences of everyday visual phenomena.

Although these first works were small, Turrell is no stranger to large-scale museum installations like that at the Guggenheim. In 1997, he created an installation for the opening of the Kunsthaus museum in Bregenz, Austria. The Kunsthaus is a cube sheathed by a double wall of semi-transparent glass. The void between the glass walls accepted light from the outside and filtered it into the galleries. The light entered the galleries discreetly, illumination made mysterious by the concealment of its source.

Turrell’s installation filled the double-walled void on the outside of the building with colored light. From a distance, the light drew attention to the geometric purity of the building’s form and the crystalline quality lent the building by its enveloping glazing. Inside the galleries, the novelty of the colored light exposed the tantalizing proximity of the outdoors to the heart of the museum. The Kunsthaus installation affirmed the intrinsic qualities of the building. The relationship of Aten Reign to the Guggenheim is more complicated.

Enter the museum by the main entrance. The ticketing room is darkened, so that the ceiling feels much lower than it is. Colored light behind the double doors at the far end of the space beckons you towards the rotunda and Turrell’s installation. Entering the rotunda, you first notice the people – people standing, reclining on benches, lying on cushions on the floor – all staring up. Then your gaze too is drawn upwards, into the vast shifting colors of Aten Reign .

It is here on the floor of the rotunda that you first feel the effects of the installation on the architectural experience of the museum. The Guggenheim is a social space. This was radical in 1959 when the museum opened; in traditional museums, the focus is on the art – if for no other reason, because boxy galleries leave nowhere else to look. At the Guggenheim, a visitor descending the spiral is normally presented with two views: to the left, the artwork, placed on the outer wall of the spiral ramp; to the right, over the balcony, the entire interior life of the museum. The skylight above, the rotunda floor beneath, and the coils of the other side of the spiral seen from across the void are architectural drama at its finest. The sheer spectacle of this view, and the recognition that the building is meant to be appreciated as a work of art in its own right, make it acceptable for visitors to turn away from the artwork, lean on the balustrade, and watch the human life of the museum, their fellow museum-goers across the spiral.

The Guggenheim is a uniquely sociable museum.

Aten Reign returns the museum to a more solitary, introverted ideal. The piece occupies the entire six-story rotunda and is created by a six-tiered cone of white fabric suspended from the top of the rotunda lit from behind by countless LED lights. The scrim used to create to the installation hides covers the museum’s spiral ramp. As your head turns back and your eyes upwards, the crowds on the floor of the rotunda vanish, and you become aware of the purity and simplicity of Aten Reign . The luminous ovals are uncluttered – no crowds up here! The diagonal lines of the spiral ramp are restless and dynamic. The horizontal structure of the installation communicates stability, an architectural reassurance that this is a safe place for repose and meditation. Aten Reign embraces the teeming crowds below calmly, quietly, without brimming over. Gone – until September 25th – are the days when one looked up and saw spectators looking down or across from every level of the spiral ramp. No matter how full the rotunda, each visitor experiences Aten Reign alone.

The continuity of Frank Lloyd Wright’s exhibition spaces here was just as revolutionary and just as shocking as their sociability. Previous museums had conformed to traditional notions of architecture in which the interior is divided up into a series of self-contained exhibition spaces. At the Guggenheim, Wright erased internal barriers by casting the primary exhibition space as a continuous spiral ramp. The ramp, open to the central rotunda along its entire length, allowed space to flow freely and united the entire museum within a single enormous room.

Aten Reign divides this space in two, defining a clear interior and exterior. As you leave the rotunda and begin your sloping ascent through the museum, you move to the exterior of the installation. Like the back of a big-box retail store, the exterior of the installation is all business: a plain fabric scrim – undecorated by LED lights – sealing off the gap between the balustrade and the ceiling. Visitors are expected to ignore this part of the installation. It’s meant to be unobtrusive, not to encourage meditation or provoke insights – yet its effects on the architectural experience of the museum are significant.

The fabric scrim hides the rotunda and blocks those cross-atrium views that animate the museum. The openness of Wright’s design ensures that visitors are always aware of their position within the structure. Turrell’s installation replaces Wright’s open space with a whitewashed tunnel. Wright’s radical experiment with the infinite linear extension of space produced the Guggenheim; the backside of Aten Reign exposes this flirtation with infinity in a new way. The curve of the spiral limits the pedestrian’s scope of vision to thirty feet in front.and behind. There is no beginning or end, just the promise of the unknown beyond the curve of the walls. This is a different kind of isolation than the solitude of Aten Reign proper: harsher, more uncomfortable.

Section drawing of Aten Reign. In black, the original structure of the Guggenheim museum; in red, Turrell’s installation. Notice the scrims sealing hiding the apparatus from spectators on the ramp (also in red).

Aten Reign and the other installations present at the Guggenheim for this exhibition – Afrum , Ronin, Iltar – are typical of Turrell’s work in that the apparatus used are always carefully concealed. The white scrim sealing off the gap between the ramp and the rotunda bears evidence to this; its purpose is to hide the metal scaffolding and LED lights used to create Aten Reign .

When I saw Afrum at the Guggenheim, I walked into the room and stood at a distance from the cube. I was self-conscious: I was noticing myself noticing the light. Meanwhile, behind me, several children – surely not more than five years old – entered the room. Followed by several mothers, they ran up to the cube of light at the corner of room, putting their hands in it and laughing at the shadows it made. The bright light of the projector mounted high in the opposite wall caught the eye of one of these toddlers, and he turned: “Look!,” he pointed, and the other toddlers turned too, gazing up at the source of the light. That gave their mothers enough time to catch them and tow them out of the room – but they left a lasting impression on me.

Turrell is a master of illusion – and, as with all illusions, we – the viewers – are complicit in the deception. We agree to look only at the light, forgetting its origin. The Afrum toddlers reminded me that all of Turrell’s works have a source. The light and the apparatus used to produce the light together produce an effect that is far more powerful than either alone.

Afrum , featured in the Guggenheim exhibition, is one of Turrell’s earliest pieces. In this work, the projected light appears to fill a cube of space at the corner of the room. James Turrell

The Kunsthaus installation is simpler because its apparatus was more easily concealed and so intruded less into the life of the museum. Aten Reign , by contrast, pushes into every part of the space. Sometimes, as on the ramp, its intrusions are uncomfortable and uncomplimentary. Its secret is that the architectural extremes that Frank Lloyd Wright sought to capture are exposed most clearly in these moments.

It is rare that a remarkable building is so drastically altered, or that the result should be so illuminating. Turrell’s Aten Reign is an important moment of reflection in the architectural life of the Guggenheim Museum. It is open for a few more days only – don’t miss it.