Re.presence: How to See Architecture


22 May 2014

“How do you represent architectural ideas within an exhibition?” asks Amy Croft, curator of Werkstatt, a new space in Clerkenwell by German building products manufacturer Sto. “And then, as a next layer, how do you represent an exhibition online?”

Re.presence is a multimedia exhibition that aims to answer both of these questions. Displayed during Clerkenwell Design Week, it commissioned four artists and architects to experiment with old and new technologies to explore architectural ideas. These projects are now on display in the Werkstatt space, while the process of conceiving these commissions is documented online by a fifth participant, Studio BAAKO.

Adam Nathaniel Furman, designer and co-curator of the exhibition, was approached by Croft to collaborate on realising the project after she saw his work Identity Parade presented during the Design Museum’s 2013 Designers in Residence programme. Furman's Identity Parade project examined what effect new rapid fabrication techniques had on a designer's output and how speed of production might collapse the roles of designer and collector together.

For Re.Presence Croft and Furman were inspired by the pedagogy of designer George Nelson, who utilised the array of media available to him in the 1950s to teach architecture and architectural history. Together they selected four young practitioners who represented their process of constructing architectural ideas in interesting ways. “There was a really strong emphasis on not fetishising new technology,” Furman explains. “Whether its new technology or old technology, handcrafted model making or projection mapping, they should be on the same level and not treated differently; they’re at the service of the architectural idea.”

Outside by Adam Nathaniel Furman looks at how we construct spaces in our imagination without being able to physically access them

The results are varied, but all the projects synthesise digital tools with analogue techniques, using the medium of film or projection in different ways to communicate their ideas. Furman, whose work features in the exhibition, created Outside, an installation he explains as, “looking at the idea of buildings and places which you can’t access, and how they grow in your imagination because there’s a lack of knowledge about what it is.”

Outside's detailed resolution of a 3D-printed cityscape is blurred by embedding it within a milky resin case, which makes it difficult to discern the exact contours of the model within. “The buildings which are used for this are a rumination on the idea of really fundamental architectural form, which implies or alludes enough to get the imagination wondering what they are but doesn't give enough away so that it tells you anything,” says Furman. “It’s withholding just the right amount.”

Haptic Skins of a Glass Eye (Proxy) by Ilona Sagar looks at the impact technology has on our mental state

While Furman combined his physical object with a film and poetry to construct a remembered experience, adjacent to his models is a large screen projection of a film by artist Ilona Sagar, Haptic Skins of a Glass Eye (Proxy). Sagar’s work oscillates between the human body, architectural space and fabricated materials, so she took as inspiration for her product the material palette of Sto’s products. In footage shot at Sto Werkstatt, Sagar explores a 15th-century psychiatric condition, "the glass delusion", in which people began to feel as though they could shatter. By drawing a parallel between the invention of clear glass and the onset of this disorder, Sagar makes us question the effect technology has on our inner psyche.

Shiva's Dreaming, a videogame to portray material destruction by Lawrence Lek

Sagar’s tactile, almost fleshy, films are juxtaposed against the virtual reality of a video game designed by architect Lawrence Lek, titled Shiva’s Dreaming. Lek’s interest lies in the combination of real and virtual materials and he was inspired by how Sto tests their materials for destruction. Lek's simulated reality takes users through the Crystal Palace, the infamous structure built for the Great Exhibition in 1851 before being moved to Sydenham and eventually burning down in 1936. Set on the night that the building began to burn, Lek's game lets us witness its destruction alongside that of various materials within it, while excerpts from Werner Herzog’s film Heart of Glass are activated along the route to give a haunting commentary on materiality. It is an experience that pays tribute to its namesake, Shiva, the Hindu god of both destruction and creation.

The Visceral Intricacy of Magister Ludi's Archetypes by C. Fredrik V. Hellberg creates a complex framework through which endless narratives can be played

Lek’s game is installed within Sto Haus, a demonstration room for acoustic render finishes that the designer appropriated to create what he describes as “the perfect audiovisual cave.” In this space it sits alongside another simulated experience, The Visceral Intricacy of Magister Ludi’s Archetypes by architect C. Fredrik V. Hellberg.

A simple model of stairs with angled mirrors embedded into its surface, Hellberg's piece is activated by projection mapping to transform into a complex video installation that has its roots in Jungian psychology. Inspired by Hermann Hesse's 1943 book The Glass Bead Game – in which protagonists play a game that somehow synthesises all areas of human learning and can answer all questions – Hellberg's installation projects versions of himself that manifest first as light, then as sound, then as human forms, and finally as reflected images on suspended paper sheets.

The complex web of inspiration manifested as a digital interface by Studio BAAKO

“Almost any narrative could be played out, and through experimenting with this tool, in the long run you could use it in the same way that they use the Glass Bead Game in the book,” states Hellberg. “Through association, you begin to see patterns.” The complexity of this system reveals the necessary amount of research and precedents that not only Hellberg, but all of the participants must have employed to realise their projects. These sources of inspiration are recorded to comprise the digital platform by Studio BAAKO that accompanies the exhibition. Here, each artist’s references – whether it is a book, person, place or extract – are inserted as nodes into a complex mind map that weaves their many thought processes together. “It was just like looking at our own brains smeared onto the screen,” explains Furman about their reaction when seeing the interface for the first time.

This series of installations, at once both digital and handcrafted, virtual and real, physical and projected, all explore architectural ideas rather than forms. It makes for a different type of architectural exhibition that is multifaceted in how it can be understood. Each of the projects can be viewed as either isolated objects within the Werkstatt space or as a product of the dense web of connections visible on the digital platform. “If you only want to see them at a surface level, they’re fun and enjoyable, but maybe a bit ambiguous,” says Furman. “But the more you engage with the projects and discover the process behind them, the more you uncover their intellectual depth.”