Why Duchamp?: |
The Influence of Marcel Duchamp on
Contemporary Architectural Theory and Practice
|by Tigner, Amanda|
|Marcel Duchamp is a high standing member of the Horace Trumbauer Architecture Fan Club. New member Walter Hopps was extremely unexpectedly thrilled to be present up front and center for Duchamp's and Jennewein's "Nudist Camp at the Philadelphia Museum of Art" 20 March 2005. [From now on, any work regarding Duchamp and Architecture must demonstrate a thorough knowledge of THE ODDS OF OTTOPIA and LEAVING OBSCURITY BEHIND. Indifference to this notice is much more than chancy, even.] ref: http://www.quondam.com/20/1965.htm http://www.quondam.com/26/2517.htm http://www.quondam.com/26/2532.htm http://www.quondam.com/26/2535.htm|
|By Rita Novel|
Sundry Duchampian concepts or fascinations, such as projection, chance, and metaphor, seen throughout the wide range of his post 1912 works, have been interpreted and used by numerous architects and designers. This phenomenon has occurred both in a sort of direct homage to one or more of Duchamp’s works as well as in a more subtle, intellectual sort of homage, incorporating a Duchampian concept, such as chance, not only into a single architectural work, but into the way that an architect creates any architectural work.Some work, such as that of furniture designer Shiro Kuramata (Fig. 2), has been preoccupied with the former. Some architects claiming to be Duchamp’s standard-bearers, such as California team Morphosis, acknowledge Duchamp’s influence in both ways.
Even famous and influential contemporary architects Frank Gehry and Robert Venturi also occasionally directly base a work on a work by Duchamp. However, the works of Gehry and Venturi are particularly useful in illustrating the latter, intellectual type of acknowledgment of Duchamp, as permeating all of their works are evidence of Duchampian thinking about concepts such as chance and metaphor.A final architectural firm, Diller + Scofidio, has incorporated so many Duchampian concepts, not only projection, chance, and eroticism as metaphor, but also ideas such as the infra-thin, ambivalence, ambiguity, and ephemerality, that their work can be seen as truly Duchampian architecture. This discussion seeks to establish why and how Marcel Duchamp has been so influential in contemporary architecture by thoroughly exploring the Duchampian concepts of projection, chance, and metaphor both within Duchamp’s work and that of contemporary architects whom he has influenced, and then further exploring these and other Duchampian ideas through the work of two postmodern architects upon whom Duchamp has been extraordinarily influential, Elizabeth Diller and Ric Scofidio.
Throughout his life, Duchamp was fascinated
by chance. The Three Standard Stoppages (Fig. 7) are chance forms of measurement.
The appearance of the Three Standard Stoppages, their lengths and shapes, were determined entirely
by chance. His Monte Carlo Bond (Fig. 8) was created
so that others might invest in a gambling trip that he wished to
take. Would others take a chance and invest so that Duchamp could
play a game of chance?There was also a strong element of chance
in the creation of the readymades. The objects chosen as readymades
were chosen at random, mass-produced, and were aesthetically indifferent,
that is one would not usually go up to the object and feel anything
about its aesthetic qualities one way or the other because it had
none in its normal context. Fountain (Fig. 9), a urinal not markedly different from any other
urinal, bought by Duchamp in an everyday New York plumbing shop,
has been elevated to cult artistic status and was branded by some
as an abomination and hailed by others as a beautiful form. Any
other urinal would have served the artistic function just as well
as the one that became Fountain, just as any other mass-produced
urinal would serve a man who needed to relieve himself just as well.
Each readymade involved an element of chance in this way.
In an explanation of how the design for his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (Fig. 10), Spain, came about, Frank Gehry noted that it just happened, was a lot like a chance fluke.(8) This is in stark contrast to the Modernists of the early-middle twentieth century, who were obsessed by perfect proportions and the golden mean. Le Corbusier, for example, used a precise geometric formula in his early high International Style work of the 1920s (Fig. 11). He had rules controlling how line and form could be used and tried to adhere to a difficult system of proportion called the golden section. This required room proportion ratios to be 1:1.618.(9) Gehry observed this in a statement concerning the freedom that chance gives an architect,
While International Style and earlier architects rigorously adhered to meticulous formulas, an architect today chooses the forms of a building, of a space, in the same way that Marcel Duchamp walked into a store and chose a readymade. They just do it. Much contemporary architecture, then, from the works of Frank Gehry to Robert Venturi to Peter Eisenman can be read as Architectural readymades.
Besides living legends such as Venturi and Gehry, younger, up and coming architects, are also interested in Duchampian ideas, specifically in the Architectural readymade. Thom Mayne, a younger California architect with an interest in the work of Frank Gehry and who practices under the name Morphosis, claims Duchamp as his idol. Morphosis tries to make every building an Architectural readymade. He claims that he, “treats materials, sanitary fittings, and bits of plan with innocent astonishment, that is, as objets trouvés.”(11) It can be said, then, that Morphosis selects its urinals along with the rest of the building components as Duchamp did. A recent Morphosis project, though, the Diamond Ranch High School in Diamond Bar, California, (Fig. 12), shows that Morphosis has made use of chance, of the Architectural readymade, in much the same way as Gehry.(12) For the school, Mayne created jutting, or projecting, forms, brought together at random, or at least to give that effect.
Eroticism as a metaphor was a constant motif throughout Duchamp’s career. Sometimes this was simply playful, such as issuing his bôite-en-valise (Fig. 13), portable museums, in an edition of the sexually significant number 69. Most often, these works were not specifically about eroticism, they just used eroticism as a metaphor for something else, namely art. Duchamp’s masterpieces, the Large Glass and Étant Donnés, first and foremost raise issues about the nature of artistic practice in light of technological, societal, and artistic change. The Large Glass was about the act of painting in an age in which abstraction challenged the mimetic nature of the craft, the fallacy of one-point perspective in relation to actual sight was well known, and photography and cinema could produce mimetic works more quickly, accurately, and cheaply than painting. This is shrouded in an elaborate game in which nine bachelors try to satisfy their desire and impregnate the ‘bride.’ Étant Donnés, on the previous page, was created in a time in which there was a crisis, a near-death incident, in the life of representational art. His hyper-realistic painted landscape in the background of the work and the complete illusionary nature of the work as a whole challenged the assumption of the middle of the twentieth century that painting, or art in general, should be abstract. This was in the guise of a nude woman with her sex exposed in the foreground. Duchamp not only used eroticism as metaphor, but used his own works as metaphors of each other. The Large Glass and Étant Donnés are both metaphors of each other not only because they are reverse projections of each other, but also because they allude to each other through having the same theme, the bride, the waterfall, and the illuminating gas.
Architects have been, since the 1970s and ‘80s, using metaphor in a downright Duchampian manner, to explore what it means to be an architect in the face of the information technology revolution, computers replacing the t-square and drafting table, the ‘cult of the box’ of architecture of the middle twentieth century, the impact of the automobile and the highway on architecture and urbanism, and the increasing prevalence of mass architecture, such as strip malls. The issues raised by much current architecture because of and in response to these technological and societal shifts, is the same raised by Duchamp in works such as the Large Glass and Étant Donnés.
Robert Venturi’s Learning from Las Vegas (1977) , a seminal
work in postmodern architectural theory, uses metaphor, though definitely
not of an erotic nature, to explain the state of architecture in
America in the 1970s. Las Vegas is used as a metaphor for the need
for increased decoration and less of the International style high
seriousness of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe (Figs. 14 and
15). Like Duchamp, who also rejected the high seriousness prevalent
in artistic circles in his own time, Venturi used humor throughout
the work. After the metaphor of Las Vegas itself, the book’s most
overriding metaphor is that of the duck and the decorated shed.
The duck, a building shaped like a duck, is a metaphor for buildings
which are symbols.
Marcel Duchamp’s ideas have been so important in contemporary architectural theory and practice that many architects and designers have created works which are inspired by literal or stylistic elements of Duchamp’s works. This is directly in contrast with Duchamp’s views on avoiding repetition and on the irrelevance of style or the visual, and is certainly not that most reverential way to pay tribute to the father of conceptual art. Works such as the readymades went against the ‘mimetic’ or ‘retinal’ nature of art, yet as Tilman Kuchler argued in a discussion of the ‘end of modernity and the beginning of play’, theysolicit processes or artistic representation and reproduction in the postmodern era.(17) This goes beyond reproducing Duchamp’s work, such as the inaccurate assertion hand-crafted reproductions of Fountain made to sell in Arturo Schwarz’s gallery. This type of homage involves miming the visual aspects of one of Duchamp’s works.
Shiro Kuramata, a prominent Japanese
furniture designer of the 1980s, frequently used this sort playful
retinal homage to Duchamp in his work. Kuramata, like many postmodern
artists, architects, and designers, called Duchamp his idol.(18)
Works such as his Miss Blanche armchair of 1988 ( Fig.
19), left, playfully allude to Duchamp’s works, while ignoring
much of the intellectual content of Duchamp. The chair’s title is
actually a reference to Blanche Dubois of Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire, but Kuramata admitted that the embedding of paper
roses within the acrylic body of the chair is a homage to Duchamp’s
female alter ego, Rrose Sélavy.(19)
A detail of Miss Blanche also elicits a visual, or retinal,
comparison with a detail of the Large Glass. The visual
effects achieved by the roses and by the nine malic molds are quite
similar, though the thinking behind them could not be more different.
Kuramata also created a set of acrylic perfume bottles, inspired
by Rrose Sélavy’s perfume bottle, Belle Haleine, eau
de voilette (Figs. 20 and 21). These works by Kuramata
take their inspiration from Duchamp in a very literal way, and are
therefore not Duchampian at all. This honorific literalization of
Duchamp’s works has not, however, been the sole way in which Duchamp
has appeared as an influence in current visual production. Rather,
some have tried to copy or acknowledge Duchamp’s ‘style’ or ‘look,’
if such a quality even exists, because the larger and more important
theoretical implications of Duchamp have made him such a popular
figure, a veritable guru, in the contemporary era.
Even Frank Gehry has, on occasion, been
mildly guilty of this mimetic crime. The look of Gehry’s Telluride
Residence in Telluride, Colorado, which has been in the planning
stages since 1995, is based, in Gehry’s words, on Duchamp’s Nude
Descending a Staircase. (Figs. 24 and 25)(23)
The house will step down the hill for which it is intended, just
as Duchamp’s Nude steps down the stairs. Unlike Kuramata, however,
who used roses to recall Rrose Sélavy, Gehry’s house does not go
so far as to have an abstracted, monochromatic nude figure painted
on it. Instead, the Telluride Residence is the mechanomorphic nude. The house serves as a metaphor for Nude Descending a Staircase, as well as a simple visual recollection of the
painting, and thus escapes the mimesis of Kuramata.
Many contemporary architects, not only
Gehry, have been visually inspired by Nude Descending a Staircase.
For example, the fire station designed by Zaha Hadid for the Vitra
complex in Germany (1990-1993) (Fig. 26), was also inspired
in part by Duchamp’s Nude,(24)
and the aerial computer plan of Morphosis’ Diamond Ranch High School
can also visually be likened to Nude Descending a Staircase.
There is even debate over whether Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao
looks more like Nude Descending a Staircase or like Futurist
artist Umberto Boccioni’s sculpture, Unique Forms of Continuity
in Space. (Fig. 27)(25)
Again, these comparisons and debates lead away from the true nature
of Duchamp and the reasons for which he is so much discussed and
quoted. It is perhaps partly coincidental that contemporary deconstructivist
architecture looks so much like Nude Descending a Staircase,
partly that the deconstructivists are visually stimulated by works
of Boccioni and of early Duchamp, and partly due to the fact that,
as mentioned previously, Duchamp’s cult status encourages many writers
as well as architects to invoke Duchamp and identify with him. When
one realizes that works such as Antonio Sant’Elia’s preliminary
drawings for La Città Nuova also have much visually in common with
structures such as Diamond Ranch High School, the explanation of
Duchamp’s stylistic influence through cult association becomes the
This pavilion can be read as the ultimate expression of another Duchampian concept, the infra-thin. Dawn Ades described the infra-thin as follows,
Like iridescent cloth, a pavilion made of water vapor can be seen through, its appearance changing with light and weather conditions.Indeed, in the making of the pavilion, many photographs were taken with time, relative humidity, and temperature noted.(28) Such a building would hover within the threshold between inside and outside, its bounds being imperceptible and ever-changing, its duration ephemeral. The walls of such a building would be walls and not walls (again, the door is neither open nor closed), ever shifting, and either barely visible or oppressively opaque depending on the amount and type of light filtering through the vapor. Ben Rubin, a project manager for Diller + Scofidio, called the cloud building “pure visual noise.”(29) This is undoubtedly what Duchamp meant by the infra-thin, noise which could be seen but not heard, a building made of water vapor, a building that was there and not there. Just as an advertisement for Flip Wilson could never have been placed on a print of the Pantheon had it not been for Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q., neither could a structure made of water vapor have been ‘erected’ without the antecedent of Duchamp’s infra-thin.
This infra-thin building straddled the line between the material and the immaterial, between reality and fantasy, and between conceptual art and architecture. Marcel Duchamp explored new media in his own work, such as the use of mass-produced, purchased objects as his readymades. Similarly, Diller + Scofidio explored a new architectural medium, water vapor, in this highly innovative structure. As with Duchamp, the work was meant to be experienced. Just as one can not fully appreciate Étant Donnés without going to the Philadelphia Museum of Art where it is installed and looking through the peepholes, the experience of the water vapor pavilion lay in the experience. By only reading about it or looking at photographs of it, one loses the experience of getting wet and of losing one’s way in a cloud. Another part of the experience of the water vapor pavilion was the ambiguity and anonymity into which visitors were submerged as they moved through the space. Each visitor was given an identical raincoat, a costume which reinforced the participatory nature of the spectacle (as well as being very useful for remaining somewhat dry). Looking forward to the work, Liz Diller commented on the blur effect,
Diller + Scofidio seek to put architecture at the service of the mind just as Duchamp sought to put art at the service of the mind. The pavilion was not designed to be aesthetically pleasing through its lines or forms. It had no lines and its forms were ever shifting. Rather, the work was designed to make people think about the meaning of architecture and the interface of technology, humans, and the natural environment. Whether a person was even willing to consider the pavilion ‘architecture’ or not was not at issue. Diller + Scofidio gave the viewer, the participant the same experience that Duchamp gave viewers of Fountain when it was exhibited in 1917. The experience, the fun in viewing these works was the chance to think about them afterward and decide whether or not they really were art or architecture.
Finally, eroticism was a very important part of both the pavilion, the Blur building, and the entire Swiss Expo.02. There were four sites for Expo.02, Neuchatel, Murten, Biel, and Yverdon.(33) Yverdon, the site of the pavilion, was themed “Sexuality and Sensuality,”(34) and Diller + Scofidio and their team, “to avoid contentions of individual authorship, the group members would merge identities to become ‘Extasia’, or ecstasy, in anticipation of winning the preferred site of Yverdon [Diller + Scofidio favored the theme of sexuality and sensuality above the other themes].”(35) (Though Diller + Scofidio did produce Blur at the Yverdon site, Extasia was eventually disbanded.)(36) As the building was to be created on the Yverdon site, themed sexuality and sensuality, the building was expected to take on the Yverdon characteristics.
The organizers of the exposition created
detailed explanations of what each of the four themes was all about
by comparing each of the four’s responses and attitudes, much like
a personality quiz in a popular magazine.
So, the initial task faced by Diller + Scofidio was to create an innovative temporary exposition pavilion recalling the many qualities listed above. Diller + Scofidio chose the site because of their interest in eroticism, and are showing a Duchampian influence in this way as well. These architectural constraints owe, however, to the phenomenon of postmodernism. In 1910 or 1950, for example, no government organization would have asked an architect for a building which recalled lip-smacking and a lonely lost ski. Though the actual pavilion itself was probably not the least bit erotic, it achieved a certain eroticism by using verbal means, the list on the previous page, to make people think about sex when they think about the Blur building. This is much the same tactic which Duchamp used in the Large Glass. His notes for the Large Glass explain the complicated process of desire and visualize undressing of the bride which is inherent in the work, though not visually detectable without the notes to instruct the viewer. A large mass of water vapor in Switzerland may be very erotic, just as Duchamp’s completely non-representational rendering of a bride may be; it is all dependent upon the framework of ideas within which the viewer approaches the work, and has nothing to do with the visual. The eroticism of Diller + Scofidio can be traced both to an interest in Marcel Duchamp and to the rule breaking of the culture of today. In a final analysis, though, the mere idea of a building, which is not a building, made of water vapor, and devoted to thinking about sex (as opposed to sex itself) detached from any visual or retinal mode of artistic expression, is decidedly Duchampian.
Marcel Duchamp has been quoted and acknowledged
time and time again by contemporary architects and theorists because
of particularly Duchampian ideas, such as eroticism as metaphor,
his uses of new media, and his desire to move away from the retinal
qualities of art towards an art which was at the service of the
mind. Some writers and architects, including Sanford Kwinter, Shiro
Kuramata, and Morphosis have at times misused Duchamp because his
name is so en vogue. This has occurred by either invoking Duchamp’s
name when no connection really exists or by paying a literal, retinal
homage to one or more of Duchamp’s works. Many others, though, have
incorporated Duchampian ideas into their own works in a more intellectually
based homage. The Deconstructivists are indebted to his ideas about
projection and chance, and Robert Venturi (Fig. 32) could
not have made his playful jabs at the high seriousness of International
Style architecture without Duchamp. Finally, the firm of Diller
+ Scofidio created a building which can be read as a truly Duchampian
building, an embodiment of the infra-thin, playful performance and
experiential art, and of a highly intellectualized eroticism. Though
Duchamp was never an architect, his thinking has made possible deformed
forms, has allowed Flip Wilson’s act to enter into the once sanctified
realm of high art, and has allowed architects to literally erect
buildings of clouds.
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Figs. 3, 5-9, 13, 18, 21, 23, 25, 29-31