Vito Acconci: It started when I was doing installations in the mid-1970s. [One] thing that characterized my [work] is I wanted to do installations people were a part of. I did an installation at the Sonnabend Gallery in Soho in 1976 called “Where We Are Now, Who Are We Anyway.” Basically, a 60-foot table—a wooden plank with stools on either side of it—was propped up on the windowsill of the gallery and then continued out the gallery’s window. So what started as a table became a diving board.
As in all of my installations of the ‘70s, there was sound, [in the case of this artwork] a hanging speaker above the table, with a constant clock ticking, and my voice coming in saying things like, “Now that we’re all here together, what do you think, Bob?” … In other words, what I liked about the project was I found a way to use a gallery as if it was a town square, a plaza, a community meeting place.
At the same time, I started to have this nagging doubt. I thought: I’m kidding myself. A gallery or museum is never going to be a public space. If I really want a public space, I better find a way to get there. So even though the work I did for even a long time after that was still in an art context, I was trying to grope my way into architecture. If I thought the artwork needed a public space, I obviously knew there were disciplines that already deal with public space: There’s architecture, maybe landscape architecture, maybe industrial design.
Can you talk about some of the transitional work you did in the 1980’s that was a sort of architecture/art hybrid?
Work of mine had always been connected with the body, so in the beginning of the 1980’s, I did a number of pieces that, in retrospect, were a kind of play architecture or practice architecture: A person sits in a swing, and the action of sitting in a swing causes walls to come up. I wanted to make a body be the cause of architecture. Can a person’s action make a shelter?
You did a number of these housing-type pieces at the time, but they were still more art than architecture.
Those pieces were a way to demonstrate a kind of house building. But eventually, I thought: but a house has to stay there. I have to find a place where people can go to and stay a while and maybe come back. So by the mid-1980’s, there were a number of house-like pieces, like “Bad Dream House”: Two upside down houses tilted against each other support a third upside down house on top. And there was a piece made from junk cars called “House of Cars.”
Then came your exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1988.'
Both “Bad Dream House” and “House of Cars” were at the MoMA show. The title I gave to the show was “Vito Acconci: Public Spaces.” So there was a large green banner outside the museum with those words, and I felt the way that Jean-Paul Sartre seems to think Jean Genet felt when, as a child, he took a loaf of bread and he was called a thief, and he decided now I’m going to be a thief. When I saw that sign, I thought I can’t turn back. I’m dedicated now to creating public spaces. So it was exactly at that time in 1988 that Acconci Studios started.
What I find fascinating is that since launching Acconci Studios, you’ve never looked back. You really entirely ceased being an artist.
You were very right in what you said in your first question. I never wanted viewers, I always wanted users, participants, inhabitants. I should have realized then if I didn’t want viewers, I really didn’t want art. Because with art, no matter how many nudgings into the traditions are made, the convention is always the viewer is here, the art is there.
So the viewer is always in a position of desire and frustration. Those “Do Not Touch” signs in museums are there for a reason: The art is more expensive than people are. I hope that is an immoral position, and I wanted things to be in people’s hands, people to be inside something. You know architecture by walking through it, by being in the middle of it and not being in front of it. And I wonder if the real way you learn things is to be in the middle of something.
Can you articulate a single aesthetic sensibility that ties all your architecture work together?
If there’s anything I want a work of ours to be, I want it to be secular. I don’t want it to have any religiousness in it at all. I don’t want it to have belief. I’d like to have commitment as we work, but always commitment knowing that something is going to change. We’re not going to be committed to the same thing all the time. We want an outside to come in, so that the commitment is revised.
And what we hate about any kind of architecture is if it makes people feel small.
What have you discovered to be some of the pleasures in architectural work that aren’t there in art?
The beautiful thing about architecture, it does have the anticipation of renovation always built into it, which I find so refreshing from art because art is supposed to be unchangeable. The only things that are unchangeable are tombstones. We would like to provide the seeds of something, but we’re not going to provide the whole thing. Hopefully someone will take clues from us and bring it or something else further.
How do you think your reputation as an artist affects, for good or bad, your reputation as an architect? Does it make it easier to acquire clients? “I want a building by Vito Acconci.” And how do you think other architects perceive you?
We’ve very rarely done projects for private clients though it is starting more. There’s an eye doctor in Winter Park, Fla. who wants us to re-do his house, and I know the main reason is he’s an art collector so that probably drew him.
With regard to other architects it’s a different matter. A lot of architects, especially architects of my generation, refuse to take us seriously as architects. I wonder if sometimes they think once an artist always an artist. Or why doesn’t he stick to his own field. I don’t find that so much in younger architect firms like Asymptote or Foreign Office Architects. But people in my generation, it’s very different, even people that I know well. Steven Holl, Bernard Tschumi: They will never accept that I’m an architect.
What are some of the goals you have set for the studio over the next few years? What excites you about the future?
We want an architecture that’s a biological system; we want a regeneration principle. I don’t want it to be just metaphor. I don’t know if architecture can ever be as living a thing as all that. Yes, there’s a lot of work now that looks fluid, looks as if it moves. We would love to be able to make something that really does grow, and I’m sure a lot of other architects would say that.
But right now I have mixed feelings. I sometimes wonder if architecture is getting caught up in aesthetics. I’ve seen the word elegance used a lot lately, and it was always a word I had such a horror of.
For two reasons. It seems to me it’s totally about form. But elegance is also a word of the upper class. Now we might want to get at a version of elegance, but I hope it doesn’t have the upper-class and all-form connotation.
I wonder also if the whole star architecture [phenomenon] is a sign that architecture as we know it is not really going to exist any longer. I don’t think this will happen soon, but I think there will be an architecture developed that starts to develop itself and grow itself. Maybe an architect is there almost like a planter: You plant a seed and then this thing is going to go off in its own direction. I hope architecture becomes just as alive as a tree, just as alive as a biological thing.
If not elegance, then what are four of five adjectives you’d like people to associate with your work?
I want our [work] to be changeable, portable, multi-functional. I want our [work] to have a complexity, but not a visual complexity.
I know it’s always difficult but can you pick one or two or three works that you feel have most accomplished your vision?
Of built projects, probably Mur Island in Graz, Austria and the United Bamboo Store [in Tokyo]. For some unbuilt projects, we did a proposal for a performing arts center in Seoul in Korea. We did a library proposal in Guadalajara where the brief talked about how there should be an expansion principle because the library would need more books. We tried to take this literally, and our proposed library goes up and goes out; there’s a highway nearby so the library crossed the highway, so it could spread out into the city. I liked the way we started with the very simple idea that books are dangerous.