You did the Kenny Schachter ConTEMPorary art gallery in New York. As an artistic luminary yourself, and with the gallery scene growing by leaps and bounds, is becoming a well-known gallery architect something that would interest you?
I wouldn’t mind us doing another gallery, but I wouldn’t want to be known as a gallery architect necessarily. I would love to do a museum. For Kenny, we did a gallery, and we’ve done two art fair booths. One of the reasons we did it is because I have so many second thoughts and reconsiderations about art; I wanted us to see what kind of a gallery would we do. What is an art gallery like when it’s done by somebody who really feels like he has rejected art?
In the gallery work, not only with Schacter, but with Storefront for Architecture in Soho, which you did in collaboration with Steven Holl, and which some critics feel is your best work, it’s very much about bringing the outside into the gallery, which ties into a lot of your overall thematic concerns.
It does, but Storefront was an interesting project in that people who know Steven’s work more see it very much as a piece of Steven’s. People who know my work more think of it as a work of ours. It’s something that really was a collaboration. In some ways neither one of us would have thought of certain things if we didn’t have in the back of our mind that we were working with the other person. In fact for a while that was a problem. It started to be almost like I was trying to do a project that looked a little like Steven’s, Steven was trying to do a project that looked a little like us. But eventually we got somewhere.
It had a happy resolution.
Yeah, though I think it has a big flaw. The big flaw was that it’s hopefully a good space for spring and summer, but it’s a terrible space for fall and winter [the façade is a series of 12 panels that pivot vertically or horizontally to open the entire length of the gallery directly onto the street]. And one of the worst things is that we thought for a budget as low as we had, we couldn’t deal with the [exposure to cold air]. But you always have to deal with that. At least part of the reason architecture exists is that nature is dangerous, and that to me is such a tragic flaw of that project. We could have had something with some kind of transparent fabric that would have at least closed it up. We could have kept the openness, but we didn’t think far enough.
Whatever we can do with our architecture, I hope we can make a space that allows people to be in the middle of this fluidity. But we still want it to have all the functions it has to have. And we might want to give new meanings to some of those functions, but not such a new meaning that we say that function isn’t important. At Storefront, they were freezing in the [winter] in there, and I thought that was really irresponsible on our parts. And I mean not just Acconci Studio, but Steven, too.
Which is a good segue to my next question. As an artist you essentially had a free slate to do whatever you wanted, whereas with architecture there are real-world concerns and clients. Does that constraint aid in the creativity in any way, that there are these restrictions placed upon and you have to operate within them?
It does. When I was doing installations in a gallery context, I would never really have an idea for a piece until a gallery said, “Here, you can use this space.” So I started to realize, I don’t know if I want to be told, “Do anything you want.” But if somebody gives me a space, now I have to consider this space, and the way I try to consider it is, can I find some quirk that it has that some other space doesn’t? So I realized I needed to react to something.
When we do work now, if we’re doing a skate park for example, sometimes our first conceptual proposal doesn’t have railings. But we know we’re going to find a way to do railings because we have to. I mention railings specifically because a railing looks like a kind of prison. But you start to think, how can I do a railing that doesn’t announce itself as a railing? And so in some ways it makes you be more inventive than you ever dreamed you could.
And in art, sometimes you don’t need to have that kind of reinvention—because you don’t have this problem that so many people have already dealt with, and the challenge is now, can you find your own way of dealing with it. Maybe a short hand way of putting it is, yes, in art you can do anything you want, but not too many people care except an art world. And the great thing about design is that people do care. They do get angry.
For a while it seemed like that New York cared so incredibly about architecture right after 2001. For a while it was amazing. I’ve never seen the city like that, where architecture was so much a part of the [discussion]. People [were really aware that] this is the world they’re living in, this is their everyday space. This is about history, the future. But then it all fell apart. That and the new Museum of Modern Art at the same time. The most wasted opportunities.
Speaking of Ground Zero and wasted opportunities, I’m dying to ask you about Building Full of Holes, your own proposal for the site, and about your take on what we’re actually left with now at Ground Zero.
Building Full of Holes started from thinking that if a building nowadays is going to be exploded anyway, maybe a building has to come pre-exploded. That was the basic starting point. But what interested us was now that there are holes through the building, there are tunnels through the building. Now that there are tunnels through the building, the rest of the city can come inside. Parks can come inside, street vendors can come inside. So rather than observing the convention of this private building built with a public plaza outside, our attempt, as it is with all our work, is to mix public and private.
In terms of what we’re left with, it’s gotten much worse than it ever was when the Libeskind proposal was first chosen. But the Libeskind proposal was the choice of solemnity and religiousness and fake history, 1776 and all that. There were some not bad proposals. The United Architects’ proposal was really potentially exciting because it was almost this winding building, and as soon as buildings wind, they’re not monuments anymore. The Libeskind proposal was monuments as building. But it has gotten even worse.
Going through your projects I found a handful of qualities that seemed to be in most if not all of them. And one of them is this notion of bulges: people either being physically able to bulge out the space or the bulge is already there. What drives this interest in this form?
We want a space to go out of its habit. If it’s inside and private, we want it to stretch to the outside. If it’s outside and kept away from the inside, we want a way to get partially inside. We like it when a space bulges out and you’re still within the walls of a building, but you might be in a more park-like, outside space. So it’s a way of being in two places at once. And a person starts to decide, where do I want to be? Do they want to be more outside? We want people to be decision makers. And I do love surfaces if you can push them, if you can bulge them, if you can do activities with them
The juxtaposition of transparencies and mirrors is another characteristic that has appeared in a few of your projects: In a great way in the Atlanta Airport Transfer Corridors, where people are sometimes seeing themselves in a mirror and sometimes seeing other people.
This project came from the fact we knew we had to have this wall. Transfer corridors separate people: Are you getting off the plane and going into the city or are you transferring to a domestic or international flight? So there was no question we had to have the wall, but we thought maybe the wall could be a little bit more fluid. If the wall waved, a person sitting in one corridor is right next to a person in the other corridor. So you can’t have physical contact, but you still at least have an approach at contact. If you mix mirror and transparent, you see the person in the other corridor but that person now might have you feet or your arms.
One thing I hope characterizes our architecture is that we want a questioning of certainties. It’s not that we want people to necessarily be in danger, but we do want them to be on uncertain or shaky ground. Because when you’re on shaky ground, you have to make more decisions for yourself. You can’t assume a convention to fall back on. A lot of our projects come from the fact that we question the idea of home. Because home can be very comforting but home is also a little bit like dying. Home is great if you can leave it. We’re much more interested in thinking of space not as a place but as circulation routes. We would like space to be this possibility of movements; this possibility of not just going out of the space, but can you constantly move within the space, through the space.
Is the questioning of certainties, of making people a little bit uncomfortable, is that the closest relationship between your conceptual art and your architecture?
It probably is. But also it’s because architecture supposedly has firmness and stability and you want to question that. It’s not that we want to make a space that falls apart. But we want people to realize, well, let’s not feel as sure of ourselves as all that. Because when you feel so sure of yourself, maybe you feel so comfortable that you don’t need other possibilities. We try always to make an attempt to bring in those other possibilities.