How does an architect’s design process expose his or her underlying values? Architecture to Scale juxtaposes behind-the-scenes research strategies of two groundbreaking firms: Stanley Tigerman and Zago Architecture. This energetic exhibition, on display at The Art Institute of Chicago through September 14, exposes two divergent approaches of architects through postmodernism and contemporary practice, and contrasts guiding principles from site to form.
The exhibition begins with Zago Architecture’s striking large-scale film series, XYT: Detroit Streets. A slow-moving, subtly distorted panoramic film spans over 100 feet wide, illuminating a rough Detroit streetscape at nearly full-scale. The goal of the architects was not to photo-document existing site conditions, but to translate the emotional experience of occupying real space through experiential new media. XYT: Detroit Streets is architectural research, physically presented on the scale of architecture. It visually illuminates the lived experience of site inhabitation.
This film series comes across as an architectural manifesto: looking at Google Streetview on a laptop is not acceptable context research. In the globalized architecture industry, designs frequently lack a genuine consideration of local surroundings. Panoramic video installation is the anti-diagram of design processes. Moved to fulfill the sensory immersion of XYT: Detroit Streets, I wanted to smell, touch, and taste Detroit.
ZAGO ARCHITECTURE, courtesy the art institute of chicago
Despite the highly compelling film, the additional Zago work on view felt ironically inappropriate for the context of the dark gallery. Black and white presentation boards crammed with fine print on the history of the panoramic image and the technical process used to create the footage left viewers either overwhelmed or bored. These works only served to drop energy levels before the procession toward Tigerman’s half of the exhibit.
Chicago’s resident architectural prankster, Stanley Tigerman, seduces visitors down a white hallway with two enormous, hot pink, house-shaped walls, festooned with his iconic scrawled cherubs. Inside the faux house, visitors wind around detailed white handmade architectural models spanning Tigerman’s diverse career.
The best moment of the exhibition for me was when two young girls discovered an architectural folly of mirrors on the jambs of an interior window. The addictive distorted reflections create an effect similar to Anish Kapoor’s nearby Cloud Gate. The girls immediately started snapping selfies and making faces at one another in the installation. Upon noticing the girls playing on the exhibit, the gallery attendant in the room suddenly erupted in laughter. She announced that this was the first time she noticed the playful mirror installation and walked over to explore it for herself. Tigerman would approve of the conviviality.
The scale models on view were rather formal in comparison to the pink walls and hidden follies. The designs may have been whimsical and irreverent in their day, but the construction of the models is fastidious and traditional. Fortunately, many of Tigerman’s well-loved comic sketches are also on view. The expression and physical quality of the architect’s hand helps to humanize the sterile, fragile-looking scale models.
Peering down at small buildings in glass cases serves as a dramatic jump in scale from Zago Architecture’s huge panoramic movie. Tigerman clearly appears to prioritize the form of a building over other influences. Where Zago’s research emphasizes local site conditions, Tigerman’s process is transfixed with the shape and graphic nature of his grand idea. The binary organization of the entire exhibit serves to emphasize the transition in the perspective of the architect from Postmodernism to today. Zago Architecture places the visitor in the middle of a complex site at full-scale. Conversely, visitors to the Tigerman gallery are able to oversee each building’s master plan of artistic expression from a position of control. The dialogue generated between the two designers is the show’s strongest aspect.
Curatorially, experiencing these two design approaches anachronistically eliminates the sense of progression from one practice to the next. Architecture is rarely a linear evolution. Inverting the timeline of the architecture throughout the show allows viewers to evaluate the work without the notion that one position is more or less advanced in the architectural community.
By highlighting studio research and experimentation practices, Architecture to Scale demystifies an architect’s job to the general public. The range of subject matter in the exhibition also promises to intrigue the informed design professional, celebrating the craft of Chicago’s own Stanley Tigerman while simultaneously featuring the lesser known Zago. Even though no final building photographs are on display, Architecture to Scale presents architecture brimming with curiosity and exploration, Architectural research becomes a provocation and statement of intention, challenging designers to investigate the biases inherent in every part of the design process.