Architecture is supposed to be the most accessible art form. As New York Times critic Allison Arieff wrote in 2012, "Architecture…carries a burden that the other arts don’t — it must reconcile aesthetics and ideas with user functionality. A painting or a novel need only please or provoke its audience; it doesn’t then also require setbacks, parking minimums and LEED certification." Buildings are everywhere. Not everyone collects oil paintings, but everyone uses buildings.
Arieff's op-ed ("Why Don't We Read About Architecture?") goes onto criticize writers for using words like "demassification" and "attitudinally" to describe architecture. These words are inaccessible for the majority of people (who, assumably, didn't have four+ years of theory education at the College of Their Choice.) Instead, she suggests writers use clean, simple, action-driven language to describe the functional arts.
But what to do when the architecture is not functional or accessible? Or, in the case of "Protoplastic," Igor Siddiqui's recently-opened exhibition at TOPS Gallery, when an architect has architected…well, art?
Siddiqui, a professor at the University of Texas in Austin, is a Yale-educated architect and the principal of Isssstudio, an architecture and design firm responsible for projects like "Mas Moss" (a curtain made from soy-dyed biodegradable cable and ball moss) and Ceramic Tesssseltile (an irregularly shaped tesselating tile that "produces the greatest degree of variation when multiplied across the larger field.") His design work is mathy and techy and Green, and the online descriptions of his projects throw around terms like "morphogenesis."
"Protoplastic" can be understood as a flexing of the same design muscles that shoulder the architect's professional work. The installation, designed particularly for TOPS, involves custom acrylic moulds and biodegradable reliefs. Sheets of bright-white plastic are impressed with radial patterns of lines. The sheets are arranged in a free-standing pattern around the space. In the small basement gallery, the viewer could conceivably feel as if she were in the middle of a large, elegantly executed rodent maze.
In one corner, the computer-cut moulds that originally marked the plastic sheets are repurposed into a hanging sculpture. Their yellow, semi-translucent rubberiness feels dirty next to the white floor and other works. Spare blocks of concrete support the plastic reliefs, a detail that references the TOPS space but also, by contrast to the work it supports, reads as somewhat messy.
Siddiqui's work is complicated. He designs he moulds using Rhino and Grasshopper, two algorithm-based architectural modeling softwares that require more than a little technical know-how. The design process is undoubtedly dense, and the materials interesting, but the results are not dense enough. The work doesn't look simplistic, but it is oblique. It reads as a hollow celebration of the technology that created it. Perhaps more visual explanation of the process is called for — a corollary display of the original Rhino drawings or literature about the plastic.
With respect to Arieff and her opinions on architecture writing, it would be ideal to describe the work as "clean-cut meditations on form and function" or as "technically-designed art experiments that use compostable plastic." But this is hard-to-read art, not architecture. Remote terms such as "vector-based biomimicry" may be a better match for Siddiqui's work.
At TOPS Gallery (400 S. Front) through March 29th.