“5×5” Exhibition Proves Architects Can Still Tackle Thorny Political Issues

The show, currently at the Center for Architecture in New York, uses architecture to explore themes beyond it.

5x5: Participatory Provocations exhibition
5×5: Participatory Provocations is currently on show at New York’s Center for Architecture.

It’s easy to caricature architecture as groveling valet, dutifully carrying out the wishes of the powerful without demur. There are, of course, many instances that justify this portrayal, but to its critics the profession would seem incapable of designing anything but for-profit prisons, border walls, and high-rise condos. 5×5: Participatory Provocations ironically exaggerates, and so undermines, this trope. Arguing that architects engage in “provocation in lieu of service,” the small exhibit shows just how fun it can be to shake up industry conventions.

Participatory Provocations arrives at the Center for Architecture in New York more than a year after its debut at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in the spring of 2016. The Center for Architecture is a very suitable host for such as show, but curators Kyle May, Julia van den Hout, and Kevin Erickson had initially sought more unusual venues. As May noted at the July opening, “We reached out to lobbies of buildings in New York and said, ‘Can we have an exhibit in your lobby?’” The responses were not encouraging.

The show’s overt political themes may have scared off potential interest. The organizers fashioned a series of design prompts, each one premised on divisive issues of governance,  immigration, and surveillance. (Van den Hout has said that she and her collaborators were inspired by news headlines.) Five firms, all young, were asked to respond to the five different topics, which ranged from the pointedly topical (Trump’s border wall, drones, and the NSA) to the speculative (investment towers and lunar colonization). The projects would have to take the form of physical scale models, a requirement that problematizes, and deepens, the act of architectural speculation—a genre typically constrained to two dimensions.

Perhaps the most attention-grabbing of the prompts, the border wall brief implicitly asked the architects to critique the logic of walls and their tendency to occlude and confine. One entry erases the would-be wall entirely, while another, Studio Cadena’s “Open Wall,” creates not a barrier but a waystation, “a linear oasis in an otherwise barren no man’s land.”

May’s own entry poses a surreal solution, where the border itself is dissolved and in its place rises a new sovereign territory, the Trump DMZ. This 50-foot-wide oasis, May writes, would be “a development zone for the rich and famous—accessed only by air. The independent country only allows well-vetted millionaires to become citizen, climbs the highest income per capita, and the highest real estate values in the world.”

The insulation of the rich and famous was taken to similarly ludicrous ends in the investment tower category, whose brief led to entries both dystopian and exploratory. It was the first section to fill up with proposals, say the curators: architects clearly always want to build towers, even at a scale of inches.

One, Siteless Tower by PRO, imagines huge towers elevated on slender pilotis above the existing Manhattan cityscape, with “cores and basic structures anchor[ing] into micro-sites, alleys, and rear yards.” An exemplary entry, Spekulatius by Ultramoderne consists of a solid wood tower serving as a carbon offset for the ultra-wealthy, whose skybound ambitions are curbed by future regulations on heavy emissions. You can’t enter the soaring structure, as that would spoil their value.

The unit focused on the NSA and its fictive community-reaching efforts, through local branches, addresses the paradox of the neighborhood panopticon, with a bit less to say about any actual architecture. Path + Price’s Blind Spots illustrates a typical critique with a purposefully opaque model. “The branch offices are an empty monument to the social contract,” writes the San Francisco–based studio, “in exchange for access one becomes complicit with the NSA, making material our dilemma of security and narcissism.” Michael Abrahamson, of the massively popular tumblr F*ck Yeah Brutalism, strategized that the NSA become a cell-phone company, offering greater privacy for those willing to pay more.

The exhibition isn’t entirely given over to the kind of agitprop one might expect from this confluence of hot-button issues. The section concerning the design of drone ports, for instance, leaves aside political and ethical questions. Instead, the curators invoke the practical reality of a future in which many household goods (in this case, toothpaste) might soon be delivered aerially. Erickson’s project suggests a new amenity for the suburban home—roof-inserted “doggy doors” that would accommodate package-bearing drones.

Unsurprisingly, the lunar resort category contains the most far-fetched ideas. The entry from Snarkitecture continues the New York practice’s interest in craggly, lunar-esque materials like broken styrofoam, only here it’s crumbled freeze-dried astronaut ice cream. But just one project, Second Measure(s) by Anthony Titus Studio, seemed to acknowledge the atmosphere of the moon in any appreciable way (May drolly noted that none of the contributors had visited). The proposal, a pavilion sporting a Wright-like roof, explored how the effect of impossibly svelte structures “becomes exaggerated in response to the reduction of gravity, having to only support 1/6th of the load.” It’s just one of the many imaginative, sometimes humorous ways the exhibition brings speculative design back down to earth.

The curators’ intention is not so much to settle the stars as to forge connections beyond the standard framework of architectural discourse. Citing the exhibition’s Instagram clout—together, the curators and participating architects have a combined 220,000 followers—Erickson joked at the Center for Architecture launch that they were waiting for an Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos to stumble upon the 5X5 proposals and take them up. “[A]s a profession that’s kind of what we’re running up against here—how do we bridge the gap between the bubble in which we talk about ideas,” he asked, more seriously. “It doesn’t serve us if we just talk to each other.”

5×5: Participatory Provocations runs at the Center for Architecture until October 31, 2017.

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