May 18, 2010
by Lisa Delgado

Event: Is it Architecture?: The Structure in Landscape
Location: Center for Architecture, 05.03.10
Speakers: Alice Aycock — Sculptor; Signe Nielsen, FASLA — Principal, Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects; Dennis Oppenheim — Sculptor & Installation Artist; Christopher Sharples, AIA — Principal, SHoP Architects
Moderator: Lee H. Skolnick, FAIA — Board Chair, Architecture Omi & Principal, Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership
Organizer: AIANY Cultural Facilities Committee, with Architecture OMI
Sponsors: IBEX Construction; Renfro Design Group


“Interfere,” by Oliver Kruse, his students, and staff at the Peter Behrens School of Architecture, Düsseldorf. A larger version will be the first built project at Architecture Omi, debuting next month.

Courtesy Oliver Kruse

When the boundaries between sculpture, architecture, and landscape begin to dissolve, the results can be intriguing (as anyone who walked through Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s “The Gates” in Central Park might agree). Soon Ghent, a town in upstate NY, will be home to some daring hybrids of its own, thanks to a program called Architecture Omi , whose goal is to facilitate projects exploring the intersection of architecture, sculpture, and landscape architecture on a bucolic 75-acre site. As the program prepares for the debut of its first built project next month, a panel of prominent figures in all three disciplines shared their ideas about the ways their fields converge and diverge. They also brainstormed about how Architecture Omi could best fulfill its mission as a “laboratory-style setting for the production of innovative forms,” in the words of Lee H. Skolnick, FAIA, chair of the board of Architecture Omi.

In the past 20 years, “architecture has become more sculptural,” and simultaneously, “sculpture has become more architectural,” Skolnick remarked. That hasn’t always been the case, said sculptor and installation artist Dennis Oppenheim. Once, “sculptors were suspicious of architects,” he explained, because fine artists tended to reject the kinds of utilitarian and social missions that architecture needed to embrace. But gradually attitudes shifted, and some sculptors began to believe that if they could “touch delicately into functionality and delicately into the social realm they would actually be elevating the sculpture into a much more powerful idiom,” he said. One example is Oppenheim’s “Light Chamber,” a large-scale sculpture being built in front of the Denver federal courthouse. Made of steel and polycarbonate rods, its petal-like walls curve up through the air, tempting passersby to enter and explore the space, which is conceptualized as a poetic reinterpretation of a judge’s chamber.

When talk turned toward Architecture Omi’s plans for future projects, some panelists urged a cautious, reverential approach to the site. “Do something meaningful with that site and respect it and make it a special place,” said Signe Nielsen, FASLA, principal of Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects. “Don’t just place things on it.”

Meanwhile, Oppenheim wondered what it would mean to take architecture out of its usual realm. “Architecture is supposed to be in the real world,” but at Architecture Omi, it will be in an environment like a sculpture park, he said. “Can you really do that without making the work look artificial?” But for Christopher Sharples, AIA, of SHoP, the program sounded promising because of its potential for unconventional collaborations. “We all have sort of compartmentalized ourselves,” he said, ” so what’s really exciting here is the opportunity to work with different people from very different backgrounds.”

Skolnick pointed out that the program also offers a way for architects to flex their imaginations and try out adventurous ideas. “You don’t get to play out original ideas and abstract concepts for clients,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, much like in school, we had the chance to really explore ideas — and not just on paper and not just in small art form — but actually have them on the landscape?”

Lisa Delgado is a freelance journalist who has written for OCULUS, The Architect’s Newspaper, Blueprint, and Wired, among other publications.


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