Architecture and fine art have historically been considered as separate categories, in spite of the many skills they share. Both traditionally involve sophisticated draftsmanship and visual acumen, and yet, you are either an architect or an artist. Each discipline has developed across largely different markets, and the viewing public has been taught to appreciate them separately. This explains why it may seem strange to see architectural works—models, sketches, graphic diagrams—displayed in a contemporary art gallery.
And yet, some galleries have been specializing in architecture for decades. New York City’s Meulensteen, formerly known as Max Protetch, has had an extensive architectural program since the late 1970s. Its roster includes some of the highest profile figures in the discipline—Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind, and even Louis I. Kahn and Frank Lloyd Wright. Within a Chelsea gallery’s whitewashed walls one can thus find wooden models, preliminary drawings, and everyday sketches of the people who have shaped much of our modern urban sensibility.
Naturally, some of these works are treasured for their historical and archival value. They represent small, particular moments within iconic careers—Gehry’s scratchy sketches of chairs, Wright’s diagrams for his famous houses, etc. “A lot of the drawings we have were made for presentation purposes and for concept development,” explains owner Edwin Meulensteen, who bought the gallery from Protetch last year. These types of works, because of the environments in which they were used and shown, tend to survive the test of time in good condition. “We don’t have many schematics,” says Meulensteen, because those are more likely to have been damaged or destroyed in studio or at building sites.
In spite of their original, practical purposes, these diagrams and preliminary designs can be highly reminiscent of fine art, maybe because they were always meant to be shown—or to use a better word, exhibited. Wright’s house plans, with their soft coloring and landscaping details, would not look out of place next to a late 19th century watercolor. Eliel Saarinen’s design for a knife—a simple piece of everyday cutlery—can be oddly partnered with Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe. Architectural and artistic visual aesthetics do not seem to be all that divergent after all.
A starker example might be Michael Webb’s Sin Palace model, which Meulensteen has decided to hang on a wall, vertically, like a painting. In doing so, he seems to be saying that the wooden maquette is an artwork in and of itself; its appeal is not purely historical or archival, and it does not need to refer to an actual structure in order to be appreciated. The model faces the viewer frontally, and we get a sense of its unique sculptural and relief qualities, its subtle modeling, and its conceptual depth. It proves that architectural process can stand alone as artwork.
More and more, architecture and art are establishing an intricate dialogue that manifests itself visually across both disciplines. On the architecture side, the best example might be Rem Koolhaas’ career, which strangely resembles that of a contemporary conceptual artist. His most recent architectural credit is the almost-finished (and incredibly controversial) Central China Television Headquarters in Beijing, which has prompted New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussof to declare that it might just be “the greatest work of architecture built in this century.” The building subtly questions and plays out the socio-political forces that have facilitated its existence, while structurally alluding to China’s sought-after place in the world. All in all, it is a massive conceptual artwork in the midst of the modern, fast-changing Beijing skyline.
Koolhaas also happened to design a street toilet and a bus stop in the Netherlands, which exemplifies his gritty preoccupation with both urban space and modern life. It is hard to determine whether his street toilet is a piece of architecture or an urban intervention (who’s to say it’s not both?), reminiscent of conceptual artists like Daniel Buren.
Meulensteen partly credits conceptualism’s rise in postmodern architecture to developments in technology. “One crucial thing for understanding why architecture is moving towards conceptual art is the advancement in building materials.” The 20th and 21st centuries have also witnessed dramatic advancements in 3D modeling and digital diagramming. “Buildings can look like someone’s thought,” says Meulensteen. “Now we can build that.”
Artists, too, have helped collapse the barriers between both disciplines. Contemporary fixtures like Tobias Putrih, Marjetica Potrc, and Siah Armajani—all represented by Meulensteen—create artwork inspired by architectural aesthetics and concerns. Meulensteen is very interested in toeing the supposedly stark lines that exist between art, architecture, and more broadly, design. Putrih, for example, built a makeshift cinema out of plywood and other lightweight materials for the Slovenian Pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale. Throughout his work he explores the material interconnections between art, architecture, and science in an effort to evaluate social practices and how they are played out in particular spaces. He often uses everyday materials such as cardboard, paper, and scotch tape to create narrative structures that comment on the fictions we project on our surroundings. Koolhaas’ conceptual approaches, the way he carefully selects materials and designs that engage the building’s purpose and context in dialogue, might come to mind while looking at Putrih’s work.
It can be hard to classify many of the figures in Meulensteen’s roster under one umbrella or the other—the labels of artists, architects, designers, and even inventors all seem somehow relevant, and the gallery setting encourages further associations across disciplines. In the end, art and architecture have always overlapped, in spite of their seemingly different practices and followings. Borders in art are constantly redrawn, and contemporary galleries have the power to foster further examinations and partnerships.