Architecture as a Model for Art

Rahma Khazam, 2009

In his book Anywhere or Not At All, Peter Osborne argues that just as in the nineteenth century ‘painting’ was the name for art, so in the 1960s did something like ‘architecture’ become, if not the new name for art, then its model – a model where ‘architecture’ is no longer just the practice of designing and constructing buildings. Instead it has become a form of artistic spatiality, where an idea is no longer tied to a particular object but realized – or spatialized – in multiple materials and forms[1]. The idea that architecture can be a model and frame of reference for art doubly pervades the works of the Franco-Japanese artist Ai Kitahara. On one level, she practices this very kind of artistic spatiality, insofar as she produces series of interrelated works in different materials and forms. On the other, she references, reformulates – and trenchantly critiques – key architectural postulates and tropes.

Consider Maison aérienne (Levitating House, 2017), a nod to the flying house in The Wizard of Oz. Contesting the assumption that a building cannot be weightless, it literally rises into the air. Then consider Ville aérienne (Levitating City, 2018), a model of an imaginary city based on different neighbourhoods of Yokohama. Unconstrained by gravity’s shackles, it too suggests new forms of social interaction and exchange, such as those pervading Constant’s New Babylon project – whose linked structures perched above ground promoted a new culture based on a nomadic lifestyle of creative play[2].

If architecture is a model for artists, not all of them interpret it in the same way. Peter Osborne distinguishes between conservative and forward-looking bodies of work: whereas Rachel Whiteread’s casts of interiors of London homes may be regarded as revivals of modernist sculpture in which received forms coexist with each other, Gordon Matta-Clark’s radically transcategorial work critiques conventional forms, generating productive tensions[3]. In Conical Intersect (1975), he created large openings in the walls of an apartment building slated for demolition, offering a new way of looking at the city that exposed the tensions and resistances in existing architectural norms. Ai Kitahara’s levitating works likewise expose such resistances – echoing not the work of Whiteread but that of Matta-Clark.

More than just engaging with the end products of architecture, whether houses or cities, Ai Kitahara also addresses its most emblematic component, the wall. Apesanteur (Weightlessness, 2019) consists of the letters of the word ‘apesanteur’ half-buried in a wall: only segments of the letters protrude, highlighting the separation between outside and inside, private and public, and insofar as they are letters, between meaning and nonsense, legibility and illegibility. Here, the wall is no longer a mere partition but becomes a site of debate and opposition[4].

Other works explore the socio-political significance of partitions, frontiers or walls. Take Untitled (Sans titre, 2019) a shell-like structure composed of superimposed outlines of the frontiers of the Japanese department from which Ai Kitahara originates: here, the frontier no longer separates but has become a depoliticized, purely ornamental device. In the same series, the model of Frontière blanche (White Frontier, 2016) consists of crumbling white brick walls that retrace the confluence of two rivers, suggesting that man-made frontiers are far less durable than the natural ones formed by rivers. Meanwhile, an unrealized project in the same series features transparent glass bricks that deprive the wall of its power to conceal – and allow those behind it to elude the gaze of others – while pointing to its egalitarian potential, once it has been freed from its repressive task. As Osborne points out, architecture’s contribution to the critique of contemporary art is not a simple space, but is more akin to Deleuze’s ‘any-space-whatever’ (un espace quelconque), a locus of the possible where linkages are made in an infinite number of ways.

Ai Kitahara’s crusade against architectural norms can also take more oblique forms. Evaporation (Evaporation, 2016-2017), a collection of porcelain drops that drip upwards, transposes the theme of anti-gravity into non-architectural terms, while her series of unfolded origami models (2013-2014) questions the durability of yet another architectural keyword, form: although the folds of the original shapes are still visible in the unfolded models, it is impossible to ascertain what these shapes were. Finally, Architecture pour une personne II (One-Person Architecture II, 2010), is a minimal spherical structure that reiterates in yet another form and material a number of the issues traversing Ai Kitahara’s works: how to challenge architecture’s fundamental distinction between material/immaterial, public/private, interior/exterior, and open it up to freedom and unconstraint.

[1] Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not at All, London and New York, Verso, 2013, p. 141-142.
[2] See
[3] Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not at All, op. cit., p. 145.
[4] Ibid., p. 149.