Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
Liz Diller, co-founder of New York architecture firm Diller Scofidio Renfro, recently made a number of visits to UW-Milwaukee's School of Architecture and Urban Planning (SARUP) to address students of the Urban Edge Studio headed by new faculty member Mo Zell. The students' task this semester was to create a series of urban interventions around the city. Diller's task was to help them think beyond the studio walls.
"Our whole career has been a critique of the white wall," Diller said of her firm during one of her lectures, referring to both the pristine gallery setting and the architectural establishment. Perhaps because many students hope to infiltrate this very establishment early in their careers, none of them emulated Diller's role as an agent provocateur. Nevertheless, the works unveiled recently (and disassembled soon after) showed more depth and promise than much of the permanent public art in this city. Perhaps public artists should start thinking like architects. And perhaps all public art should be this ephemeral-here today and gone tomorrow, leaving only the faintest footprint.
Among the most intriguing projects was one occupying a vacant site on the corner of Knapp and Water streets. In order to reinstate the lost grid that once occupied the area and to green the site, the students erected a field of circular timber-framed columns, each about 8 feet high, partially wrapped in saran wrap, and cradling in its center a small patch of earth and seedlings. Whether or not it was intentional, the paucity of their approach served as a critique of our undernourished notions of greenness. The field of self-standing incubators transformed the barren landscape into a lab-like nursery where things are grown under artificial conditions. Even the saran-wrapped aesthetic offered a wry commentary on the bland, glassy skins of neighboring buildings.
Processed nature took on a more entertaining aspect in a project sited on a busy path connecting SARUP with the rest of the university. A structure resembling a skater's ramp covered with grass was placed across the path, one end lapping at the sides of the SARUP building. What was an unmemorable daily experience for many became an event, the curving trough of sod serving as a momentary disruption, muffling the footsteps of passers-by and luring them from their paths like the Big Bad Wolf. What's more, the patch of turf crawling up the gray sides of the building like an errant organism offered a glimpse of artificial nature-perhaps the kind bred in the incubators above-taking on a life of its own.
The most well-realized project occupied the triangular patch of land at the corner of First and Seeboth streets. A series of wooden objects made of plywood, which could be described as both benches and billboards and at first glance appeared identical (but were subtly different), were placed in a row. From afar the installation resembled the body of an aircraft or a breakwater buttressing surrounding buildings, its fastidious whiteness contrasting with the colorful surrounding structures. Once infiltrated, though, it betrayed a vibrant underbelly, and engendered a strange sense of being both alone and part of a larger organism, like the denizen of a train compartment. The idea of inhabiting a boundary, transforming a thin experience into a thick one, challenges the flimsy one-liner that describes much contemporary architecture. Though this project, like the others, didn't contribute anything terribly new to the field of architectural discourse, it did show how this discourse might enliven the city's public art.