Building Without Walls

Artifacts / by Elizabeth Cline /

A new breed of architectural objects, inspired by theoretical science, is changing how we think about building and what counts as art.

Image courtesy Alisa Andrasek

Transitory Objects,” the latest exhibit at Vienna’s influential Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary gallery, features some of the most innovative and splendidly unconventional forms coming out of the architectural world today, including works from Matthew Ritchie, Neri Oxman, Alisa Andrasek, François Roche, Greg Lynn, and Hernan Diaz Alonso. To have these mesmerizing structures together in one exhibit is remarkable in itself, but to have them positioned alongside works of contemporary art, as this exhibit has done, raises a provocative point about how boundaries have collapsed between architectural objects, conceptual art, and theoretical science. The exhibit aims to look at those architectural works that “have achieved an appearance of being autonomous forms,” says curator Daniela Zyman, suggesting that these works are meaningful outside of a specific context or place.

Ritchie, Oxman, Roche, and their colleagues split deeply from the finite, permanent, and utilitarian tradition of architecture. Not to say their end products are not useful or habitable. In fact, their structures are arguably better suited to the constantly morphing, impermanent, and aesthetically driven needs and desires of modern society. Rather than working with an end product or useful context in mind, they focus on the process of producing a structure that follows certain laws or principles. These resulting objects rise from computational models and algorithms whose inputs are being drawn from or at least inspired by some of the most boundary-pushing and abstract ideas in science, like quantum physics or the multiverse theory.

“Transitory Objects” includes two elegant models from Alisa Andrasek/BIOTHING that are part of a design project called “Mesonic Emission,” a reference to mesons, subatomic particles composed of quarks. These designs are made from an algorithm that is based on behaviors of electro-magnetic fields and is sophisticated enough to respond to the shape of the environment and to “grow” around obstructing objects. [For details about the algorithm, click here].

Matthew Ritchie’s two pieces in the exhibit are based on cosmologists Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok’s cyclic universe theory. Speaking about his modular architecture at Seed’s Design Series last year, Ritchie told the audience, “I want to make a physicalized model of everything in the universe…. [I]t will be a superposed structure in the sense that it has multiple options contained within it at any given time and that it can be rebuilt.” The resulting black-aluminum modules are assembled using the logic of language and form a web-like tangle that can be reassembled in an infinite number of ways. For “Transitory Objects” close to 100 of the pieces have been assembled for an entirely unique 10’ x 20’ x 10’ structure.

R&Sie(n)/François Roche, Stéphanie Lavaux, and their design team’s coral-like work “‘I’ve heard about,’ a flat, fat, growing urban experiment” is displayed as a 3D print model of random and contingent secretions of fusing deposition modeling. It appears, like most of the architectural pieces featured in the exhibit, permanently unfinished, a reference to letting go of determinist ideas of structural planning—suggesting that a city’s infrastructure should always be adapting. Neri Oxman’s [Watch the Revolutionary Minds video] design group Materialecology studies the physics of building materials and offers designs that correspond with and react to their environment. Here, she has provided a scale reproduction of “Raycounting,” the ethereal vase-like structure displayed in MOMA’s “Design and the Elastic Mind” exhibit last year. The algorithm behind the 3D double-curvature design registers the intensity and orientation of light rays and assigns them to geometric principles.

This new culture of architecture, which Thyssen-Bornemisza has boldly funded and fostered since opening in 2002, creates structures that are intentionally fragmented and incomplete with no clear end point. “The architect has to decide at which point the algorithm stops,” Zyman says. “At which point does the artist/architect decide this is the fundamental moment of maturation, this is the moment where the form becomes the outcome of my vision.” The architectural objects in “Transitory Forms” are like quanta or subatomic particles popping in and out of existence or a universe being born again and again. They are open, flexible systems that can be moved or modified with changes in a society’s needs or in the environment, and in that sense they are ecological, systems-based, and socially responsible. What’s more, these architectural objects are art in ways that architecture perhaps has never been before—if we accept that art is partly defined as an object able to stand alone and whose meaning or purpose is open to infinite interpretation.

Originally published July 9, 2009

Tags cooperation creativity innovation structure visualization

Share this Stumbleupon Reddit Email + More


  • Ideas

    I Tried Almost Everything Else

    John Rinn, snowboarder, skateboarder, and “genomic origamist,” on why we should dumpster-dive in our genomes and the inspiration of a middle-distance runner.

  • Ideas

    Going, Going, Gone

    The second most common element in the universe is increasingly rare on Earth—except, for now, in America.

  • Ideas

    Earth-like Planets Aren’t Rare

    Renowned planetary scientist James Kasting on the odds of finding another Earth-like planet and the power of science fiction.

The Seed Salon

Video: conversations with leading scientists and thinkers on fundamental issues and ideas at the edge of science and culture.

Are We Beyond the Two Cultures?

Video: Seed revisits the questions C.P. Snow raised about science and the humanities 50 years by asking six great thinkers, Where are we now?

Saved by Science

Audio slideshow: Justine Cooper's large-format photographs of the collections behind the walls of the American Museum of Natural History.

The Universe in 2009

In 2009, we are celebrating curiosity and creativity with a dynamic look at the very best ideas that give us reason for optimism.

Revolutionary Minds
The Interpreters

In this installment of Revolutionary Minds, five people who use the new tools of science to educate, illuminate, and engage.

The Seed Design Series

Leading scientists, designers, and architects on ideas like the personal genome, brain visualization, generative architecture, and collective design.

The Seed State of Science

Seed examines the radical changes within science itself by assessing the evolving role of scientists and the shifting dimensions of scientific practice.

A Place for Science

On the trail of the haunts, homes, and posts of knowledge, from the laboratory to the field.


Witness the science. Stunning photographic portfolios from the pages of Seed magazine.

Sites by Seed Media Group: Seed Media Group | ScienceBlogs | Research Blogging | SEEDMAGAZINE.COM