Saturday, June 9, 2012

Space station on the roof

Soap bubble packing is yesterday’s news, and modular structure is even the day before yesterday’s. But when Tomás Saraceno puts his “Cloud City” on the roof of the Met, it still looks futuristic, at least for most general visitors. When stepping out of the staircase, the guy in front of me roared “Wow holy smoke! This is awesome!” I was slightly caught off guard because I almost forgot how Americans react to things.

But my first impression was: this is tiny! Instead of taking the advantage of the modular system and spread it all across the roof (like the Starn twins’ “Big Bambú” or the metallic tree by Roxy Paine), “Cloud City” is more like a freestanding object. But it’s not really “free” standing. This cluster of 16 interconnected polyhedrons has to be anchored by a network of steel cables. Weighing about 20 tons, the structure is nowhere near being light, not mentioning “floating.” Actually there is not even the illusion of floating, since the cantilevers are not so great after all.

However, the 100+ surfaces of the installation do create amazing effects. Either transparent (clear plexiglass) or reflective (polished steel), they juxtapose reality with reflections of the surrounding buildings, greenery in the park, sky, and people – upside down or sideways, like in a kaleidoscope.

I always love Tomás Saraceno’s work. Maybe it’s the fused sensibilities between art, architecture and science from his original training as an architect.
This installation on the Met’s roof is the latest and largest iteration of his almost 10-year-long project “Cloud Cities/Air Port City” that investigates and expands the ways in which we inhabit and experience our environment. This Bucky Fuller-inspired geodesic structure is “an international space station,” as Saraceno himself described. A prototype of a future airborne habitation, a utopian environment coming to life. Unfortunately, this edition on the roof doesn’t fly as those in the illustration.

Let’s be fair. The little portion of “Cloud City” took a year longer to secure all the necessary building permits in New York (it was originally scheduled to be on view last summer). There is always a gap between an artist’s visions and reality, and there are always compromises to make (maybe including the prudent structure). Especially in this case, Saraceno is operating in what Le Corbusier called “the land of the timid.”

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