Mellow Yellow

Is it art or architecture? That’s a question Chicagoans will be asking all summer when they walk by the normally drab entrance plaza of the Museum of Contemporary Art, which until October 3 will be the site of an outdoor exhibit (or temporary structure, depending on your opinion) designed by local architect Doug Garofalo. Primarily an attempt to “activate the public space” in front of the museum, according to chief curator Elizabeth Smith, the pavilion incorporates cool, comfortable benches sculpted from smooth concrete; unfinished-wood lattices that bend into decks and seats; and circular communal lounges formed by huge coils of electric-yellow hose and foam strips. A network of steel poles and yellow canopies stitches everything together, creating the impression of an amorphous yellow creature tumbling out of the museum, down its front steps, and onto the sidewalk—not to mention providing some badly needed summer shade.

During construction Garofalo says he envisioned “a cast of characters living here temporarily” that would invite people to say, “‘Look, all of a sudden there are these multiple personalities in this plaza.’ We wanted to make things that people would interpret but also recognize as a place to lie down or just hang out.” Regardless of which organic image it conjures—a spider or jellyfish are two possibilities—the project’s goal of connecting the MCA with the street outside (which happens to be called N. Mies Van Der Rohe Way) has been accomplished with a mix of fantasy and function that was already attracting random passersby following its May 3 opening. With people draped over its funky benches, it’s easy to overlook the structure’s formal innovations, many of which redress what Garofalo called the “inhumane plaza” of a “much hated building.” (It was designed by Berlin’s Josef Paul Kleihues and opened in 1996.) Having looked for inspiration to both Vito Acconci’s public-art construction projects and John Hejduk’s abstract architectural drawings, Garofalo designed “a strong set of geometric forms that have a lot more humility and are more animated than this building.”

Warming up the space was also the prime directive from Smith, who had been striving for years to get people to hang out in the MCA’s plaza. A veteran presenter of architecture in the art realm (she coorganized the 2000 blockbuster show At the End of the Century: One Hundred Years of Architecture ), Smith was inspired by the way New York’s P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center and London’s Serpentine Gallery have transformed their grounds into architectural installations that facilitate pleasure and programming. Viewing the MCA as both client and patron, she says Chicago is “like a museum of American architecture, but when it comes to current work the opportunities are really limited.”

Smith didn’t have the option of erecting a building that would itself be a destination, à la Bilbao, but she believes that artists—architects included—should “work at the scale of their own medium.” So she conceived what she hopes will be, funding pending, an annual series of outdoor installations at the MCA, with Garofalo’s project marking the first. (The 2004 installment will feature Chicago artist Dan Peterman, who builds small houses out of recycled material and has a show scheduled at the MCA next summer.) The local community, which was closely involved in the pavilion’s development, is already enthusiastic about it. Eli’s, the legendary restaurant down the block, has even offered to design one of its famous cheesecakes in the pavilion’s likeness. “I’m sure it’ll taste good,” Garofalo says of the cheesecake, “we’ll see if it looks good.” If it’s anything like the real thing, it won’t be an issue.

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