Glen Seator by Anthony Vidler

BOMB 80 Summer 2002
BOMB 080

Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

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Glen Seator, Untitled (Echo Park Block), 1999, C-print on aluminum, 14 × 72 inches. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.

In engaging architecture as both subject and material, over the past decade Glen Seator has challenged the terms of site specificity and transportability, as well as the traditional boundaries between art and architecture. Although he is best known for his precisely reconstructed and tilted rooms, such as B.D.O., which was included in the 1997 Whitney Biennial, Seator’s work has encompassed a broad range of approaches. In his series Wallraisings, executed between 1990 and 1997 at Kunsthalle Basel and other locations, the artist incised a scaled-plan view of a room into one of its sheetrock walls. Each screw beneath the surface was magnetically located, excavated and loosened, and the incised plan slightly raised to create a map of the space inscribed on the space. In 1994, Seator used masking tape and thin pieces of wood to render the Greek Revival interior of the Zaçheta Gallery of Contemporary Art in Warsaw formally consistent. Floors and walls were tightly wrapped with a semitransparent adhesive skin that stretched over doorways, sculpture niches and windows. During the day, light would pass through the window coverings, revealing the fragility of a surface that at night appeared solid. In 1997, Seator painstakingly rebuilt a section of San Francisco landscape at the nonprofit gallery space Capp Street Project. Bringing 250 tons of aggregate base and 150 tons of concrete into the gallery to reconstruct the abutting street and gallery façade, Seator realized a work that was materially more durable than the building that enclosed it. But Seator’s piece, titled Approach, was a temporary work, removed without a trace two and a half months later. In 1999, Seator inserted an exact reproduction of an East Los Angeles Banco Popular into the Richard Meier-designed façade of the Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills. Fifteen Sixty One, named after the bank’s Sunset Boulevard address in Echo Park, was conceived as one object with different identities. On the street it appeared as a new address; viewers entered the replicated bank façade and found themselves in a faithful, albeit eerily sterile check-cashing interior. Access to the gallery was forty feet down the block through its normal entrance, where the stud and plywood exterior of the new structure was presented as a sculpture on granite plinths.

Anthony Vidler, acting dean of the Cooper Union School of Architecture, sat down recently with Seator to discuss the ways in which his projects have tested the confines of both sculpture and architecture.

Anthony Vidler Glen, what are you doing that is not architecture?

Glen Seator I’m not certain I can answer that so well. What isn’t architecture?

AV In our preliminary conversation you brought up the question of training in response to that same query. I will rephrase: What is the status, if you like, of architecture as a discipline-based training, in relation to your work? I’m interested in that intersection where installation art moves into space and architecture takes over space. Your work somehow appropriates elements of each of those domains and makes something new out of them.

GS When I mentioned training, I meant the kinds of training that occur earlier—from birth to school. Here the institution isn’t one of higher learning; it’s the family. So to come full circle, I had no formal training in architecture, but I suppose I was “trained” in the proper use of space through the legacy of a couple of generations of wrapped-tight architects in my family. Who decides to become an architect? I’ve wondered what leads to this decision—or drive—to contain space, and the users of it. Premature toilet training? Anyway, my moving into what at times appears to be architecture probably has to do with trying to come to terms with this “keen eye and steady hand” thing that was totally suffocating. Early on I made a piece titled Bad Hammering, the first of a series of deliberate failures—two frame boxes constructed from identically cut two-by-fours, one neatly fastened with common nails, the other a mess, out of square, with bent nails— Bad Hammering, the work of a bad hammerer. So moving into architecture was perhaps a coming to terms with the remains of a kind of Calvinist pedagogy, without letting go of the possibility of revenge. I eventually realized that, in order to understand what this disposition was doing to me, I would have to approach situations of built space on their own terms, at least on the level of production. The work really comes out of an interest in the making of these things—situations, and the experience of them. I don’t think it’s primarily driven by language. That’s why I’m surprised when someone refers to me as a conceptual artist.

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Glen Seator, Untitled (Beverly Hills Block), 1999, C-print on aluminum, 14 × 94 inches. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.

To get back to the borders between disciplines, we could look at Fifteen Sixty One, an object whose interior and “face” is a reconstruction of the interior and façade of a business in Echo Park, which I inserted into the front of a gallery in Beverly Hills as a new address. To do so, we had to obtain permission from the city of Beverly Hills—an excruciating process. On the street, you had what appeared to be a business, and in the gallery there was a sculpture, an un-enterable object presented on stone blocks. This one object was split between realms—two entities that could not be experienced simultaneously. It was stuck in between.

AV So the viewer didn’t really pass from one world to the other?

GS You could enter into the new address on the street. But once inside, you couldn’t pass from there into the gallery. You had to exit number 1561 onto North Camden Drive, walk about 40 feet and then enter the gallery marked with the number 456. Once inside the gallery, you were presented with a sculpture.

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Glen Seator, Actual entrance, Neuberger Museum.

AV So there you’re working with the normal codes of architecture as the basis for creating a disruptive code. And the spatial code being disrupted raises questions about the nature of the front, the back, the outside and the inside of something, the address of a location, its use and its visual representation. And other rifts, which are usually seamless in the sense of a public entrance opening into a more private space, or a shop interior opening into the back room: all those things that are planned in architecture to work on an open-and-closed basis are, in Fifteen Sixty One, in complete disjuncture. Could the viewer see what he or she couldn’t get into?

GS Yes, a bit of it. You could enter what appeared to be a new branch of Banco Popular, peer over stainless “deal trays” through bullet-proof windows into what would be the teller’s area and see a bit of the gallery space, which from that viewpoint was empty. I became a bit of an expert on certain aspects of security architecture. It’s astonishing and alarming, once you get into the process, to work with all this information on violence. From inside the gallery, there was a framed area that prevented one from standing at the teller’s window. On the gallery side, the space was separated from its designated function, whereas on the street side, it was a usable, albeit incomplete space.

AV So on the street side, it’s a re-creation of the front and interior of a specific location, a replica of that part.

GS The reconstruction is rather exact—down to the correct mismatched laminate paneling, cap moldings, one corner 90 degrees next to a bull nose. Part of the process is an intensive, somewhat exhausting exercise in observation, remaking this bit of the world.

AV The project is literally a replica down to the last detail. Yet it doesn’t have any essentializing or idealizing characteristics in the way a simulacrum for replication is usually invested with a certain degree of abstraction, where there’s always a sense that the essence of something is distilled, concentrated and then universalized. By contrast, this work emphasizes that it is another version of itself, a version of the original. So there’s an original and there’s a replica, and that’s finite.

GS More doppelganger than simulacrum.

AV It’s the end of the series.

GS I thought a bit about the tipped sculptures in contrast to reproducible architecture where there’s an efficient, fixed template—like Levittown or McDonalds.

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Glen Seator, Entrance, 1994–1995, brick, mortar, steel, wood, and electrical fittings and fixtures, 8 × 8 × 8 feet. All images of Entrance courtesy of Neuberger Museum.

AV The very nature of your “balanced sculptures,” where you take a corner, frame it and tip it, takes it a step beyond the replica. There is a spatial rift. You reconstruct a fragment of reality by replicating only the inside, display its construction from the outside and then tip it in order to isolate that fragment from its normal role, which gives the corner a double emphasis. It’s not only removed from its normal use, it’s given another role; it becomes an object in space. You walk around the corner, as opposed to walking into the corner, or being cornered. We are now forced, because of the dynamics of the point of support, the pivoting and potentially revolving nature of this corner, to do something we could never do in reality, which is to deal with outside and inside in a continuously fluctuating visual format. It’s like a bas-relief turning into a three-dimensional figure and coming to life.

GS You might think of it as an attempt to make one’s situation less threatening, to capture the beast and place it under a bright light.

AV It’s also like an insect pinned to an exhibition tray—it no longer functions as a corner, so it’s now a specimen.

GS In Places for Balanced Sculptures, one of the corners is a reconstruction of a corner of the room where it is presented. I am—we are—always in a sense at the mercy of the room that contains us. In a way, the work is a kind of literal attempt to make whole, to wrap, that which is behind, around and at the periphery of vision—a wish to make what I know and what I experience simultaneous.

AV But it’s interesting you chose a corner in relation to such an object. As if you’re saying that the corner is what fundamentally signifies and constructs a room.

GS Yes. I suppose if I had to choose one part from which I could extrapolate room, it would be corner.

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Glen Seator, Entrance, 1994–1995, brick, mortar, steel, wood, and electrical fittings and fixtures, 8 × 8 × 8 feet.

AV The Duchampian solution would be the door. In the case of Duchamp, there’s a moment where the avant-garde version of spatial transgression was to point toward that which you go through and that which you don’t go through, that which you see through and that which you can’t see through. The door is the indicator of what’s inside, what’s outside, what you can see, what you can’t see. And the orifice in the door is the keyhole, that which allows you to see what is on the other side.

GS Right. Think of the Cocteau film Blood of a Poet.

AV Yes, and Lacan—that little semiotic diagram where you have two identical doors, one signed “ladies” and one “gents.” They’re both fundamentally the same but assigned differently. Gender doors. This seems to me the way in which space is framed in Modernism. Or take the Wolf Man’s dream: from the bedroom, there’s a picture—the window on which is transcribed the tree and the wolves sitting in the tree. The whole thing is flattened into a picture of passage, as opposed to a spatial passage. In the Beverly Hills installation, by contrast, you’ve flattened the space of passage by replicating only a part of the space. And you’ve disrupted any passage between one part and the other. Half the symmetry is gone, the symmetry that provides a transaction. You have cut that Modernist sense where a door or a window is an invitation to cross over to the other side into the unconscious, or into the fetishized realm of voyeurism. We’re now in a realm where there is no passage.

GS There is a transitional space. In the views from the gallery, only two signs are visible, Wells Fargo and the Bank of America. In those terms, the addition of a thing that appears as a bank is not so illogical or dissonant.

AV Banco Popular has opened a Beverly Hills Branch.

GS It did look like another branch, and it would have involved just a few more steps… A number of works that I’ve made over the last ten years have involved a leaving out of steps. Perhaps it’s connected to the training thing we discussed earlier. Anyway, in the urban areas, we’re accustomed to moving around construction, from barricades to scaffolding. I think there was this sense that the process of making the place was interrupted, that it was suspended in time, floating. I should try to think of this the next time a carpenter doesn’t show up.

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Glen Seator, Entrance, 1994–1995, detail view.

AV That kind of hallucinatory juxtaposition where one space is inserted in another space that is completely alien and inhospitable to it gives you a sense of suspended temporality. It’s as if you were in a de Chirico dream state where you’re not quite awake, not quite asleep, and there’s a train going through the town square, and the clock has stopped. You’ve spoken of your interest in the lived construction of situations. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, Guy Debord and the Situationists would transform a space through their actions within it. They would disrupt a café or take a random route through Paris where none of them had ever gone before, simply operating according to immediate desire, a psychic drive. Situations were constructed that were spatial and social, and then were immediately deconstructed and allowed to drift. That psychogeography seems at odds with Freud’s theory of memory, history and spatiality. Freud’s idea was that memory is the only space where you can have two spaces from different times. He sees the mind as a simultaneity of spatial juxtapositions that the literal world can’t manifest. What you seem to be saying is that we can experience two spaces from different times, places and mentalities—at once.

GS Someone compared a work I presented in London at White Cube, within the line of the studs, to a skip in a record. From the street you pass through a heavy green door in a Georgian façade into a small corridor, climb the stairs and enter the gallery, where you are confronted with a part of what is seemingly the same façade you passed through when you arrived. Like Universal Corner and Cabinet and other works, it is, in fact, a transportable sculpture. I’ve had some resistance to this, well-intentioned people explaining that certain works of mine absolutely can’t be moved, works for which the subsequent relocation was key. Within the line of the studs, as it was installed at White Cube, was about the failure of memory. As the work is resituated and the viewer moves through the expanding, radiating circles of “here,” it becomes an even greater challenge to focus, and there’s a sense of loss as that “here” is further separated from its source, its mirror. For some works, I’ve requested greater control over subsequent placement, and most are not intended to be endlessly malleable at the owner/presenter’s discretion, like Gonzalez-Torres’s light strings. In Los Angeles, I produced photographs for the exhibition Three. The title referred to three locations: the gallery itself, the Banco Popular building in Echo Park, on the east side of Los Angeles, and the largest unit—Los Angeles itself. The unit city is described by a 360-degree panoramic photograph for which we scouted endlessly using plat maps to find the nearest location to L.A. that provided a broad 360 view without construction, telephone poles or obvious signs of human intervention. As part of making continuous photographic images of the next unit down the block—specifically the two blocks in Beverly Hills and Echo Park that contain the two buildings in question—we wore safety orange MTA vests and offered to re-park people’s cars in order to shoot the required views. The final objects are about seven feet long, 14 inches in height and composed from about 40 slides each, which are joined digitally into a seamless panorama. The placement and proportions of the buildings and other parts of each block are all quite correct. It was necessary to use so many views in order to maintain this extreme frontality, where most vanishing point perspective is eliminated. At first glance they might seem quite normal, yet when observed more closely, it’s as if you’re in 40 places at once. Panoramas invert the viewing situation of cinema, where you’re in a fixed position.

AV And the image moves on the screen in front of you.

GS Yes, here the viewer activates the images; they move when the viewer moves.

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Glen Seator, Cabinet, 1995, wood, Sheetrock, screws, polyurethane and wall paint, 18 × 22 × 16 feet.

AV The block works are fragmented in relationship to what you would normally think of as a continuous panoramic view. Whereas one would turn in a single spot to experience 360 degrees, here you’re continuously being re-centered in front of something that has lost perspective, and therefore depth, meaning it flattens out. You turn the panorama into its own basic units and then give each unit a kind of monumental fixity, which is completely unnatural to it because it could not be that way as we experience it. We look at it as we look at a photograph, as if a photograph is a replication of our experience. But a photograph doesn’t give us that experience back. So it’s a rejection, if you like.

GS Continuous frontality. And in order to examine it more closely, you have to walk alongside it. Although you’re walking sideways in order to examine it, as if on a dolly, tracking along the street.

AV Instead of driving in downtown Los Angeles along Wilshire Boulevard to the sea, you’re driving along the side of a particular space. And it reverses what you do mentally; that is, we always correct for our curvature of vision and flatten it, making it geometrical. You flatten something, then look at it with curved vision and have to flatten it again. It’s a double reversal of what we would normally see. I do think that there is a dimension of the uncanny there. It has an unearthly presence because it’s something that you didn’t know you had hallucinated, but you had. So in fact it’s foregrounded to the point of shock.

GS We were talking about situation—I’d like to bring that around to the tipped works, and their status as transportable objects.

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Glen Seator, Cabinet, 1995, wood, Sheetrock, screws, polyurethane and wall paint, 18 × 22 × 16 feet. All images of Cabinet courtesy of Burnett Miller Gallery.

AV In Places for Balanced Sculptures, two of the corners were modeled on other locations, and one was a replication of a corner.

AV It’s like the Eameses’ film Powers of Ten.

GS Well, Powers of Ten is much more scientific. The child’s long address is different. Political boundaries are included in the long address. And the scale shifts are much more erratic, unfixed. The Eameses’ film, with its sponsorship by IBM, got around all of that. (laughter)

AV Well, land art, earthworks, installation art and site specificity are all issues that explode the art object into the environment but at the same time reconstitute it as environment. Whereas you seem to continuously displace both the environment and the art object, leading back to my first question about the disciplines of architecture and art—which you are, in a sense, ignoring or confounding. You utilize the codes of each to construct a situation that blows them apart and makes them into this blur. There’s no site specificity, because your work is transportable. In fact, you have transported one site to another. So beam me up, Scotty! Is this a continuous operation where another site gets beamed down and constructed every time you find another corner? Does that mean it’s homeless art? In terms of the uncanny, of course, the home is the center of the non-home that erupts into the home when the uncanny, the un-homely, becomes present. You have to have a home in order to have the non-home.

GS Entrance, a piece I presented at the Neuberger Museum at Purchase about eight years ago, was an attempt to concretize the journey—for me an anxious one—from the entrance of the building through to the last room. The object is a one-to-one reconstruction of the museum’s entrance, placed on the same axis as the actual entrance, in the center of the last gallery. This was an important piece for me, a kind of exorcism. Someone said that the building appears to have been carved from frozen liver: floors, walls, inside and out, all glazed brown brick. Philip Johnson was the architect, but I believe the master planner, Barnes, specified the materials with Rockefeller. Doing that piece was very much about saying, Okay, I’m going to take this on in its own terms. I felt that I was going undercover, impersonating these old boys in order to get to the discomfort the space induced, to turn up the volume on the program and distill the relentlessness of the place, show it under its own cold, hard light.

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Glen Seator, Cabinet, 1995, wood, Sheetrock, screws, polyurethane and wall paint, 18 × 22 × 16 feet.

AV Well, it’s a frozen projection, isn’t it? In Freud’s essay “On the Uncanny,” there’s the narrator of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story, whose eyes are about to be torn out by the Sandman. There’s the Sandman, a disturbing presence who is the living embodiment of the reader’s disturbance. And right in the middle is the doll Olympia, who is fabricated as a projection of innocence and enlivened by the reader—who projects ocular desires onto this mechanical doll. In a sense, Olympia is a sculpture like the Venus de Milo or any object that takes on projections of desire, anxiety, castration fear. Similarly, your sculpture at the Neuberger Museum becomes both the lure and the obstacle. It is something that fixes and stares back at you unremittingly.

GS I was interested in getting to another kind of subjectivity. I suppose that you could think of the work as embodying a kind of character.

AV Character. No matter how you abstract, no matter how you turn architecture into sculpture, there’s still a bodily residue in the object. Even though it’s several times removed and given back to you in another form, there exists this idea of the building as a kind of stand-in for the body. You can enter a building as you would enter your own body, but knowing you can, in Freud’s terms, never “go home,” never return to the womb. I’ve always thought that those points, the corners on which your tilted pieces balance, take on anthropomorphic qualities, and been fascinated by how you got that thing to do that, physically. It’s like that moment where the foot is lifted and the ankle pushes up, the movement is fixed but at the same time about to continue.

GS The idea that the moment in sculpture is that contact with the ground.

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Glen Seator, Cabinet, 1995, wood, Sheetrock, screws, polyurethane and wall paint, 18 × 22 × 16 feet.

AV And it’s a fleeting moment, spatially and temporally.

GS In Blood of a Poet, which I mentioned earlier, there’s the approach to the door, which is locked, bodily passage is blocked. The opening of space continues as the camera lens moves down the door to a disembodied view through the keyhole. A couple of years ago, you and I discussed the pictorial attributes of some of my works. In Cabinet —a full-scale tipped room, the interior of which replicates that of an adjoining room—there is an initial desire to circumambulate the room, to hold it, to get it in one look-again, to capture it, so that the body is not contained by or lost in space. You can get around it, but there’s a price to pay. You are confronted with an unwieldy, perhaps dangerous thing. There is also the wish to know what’s inside. You can peer in, and it’s all there, the complete unit, a whole. In that situation, its model is next door. So we are at first reassured that we can verify its sameness, but then we are frustrated—the icon/image falls apart as we peer into it and are confronted with the impossibility of a fixed view. Oddly, it’s been described as “hyper-site specific,” but that doesn’t fit. As Cabinet moves to other locations, the strain on memory, one’s desire and inability to know it, is perhaps both alleviated and challenged as the distance grows between the source and the object.

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Glen Seator, Fifteen Sixty One, 1999, Wood, metals, glass, laminate, Sheetrock, tiles, plastics, granite, neon and paint, 13 × 31 × 14 feet. All images of Fifteen Sixty One courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.

AV We’ve talked about mental displacement in relationship to the phenomenology of the spaces that you remake, and the construction of these spaces as mental boxes that in some way crystallize or fix anxieties. But it’s also the physicality of the object, as a crate or a boxed item, that obviates any kind of historical relationship to say, Gordon Matta-Clark, who cut a New Jersey house in half and later removed and displayed the four corners of its roof. His “construction” is in fact a forensic dismantling and cutting of an already established object, while your construction is not cut out of anything; it’s constructed around, and is a replica of, something else. This displacement from one context into another eradicates context itself, and yet the piece derives its meaning from its context. Literally, you can’t pin it down. The uncanny resides in the ambiguity of “now you see it, now you don’t”; where it is, where it isn’t; what it is, what it isn’t; all of those issues are simultaneous and unfixed.

GS If the work at Capp Street hadn’t been such a literal overlay of the actual approach to the place—street, sidewalk, façade, then empty gallery—it wouldn’t have been so confounding. You could never quite get your head around it. It was where you were—and where you were a few minutes before. There was the view out, then the view back.

AV It was where you were. And yet it wasn’t there in any sense of thereness, right?

GS The thereness was buried. It was, oddly, a successful public artwork, and I had never intended to make public art. I understand that there were a lot of repeat visitors—from the theory folks at Berkeley to the city maintenance workers. I was aware of the changes in the neighborhood, the displacement of residents by the high-tech industry’s settlement there, its conversion to a kind of Latte Central. The way the gallery presented itself on the street was more latte style, and that knowledge may have influenced my project.

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Glen Seator, Fifteen Sixty One, 1999, wood, metals, various glass, neon, electrical fixtures and fittings, laminate, Sheetrock, tiles, plastics, granite, neon, paint, Plexiglass and vinyl, 13 × 31 × 14 feet.

AV The display of that interior as an object is bound to become a point of identification for the public. It crystallizes the public’s anxiety of interiority. It externalizes it and in some banal way probably heals it, in the sense that as long as the anxiety remains inside the object we’re safe. Once you paint a volcanic explosion, as opposed to having to face it head on, fear becomes a kind of aesthetic tremor. Manfredo Tafuri was convinced that the role of the 20th-century avant-garde was to vaccinate the bourgeoisie against shock by aestheticizing shock. So an object standing in the world of art, or ripped out of the world of architecture is going to have some kind of effect, if it’s constructed in such a way as to condense and crystallize spatial and object anxiety. The object works as a surrogate analyst on a lot of different levels. I wonder how many of the temporary residents of Beverly Hills—that is, the Hispanic residents of downtown Los Angeles—passed your Banco Popular and said to each other, “Oh, finally, they’re opening a branch here.”

GS That happened. The day of the opening we were doing some last minute fixes on the street and a woman who works in the hair salon next door came up to me and asked, “When is it opening?” I said, “Well, it’s opening tonight, but it’s not going to open as a check-cashing place, it’s opening as an art exhibition!” We talked for a while, and she said, “I’m really disappointed, I have to get all the way back across town in the evening, and by the time I get there…”

AV The banks are closed.

GS Yeah— “I have to pick up my kids on the way, and I can’t shop!” With Fifteen Sixty One, I had imagined a contraction of space between Beverly Hills and the other side of Los Angeles, and then the metaphor became quite literal. We were having a lot of trouble with the building department and the department of public safety. They said, “This is precisely what we don’t want here!” It really looked as if we weren’t going to be able to do it. I read the Beverly Hills code, it talks about the city as a symbol of quality and good taste, but as you continue to read the code you realize that they are outlining a kind of apartheid. It didn’t take much translation: Get out of town by sundown and use the service entrance. The process of making this work unexpectedly took me down another street.

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Glen Seator, Fifteen Sixty One, 1999, Exterior view from gallery, wood products, metals, glass, 13 × 31 × 14 feet. Photo by Douglas M. Parker.

AV Because you were transgressing every iota of that code. Was it important to you that the gallery for Fifteen Sixty One be new white architecture? You constructed a contrast that was dramatic.

GS Yeah, that was important. The front was super chromatic, cobalt blue and neon, popping red, all of these things that were coded out of Beverly Hills. So it had this kind of snap, Pop quality. I conceived the work for that initial gallery placement, with the intention that it would go someplace else later, and thus have an entirely different presence.

AV So what’s next?

GS I’m working on two photography projects. Photographs for outdoor display, the others for indoors—though I feel like building something…

—Anthony Vidler is the acting dean of the Cooper Union School of Architecture. A critic, theorist, and historian of architecture, he has taught at Princeton, UCLA, and Cornell. His most recent books are The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely and Warped Space: Art, Architecture, and Anxiety in Modern Culture.

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Originally published in

BOMB 80, Summer 2002

Featuring interviews with Petah Coyne, Glen Seator, Ben van Berkel, Reynolds Price, Dubravka Ugresic, Michael Haneke, Donald Margulies, John Zorn

Read the issue
BOMB 080