Discussion, discourse, and creative insight through STIRring conversations in 2022
by Jincy IypeDec 27, 2022
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Almas SadiquePublished on : Feb 25, 2023
What visuals come to mind when someone utters the term organic architecture? One imagines verdant scapes cradling a humble structure, edifices structured around existing trees and topographies, simply shaped assemblages welcoming natural breezes through large openings, smooth-edged elements decorating surfaces, and biomorphic textures chiselled onto facades. Some prominent architectural works in history that hold fort under this accreditation include the ancient and almost mythical Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and Antoni Gaudi’s Casa Milà. In all these examples, we tend to picture instances and references of man-made structures that are either inspired by elements of nature or exist in healthy conjunction with the environment. This begets the question: Have we come too far, from our indigenous habitats and living styles, which stressed on making the best out of naturally occurring landscapes? Can hillsides, caves, tunnels, and burrows no longer become our homes? Can contemporary architecture only be infused with organic elements and aesthetics through the addition of materials and patterns fetched from nature and brought to man-made ecosystems and locales?
Scant references to cave dwellings and bunker settlements—in history, folklore, fiction novels and dystopian narratives—provide the hope for residences and habitable locales in rooms built by nature. Despite the apparent risk and speculation writ around habitats reinforced by nature—especially those located under the ground—who among us is not thrilled and fascinated to witness the underground cities in Cappadocia, or learn about the fictional town of Eusapia in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities? Paying homage to projects that have, in the past, attempted to adapt natural structures to modern ways of living, US-based The Noguchi Museum is currently hosting the exhibition In Praise of Caves: Organic Architecture Projects from Mexico by Carlos Lazo, Mathias Goeritz, Juan O’Gorman, and Javier Senosiain. Having opened to the public in October 2022, the architecture exhibition will remain on view until Februrary 26, 2023.
The Noguchi Museum, originally known as The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, was founded by sculptor, artist and landscape architect Isamu Noguchi in 1985. The museum was also designed and installed by the artist himself. In a unique meld of architecture and art, Noguchi’s indoor and open air galleries, installed in and around a repurposed 1920s industrial building and a sculpture garden, help deliver an intimate experience of the artist’s works. In addition to Noguchi’s permanent installations, the museum also curates temporary exhibitions that explore different aspects of Noguchi’s work, his lasting influence in the art and architecture domains, and artistic and architectural contributions by his collaborators and contemporaries. In Praise of Caves, running parallel to another exhibition at the museum, Noguchi Subscapes, aims to metaphorise the need for examining and assessing our place in the world, through showcases that turn the museum into a subterranean environment.
The exhibition, spread across the galleries on the first floor of the museum, present a combination of a selection of projects by four 20th century Mexican artist-architects—Carlos Lazo, Mathias Goeritz, Juan O’Gorman, and Javier Senosiain—whose works reflect the exploration of the cultural history, structure and habitability of caves. They explore the unique archetypes that emerged in the middle of the twentieth century in Mexico to scope the relationship between man-made structures and natural environments.
Although Noguchi was not particularly fascinated by caves, he was perpetually invested in scoping out experiences and practices that enhanced his relationship with earth. This led him to also explore the scale of human life in the context of the natural world, and hence his interest in varied topographies designed by nature or built by humans. The swiftly accelerating climate crises today as well as our prominently apparent degrading relationship with nature demands the revival of ideas and concepts that can help concretise our connection with the environment.
While the artist’s preoccupation with Earth’s latent forces and invisible structures are explored in the concurrent exhibition Noguchi Subscapes, In Praise of Caves is pivoted on the exploration of architectural and architecture-adjacent projects by the four artist-architects.
Dakin Hart, the curator of the exhibition, shares, "Noguchi’s view of the relationship between the natural and the human-made is interesting precisely because he didn’t oversimplify or romanticise it. We are part of nature, as is everything we have created. To forget that and then to create artificial differentiations between what we make and what nature makes—when actually everything that we make should be judged by the standards of a tree, a mountain stream, the ocean—actually perpetuates the problem. We have forgotten or suppressed the simple fact that we are natural. And in doing so, we have gotten worse and worse at it, that is, at being part of nature. The exhibition hopefully helps to smear these distinctions and categories in a way that makes the museum into an even more organic environment than it always is.”
The title of the exhibition is derived from a chapter of the 1977 book The Prodigious Builders: Notes Toward a Natural History of Architecture, written by cultural critic and a friend of Noguchi’s, Bernand Rudofsky. The chapter delineates several examples of cave dwellings, across geographies and time. It calls out our communal ignorance that has led us to discard natural cave habitats in favour of our modern residences. Rudofsky asserts that our negligence will eventually turn the surface of the Earth inhabitable and we will have to move underground eventually. Anticipating this eventual change, he posits the idea of inhabiting caves sooner rather than later. Enunciating on this idea, Hart says, “Let ‘cave’ be a metaphor: for our instinctive dust-to-dust returns to earth, for our inviolable connection to it, and let all of these snakes act as our surrogates and guides.”
Further elaborating on the relevance of the showcases, in tandem with Noguchi’s ideas, as well as extant issues, Hart adds, “All four of these artist-architects equate health and happiness with living not just on the land, but in harmony with its specific characteristics in any given place. What links them even more directly to Noguchi’s perspective is that their visions for doing so weave the past into the future in a way that’s totally forward looking. In no future worth living in can we leave the past or the world completely behind as we ‘modernise’.”
The exhibition begins in the museum's open air pavilion, originally designed by Noguchi to house his totemic sculptures. This gallery space holds the works of Mathias Goeritz, a Germany-born sculptor, painter, architect, teacher and theorist. Goeritz emigrated to Mexico in his mid-30s, and went on to establish himself as an important figure in the postwar art scene. Inspired by prehistoric cave paintings, Goeritz co-founded the movement Escuela de Altamira, to explore the offshoots of Primitivism apparent in postwar art. The museum space dedicated to Goeritz holds an exhibition copy of his 1953 piece El Serpiente de El Eco or The Serpent for El Eco, a 30-foot-long and 16-foot-tall snake sculpture, which represents the path towards an ecologically sound future. While the original sculpture occupied an interior space and illustrated the principles of emotional architecture, with a sloping floor creating the impression of sliding into one of the slots in Goeritz's sculpture, its recreated iteration, stationed in the open air gallery of The Noguchi Museum, shifts, in its scale and impact, while also shielding a nest of snakes. Another installation by the Mexican architect, bearing semblance to the mouth of the cave, suggests the presence of an endless universe beyond its opening.
The centre of the museum's main gallery on the first floor holds renowned architect and historian Javier Senosiain Aguilar's works. Aguilar, also the founder and principal architect of Arquitectura Orgánica in Mexico City, was Goeritz's student at Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM). He is an active advocate of bio-architecture and organic architecture. In 1985, Aguilar built Casa Orgánica or Organic House, his cave home, as an experiment in organic architecture. The house, now open for public viewing and visits, poses as a potent example for modern day cave habitats. The architect is also currently developing El Nido de Quetzalcóatl or The Nest of Quetzalcóatl, a vast organic architecture theme park. His showcase at the museum comprises a life-size mosaic-covered serpent, as well as a series of models of Casa Orgánica, El Nido de Quetzalcóatl and a few other realised and unrealised projects.
Moving on to the next gallery in the museum, visitors come across architect Carlos Lazo's archival models and photographs. The installations stationed in the gallery iterate Lazo's ideas about cave living. A model of his La Casa-Cueva de la Era Atómica or Atomic Age Cave House—built recently by Javier Senosiain Aguilar's firm Arquitectura Orgánica—presents the concept of a hyper-modern cave home that extracts inspiration from the rustic aesthetic of Flinstones and the advance provisions in Jetsons. His showcase also includes images of Cuevas Civilizadas oe Civilized Caves, a project-encompassing the creation of 110 homes-envisioned by the architect in the canyons of the Belén de las Flores neighborhood of Mexico City.
The fourth and last artist-architect highlighted at the exhibition, Juan O'Gorman, was well known for both his functionalist, and later organic architecture, as well as his dynamically hued paintings, murals and mosaics that explored the themes of nationalism and anti-facism. O'Gorman built Casa O'Gorman, a cave house, on the lava bed of a dormant volcano in Pedregal, Mexico City, in 1948. He believed that an architect's home is like a laboratory, where experiments and explorations must remain a part of the everyday life. Together with his wife, Helen, who was a botanist and a botanical illustrator, O'Gorman lived in the Casa O'Gorman and studied what it meant to become a part of the cave-like enclosure of Pedregal. While the structure is now in ruins, models, plans and photographs of the house dot the spaces of The Noguchi Museum for their ongoing exhibition. Other works by O'Gorman displayed at the museum include two painting of imagined dystopian underworlds.
Discussing the experience of curating the exhibition, Hart shares, "It can be interpreted in an almost infinitely flexible way with respect to things like scale. Think about how a mountain works in the landscape. It can be everything from a faraway landmark, just a blip on the horizon, suggesting great distance, to an all-encompassing habitat and environment. The Museum spaces that Noguchi designed have this same built-in versatility. The Noguchi Museum is a natural environment. We are so fortunate to have a museum that is the diametrical opposite of the ‘neutral’ white box. Everything here carries a charge. The creative process is just about allowing it to fire you up and to some extent carry you away. Which is pretty easy when you are dealing with objects like Mathias Goeritz’s 16-foot-tall, 30-foot-long El Eco Serpent, a full scale exhibition copy of which will be slithering through Noguchi’s indoor-outdoor rock garden.”
Noguchi’s sequestered locale, existing at the intersection of industrial design and sculptural inventions, with an access to natural views, offers, in its own right, an exposition of its own. Glimpses into the ideas and creations of artists and architects dotting the halls and gardens of the serenely configured museum further activates the senses of visitors, and prompts dialogues pertaining to the theme. As Hart rightly explains, “Here, in the middle of one of the more dynamic urban maelstroms on the planet, you have this perfect oasis of serene reflection. Temporarily turning the Museum into a kind of subterranean environment is about foregrounding its greatest secret: though human-made, it is both a love letter written and a gauntlet thrown to nature.”
The exhibition In Praise of Caves: Organic Architecture Projects from Mexico by Carlos Lazo, Mathias Goeritz, Juan O’Gorman, and Javier Senosiain is on view till February 26, 2023 at The Noguchi Museum, in Long Island City, Queens, United States.
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