À la r_echerche des édifices perdus: Alexandre Arrechea’s archicetural sculpture by Lowery Stokes Sims

My architectural guru José Mapily (practicing architect, painter and designer and retired professor of architecture, Howard University) recently opined that, “Today one finds few examples of architecture following a movement or a style. While the basic reference for form-making is architecture, established architects tend to go off on their own way to puncture the practice of architecture in strange ways.”

I think of this when I look at these architectural sculptures that Alexandre Arrechea has created for Park Avenue. He has found a unique way to puncture the practice of architecture in strange ways while at the same time stimulating our awareness of some overlooked, even forgotten buildings. While these works quote a number of salient features of famous architectural landmarks of New York City, Arrechea has used those landmarks as jumping off points to create anomalous transformations of them from sited monuments to entities that are improbably coiled, sitting on spinning tops, cranked up or down by levers, or (in other examples of his sculptures) set atop chairs. That fact that we might recognize these buildings—or have our recognition piqued by an identification of them in these works—renders his enterprise all the more disconcerting (although they do reveal a humorous intent—however ironic). There is certainly something of the sur-real in these transformations but they go even beyond the prototypical Surrealist proposition of situating a “chance encounter of a sewing machine and umbrella on an ironing board.” They actually propose the result of that encounter.

We can look to his 2007 wood and Formica sculpture Conspiracy for clues to his over-all strategy. What is presented is as straightforward as it is improbable: the cipher of a modernist building sits on a chair. Despite its cool, industrial aesthetic there is an oddly maternal aspect to this hybrid which co-exists with the feelings of disquiet it also inspires—a perfect Freudian moment. It exemplifies Arrechea’s own “reflections about power, surveillance and control issues”—hence its title, Conspiracy. Critic Benjamin Brown also notes that this sculpture challenges “our conception of how things should be or what should be true about things.”

Since the period of his collaborations with Dagoberto Rodriquez and Marco Castillo as Los Carpinteros, Arrechea’s work has revealed a rather conspiratorial nature. The roots of his preoccupations are certainly the Cuba within which he grew up (he was born in 1970) which would give him a heightened sensitivity to the propaganda potential of even ordinary objects, to how symbols may be elevated beyond their intrinsic worth, and how we need to read between the lines in the messages we absorb every day. Architecture is an easy target for such modes of expression. Every society has used structures and sites, however permanent or ephemeral, to order, control and propagandize populations. The result is that public spaces and structures can assume almost mythic reputations that are a result of the activities that occurred within their walls. The Reichstag in Berlin, the so-called Tombs in New York City, the Pretoria Court House, the Tower of London, the Bastille: all of these buildings retain reputations as sites of oppression and suppression for the purpose of maintaining control. And there are also sites such as Plaza de la Revolución in Havana, which was the subject of a 2012 video installation (The Empty Plaza/ La Plaza Vacia) by Arrechea’s countryman artist Coco Fusco, which featured an extended meditation on the psychological and situational aura of the space as the site of “revolutionary promise, and memory.”

Arrechea once described his intention to render forms “dysfunctional” so that he can identify “new concerns in an attempt to stretch [the object’s] own boundaries.” Indeed his recent oeuvre is full of examples of arenas and buildings with no access or egress (Arena, 2007 and Home, 2008), bridges that go nowhere (Limite improvisado, 2007), cities whose layouts are inescapable mazes (Blind City (From the Series…), 2007). What makes these images all the more tantalizing is the fact that often the buildings have no façade so we can look in but any inhabitants can’t get out. But then these spaces usually have no personal articulation, no décor, no individualization. These are the spaces of the bleak, fascistic societies evoked in sci-fi movies such as “Equilibrium” or “Gattaca” where uniformity was meant to foster equality and stifle any dangerous deviations from the established norm.

But these clichés of architecture are easy targets and sure-fire modes of political and social commentary. So what Arrechea does is all the more noteworthy: he destabilizes these power symbols, thus preventing them from successfully assuming whatever political philosophy that might seek to co-opt them. What is more ridiculous than the idea of a large apartment or office building perched on two chairs at either end of its structure as seen in Arrechea’s powerful watercolor works, Aceruso and Reunion (2007) or Dialog-2, 2012 (2009) There is a certain quality to the materialization of the forms that subtly infers the weaknesses of these 11 10 symbols. This statement is all the more impactful since the sculptures in this installation are installed in one of the great architectural “canyons” in the world, in easy sight of monuments by protean architectural figures whose purpose was to celebrate the power status of their patrons.

There is the Seagram Building (designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson), the Helmsley Building (built in 1929 as the New York Central Building and designed by Warren & Wetmore), the MetLife Building (built in 1958-63 as the Pam Am Building, designed by Emery Roth & Sons, Pietro Belluschi and Walter Gropius). And the installation transports other buildings located elsewhere to the canyon: the Sherry Netherland Hotel from Fifth Avenue and 59th Street (designed by Schultze & Weaver with Buchman & Kahn), The Citigroup Center from Lexington Avenue and 53rd Street (designed by Hugh Stubbins, Jr.), The Chrysler Building from Lexington and 42nd Street (designed by William Van Allen), the Empire State Building from Fifth Avenue and 34th Street (Shreve, Lamb and Harmon), the MetLife insurance Tower from Madison Avenue and 23rd Street (Napoleon Le Brun & Sons) and the United States Court House from Foley Square (Cass Gilbert). It’s a notable roster of architectural giants that Arrechea has taken on.
But Arrechea is not presenting mere models or diminished versions of these building. He has manipulated their silhouettes in such a way as to encourage us to ponder his perspective on their history and their significance. The Met Life Insurance Tower has morphed into an elaborately coiled entity which if unfurled would rendered higher than the new Freedom Tower in the Financial District of New York City. The Empire State building has also been coiled but in this case into an elegant pentagon, raising delectable speculations about Arrechea’s perception of this building with the one in Arlington County, Virginia whose namesake is the same form that comprises its layout. The Sherry Netherland and the Helmsley are rendered in the circular form of the ouroboros or uroborus a pervasive cultural symbol of a reptile biting its own tail. Spanning time (from ancient Greece to the Middle Ages to contemporary time) and geography (India, West Africa, Central and South America and Japan) it connotes the cyclical nature of creation, or a primordial unity between the past and the present. Likewise the coiled forms of the Chrysler and Seagram buildings evoke the snake whose varied reputation includes harbinger of evil and confirmation of renewal. Arrechea’s fondness for gadgetry is seen in the crank of from which the Seagram Building unfurls, the lever on which the Court house bends and the spinning tops on which the Citicorp building and the Met Life Buildings are positioned.

The prototypes of these forms appeared in works such as Bracelet of 2010 where the Met Life insurance Building was curved around in the ouroboros position. Relatively smaller in scale (about 3 feet in diameter) it was followed by larger variations for the Empire State Building (this time coiling up in a double curve from a wheel), or the 2011 version of the City Corp Building as a vertical element pulled up from a coiled position. At the same time Arrechea also introduced the theme of buildings sitting on spinning tops (Dancing Bacardi, 40 Wall Street and Somellian all of 2010) carrying the metaphor of the instability of public monuments even further. But Arrechea reveals his actual intentions in his 2011 version of the Empire State Building set in a single vertical curve like a snake in a striking position with the title The Dream of Shreve, Lamb and Hammon. All gloves are off and Arrechea’s ultimate goal is revealed.

Arrechea’s parodic attitude towards architecture is most post-modern. He turns the historicism of architecture on its head committing a heresy that would be an anathema to architectural historians After all they have trained us to desire to make the pilgrimage to see and experience great building sites (picture the ubiquitous tourist in New York ever looking up and not where they are going) and now they find an upstart artist playing with the possibility that these famed buildings could simply be rolled up or bended on end and moved conveniently to another site. The heresy is all the more evident because of the historicism of the subject matter. These are not invented forms but well-recognized one that have not only dominated the skyline of New York City—particularly the borough of Manhattan—but also have defined its special character. This happened rather quickly with the turn of the 20th century and the fact that the building that could literally “scape the sky” was seen as important could be indicated by the fact that it was incorporated into the lexicon of modernist art from Guy Wiggin’s view of the Metropolitan Tower from 1912 (collection The Metropolitan Museum of art to Stuart Davis’s portrait of the Empire State Building in his 1931 painting, New York Mural (collection the Norton Museum of Art). In between Lewis Hind’s photographs of construction workers primed city citizens for the vertiginous views that these buildings would have afforded them. We have not gotten over that sense of wonder and euphoria since.

In the end it is obvious that by transforming these buildings into sculptures—whether intentionally or inadvertently—he upends the usual relationship between the two genres. Architecture is used to being supreme as a container or foil for paintings and sculpture. In this installation Arrechea asserts an odd hegemony over architecture and literally makes it confirm to his will. Defying notions of stability, fixity and permanence these images taken on qualities of mysticism and frivolity which indeed would seem to encompass the essence of a surreal, postmodern psyche.

by Lowery Stokes Sims