ARKITECTURE NOUVEAU: An Interview with Snarkitecture
The worlds of art and architecture do not always run in parallel lines. There are moments in history when the two have intersected, with a surrealist yet efficient Gaudi castle, or a practical yet aesthetically sound Corbusier apartment complex. But no matter how beautiful a building or usable a sculpture, the line between art and architecture remains firmly intact. It creates a divide between form and function, forcing us to choose sides. Unless, that is, you never acknowledge the division in the first place.
Snarkitecture, a design partnership spearheaded by visual artist Daniel Arsham and architect Alex Mustonen, approach the rigid rules of architecture with a fluid imagination, creating artistic installations that are also usable physical spaces. A cave-like den at the BOFFO art fair, carved out of styrofoam, acted both as retail store and interactive art space. A tent at Design Miami, made from low-hanging inflatable tubes, was an insulating and transformative addition to the otherwise stale art fair ambiance. From art objects that double as furniture to malleable stage sets that perform along with dancers, Snarkitecture’s whitewashed, minimalist aesthetic seamlessly embodies crisp design and innovative practicality. They take the form and function from conventional fields, throw them up in the air, mix them around, and then spray everything white. Arsham and Mustonen follow their own line, breaking the rules of the artists and architects before them as they criss-cross into new territory.
Portrait by Michael Beauplet
Daniel: We went to school together at Cooper Union, Alex was in the architecture program and I was in the art school. Following school, there were a couple projects I was working on that were more architectural than art-based so I asked Alex to draft things and make things look more architectural. There was a project for Dior in L.A. that I was commissioned for that required more architectural thinking, and Alex helped me out. Following that, there seemed to be this area that we could explore that was between these two disciplines.
“Architecture is heavily regulated and art is the exact opposite, so what Snarkitecture is doing is trying to break away from the more rigid and expected traits of architecture.”
Do you find these two fields, architecture and art, to be very different from one another?
Alex: Yes and no. With our clients, there are overlaps, but when it comes to making things it can be quite different. Architecture is heavily regulated and art is the exact opposite, so what Snarkitecture is doing is trying to break away from the more rigid and expected traits of architecture and find ways to open up the field.
You seem to find a balance between the functionality of architecture and the creative freedom of art.
A: I think we lean toward creating objects that are functional, even if they don’t appear to be that way. It may take multiple views or looking at [the object] in different ways, literally walking around them another way or doing a double take, to see its function. You might see an object in one way and then when you go to try to use it, it reveals itself in another way.
D: If we are talking about the notion that architecture has function and art doesn’t, then what we do is make architecture that doesn’t have function or that doesn’t report its specific function. Often, when you walk into a certain type of space, the architecture tells you how to use it. The environments that we create are ambiguous, the viewer is free to make it what they will.
A: There are cues within the things we make that suggest certain possibilities, but we’re not saying, This is a thing you can only sit on or can only use as a table—it’s about allowing and hinting at ways that they could interact with the space, or object to it and choose their own path.
You guys design for various people and spaces, from performances to fashion shows to in-store sculptures. What is the process of creating these installations?
D: I’ve done a lot of work with performers in my own practice. The project that Snarkitecture worked on was with the performer Jonah Bokaer. When making something for the stage, we look for objects or materials that have an inherent potential that we can propose to the choreographer as a motivating device within the choreography. The piece we did with Jonah was called Why Patterns and the set was composed of thousands of Ping-Pong balls. They fall, they roll, the dancers can move them, it creates a surface.
A: Performance is something we are really interested in and how it can work with architecture. Set design is just the beginning of that. It’s performative architecture that isn’t technological. Instead, it’s a way that uses performers to actually manipulate the space as you’re experiencing it. We did a project for New Museum that was in this massive, cavernous room, so in order to give it some scale we used these inflatable spheres that were each controlled by a performer. Forty-four spheres that were raised and lowered by 44 performers. For us, the idea of integrating people into our installations is similar to the flash mob mentality. It’s fascinating to see a group of people who you don’t expect to be doing something coalesce: people performing architecture and architecture performing with people.
Where do you pull your inspiration from?
D: Sometimes we have specific projects where the client has a space or material or context in mind for an event, but sometimes it’s self-driven.
A: It’s a culmination. There’s the practical constraints of real world projects, whether it’s design-based or working in an existing site, taking cues [from the space] which we can start to manipulate and draw from. The other end is this self-motivated dream state, or creative compulsions that we have.
You tend to use pretty limited types of materials for these structures and objects, right?
D: Oftentimes, especially in large scale projects, we look for singular materials, so we make an entire project out of one material or one object. In many cases it’s the material that’s already existing in the location, the familiar and everyday, that has been altered. Like the tents for Design Miami, we used the existing, banal tent material and reformed it into a different shape. Reformulating the existing, or altering something that is known, is a big drive for the practice.
A: A single material often means a single color, so that puts us toward this idea of reduction: removing all the other materials, removing all the other color, and focusing more on the larger textures and constructs.
Is that why most of your work is white and gray scale?
A: That level of abstraction focuses the viewer’s attention to a different aspect of the project than if they were looking at a change of pattern or something. Whether it’s the texture that’s created by these elements being together or the overall approach to the space, we try to simplify and reduce.
Daniel, how do you differentiate your work with Snarkitecture from your individual fine art work?
D: Well, [my art] has no function! Really though, the practices do inform each other in some ways. In terms of ideas about material, there are things that will be used in my studio that might be used in a different way for Snarkitecture, and vice versa.
What are you guys working on at the moment?
A: Beats, the headphone company, approached us and asked to collaborate on custom, limited edition headphones. Similar to what we were saying about reduction, the approach we started with was taking the image of Beats, that iconic black with the red chord and logo, and just making it all matte white. One sheen, one color. Another thing we created for them was one of our custom design “pillows.” It’s a cast of an actual pillow with the real indentation of the headphones, so they fit perfectly resting on top. Hopefully it introduces their audience to a new approach, that you can buy these custom headphones but they come with this custom art object.
We are pushing this year to make a new series of objects—like architecture that is accessible, physically, that you can hold as an object, and more affordable than a piece of furniture.
What is your WILD Wish?
A: We’ve been talking about doing a Snarkitecture hotel suite, so I’ve been dreaming about creating this house with everything Snarkitecture inside. The clothes, the doorknobs, the lamps, the furniture, everything. You just walk into a house or building or room and everything is us. It would probably be white on white but still have that weird dream-scape that we love.
D: Someone designs everything, right? So why not us? It would probably be on some island in Japan. With no one else who lives there. That’s as good as it gets.