Could Mushrooms Hush Rooms?

POSTED BY , ON January 13, 2011, 1 COMMENTS

From ad hoc laser bike lanes to a potential technological (hyper)reality in your head, a variety of ideas and disciplines are currently on display in Hyperlinks: Architecture and Design. Fostering experimentation across a range of practices, these fluid exchanges between artistic and scientific communities not only generate ideas about what the future holds, but also motivate reflection on current conventions in an otherwise unearthly light. Plant Facts Plant Fiction and Growth Assembly are two such works in this new exhibition that offer similar but distinct prospects for imbuing plant life with human design.

The Troika Design Group contemplates the future of synthetic biology in Plant Facts Plant Fiction. Shown in intricate photographic detail, designer plants serve as individual case studies that advance such questions as “Could mushrooms hush rooms?” and “Can we cultivate computers?” These hybridizations relate a divine optimism about the future functionality of cross-disciplinary design. Gold Weed (Brassica aurea) processes metal in landfills and Selfeater (Agave autovora), seen above, breaks down its own cellulose for the fermentation of ethanol.

Sascha Pohflepp and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s Growth Assembly applies similar notions regarding plant life and synthetic biology to the economics of assembly production. By collaborating with illustrator Sion Ap Tomas, Growth Assembly grounds the fantastical notion of growing products inside of plants in the historical realm of botanical illustrations. Engineered morphogenesis becomes something you might find in an old Sears & Roebuck catalog. Far from projecting an inevitable scenario, these conceptual plant species encourage us to think about the future we endeavor to create together. Pohflepp and Ginsberg, for example, imagine shops evolving into factory farms where licensed products are grown where sold and the postal service delivers lightweight seed-packets for domestic manufacturing.

Whether wittingly or not, these exercises in design update a rare and neglected practice of taxonomizing outlandish flora and fauna. The Voynich Manuscript, thought to date back to the 15th century, is like an encyclopedia to a different world, full of strange diagrams and written in a cryptic language that has baffled codebreakers since its discovery in 1912. Similarly, though less mysterious in origin, Italian artist and designer Luigi Serafini explores the biological and social functions of a menagerie of bizarre plants and creatures in his Codex Seraphinianus, published in 1981 and seen above. Though Growth Assembly and Plant Facts Plant Fiction are drawn from rigorous work across disciplines, I still found striking parallels to these seemingly less scientific explorations of fantasy floristics. Each of these evocative works creates open-ended questions about the quality of life on our planet by illuminating the inner workings of a parallel world.

The Troika Design Group. Plant Facts and Plant Fiction, 2010. The Art Institute of Chicago, funds provided by the Architecture & Design Society.

Sascha Pohflepp and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg. Illustration by Sion Ap Tomos. Growth Assembly, 2009. Courtesy of Sascha Pohflepp and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Objs. 206751-58.

Luigi Serafini. Codex Seraphinianus, 1981.

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Beautifully Complex

POSTED BY , ON May 20, 2010, Comments Off on Beautifully Complex

Engineers and those who find beauty in technical complexity (I’m not the only one, right?) can currently find three pieces of engineering eye candy on view in temporary exhibitions at the Art Institute.


Civil engineers will delight in Stanley Greenberg: Architecture Under Construction, an exhibition on display in the Modern Wing’s Kurokawa Gallery (286, adjacent to the Balcony Café), which showcases 13 large black and white photographs of buildings under construction. The black and white photos reduce these construction sites to beautiful mazes of exposed beams, scaffolding, concrete, and rope. It’s cool how an intermediate state of construction – which may look nothing like the final structure – can be its own work of art. (The copyright geek in me keeps wondering about if and when construction sites qualify for the legal exception in 17 USC § 120, which permits the free reproduction of pictures of public, constructed buildings.)


Aerospace engineers can find something to love with the Roger Hiorns installation on the Bluhm Family Terrace. The installation consists of two exposed Pratt & Whitney TF33 P9 engines once mounted on a Boeing EC135 Looking Glass long-range surveillance plane. Although Hiorns seems to be less specifically interested in the visual complexity of the engines – with their perplexing networks of pipes, tubes, wires, and other parts – these are still fun to view as stand-alone objects. And, maybe to ponder how the insertion of antidepressant drugs would affect the performance of the engines…

Finally, for all the industrial engineers in the house, In the Vernacular, a photography exhibition in galleries 1-2 until the end of May (hurry if you want to see this one), contains a wonderful array of 12 gelatin silver prints by Bernd & Hilla Becher of the heads of blast furnaces used to produce industrial metal. I love how these fascinating, varied configurations of towers and pipes stand out against the white sky.

I think it is notable that all three of these examples show only parts of the whole. But, even though each object only shows part of an industrial plant, building, or airplane, there is still an amazing diversity of technical details to feast the eyes upon. So, dust off your pocket protectors and come see some art.

Images: Stanley Greenberg, Untitled, Denver, Colorado, 2005.
Roger Hiorns, Untitled (Alliance), 2010.

Secrets of the Modern Wing, Take Two

POSTED BY , ON December 12, 2009, 1 COMMENTS

Part of the reason that the Modern Wing feels so harmonious is because, well, it is. And the secret behind that lies in one measurement: 6 ¾”, aka the width of the oak floorboards in the Modern Wing. That’s right—everything in the building is based around that one tiny measurement. Of course, not everything in the building is 6 ¾”, but everything is a multiple of that number. To lay it out for you:

6 ¾”
x2 = 1’ 1 ½”
x4 = 2’ 3”
x8 = 4’ 6”
x16 = 9’
x32 = 18’

Not that I don’t trust the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, but I decided to test this for myself. . . photographic evidence is below.

Width of a floorboard: 6 3/4"

Width of a floorboard: 6 3/4″


Grand Tour of the Art Institute

POSTED BY , ON December 04, 2009, 12 COMMENTS


The Art Institute’s modular architectural history—previously discussed by Erin Hogan—makes the building an excellent subject for a “traveling salesman” problem. So, for the benefit of any art-loving puzzle nerds reading ARTicle, I humbly submit the following.

Your mission is to find a continuous path in, through, and around the museum that visits all of the 21 objects listed below. The catch is that you may not use any door, threshold, elevator, or flight of stairs more than once. Detailed rules are listed below.

I promise that there is at least one solution, but I cannot promise that this will be an easy problem to solve. For your convenience, here is a floor plan with dots showing the locations of the objects. Please post your solutions, or any questions, in the comments below. Good luck!



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Secrets of the Modern Wing

POSTED BY , ON November 03, 2009, 1 COMMENTS

I give a lot of tours of the Modern Wing, and there are details about the building that most visitors like but that aren’t necessarily apparent to anyone going through the building on their own. So, here are some “secrets” of the Modern Wing.

The building that now sits on Monroe Street is actually the third version of the expansion that the museum planned. We started thinking about expanding in 1999, before Millennium Park was built. So the original idea was to put the expansion on the south side of the building, over the railroad tracks. But once Millennium Park started to become more than parking lots, broken bottles, and train tracks, the architect Renzo Piano and museum leaders decided to completely reorient the building to face north. This move was made in 2001. To “talk” to the park, and to test some proportional ideas for the façade, Piano designed the two Exelon Pavilions across the street from the Modern Wing. You may know these pavilions as the entrances to the parking garages under the park. Same materials, same ideas as those for the Modern Wing. Modest structures, big architect.


A guiding principle for the Modern Wing is Piano’s idea of “zero gravity”—that buildings should appear to levitate and lift. I had always heard about this idea, and I sense it when I’m in the building, but it was never quite sure of how the details—beyond lots of verticals—worked. But the key to it in the Modern Wing is that everything is designed to not quite meet the floor. Every wall has a one-inch “reveal” at the bottom of it. Piano designed all the benches, and they all sit slightly up off the floor on little pegs. Every sculpture pedestal and platform also sit up off the floor. The main staircase also “floats,” with an inch between what appears to be its base and the floor. Tiny detail, huge impact.



More to come!