There's something entirely inscrutable about buildings; something that all those words, drawings and diagrams by architects and scholars from Vitruvius onwards can't seem to say. Though we have designed and made them, and know them intimately from living and working in them, the heart of architecture remains almost as unfathomable as a prehistoric structure.
It's exactly that sensation of knowing and not knowing that Warhol's Empire provides. Projected on to the wall of the MCA Chicago, it's a beautifully banal opening to Skyscrapers: Art and Architecture Against Gravity. Although perhaps, depending on which way you came in, it's the finale – I told you buildings were inscrutable. The impassive gaze of the camera, unblinking at the Empire State for eight hours, is both normal – a view of an overly familiar building – and also remarkable. It lets us, or forces us, to look longer and harder than we ever should and, although nothing happens in the film, something happens to us. Watching it we become as impassive as the building itself, another object in the city, immobile as time and weather flow around us and the Empire State appears out of the grainy black-and-white fog. Warhol's dumb gaze says something about our relationship to architecture that architecture can never say; perhaps because it says absolutely nothing at all.
Despite the show's title, neither skyscrapers nor gravity are the show's real subject. It's more ambitious and diffuse than that, drawing together art projects that explore how we might understand the constructions that we inhabit – or how we inhabit these constructions. Or how we construct inhabitation. In short: what is this world we have built and what is it like to live in?
An amazing sequence of video by Cyprien Gaillard, called Desniansky Raion, seems as if it is shot on an alien planet that happens to look just like Earth. We watch rival football fans fighting in the open spaces of a Soviet housing project, swarming across a scrubby version of a Corbusian lawn. In another film, Gaillard's son et lumière precedes the demolition of a housing block in Paris. Projections on to its surface caress its texture and geometry, as if sketching out its blocky form one last time. Sequences of shapes and colours like a brutalist Close Encounters transpose a lightshow associated with heritage to a form of architecture that existed only in a small window of human history; a window of architectural possibility that was about to slam shut.
In other cases we're looking at form. Whether it's lightboxes in the shape of Lever House, a room full of disco-mirrored fridges, or Vito Acconci's hand-cranked collapsing high-rise, we feel the strange shape-language that buildings employ. If architectural proportion and scale emerge out of logics of land ownership, programme and sciences engineering and environmental as much as an aesthetic sensibility, here we see those limits evacuated from the very forms they precipitate. These familiar shapes suddenly become strange, clumsy, only partially aestheticised objects.
Though their medium is shape and material, buildings are not simply things. They embody, quite literally, power and value. Hans-Peter Feldmann attacks these qualities in 9/12 Frontpage, his display of international newspaper front pages from 12 September 2001. Repetitive photographs of the World Trade Center's collapse underline the buildings' role as charged images, as ideological symbols. Ahmet Ögüt's Exploded City assembles the random violence of international terrorism into an innocent-looking town. As a subset of building types, "having been attacked" is no familiar category. So Belfast's Europa hotel, the Ottoman Mostar bridge, Paddy's Pub, Bali and many others find themselves in a circumstantial neighbourhood, served by a number 30 bus and a Madrilenian train. Ögüt's model-railway aesthetic enthusiasms lend pristine innocence to the unfolding territorial and political conflict of which architecture is always part.
Architecture can be as imaginary as the African-pop dreams of the Congolese sculptor Bodys Isek Kingelez, or Yin Xiuzhen's fabric models of cities that pop up outof suitcases. Architecture is a summation of an idea – of imagination, knowledge and ideology – made physical at gigantic scale. It is, as the show suggests, form, sociology, politics and dream all at the same time. Like a dream, the built world has emerged out of our collective subconscious. Projected into concrete steel and glass, we may touch it but it remains as unknowable as our own selves.
Gazing again into the frame of the still-running Empire, architecture's resistance to anything but contingent explanation remains clearly visible in the foggy image. I'm reminded of the traumatised face sculpted on the fountain in the Piazza della Rotunda, facing the Pantheon, condemned to stare unblinkingly at the crisis of architecture with no hope of resolution, century upon century. The only problem with Warhol's Empire is that it's about a millennium too short.
Skyscraper: Art and Architecture against Gravity, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 30 June – 23 September 2012.
Nathan Keay, MCA Chicago