Architectures non standard | icon 010 | February 2004

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words Mark Rappolt

A new exhibition at the Pompidou which showcases the work of 12 architecture practices doesn’t propose anything radically new, it just celebrates radical difference.

On the way to the Pompidou Centre’s South Gallery, home to the Architectures non standard exhibition, you pass the work of Mathieu Mercier, a young French artist who has just won the Prix Marcel Duchamp. To celebrate this honour, Mercier has constructed a new work entitled Pavillon (2003). It’s a lifesize fibreglass caricature of a house, produced with an aesthetic sensibility that sits somewhere between that of a manufacturer of plastic doll’s houses and the architecture of The Simpsons. It’s got all the usual things – a door, some windows, lots of right angles, four walls and a pitched roof. In short, it’s a slightly evolved form of the banal square-with-a-triangle-on-top. And that, as various wall blurbs make clear, is absolutely not the kind of thing that the 12 architecture practices showcased next door are all about.

Over in Architectures non standard, where everything is about continuous surfaces, Computer Numerical Control prototypes, datascapes, and a continual quest to take the fiction out of science fiction, Sulman Kolatan and William MacDonald of the New York-based Kol/Mac Studio declare that an apartment block has less in common with real estate and more in common with the car-hire industry. François Roche and Stéphanie Lavaux of the French office R&Sie want to build houses that serve as mosquito traps, Kas Oosterhuis wants his to have an “elastic geometry” that can be shaped by clients who order them via the internet (, while Greg Lynn sees his as a series of unique “metablobs” grown from common DNA. And, when it comes to seating, the multinational collective Servo has discovered that it isn’t about your arse, it’s about your mood – it’s stuck a collection of sensors, LEDs and micro speakers into a shell chair so that it can interpret the posture and duration of your seating as a sound and light show. The remaining practices represented here are the usual suspects (deCOI, Nox, Dagmar Richter’s DR_D, Asymptote, Objectile, UN Studio and Kovac Architecture) when it comes to this kind of architectural freakery.

All this non-standard thinking is of course made possible by computers. Consequently, one of the overriding messages of this exhibition is that architecture is no longer about cranes, dust, noise and builders’ bums; instead it’s about computers, animations and the bleeps and hums of ambient electronic soundtracks. This is 2004, and everyone knows all that.

But what is intriguing and important about this show is not that it proposes anything radically new, rather that it simply celebrates radical difference. Rather like Sid Vicious singing My Way.

The exhibition title, Non Standard, is lifted from a book on mathematics published in 1961 by Raymund Abraham. And snaking through the exhibition space is a very low-tech ribbon of images that sets out a genealogy of non-standard design. Grouped into 11 typologies, it includes most of the avant-garde work of the 20th century that is now enshrined in the standard canon of art and architectural history. We get Duchamp’s Nude Descending A Staircase, Utzon’s Sydney Opera House, the Smithsons’ Coventry Cathedral scheme, a Henry Moore sculpture, a smattering of Kiesler, some Kisho Kurokawa, plenty of Le Corbusier, a dash of Frei Otto and much more besides. Maintaining this sense of tradition, Nox’s design for the Soft Office UK in Warwickshire adapts an old Otto experiment to generate its organisation, Kol/Mac’s 1999 Resi/Rise tower block (a vertical cluster of living pods that are removed and recycled when their inhabitants move away) looks like 1960s Metabolism but with better graphics, while UN Studio and R&Sie have made profitable use of the Klein bottle (the former in its masterplan for Arnhem Central, the latter in its Mosquito Bottleneck house).

What this exhibition demonstrates is that beneath all these sometimes wilfully contrary projects there is often something reassuringly familiar underneath. And nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in UN Studio’s resolutely low-tech (not a CNC-milled prototype in sight) paper models for the Las Palmas Bridge (covered in pen calculations) and the wire model for the Graz Musical Theatre, which looks like it was made entirely of coathangers. Perhaps the real surprise of non-standard is that, despite an arguably unhealthy addiction to computers and alien aesthetics, this architecture is not so far removed from the standard that Mercier makes a display of as you might think.

Architectures non standard, Pompidou Centre, Paris

Until March 1

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