By Malca Mizrahi *
The Pampas, its un-specificity and abstraction, has always been seen a fertile soil for invention in Argentina. The excessive extension of a line that draws no incidents or figures in the landscape creates a powerful terrain to rehearse new potent definitions of space … Its vastness has the disruptive ability to arise sublimity. In the same way, the space that Tomás Saraceno creates is able to arise the feeling of the sublime.
Of the processes that look introspectively and validate the relevance of experience to produce lyrical qualities in space, Saraceno’s is one of the best I have found … Each of his installations is a contribution to architecture … and the following paragraphs discuss how the experience of the sublime becomes the content of his ‘speculative urbanism’.
By the end of our architectural education in the late 1990s in Buenos Aires, Saraceno and I were introduced to other approaches to the practice of architecture that invited us to look for ‘materials’ that would inform poetically the design project. Since then, critical and sensitive observation has been essential to the process of designing architectural space. But more significant to Saraceno’s later work would be the development of an obsession: the materialization of a light and complex architecture, defiant of gravity that is not only inhabitable but ‘transportable’. A flying city that would make its inhabitants post-national citizens of the world, aerial travellers across all geographies and landscapes, experiencing daily the sublime feeling of living among the clouds.
His ongoing project, Cloud Cities (Figs. 3, 4 and 9) presents a floating nomadic urbanism composed of inhabitable lightweight cells that can make up a city above ground… And Cloud Cities is inspired as much by Buckminster Fuller’s structures as by the ideas of Argentine artist Gyula Kosice who, in 1971, designed ‘La ciudad hidroespacial’. His nomadic urbanism, flotation, and inhabitable lightweight cells were all there in Kosice’s Manifesto.
In 2006, in Salar de Uyuni, Bolivian Andes, Saraceno found a revealing depiction of the idea of living among the clouds and the sublime feeling it arouses. During the rain season, a salt lake, flooded with a thin layer of water, produces a disorientating phenomenon: the horizon disappears and the continuous reflections of the sky over the water create a vision of infinity. This reflection, provoked by the extensive salt- lake ‘mirror’, gives the illusion of ‘being inside the sky’. This image of the body in suspension, in limitless space, drives the spectacularly ambitious art installations he has been building since he left Argentina in 2000.
Series made in Salar de Uyuni (Figs. 2 , 5 and 10) focuses on achieving the sublime feeling that arises when the body experiences infinity. The materialization of this sensation, of lightness and ‘being hung on air’, is found in all his art projects … It started with Towards the Flying City and developed into an obsession to achieve a floating inhabitable space where a new and parallel biosphere can develop.
Saraceno’s ‘speculative urbanism’, experience and the body
Saraceno’s architectural image carries the promise of achieving physicality, sensuousness and innovative materiality. To experience his ‘architecture’ means to touch, see, hear and to be inside it. It also demands rational investigation into the technology to make his ambition possible. His work offers us the complete process: from the initial conceptual ‘incompleteness’ in the Bolivian Salar de Uyuni—because it only shows us what we will see if we were suspended inside his floating cells—to the physical and material rehearsal of sophisticated inflatable structures that can be built inside galleries, or floating figures suspended outside gardened palaces.1 On Space Time Foam (Figs. 6 and 7), is a 7,000 m3 air-sculpture accessible by the public and made of three layers of film. The light structure is suspended from a very high ceiling and allows visitors a floating-like experience. But because of its three levels it also shows the ‘interdependency’ of the visitors’ movements positioned at different heights inside the inflatable space. When the visitors below move, Saraceno says, they generate internal ‘destabilizing waves’ that provoke unexpected shifts of the visitors above and viceversa.2
This experience of interconnectivity, provoked by movements by visitors at different levels of an installation … makes us lose our capacity to refer to space and our sensory stimulus is enhanced by this loss.
As we are invited inside Saraceno’s gardens, cities, airports, domes and giant webs, we become aware of a twenty-first-century baroque drama materializing: the body consciously embraced by an alien environment aspiring to become a natural sphere to live in.
Linguistically and technologically complex, Saraceno’s floating spheres propose a new rationale, one that retains the baroque principles of visual intensity and sensuous immersiveness but merged with technological rigour and audacity.
Saraceno’s design process is one of discovering qualities that emerge from the experience of architecture … It shows that to create space, to go through the process that aims to complete, concretely and sensuously that initial and inner image of architecture, demands an introspective exploration that probably started when we were students and continued with his artistic development in Frankfurt and Venice.
Saraceno’s work is not concerned with simulation, scale models, or digital manipulation. He allows us to experience the ‘real thing’, addressing all of our senses. His work aspires to show, experiment with, and materialize the stimulation that an unusual and intense spatial situation induces in our perception like that experienced at Salar de Uyuni. His immense and immersive art installations can be interpreted as an act of recovery, a powerful act to conquer an image of space that embodies an intense sensory stimulation.
Saraceno’s aerial, global and moving figures travel through a landscape conceived as a tabula rasa that communicates the limitlessness of the Pampas, whose desolation and solitude surrounds his inhabitable biospheres. They communicate a notion of space that addresses the body and, ultimately, aims to provoke a self-dissolving condition that allows the sublime sentiment to arise. Salar de Uyuni acts as the persistent image, almost the unattainable figure that drives Saraceno’s conquest of a new inhabitable realm; an epic struggle against gravity to raise the entire population of a city to the sky.
Each new installation, like Cloud City (Fig. 9) on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, contributes to his conception of inhabitation, experience and emotion as interrelated aspects of spatial and urban design. For Latour ‘there is no overall container to [Saraceno’s] work … every container or sphere is either inside another local one or “inside” the network of outside connections.’3 This description recaptures another aspect of the baroque spirit but also defines a type of space that transcends borders … Linguistically, it illustrates the notion of baroque excess. Ideologically, Saraceno’s idea of trans-national living-voyaging marks a new interpretation of the modernist utopian principle of a universal home replicated across borders, only now addressing the body and the arousal of an aesthetic-affective response induced by a sensuous experience of space.
1. For example, his Poetic Cosmos of the Breath (2007), Gunpowder Park,Essex. Fig. 8. Also, late projects of Tomas have indeed flown some of these inflatable sculptures in various locations, or presented them in scientifically inquiring sculptural works. For these, please look at www.aerocene.com and www.tomassaraceno.com/projects/aerocene/
2. Saraceno talking about On Space Time Foam: http://www.hangarbicocca.org/en/exhibition/tomas-saraceno-on-space-time-foam/
3. Latour, ‘Some Experiments in Art and Politics’. Bruno Latour, ‘Some Experiments in Art and Politics’, E-flux Online Journal,2011. http://www.e-flux.com/journal/some-experiments-in-art-and-politics/.
*Dr Malca Mizrahi is an architect, researcher and writer. She graduated from the Faculty of Architecture, Universidad de Buenos Aires and has a Masters Degree in Architectural Design from The Bartlett School of Architecture. She was recently awarded a PhD degree with Distinction at UCL, for her Thesis on contemporary art practices engaged with the production of space and architecture. She taught architectural design at the University of Buenos Aires and at The Bartlett School of Architecture at Diploma Level. She practiced architecture in Buenos Aires, where she established MTMN architects, Madrid and London, where she worked for Zaha Hadid Architects. Her writing and visual work explores the production of space from an interdisciplinary approach, interweaving visual and literary strategies of fictional construction; it has been exhibited in London, Venice, Madrid, Mallorca, Rotterdam, Vienna, Sao Pablo, Santiago de Chile and Buenos Aires.
Tomás Saraceno: Perpetuating Delight is an extract from Dr Malca Mizrahi’s UCL PhD Thesis: ‘Lyrical Space: The Construction of Space in Contemporary Architecture, Art and Literature in Argentina’ 2014.