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Elemental logic: Daniel Herman on Yves Klein's air architecture.

YVES KLEIN'S ARCHITECTURE is ignored in most discussions of his work, which tend to dwell on his deep blue monochromes and his daredevil photomontage Leap into the Void, 1960. But a broader view shows that, before his life was cut short at the age of thirty-four in 1962, Klein was increasingly drawn to larger-scale visions. In 1957 he began to generate schemes for buildings and cities--indeed, entire civilizations--in a long-term project he called "air architecture." The project took many forms--paintings, drawings, plans, construction details, installations, films, lectures, performances, even patent applications--and many of Klein's enduring interests coalesced in it, particularly his appreciation of the primacy of nature, such as the sky and the earth, and of its forces, such as gravity and fire. In Klein's architecture, there are no walls or roofs required: The desultory quality of weather is instead neutralized by the technologically advanced, and largely invisible, deployment of air-conditioning devices. And so the artist's relatively unknown investigations have a renewed currency in today's architectural climate, in which an increasingly sophisticated understanding of environmental conditions--and the ability to control them, at the scale of the individual building, the city, and, indeed, the planet--has sparked a reevaluation of how buildings and their environments interact.

Klein's prescient work on this topic is finally given an extensive treatment in the exhibition "Yves Klein: Air Architecture" at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture in West Hollywood from May 13 to August 29 and in the accompanying catalogue of the same name, published by Hatje Cantz. The show and book, put together by architect Francois Perrin, perform a thorough reexamination of this little-known material. The book, well researched and well designed (by Axel Prichard-Schmitzberger), gathers original texts by Klein, new interviews with some of Klein's collaborators, ample reproductions, and several new analyses, including Sylvere Lotringer's outstanding account of Klein's evolution from a painter to a maker of voids (an "eraser"?). The show collects twenty-five Klein pieces, while Perrin's exhibition design is itself a contemporary version of "air architecture," creating Klein-type environments in the service of presenting the material.



In the catalogue, a previously unpublished manuscript titled "Air Architecture and Air Conditioning of Space," one of seven texts newly translated for the book, describes in depth Klein's paradoxical vision of a return to a state of nature through technology:
 For the past ten years I have been dreaming, as much a waking dream
 as possible, of a sort of return to Eden!
 Eden: This biblical myth is no longer a myth for me. I have always
 wanted to think of it in a positive, constructive, cold, and
 realistic was.... The world of science fiction was smiling at me in
 its stupid, foolish way with solutions such as solar mirrors, for
 example, or heating rivers in winter, creating artificial gulf
 streams that cross seas and oceans, changing the direction of great
 winds from hot countries, directing them toward cold countries and
 vice versa.... Of course, with all the progress made by science,
 this is no longer a utopia today. Technique, however, could in fact
 realize such things!... To find nature and live once again on the
 surface of the whole of the earth without needing a roof or a wall.
 To live in nature with a great and permanent comfort.

Air, fire, water: These are the building materials in Klein's eternal springtime of leisure. In spite of the dreaminess of such a Bachelard-influenced description, Klein took the constructability of his vision very seriously. Indeed, it is perhaps this aspect that distinguishes air architecture from other '60s utopian projects, such as Constant's New Babylon, Archigram's Walking City, and Buckminster Fuller's glass dome over Manhattan. From his very first architectural exercises--a collaboration with the architect Werner Ruhnau for a series of murals at the Gelsenkirchen opera house (1958-59)--Klein began not with sketches and models but rather by performing a series of laboratory experiments with curtains of air and plumes of fire, the very technologies that would be required to realize the vision. In the short film Air Roof Test from 1961 (shown as a loop in the MAK show), Klein aims a spigot releasing compressed air at a faucet of running water, pushing the water sideways. After a few moments regarding the water's apparent defiance of gravity, he turns to the camera with a look of satisfaction, as if to say, "It can be done." The experiment demonstrates that a horizontal air curtain can be effectively used as a roof. It mustn't rain in Eden.

MAK's LA gallery has for ten years inhabited the house that architect Rudolf M. Schindler designed for himself in 1921. Schindler took the modernist preoccupation with blurring interior and exterior to a new level: Some of the main rooms of the house are outside. The bedrooms are open-air "sleeping baskets" on the roof. The living rooms are rectangles of lawn with fireplaces. Like Klein, Schindler devised a hedonistic mode of living in connection with nature. Moreover, where Klein imagined a world populated by naked nymphs and palm trees--a rethinking of civilized society, to say the least--Schindler's house posited a revised social organization of its own. Designed for himself, his wife, and another couple, the house has four rooms, one per person. The organizing principle of the home wasn't the nuclear family but rather a coterie of like-minded adults.


While the mere juxtaposition of these two projects serves to highlight such similarities, the show's installation takes the inquiry a step or two further. First, Perrin raises a practical set of questions: How might Klein have operated on the scale of a house or gallery? What is air architecture really like to be in? Using technologies borrowed from the greenhouse industry, Perrin tests Klein's concepts in a series of small-scale air-architecture installations of his own devising. A "weather station" on the roof provides realtime control of devices strategically arranged throughout the house--humidifiers, cooling fans, vinyl curtains--with the goal of maintaining comfortable temperatures for visitors and cool conditions for the fragile Klein drawings and sculptures (among them, one of Klein's blue sponges). Furthermore, in organizing the gallery with heat, cool air, and mist, Perrin advances "air architecture" as an adaptive, interactive, and site-specific method for making space.


Of course, the current interest in the use of atmospheric conditions to make space is quite prevalent, and even popular. In addition to Perrin's installation, several recent high-profile architectural projects bear the hallmarks of Klein's thinking. For example, Diller + Scofidio's Blur Building (2002) creates a dense cloud of mist through which visitors perambulate. This spectacle of the natural world perceived through an evanescent construction is a central tenet of air architecture. Moreover, the elaborate technological infrastructure needed to achieve this evanescence is also found in Klein's world, where pumps, compressors, and turbines hidden belowground enable the ethereal Eden at ground level. This past winter's "Snow Show" in Finland saw seventeen experiments by contemporary architects collaborating with artists, such as Morphosis with Do-Ho Suh, making buildings out of ice. While Klein might have found the results a bit chilly for his liking, the ambition of building with the specific climatological conditions of a place is very much in the spirit of his ideas.

The snowballing significance of "sustainable" or "green" thinking in architecture lends a project such as Klein's added relevance. While the general aims of sustainable design are beyond reproach, unfortunately most green buildings are distinctly retrograde. These so-called green buildings generally behave much like their nongreen counterparts, with only mild improvements in certain areas of performance, like a car that gets thirty-two miles per gallon rather than twenty-eight. As a result, the primary use for green building has until now been marketing: Manufacturers trumpet the earth-saving effects of their recycled rubber, renewable bamboo, and lowemissivity glass coatings. Meanwhile, governments, corporations, and universities reassure their constituencies that their new buildings aren't merely functional or beautiful but also virtuous. Those who build green can claim to be, to borrow a phrase from Dave Hickey, "therapeutic institutions," helping to heal a wounded society with their housing tracts, factories, and stadiums.

Klein would have us do more. When a recent article in The Observer of London, on a secret Pentagon report on global warming, stated that "climate change over the next 20 years could result in a global catastrophe costing millions of lives in wars and natural disasters," his science fiction-like proposals began to seem not so outlandish. Indeed, current predictions of incipient cataclysm lend realism and even urgency to Klein's way of thinking. Klein demonstrated that an air roof was possible in 1961. What about now? Bamboo flooring is nice, but it won't save civilization. It's time to break out the solar mirrors. Let's redirect the winds. Let's heat the rivers. Let's leap into the void.

Daniel Herman is a Los Angeles-based architect and writer.
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Title Annotation:Architecture
Author:Herman, Daniel
Publication:Artforum International
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2004
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