In his 2001 book “Contested Symmetries and Other Predicaments in Architecture,” Cambridge-based architect Preston Scott Cohen takes on a gusty, manifesto-like tone, lamenting the decline of architecture into “a discipline of disinterestedness, arbitrariness, and easily digestible decoration.” While many of his contemporaries were turning to the computer to redefine their discipline, reveling in the new ease with which technically challenging forms could be realized, Cohen confronted the unsettling notion that architecture, as an intellectual and artistic pursuit, had once again been outpaced by technology.
Yet in practice, Cohen has shown no attempt to avoid the most advanced forms of digital modeling. His firm’s 2011 addition to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art is a slick and spatially dynamic structure, an experiment in form that does not conceal its indebtedness to the computer. The firm is now nearing the completion of its next big commission, the Taiyuan Museum of Art in Taiyuan, China, and the recently finished exterior likewise extols the digitally modeled aesthetic.
Set in an urban park, the sprawling, 32,500-square-meter museum is covered in a honeycomb pattern of thin stone panels, its form defined by a curving, horizontal mass that gives shape to flexible interior galleries and a meandering outdoor promenade. “The whole building gives form to the promenade,” Cohen told ARTINFO via e-mail. “The surfaces of the building rise, fall and torque in response to the topography... in order to create foreshortened and attenuated perspectives to be experienced by the viewer as spatial illusions. In this way, the museum transforms the experience of the park, locally into a work of art.”
Cohen thus grounds the museum’s computer-generated form firmly in the experience of the park. The concept has roots in the early 19th century, when intellectuals in the budding field of landscape architecture saw the need to alternate sublime and picturesque countryside views so as to stimulate visitors traveling by horse-drawn carriage. Cohen's design uses decidedly contemporary visual vocabulary to communicate an enduring idea.
But the aesthetics of Cohen’s museum are reflective of the contemporary age in more ways than one. The Taiyuan Museum of Art is a material expression of what it means to build today. “In China,” Cohen explained, “the bureaucratic processes of building production demand that architecture be horribly rushed. The process discourages the back and forth collaboration with structural and mechanical engineers necessary for the realization of a complex and well integrated design.”
Cohen’s solution was the computer. The museum’s elastic yet frozen appearance is no accident; it reflects a process of continuous modification, of the software-enabled stretching, contracting, and distorting of walls that was required to instantly resolve conflicts between the museum’s form and its structural and mechanical systems. The finished form exposes the mutability of an admittedly problematic design process, what Cohen called a “pre-existing condition” of the site.
The Taiyuan Museum of Art thus brings new clarity to the argument Cohen made ten years ago. What the architect laments is not the forthright embrace of computation, but the little time and thought afforded for architecture today, deficiencies far too easily concealed behind the polished facade of an architectural object. But in Taiyuan, technology has “made possible a genuinely continuous, dynamic process.”
A version of this article will appear in the November issue of Modern Painters magazine.
To see more images of Peter Scott Cohen's Taiyuan Museum of Art, click the slide show.