On a cold autumn day in 2006 — overcast and uncharacteristically windy — the conversation in the air centered on the role of aesthetics. It was in London — Clerkenwell to be more precise — while walking along Bowling Green Lane, when Marc Fornes presented to me his theory of the new, and how “grotesque” it appears (to many). Having studied art, knowing its history, I agreed completely. We plumbed examples from previous generations of artists and designers, those lauded and important to the course of the broader cultural debate, our conversation a clear reaction to the changing attitudes. Economies in the East and Europe ramped up from the early 2000s, and architectural exploration blossomed as more architects — no longer relegated to paper — produced challenging work. Often the dialogues within the design community focused on the ways in which it was indulgent, odd, and not architecture.
At that time, we both worked for Zaha Hadid and were on projects of varying scales and complexities. Zaha had won the Pritzker Prize in 2004, and commissions flowed in at an incredible rate. Marc’s focus project at that time, the Pau Mediatheque, incorporated what was to be the largest carbon fiber shell anywhere. As audacious as it was problematic from the start — attempting something that might never be achieved — the project succeeded in its beauty even though its reality was one of stalling and dying. Shortly afterwards, Marc relocated to New York, landing a gig at SOM. That leap from Europe to the United States opened up a new path for Marc, one that led ultimately to what is now a strong and concentrated body of work.
Nearly 10 years later, Marc’s work develops enviable formal explorations within a territory not often inhabited by architects, an area that allows for productive research to exist without much resistance, a territory where the grotesque lies supine, immobile, and accepted: art. In that space, exploration is mostly encouraged and as such is useful. Not only does Marc use that space for a broader engagement within the community of architecture; his work does the same for art where adoption of technology is ploddingly slow. Many designers and architects are taking advantage of this and are jumping into the territory of art, forgoing the notion of architecture being useful and art merely expressive. In this context, it may be understood that their fusion seeks to find a mother form of art and architecture: not one, not the other, but both-and.
These migrants to the art world, for whom Marc is a leader, find an incredible ally in furthering the fundamentally productive method of environmental design, a.k.a architecture. Marc’s early work, made of thin sheets of CNC-cut pieces, scaled well indoors when carefully assembled and left alone, but had limits in its ability to span and enclose. So therein, with slow methodical steps, a progression of work and ideas eventually led to larger, more architectonic work that achieves the fundamental element of architecture, statics. And that is exactly what “Spineway” is, a spatial exploration creating an environment that is both place and thing. It steps forward in establishing, within an ever expanding body of work, an agenda that cannot be understood simply as a work of art, which it is not, or architecture, which no one would accept. The research and design schema in this case is swinging for the bleachers and building on a language that is becoming ever more complex, with overlays of patterning and growing structural robustness. It’s nearing the ground zero of both-and, asymptotically; nearing but almost certainly never reaching.
Here, then, is a new pattern language, to co-opt and reinterpret the title of Christopher Alexander’s seminal work — a language that illustrates the fundamental principal that D’Arcy Thompson posited in his book “On Growth and Form.” That formal evolution is incremental given the constant deformation exerted on “things” by the forces of nature. Read here, nature, as the trial and error, research and exploration of each work that seeks to differentiate itself from the last, seems to be more attuned to its context and fundamentally more developed. It is here that Marc Fornes’ work is at its best, where the technical elements of its creation fuse with the aspirations of an eventual work, down the road – like a perfectly evolved being – where it becomes architecture, but still exists more broadly within a third territory of its own making, not either (both-and).
Public Art for San Antonio (PASA) should be lauded for their vision in selecting Marc Fornes to create “Spineway” for a discrete corner lot located adjacent to Woodlawn Lake in San Antonio – an area that desperately needs the work. Their selection is important for two reasons: The first is that the selection panel chose to collaborate in the creation of a body of work – not a singular piece. Secondly, and most importantly, that body of work is most assuredly grotesque, in the most resplendent way. They chose knowing that it would be softened and tempered with age, evolving into a work that is endearing to all.
Kevin McClellan, AIA, is an architect in San Antonio.