October 18, 2011

“Construct” on Construction

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The space that Milstein Hall now inhabits, which lurks in the shadows of Sibley Hall, Rand and the Foundry, arrived at two junctures when the building was completed earlier this fall. In what was a radical acceleration in the evolution of the space, the chaotic construction site finally revealed its product.

“Construct,” an exhibition running in Milstein Gallery until Nov. 4, visually expresses two currents: the pace of development of the construction site within the broader history of the space, and the element of uncertainty that a construction site dumps onto those who share the surrounding buildings. “Construct” is the result of a two-year project by Michelle Chen ’13 and Diego Olvera ’13, who were nominated by the art department to put the exhibition together.

The idea for “Construct” was born out of a discussion between Rem Koolhaas, Milstein’s chief architect, and AAP Dean Kent Kleinmen, when Koolhass suggested that the department allow students to chronicle Milstein’s construction. AAP agreed, and assigned the photographers on the condition that they not employ conventional methods of architectural documentation. What resulted was a more “artistic, personal point of view,” according to Chen.

Chen’s photos are distortions of Milstein during its construction and aftermath. Chen shot Milstein from Tjaden Hall, both during the day and at night, through mediums that blur and segment her subject. One set of photos, entitled “Screens,” was taken through a screen that Chen placed in front of the window looking east towards Milstein. Chen focused the camera on the screen itself, which creates a ghostly image of Milstein when viewed from a few feet back. Another set of images, entitled “Einstein’s Ring,” portray the same view and evoke a similar feeling, but present an entirely different effect. In “Einstein’s Ring,” Chen photographed Milstein through an old piece of glass, which blurs the building’s west phacade and produces a phantasmagoric image of a structure whose edges bleed into the nighttime background.

Chen links the manipulated images to her experience walking between Tjaden, Sibley and the Foundry, during the two year period of uncertainty that characterized the construction site’s lifetime. Chen described the constant movement and reshuffling of the barriers and paths as “tumultuous.”

“Students constantly have to adjust their orientation to the spaces around them, and create new paths. But we don’t know what we are adjusting for; the building is the final adjustment,” she said.

Chen notes that a construction site builds anticipation and impatience, all the while hiding its creation from those around it. Her experience of the site supports her photography, which is blurry up close, but coherent from afar. “Indeterminite and unapproachable, it is seen through barriers, remaining clearest from a distance.”

Olvera took a different approach towards the space. When he was originally commissioned to do the project, the structure of Milstein was still bare. Olvera took an interest in how the empty spaces, piles of dirt and metal structures would soon transform into hallways and classrooms.  “I wanted to make a connection between a structure and a place,” said Olvera.

Several of Olvera’s untitled images superimpose different photos, taken from the same vantage points during different phases of construction, onto one picture. One image displays the studio space as a large room filled with construction materials, combined with later phases, in which new structures have already been installed. Other images create a broader history of the space. One sees the view of Rand and Milstein from the intersection of Thurston and University, layered on top of a photo of the very same space as it was at during the early 20th century.

“I didn’t know what this place looked like before. It was a parking lot when I was a freshman. I dug up some old photographs. I tried to superimpose them to see what that change is like. When a building is being built, it [the space] is changing much faster… it’s about change on different timescales.”

Chen and Olvera present complementary interpretations of the two-year project of construction. Milstein is merely the latest chapter in the history of a habitat that has been torn down, built onto, paved over, excavated and built onto again. “Construct” shows us how our notion of a familiar space changes over time, and how the pace of this change impacts our relation to and feelings about the corridors and paths that we walk daily.

Original Author: Joey Anderson