Sunday, May 13, 2012


[Photos by John Hill, unless otherwise noted]

Last week, a bunch of press folks squeezed into MoMA PS1's Performance Dome to listen to artist Marina Abramović, architect Shohei Shigematsu (of OMA's New York office), and others unveil the design for the Marina Abramović Institute for the Preservation of Performance Art (MAI) in Hudson, New York. The unveiling kicks off a fundraising effort on the part of the artist, who aims for an optimistic completion of the project in 2014. The design, by Rem Koolhaas and Shigematsu, reconfigures an old theatre-cum-tennis-center, preserving its exterior walls, balcony, and structure, and inserting new floors and spaces.


At first blush I thought the combination of a well-known artist and well-known architect added up to a lot of hype, but not necessarily a good architectural design. But after learning more about Abramović's art and OMA's design during the press conference, I gradually warmed up to it. The above study models indicate the basic parti of the design: a large central performance space is surrounded by smaller spaces. The more developed study model below (bottom right, above) makes it clear that some of the smaller spaces serve the large performance space -- the reused balcony, in particular -- but most of them work independently; the design's reality is somewhere between these two relationships, as will be seen.


The site plan below illustrates how the building Abramović purchased has a strong public presence in Hudson, overlooking a large open space. MAI is envisioned as another element in a string of public buildings that ring the open space and extend to other parts of the town. According to a press release, MAI "will host workshops, public lectures and festivals." But its bread and butter will be training people in the Abramović Method.


The artist explained her Abramović Method after showing a short trailer for the documentary The Artist Is Present, which is based on her show of the same name at MoMA in 2010. As the title indicates, Abramović was part of the exhibition, actually sitting in MoMA's large atrium gallery for hours each day, staring at museum-goers who sat across from her; many were moved to tears. It's obvious that her long-duration performances take discipline on the part of the artist, but it is less obvious that it requires the same (if to a lesser degree) from the viewer, who actually becomes part of the performance. The Abramović Method is her means of training people to have the right mindset and discipline to endure long-duration performances. This makes it sound like these performances are painful more than grueling, but given today's short attention spans and speedy communications, even the 2-1/2-hour period without a smartphone may be difficult for many.


To get back to OMA's design, the large performance space is centrally located for two reasons: first, the theatre/tennis courts were in the same location; and second, this flexible white-box space for up to 650 people is overlooked by every other part of the Institute, elevating it to be the most prominent and important space. In the model above, the bottom left corner -- the piece that juts from the building mass -- is the entrance, which includes a vertical gallery. From the entry, those attending a performance would go to the left, while those for training would continue straight and to the right; therefore a distinction between public and private is created, but each has views of central space.


Of the public and private spaces, the latter are easily the most interesting. The Abramović Method requires some traditional classroom-type spaces, but it also includes a levitation room, a crystal room, and a sleeping chamber; in the case of the latter, employees wheel trainees in custom wheelchairs -- somewhere between a traditional wheelchair and a cabana chair -- from elsewhere in the building (wherever the fall asleep) to the chamber. Considering that trainees don white lab coats, and that they eventually perform (like in Milan at PAC) for the public, I can only imagine a strange dynamic happening in the building between the public and private, between the curious and the immersed. The building "type" is a strange hybrid of a performing arts institution and a school, anchored by Abramović and her unique method. One can only imagine how the building would "work," but for some reason I think it needs to be a 24-hour institution, in order to truly embrace the long-duration performances the artist promotes.


This last illustration, a longitudinal building section below, shows the relationships of some of the smaller spaces to the central performance space. The idea is that a visit to the library or some other space gives a peek at the performance space, as well as views across to the other openings; therefore people watch each other watching the performance. A breakdown occurs between long-held distinctions between performer and viewer, both in the art and in the architecture. In that regard, OMA's design is simple yet completely appropriate to the complex task of turning Abramović's art and method into a building for the ages.

[Building Section | Image courtesy OMA]


  1. From the mini illustration above, I'm excited for the outcome of the project. Can't wait to have update this coming year 2014.

  2. I like the design of this project because it serves many practical applications while maintaining an exciting look.


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