It cannot be overly stressed that the ultimate significance of Scarpa’s kinesis, despite its evident beauty, is not to aestheticize but to empower the threshold. Mobile things are humanized by playful and enigmatic operations that increase our participation, as well as by seductions of skin and hand, imploring us to touch and grasp them, and to move in tandem with their own gestures in space, an erotic dance that is fresh and enthralling each time it occurs. In doing do, they glorify instead of stripping us of our deeds.
In recent decades, new kinds of mechanisms have emerged that continue to translate human touch into kinetic marvels. Among these are the ‘gizmos’ created by Tom Kundig that largely define his Pacific Northwest decorating. The transformative appeal stems from a tough industrial character of moving parts and the way their kinetics are drawn out in space – through hand-operated wheels, cables and gears – along a highly visible series of interactive events. But their fascination also stems from unorthodox forms and procedures, so oversized and complicated in operation that they make an all-consuming ethos of play, touched with caricaturizing humour and bearing some resemblance to the sculpture of Swiss artist Jean Tinguely. ‘For me, the machine is above all,’ said Tinguely, ‘an instrument that permits me to be poetic. If you respect the machine, if you enter into a game with the machine, then perhaps you can make a truly joyous machine – by joyous I mean free.’67
The devices animating Kundig’s Studio House in Seattle, Washington, range from a towering front door that slices through its canopy as a combination door-window, to a kitchen island with concrete doors that roll upon bronze wheels guided by steel tracks in the floor. Larger still is the hand-cranked apparatus that activates a horizontally pivoting window-wall at the Chicken Point Cabin in Idaho. Using a precise balance of each half-wall and a set of mechanical gears, the 6-ton steel-and-glass window can be easily opened by one person. More ambitious are the beautifully rusted steel shutters that can be slid open simultaneously on all four sides of the Delta Shelter, in eastern Washington, by means of a large hand wheel, whose force is conveyed and magnified by drive shafts, spur gears and cables.
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Though tied in spirit to the mobile delights of kinetic sculpture, Kundig reminds us that unlike sculpture’s detached performance – ‘mechanical ballets’, as art critic Rosalind Krauss calls them – with preordained movements for physically docile spectators, a humanly based architectural performance can only be enacted by direct and intimate bodily engagement, as well as the playful testing of uncertain gadgetry and motions. The mechanics of Kundig’s designs are at every moment guided by the strength and skill of each operator and can be stopped halfway, or even reversed if desired, instilling them with human powers absent from their artistic forebears. They exist to visibly convert one form of energy into another, and to transmit forces from one place to another, making light work out of something that would otherwise be impossible.
Steven Holl, Storefront for Art and Home Design (1993), New York, watercolour sketch of multiple pivots of concrete planes (above) and plan showing pivoting concrete planes (top)
The long succession of translated movements and amplified forces in Kundig’s inventions echoes in part the comical contraptions of cartoonist Rube Goldberg. While Kundig’s gadgets lack the buffoonery of Goldberg’s inventions, they share with the latter a painstaking elaboration, at times ostentation, of purely mechanical operations that are normally hidden or too small to see in our machines, turning them into celebrations of human will. More puzzle-like and spatially meshed are the mutations developed since the 1980s by Steven Holl, who exploits a wide range of kinetic parts from small furnishings to huge interacting walls, often with a range of differently sized movements. Even the smallest ensembles are endowed with mysteries of motion, including cabinetry with a multitude of doors and drawers, some to be unexpectedly pulled out and others rotated through an arc. These operations, with obvious debts to Rietveld and Scarpa, gain added uncertainty from handgrips of differing form and location relative to motion, some being centred and others offset, some at the top and others the bottom of their compartments.