FURNITURE AND THE CITY
Mark Lee and Sharon Johnston
Adolf Loos distinguished the pieces of furniture that are fixed to the house as architecture and those that are free and mobile as furniture. In more than one way, furniture acts as the intermediary scale between architecture and the human body: the same way that architecture acts as the intermediary scale between furniture and the city. This fluctuating scalar relation between furniture, building, and the city is one that has preoccupied designers, architects, and planners alike throughout the course of history.
If one compares the way Philip Johnson places a set of Mies van der Rohe’s furniture in his Glass House with the way that Mies van der Rohe places the same set of furniture in his Barcelona Pavilion, one could discern two different spatial dispositions that extend towards architecture and, subsequently,¬ city planning. Johnson’s house is much more classical in its proportion and compactness; its furniture—the daybed, the set of chairs, and stools centered around a coffee table—is placed in a dynamic manner reminiscent of De Stijl, where the edges are not aligned. Mies’s Barcelona Pavilion, on the other hand, is a much more dynamic piece of architecture, especially in plan: none of the walls align, but, rather, slide past one another. However, the arrangement of the furniture, where the clusters align and form symmetrical and axial relations, is classical at its core. This notion of contrast and counterbalance between furniture and architecture extends toward the scale of the city in both architects’ work. While the architecture in Philip Johnson’s University of St. Thomas in Houston is unmistakably modernist, the master plan takes on a Jeffersonian classicism. In contrast, Mies van der Rohe’s buildings for IIT in Chicago are more classical in their disposition than Johnson’s, with the master plan being much more modern.
Piovenefabi and PRODUCTORA are practices that know something about the relation between a city and furniture. In two recent expositions in North America, these two practices—one based in Milan and the other in Mexico City—disclosed critical notions regarding the various relations between the two scales.
In the Piovenefabi installation titled Metrò, which was created for the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial, the architects reinterpret the Milan Metro subway system elements as a series of furniture pieces. Designed by Franco Albini and Franca Helg with the graphic designer Bob Noorda, Italy’s first subway line was inaugurated in 1964 at a time of optimism in postwar Italy. During this project, the first section of which took seven years to complete, collaborations with manufacturers yielded new materials and customized products such as the Pirelli black rubber floor: now ubiquitous, not many know its origin. Piovenefabi revisits both the materials and individual elements of the subway network. Collaborating with some of the original manufacturers, the architects produced a screen, a locker, a table made out of Silipol, a colorful stained concrete that was used as wall panels, and a bright red lamp made from the Metro’s curving handrail, which was both a utilitarian device and a graphic way-finding system. The Metrò series relates what is public and metropolitan in scale to what is private and domestic, creating what the architects refer to as a “new domestic landscape”: a reference to the exhibition that introduced radical Italian design to the world at the Museum of Modern Art.
In PRODUCTORA’s Columbus Circles installation for the inaugural Exhibit Columbus, a series of cylindrical urban furniture was inserted into the city; each piece was site-specific and interacted with its surrounding context. Built out of various local materials, the furniture foregrounded different histories and narratives of the installation environment. For example, a customized terrazzo blended disparate colors of the adjacent materials on the street. Not unlike their architecture, which is often based on simple geometric compositions, PRODUCTORA’s Columbus Circles and the _Columbus Table _explore the tensions between the circle, the square, and, by extension, all corners in the immediate vicinity. The respective attribution of solid and void to the circle and the square becomes, in the words of the architects, a “contextual imprint” and a registration of a specific urban history. On the other hand, using the square to create a negative space within the circle allows for the quotidian to penetrate the ideal: the imprecise to meet with the precise. The architects are able to produce the coalescence of two geometries—one imported from without and one exported from within, one local and specific and the other universal and general—with one simple stroke.
Whether through a direct intervention in the public spaces of the city with domestically scaled artifacts or by importing and reinterpreting the history and memory of public spaces into the domestic space, both PRODUCTORA and Piovenefabi are able to reveal their larger position towards architecture and the city. They remind us, as did those before them, that architecture falls somewhere between a piece of furniture and a city.