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Spatial generics of the architectural office

The architect’s office is a primary export of American architecture adopted worldwide but remains much of a muchness with bland trifling differences, as shown in Amie Siegel’s ‘The Architects’

Part way into Amie Siegel’s video work, The Architects, which finished last month at the Storefront for Art and Architecture, you begin to wonder if all architectural offices in New York City are, in fact, a single, interminable loft space. The work, for which Siegel filmed 10 prominent firms, ‘from Fifth Avenue to downtown to Brooklyn’, unfolds in relentlessly lateral tracking – a smooth cross-section of Dell computers and Herman Miller chairs, an inside skyline in more ways than one.

The Architects was commissioned by Storefront for OfficeUS, the US Pavilion at the 2014 International Architecture Biennale in Venice. OfficeUS, itself an architectural research firm, founded on the occasion of the Biennale by Storefront’s executive director and chief curator Eva Franch i Gilabert, with architects Ashley Schafer, Ana Miljački and Amanda Reeser, posited that the architectural office is a primary export of American architecture. In the 1950s, US corporate spatial generics – the open-plan, communal tables, breakout zones, fluorescent troffer ceiling grids – became architectural spatial generics, epitomised and distributed by SOM, adopted globally over the remaining half of the century. Modern architectural firms came to uniformly resemble US architectural firms, and US corporate culture implicitly impacted global work habits.

Siegel is aligned with this dialectic of sameness and difference. Her works often utilise remake, in particular Black Moon (2010), which involved a partial recreation of Louis Malle’s 1975 film transposed to foreclosed properties in California and Florida, and Berlin Remake (2005), a two-channel installation that showed the Berlin of state-run East German film studio movies alongside shot-for-shot footage.

The Architects opens on what appears to be an establishing shot of Manhattan, but as the camera starts to track, the city is revealed to be a digital render on a firm’s pinboard – the first of many false ‘outsides’. As Siegel slides from one large firm to the next, the spaces appear of a piece all the more because they are not identical, but assert personality through inescapably corporate, decorative modalities. The type of candy and colour of bowl change to match the plant pots; the fact of potted plants and bowls of candy endures.

The repetitions begin to create suspense: Siegel’s panning lens seems always on the verge of uncovering yet another man in a blue shirt, perhaps on the phone beneath a maneki-neko, at a book shelf, or drawing on a render, surrounded by a group of similarly attired, younger men. These seemingly arbitrary samenesses are funny, and at the same time invoke questions of cultural entrenchment. Perhaps the principle is less one of generics than of multiverses: within an infinite Bürolandschaft, banality left unexamined repeats itself.

While The Architects’ definite article would seem to presage a typology of its noun, the work is as much about habitat as species. The animals are there, nearly cropped out of frame or half-hidden behind partitions, but we never meet one. Their voices are reduced to backgrounded hum, drowned out by typing and scanning. Siegel affords subject status to the unusually curvilinear form of a reception desk, or a table of drawings, or the printer that accomplishes the only task completed in the work’s chronology by printing a single page. Siegel’s emphasis on objects, especially electronics, can feel didactic: the camera sails coolly across two young, probably unpaid staff scoring wood blocks with Stanley knives only to break tracking for several seconds mimicking the motion of a MakerBot 3D printer.

In a recent lecture at Cooper Union, Siegel expressed agnosticism toward the Le Corbusier furniture at the centre of her 2013 work, Provenance. For that work, purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Siegel followed the passage (in reverse, like a provenance document) of chairs and desks from Corbusier’s development at Chandigarh, India, through the machinations of freight to the backrooms of auction houses and restorers, into the homes (and yacht) of European collectors. In a review for Frieze, Jason Farago wrote that Siegel’s refusal to make her implicit critique – of the art object as a mechanism of capital flow, of International Style, of socio-economic exploitation across continents, among other things – meant that the work threatened to reinforce, rather than expose or challenge, problematic structures.

The Architects is no Playtime, Jacques Tati’s 1967 comedy, in which the provincial Monsieur Hulot bursts into a corporate, modernist Paris in all his inconvenient physicality and chaos ensues. Siegel never breaks The Architects’ consensus; she doesn’t offer a foil. Zooming in on a printed digital render, she tracks from a modular, Tetris-like beachfront resort into the ocean, an absorbingly beautiful moment in which the frame fills with pixel sea and the background hum goes quiet. A quick cut to a new firm – with its Dells and its bookshelves, albeit with a little more colour and a few more smiles (stereotype dictates this is probably ‘Brooklyn’) – only reminds us that The Architects’ dichotomy of inside and outside is frustratingly unresolved.

The architects are inside. Even the firms are inside, somehow retreating into and digesting themselves. The suggestion that the camera and the audience are outsiders together – established in a shot of one of the offices filmed from an adjacent building, where the camera sneaks glimpses into the impossibly lit office from the dark – is unconvincing. Instead, the viewer is suspended in some airless interstice, neither in nor out. At the work’s durational yet oddly atemporal pace, the experience is somewhat like being on an aeroplane: layers of disconnected movement (you, the other passengers, the vessel and the distant earth) create an overall sensation of stasis.

Siegel’s reluctance to situate herself, and, as a consequence, the viewer, obfuscates the work’s relationship to its subject, and the subject’s relationship to the outside world. Whole cities are contained within these offices; we know, because we’ve watched them being adjusted atop plinths, under studio lights, by a blue-shirted photographer. Most surfaces in the offices are literally littered with skyscrapers; maquettes of vaguely familiar cities are spiked with unfamiliar monoliths, waiting to be made real. In these moments, one starts to wish for Monsieur Hulot, an absurd intervention, to prove that this too shall pass.

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