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RoseLee Goldberg (RLG): Markus, we met at a cocktail reception in New York and I liked your ideas so much from our brief conversation, that I commissioned you to design the Performa Hub with Magnus Nilsson and Ralf Pflugfelder, your partners in nOffice. You returned to Berlin. How did you begin the process? What were the conversations between the three of you?
Markus Miessen (MM): After I returned I was really excited about the fact that you had asked us to think about how to concretise Performa’s first architectural commission, the Hub. It was clear from the start that it would be a challenging brief as the budget was very limited yet the operational and content-related tasks that the architecture had to perform were quite serious. At the same time, the brief in many ways was an almost direct response to a number of issues that we, at nOffice, are really concerned about and interested in,
namely: archival practice and its spatial repercussions, staging discourse, and the relationship between space and the activation of audiences. We tend to think of this relationship as one, which is stimulated by what we call ‘enablers’ and ‘disablers’ – a set of physical components that sometimes facilitate and sometimes produce friction or conflict. When Magnus, Ralf and I talked about Performa Hub back in Berlin, it was pretty clear that we would approach the project in this way. In our practice, talking is the main design tool. We develop projects through ongoing conversation. We rarely draw; our different roles on the one hand demand this, because we have different backgrounds and responsibilities within the office, at the same time it has produced, for us, a very helpful apparatus: conversation as productive practice. When we talk we develop space around content and vice versa and only towards the end we start to visualize it. We are not interested in preconceived modes of production fueled by formal language, style, or physical aesthetic. More specifically, for Performa it was our ambition to stage discourse in order to spatialise the potential for social processes and encounters, to create what Hans Ulrich Obrist would call contact zones.
Magnus Nilsson (MN): The initial emails with you, RoseLee, and Performa were also interesting. We first gave you a proposal for what we originally wanted to do, which was more of a freestanding somewhat more
autonomous intervention. But then you wrote back with a bunch of criticisms of that plan, which was great, because that’s a bit like how we work amongst ourselves, and you were then an external part of it.
MM: We like to interrogate each other’s minds constantly. This is why ongoing conversation is so helpful. Also the advantage of only starting to visualize at the end of a process is that nothing is ever considered ‘fixed’. It is in a constant state of flux.
RLG: So I became part of the discussion.
MN: Absolutely. And I think that really helped to move things forward for us. It was also interesting that we didn’t know where the actual space would be until much later, just six weeks before the Hub opened, so we had to generate a design concept without knowing where it ultimately would be realized. That was interesting in that we weren’t so focused on the end result. In that sense, the design process was like juggling a bunch of ‘known unknowns’. Obviously, in the end we had to drop some of our initial ideas, but there were also many that we kept and developed.
RLG: Like what?
MN: First there was the essential idea of making the Performa Hub as a space where you constantly form new relations. We wanted it to be about the interaction
between people, a space that, in several ways, was performative.
MM: Also, it was our attempt to generate a setting in which the role of audience and active producer would start to blur: to create a space in which the participant becomes part of the overall scheme, which is Performa. We understand Performa as both a mode of representation, but – moreover so – an activator, an active agent that produces diverse audiences and manages to unearth audience-relationships that, before, have not existed. It was our aim to try to turn this ambition of Performa into the micro-setting of Performa’s temporary headquarter during the Biennial, which was and now continues to be the Hub.
RLG: You created a space that turned out to be a kind of construction set that I found myself wanting to play with. There’s a real desire to engage with the various parts, which is really quite different from any other life-size building I know.
MN: I think it’s a bit like an advent calendar, that toy you use to count down the days until Christmas, with little doors or windows that you open to reveal surprises on each day.
MM: At the same time it has seriousness to it. There was a clear ambition from the start to produce a setting which would allow for the multiplicity of prescribed uses and programmes to unfold and overlap, for there to never simply be one thing
happening at a particular moment in time, but for there to be a plethora of programmes to overlap in a single space. The outcome was what we started to call a spatial bastard; a typology that collides many different and possibly differing programmes into a single typology without withdrawing the individual programmes their ability to act upon and with their distinct audiences or users. If you want you could call it an institution in a large room.
RLG: Yes, it does have those qualities. And the material is so simple and yet so elegant. We had a tight budget, but you made it work.
MN: The budget was certainly constrained, but that just meant that we had to use inexpensive materials in a very efficient way, and base everything on a strict grid in order to minimize labour and material waste.
MM: We are generally very fond of challenging briefs. They stimulate certain productivity and generate energy. At the same time, of course it would help to be able to work with a more substantial budget. As a result of the many conversations amongst ourselves at nOffice that happened prior to your selection of the final site, the ground floor of the new Cooper Union building in SoHo, we managed to fairly quickly come up with decisions once the site was chosen. As Magnus said, at this point, also because of the incredibly tight schedule, we had to be
very efficient. The result was that we used a given reality, which was a drop in ceiling-height more or less in the middle of this huge space, to cut the space in half, produce a single wall with a single material and generate the programmes and activities around this surface, from either side.
RLG: I was very happy with the fact that the space still felt like a raw space, with concrete floors and exposed ceilings, yet you integrated the plywood structure such a way that they all worked together beautifully. There are strong visual lines from the front doorway into the space, and onto the street. In one sense the design seemed to come from a very conceptual place, but it also has a sensorial richness to it too. And a rhythm. The eye moves from different shaped cut-outs, to a line of vertical lights, up and down the stairs, and sweeps across the space in such a way as to really arouse one aesthetically. People can roam through the space and feel like it’s almost a part of their body.
MN: Yes, I think that sensorial qualities are sometimes a bit forgotten by people who work more conceptually. From the beginning, it was very clear to us that we didn’t want the Hub to just appear like a temporary installation. We wanted it to feel like an architectural project in its own right.
MM: Totally. An architectural project based on the powerfully generative force of how to build something of an architectural
scale for a huge audience while facing no time for construction and hardly any budget to do so. This is not meant to sound negative, but it actually produced an unprecedented energy.
MN: And it looks different depending on where you stand. A few times we’ve stood across the street, so see how it looks from there. Once, we saw someone magically appear from behind the bookshelf. The continuous wall with its unfolding functions acts both as background and foreground. As a discreet background it enables certain acts to take place, whilst simultaneously having a strong presence, acting like a billboard for Performa to the outside.
RLG: That’s so great. The bookshelf is brilliant — it’s like one of those nineteenth-century novels about a secret passageway.
MN: Exactly. We’re great fans of Sir John Soane’s museum in London.
RLG: To me, the Performa Hub is about how a space can perform and be transformed through use. We’re going to have a panel discussion about the ideal performance space, and for me, the Performa Hub is it. It’s quite raw, but that’s also what’s so brilliant about it—every person who uses it can make it work for themselves. We’ve already used it for so many different things—the mini-gallery in the back, designed as a space for video projections,
Staging Discourse I
in: Performa 09 - Back to Futurism
has already been turned it into a conference room, a meeting place for conversations. If you think of those stairs in the main space, and covering them with white pillows, or lining the wall with paper and filling the space with balloons, it would be completely transformed again. It’s like a blank theatre drop that any artist could transform into something else.
MM: I fully agree. For us, it also demonstrates the importance of the user and those protagonists who programme and deal with the space on a daily basis. Without trying to sound like a romantic Hippie, the user is still the one force in architecture that is, over time, most powerful. This is not to say that architecture itself is not powerful, but from our point of view good and interesting architecture should provide a complex stage for events, actions, inhabitation, and life to unfold.
MN: We had to adopt a relatively pragmatic approach. Our early renderings had all this furniture that you could pull out and move around. It really looked more like a child’s dollhouse. In the end, we really had to simplify, because of budget, and because we knew that whoever was actually building it was going to have minimal supervision, so it had to be a design robust and consequential enough that it couldn’t be screwed up, if you know what I mean.
RLG: I tell everyone who comes in here; it’s not a bookstore, it’s not a café — it’s a “shop” for ideas. That’s what it is.
nOffice (Miessen Pflugfelder Nilsson) &