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  • Lose the Building: Systems Theory, Architecture, and Diller+Scofidio’s Blur
  • Cary Wolfe

In October of 2002, the Blur building of the architectural team Diller+Scofidio opened in Switzerland to nearly universal acclaim. The “building”—a cloud manufactured by a nozzle-laced tensegrity structure hovering over Lake Neuchatel—audaciously rethinks architecture as “the making of nothing” (to use the architects’ words). This dematerialization of the architectural medium raises all sorts of interesting questions about the concept and function of form in architecture (and in art more generally)—questions that Diller+Scofidio mobilize in relation to the dynamics of spectacle in mass media society. This essay uses the work of systems theorist Niklas Luhmann to understand the central paradox of the Blur project: that the “weakness” of its formal intervention as an object is precisely its strength when form is understood in more abstract terms. This relentless but necessary abstraction of the concept of form in art helps us gain some distance on the more or less conventionally “romantic” associations that the project invites—associations that Diller+Scofidio rightly insist have no place in understanding the project’s conceptual underpinnings. And it also helps us grasp how the project deploys and redirects certain modes of visuality that are taken for granted by mass media society and its apotheosis in the society of spectacle—modes that the project itself “blurs,” and not without ethical and political implications.

“The work of art is an ostentatiously improbable occurrence.”

—Niklas Luhmann, Art as a Social System (153)

The Blur building designed by the New York architectural team of Ricardo Scofidio and Elizabeth Diller—a manufactured cloud with an embedded viewing deck, hovering over Lake Neuchatel in Switzerland—seems to have enjoyed nearly universal acclaim from the moment it opened to the public in October of 2002 as part of media Expo ‘02. The reasons for this are not far to seek; they range from what a Swiss newspaper reviewer characterizes as the liberating effect of the zany cloud on “the crotchety Swiss”—“What a crazy, idiosyncratic thing! How deliciously without purpose!,” he exclaims (Diller+Scofidio 372)—to Diller+Scofidio’s knowing deployment of the relationship between public architecture, the history and function of the exposition as a social form, and the manufacture and use of spectacle in relation to both (92, 162). The project went through many different elaborations, enhancements, and embellishments between July of 1998, when Diller+Scofidio was invited to participate, and the closing of the Expo in October of 2002. Almost all of these were, for various reasons, unrealized in the final project. At one point, the cloud was to house an “LED text forest” of vertical LED panels that would scroll text—either from an Internet feed (including live “chat” produced by visitors to the structure) or, in a later version, produced by an artist such as Jenny Holzer (163, 324). Another idea early in the project was to build an adjacent “Hole in the Water” restaurant made of submerged twin glass cylinders with an aquarium layer in between, in which diners would sit at eye level with the lake and eat sushi (100–111); another, to have an open air “Angel Bar” embedded in the upper part of the cloud, in which patrons could select from an endless variety of the only beverage served there: water—artesian waters, sparkling waters, waters from both glacial poles, and municipal tap waters from around the world (“tastings can be arranged,” we are told) (146–55). Yet another elaborate idea, rather late in the project’s evolution, involved the distribution of “smart” raincoats—or “braincoats”—to visitors to the cloud, which would indicate, through both sound and color, affinity or antipathy to other visitors on the basis of a preferences questionnaire filled out upon entry to the cloud (209–51).

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Figure 1.

The “Blur Building.”

Courtesy of Diller+Scofidio

As even this brief list suggests, the project went through many permutations. But in the end—not least for reasons of money—what we are left with in Blur is the manufactured cloud with the “Angel Deck” (now, not a water bar but a viewing deck) nestled...

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