Ant Farm, 50’ x 50’ Pillow, 1970, temporary installation in Freestone, California. Photo: Chip Lord. Courtesy Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

Tracing a History of Architecture Installations in the Bay Area


San Francisco is often compared unfavorably to other major cities in terms of its tolerance for architectural experimentation. One area where this experimentation has thrived, however, is that of installations, which by dint of their short duration and theoretical orientation, have been a potent force for examining the limitations and potentials of architecture and its social ramifications.


In the 1960s, many architects had embraced temporary projects as the medium for speculative exploration and social critique. These individuals and groups, including Archigram, Superstudio, Haus Rucker Co., and Gordon Matta-Clark, broadened the scope of what architecture could mean, from construct to void, from static to dynamic, from solid to ephemeral. Locally, the best example of the experimental ethos of this period was the group Ant Farm. They explored inflatable structures as a kind of anti-architecture: formless, provisional, gravity-free, and, as such, catalysts for new forms of social experience. The group roved across the United States in their customized Media Van, installing the 50’ x 50’ Pillow and other inflatables at festivals and concerts, while also staging impromptu performances along the road.


The advent of the first Venice Biennale of Architecture in 1980 marked the establishment of more permanent venues for exploring the display of architecture at full scale. Titled “The Presence of the Past,” part of the Biennale of that year showcased full-scale facades by twenty-six architects and was subsequently exhibited at Fort Mason in San Francisco—its only U.S. presentation. Overtly theatrical in nature, this exhibition became a signal moment in the dissemination of postmodernism.


In the Bay Area context, the Department of Architecture and Design at SFMOMA was founded in 1983, as was the seminal Capp Street Project, under the direction of Ann Hatch. The former marked the first museum on the West Coast to create a department of architecture, opening the question of how architecture would be exhibited within the frame of an institution with a more traditional orientation towards painting, sculpture, and photography. The Capp Street Project, on the other hand, was just the opposite: a visual-arts residency program devoted exclusively to installation works. Located in a house on Capp Street designed by the artist David Ireland, a broad swath of artists and architects were invited to intervene in, disrupt, and transform this site.


One early and compelling project was The withDrawing Room (1987) by the architects Diller + Scofidio, whose commitment to temporary and performance-based work in the early part of their career expanded the possibilities for installations as a form of critical discourse. For the Capp Street installation, the architects exposed the many latent assumptions embedded within domestic space. They erected walls or cut troughs in the floor transecting the living spaces in discomfiting ways, splitting furniture or suspending it from the ceiling, interrupting conventions of intimacy and privacy. The project meditated on the interrelations of habitat and habit, indeed on the complicity of architecture in enforcing normative codes of behavior, while it disrupted expectations of comfort and functionality.


A later installation at the Capp Street Project by Glen Seator, Approach (1997), radically remade the space by filling the gallery with concrete, asphalt, telephone poles, street signs, and graffiti, to recreate the exterior streetscape in front of Capp Street within the interior. Even the lane stripes, chipped red curb paint, and grass sprouting from between sidewalk cracks were mimicked. Seator employed 150 tons of hardscape, raising the gallery floor by as much as two feet with material so durable it challenged the notion of the temporary gallery presentation. The doubling of without and within provocatively challenged viewers to pay attention to micro details of the urban environment in a new way.


I.O.O.A., Prima Facie, 1991. Photo: Bobby Neel Adams. Courtesy John Randolph.


San Francisco–based architects John Randolph and Bruce Tomb’s Interim Office of Architecture (I.O.O.A.) created Prima Facie, a significant installation at New Langton Arts in 1991 where audio and visual data from the street penetrated the gallery. In this case, the architects created two elongated chambers: the first, a corridor leading to and penetrating the building’s facade acted as a viewing device, flashing images of sidewalk and sky to the rhythm of passing cars, while a metal membrane created sound vibrations calibrated to a radar gun recording the traffic speed; the second was covered in sound-reducing baffles to deprive the viewer of this sensory information. Likewise, a similar focus on auditory and tactile experience informed Thom Faulders’s Mute Room, an immense crest of memory foam that created a room-sized listening device, installed at the CCA Wattis Institute in 2001.


The Fabrications exhibition at SFMOMA in 1998 signaled how significantly installations had come to reframe the possibilities for exhibiting architecture. Organized by Aaron Betsky at SFMOMA, along with Mark Robbins at the Wexner Center for the Arts and Terence Riley at MOMA, the show presented twelve installations (four at each venue). Bodybuildings, the theme of the SFMOMA presentation, investigated the relationship of the human body in various states to the structures—and strictures—which contain it; as such it provided a critical lens through which to analyze the museum’s conventions and mechanisms of control. The project of local firm Kuth / Ranieri, The Body in Repose, transformed the museum’s usual admonition—“do not touch!”—and the static nature of the pure white wall by cutting away one side of a gallery and replacing it with suspended alcoves of soft grey felt where visitors could nestle or recline, viewing out to the gallery or inwards to the revealed innards of the wall. It was a playful intervention, but also formally exacting, as they took a soft material and transformed it into something with structural integrity.


Kuth / Ranieri, The Body in Repose, 1998. Courtesy the architects.


The tenure of Henry Urbach as curator of architecture and design at SFMOMA (2006–2011) showed how installations, by providing a means not simply to interpret architecture but to experience it first hand, could engage a non-specialist public in dynamic ways. Urbach, whose New York gallery Henry Urbach Architecture had for ten years prior specialized in installation works, proved innovative in mounting exhibitions that consistently challenged the institutional and spatial conditions of display. (For full disclosure, I worked with Urbach during this time preparing and contributing to a forthcoming book surveying the history of installations worldwide, which includes discussion of some of the works mentioned here). For the exhibition Your Tempo: Olafur Eliasson (2007) he brought the gallery to sub-freezing temperatures to exhibit a car encased in ice—a commentary on global warming. In Sensate: Bodies and Design (2009), Alex Schweder’s Sac of Rooms All Day Long—an inflatable diagram of a house contained within a too-small footprint—heaved and shuddered as it inflated and deflated, uncanny in the way it seemed almost alive. These and other projects probed the very nature of the museum as, in Urbach’s words, a “site for immersive, collective experience.”


Alex Schweder, A Sac of Rooms All Day Long, 2009. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Accessions Committee Fund purchase; © Alex Schweder; photo: Ian Reeves.


Now that Urbach has departed the museum and SFMOMA turns to an architectural project of a more monumental sort, and as many galleries that once championed installation when it was a marginal practice are shuttered or struggling, it remains to be seen what Bay Area venues will continue to generate high-caliber installation works. With pop-ups and temporary festival structures abounding, there is certainly no lack of opportunities for ephemeral works, but whether they will go beyond practical or formalist concerns to engage truly experimental methods and the force of social critique inherent in the best examples of this genre remains an open question. Certainly, following the example of the San Francisco collective Rebar—who first staged PARK(ing) in November 2006 by transforming a parking spot into a park for a day—all that may be necessary is the will to claim public space and a quarter for the meter.


Rebar, PARK(ing), 2006. Photo: Andrea Scher/Rebar.


  1. Greetings, Erin,

    Thanks for your piece, not only for its fine prose/journalism but as such a compelling reminder that meaningful architecture is an expression of ideas……yes’, usually about place making, but as you noted, may extend to abstractions.

    It reminded me of something I heard many years ago from an astronomer at Stanford who suggested that the material universe (multiverse?) represents an idea, a philosophical notion usually expressed verbally.

    Pop-Ups and Capp Street events,etc more clearly than typical architectural works, reveal to the public that, like good writing, an architectural vocabulary of form and materials’ purpose is the representation of ideas.

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