The Disappearing Architect: Four Moves Towards Invisibility

September 10, 2012

As an aging army of starchitects busily broadcast their brands, another generation of practitioners is fast at work making themselves invisible. This disappearing act is composed of a set of daring operations on the the role of the architect—obscuring, shrinking, distorting, inverting. Hidden in plain sight, this practitioner is asking how things are made visible, and by whom. As with so many tales of invisibility, this newfound anonymity is perilous: the act of making oneself invisible is inevitably humbling and disorienting. And yet this disappearing practitioner is steadily developing a new spatial culture in which responsibility, collaboration, and conflict play an ever expanding role. What follows is a conversation between the general and the particular: a tentative tool kit for an evolving practice traced alongside the ongoing spatial interventions of architectural designer Jonathan Wong.


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Opening Lines—Jonathan Wong, Marcin Kedzior, Aliza Ma, 2011. © Jonathan Wong.


As an increasing array of assemblies (social, knowledge-based, political, spatial) gain steam as global agents of change, everyone is being called upon to make sense of these powerful new masses. The architect is no exception, harnessing this collective agency as a spatial technique capable of transforming cities, communities, institutions. The proliferation of international competitions, along with an expanding field of experimentation in crowdsourcing, reveals a growing trust in multiplicity (for better or worse). The architect here takes responsibility for gathering and assembling non-architects—turning the focus on them as potential agents of spatial change. In this capacity, the architect is a mediator—a facilitating agent whose work is to catalyze, enable, and support. In this role, the architect is disguised amidst the growing ensemble of spatial agents—a cultural ghostwriter.

It is crucial to consider what this mediating work might mean within a rapidly multiplying field of players. While a growing field of participants can challenge and transform spatial conditions, there is a hazardous side to this same practice: homogeneous participation might strip participants of responsibility, setting the preconditions for easy consensus rather than creating platforms for meaningful dissent. The ghostwriter architect here takes on responsibility for creating critical platforms for participation. These perilous landscapes of consensus have been mapped by practitioners and theorists such as Chantal Mouffe and Markus Miessen,1 and it is with an eye to critical participation that the invisible practitioner does this work of gathering and mediating.

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RePlace-ReQuest—Jonathan Wong, Anne Ehrlich, Angelica Teuta, 2012. © Jonathan Wong.

RePlace-ReQuest was a collaboration between the projection artist Angelica Teuta, architect Anne Ehrlich, and myself. We wanted to think about how to tackle the idea of a non-neutral gallery space and to reinvent the notion of a public gallery.
The visitor steps into the gallery and is immediately engaged with the projector lights and the pier-like platform. His/her shadow becomes part of the projection. The curved and diagonal form of the platform is an experiment in finding ways to further challenge and activate the visitors, inviting them to become performers as they navigate through the space and gather within and around the pier. Providing multiple vantage points from which to engage with the projections, the diagonal forms create a shifting perception of the space and of the impact of the projections. They perpetually recover a playfulness in one’s perception of the space. Endless and unexpected interpretations of the project are invited and allowed. The public becomes visible.


The aphorism has long been used as a way of supplanting ideological claims—celebrating the gaps between fragments as opportunities for dissent, silence, uncertainty.2 The fragment is both emancipatory in its incompleteness, and paradoxically, is a way of seeing a larger picture anew. This observation is a tool of the invisible architect who shrinks the scope of her work—harnessing smallness as a way of allowing things to be seen anew. Indeed, in an era of economic uncertainty, smallness is perhaps the most viable design currency. Unsolicited interventions, pop-up pavilions, mobile structures—these tools are increasingly used by architects as laboratory experiments conducted upon the city.

The architect, deliberately shrinking her realm of concern, uses this reduction in scale as an opportunity to act hyper-locally, calling attention to the spatial specificities at the scale of a body, a detail, a fragment. It is from this microscopic perspective that the whole can be apprehended anew; in a decidedly paradoxical turn, the fragment carries within it a universe of significance.

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Line Dance—Jonathan Wong and Marcin Kedzior, 2011. © Jonathan Wong.

Line Dance is a project that reconsiders the space between two houses that appears as a consequence of property lines. It is done by focusing on the act of drawing at 1:1 scale with white duct tape. The drawing highlights one’s movement through the space in such a way that it productively defamiliarizes it. It renders this in-between space as a fragment juxtaposed with other spatial fragments(backyard, sidewalk, sky, etc..). It gives this otherwise invisible space a visible presence and it becomes possible to think of it as a site that can trigger creative manifestations.


Collaboration is another tool employed by the disappearing architect. In an effort to abandon the myth of architectural authorship, the practitioner looks to the challenge of the creative relay. Here, work is taken over by another practitioner for critique and development. This three-dimensional game of exquisite corpse3 introduces productive friction and conflict into more traditional practice.

It is precisely this abandonment of singular authorship which distorts the work—as if one hand were drawing a head and the other a body. In seeking out opportunities for conflict, the invisible architect is making possible the manufacture of new spatial territories. Ultimately, these procedural shifts continuously defer a design “solution.” This indeterminacy is characterized by Bruno Latour as creating a “…series of new linkages that force the constant displacement of goals and multiply intermediary agents.”4 This deliberate politicization of the design process heralds the creation of a new arena in which architects are called on to negotiate, repair and rethink in relationship to a constantly shifting context. In abandoning easy notions of consensus, the invisible architect is relentless in poking holes and stirring up controversy.

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Feasibility Study Opening Performance—Jonathan Wong and Marcin Kedzior, 2011. © Jonathan Wong.

With the performance for the “Feasibility Study” project, Marcin Kedzior and I wondered how we could engage the public to be part of the discussion around the renovation and reprogramming of the Gendai Gallery. Adopting the exquisite corpse game, we each rethought our separate practices through the notion of dance and space. Using green painter’s tape, I drew directly in space to register one’s movement from the front to the back of the gallery. All the corners of the space are acknowledged and the visitors are compelled by the drawing to walk back and forth through the space and to be in a state of wonderment. They are invited to dance at their own pace and rhythm with the architecture. Kedzior’s response was a performance of construction where he moved wooden boards through the space and onto the ceiling. He jumped and dragged his body between the tape lines at a fast pace to reconfigure the perception of the drawing and the architecture. We attempted to suspend any easy definition of an art gallery through a provocative performance that invited unexpected actors to collaborate with us in renovating and reprogramming the art gallery.


Invisibility affords many benefits, including the creative advantage of the element of surprise. “Chirico,” writes Andre Breton, “could paint only when surprised (surprised first of all) by certain arrangements of objects.” Juxtaposing, comparing, overturning, clashing, relating anew—the disappearing architect is uniquely positioned to enter into an unfamiliar situation and overturn assumptions. This impulse reveals a curatorial urge: might a juxtaposition catalyze a reinvention? The architect as curator is hardly a new meme, but it is an increasingly important one. As an international culture of architecture exhibitions continue to grow (Venice, Rotterdam, Sao Paulo), architects are beginning to turn these same skills to local contexts. If the traditional architect works in an uncontaminated white box, the invisible architect turns instead toward the chaos of the city, opting to curate whatever she might find there. Rather than designing on the basis of an elusive tabula rasa, this architect accepts and plays with unpredictability.

The critical scrutiny required of this kind of curation requires the distancing of the architect from the subject of the work. This altered proximity is an exciting byproduct, underscoring the reduced visibility (and intermittent appearance) of the practitioner. This curatorial role comes with a new set of procedures. For instance, the traditional role of the client-as-patron is subverted in favor of a more complex system of instigating and advocating. By calling attention to invisible processes and imbalances, the invisible architect is, despite his moniker, in the business of bringing things to light.

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Opening Lines—Jonathan Wong, Marcin Kedzior, Aliza Ma, 2011. © Jonathan Wong.

The Opening Lines event happened in the winter of 2011. It consisted of two screenings that took place both inside the main gallery space and outside in the back yard. The screenings themselves featured the work of Walter Ruttmann who was interested in the idea of visual music. For this event, the architectural intervention was made possible by first acknowledging the difference between the inside and outside conditions. At that time of the year, it is a lot colder outside and the sound from the speakers cannot encompass the whole space.
The event started with the inside screening. The spectators took a seat at the back of the main gallery space. They all looked to the front to watch the screening. The sound easily reached to the back of the room as it bounced off the walls and the ceiling. It felt loud. The ceiling itself was clad with wooden sticks that amplified the presence of a covering surface visually and physically.
As the spectators turned around and headed outside for the second screening, they immediately realized that the sound experience was very different. Here there were no covering surfaces, only the dark sky that was miles and miles away. The projection constantly shifted from one surface to the other as the projectionist weaved his way through the spectators. The surfaces themselves were not always hard and flat. Foliage and transparent surfaces were present. One became quickly conscious of the juxtaposition of the film on the varied surfaces. For the outside screening, it was not only about the content of the film. The spectators were not restricted to a single viewing point but were instead walking around the garden, following the sound coming off the projector, for the viewing experience.
While the architectural intervention initially started by dividing the interior and exterior, we became more interested in turning those strict divisions into a living contrast to be able to affect and to produce thinking and feeling.
1 For more on Miessen’s notion of participation and consensus, see Markus Miessen and David Goldenberg, “Re: Participation,” in Fillip 10, ed. Kristina Lee Podesva & Jordan Strom, Fall 2009.
2 There was an ongoing suspicion in the Frankfurt School that the aphorism may have been the form most distant from fascist ideology. Adorno famously uses the aphorism as the base unit of his Minima Moralia: “If the subject is disappearing today, aphorisms take on the weighty responsibility of ‘considering that which is disappearing itself as essential.’” In ‘Dedication’, Minima Moralia, Edmund Jephcott (London: Verso, 1993), 15.
3 The Surrealist parlour game which used surprise and collage to draw collaboratively, where one artist would draw a head and another a body.
4 Bruno Latour, “Morality and Technology: The End of the Means,” In Theory, Culture & Society, 19 (258), 2002.