Dezeen Magazine

Opinion: Aaron Betsky

"Installation art has finally taken over the last bastion of architecture"

Colossal public artworks like Thomas Heatherwick's interlinking staircases for New York are the architectural monuments of our time, says Aaron Betsky in this Opinion column.

The infamous Bilbao Effect might have been the last gasp of great architecture giving us a thrill. Gone are the days of the Eiffel Tower and the Parthenon, the Mall in Washington and even the Burj Khalifa. Those monuments are so, well, yesterday.

Let's face it, we really don't need buildings anymore to thrill and chill us – or for anything. We can socialise online, technology can keep us comfortable and safe in whatever form works most efficiently, we gain identity from the memes and images floating around us. And if we need something more than that, something public and unifying or just grand and weird enough to take us out of ourselves, art can take care of it.

The recent announcement of the $150 million Vessel, the Thomas Heatherwick staircase to nowhere slated for an office development in Manhattan, makes it clear that installation art has finally taken over the last bastion of architecture, namely the civic monuments that define us as a culture and society. Bigger and more expensive than most civic monuments, it is also better at the Wow Factor.

The take-over has been pretty sudden. Although you can trace the architecture of spectacle back to the masques of the early Renaissance, it was really not until the beginning of this century that the staging of effects and the contemplative dissolution of buildings that artists such as James Turrell had been developing for several decades reached such a scale and a sophistication that they could be truly effective beyond a small scale.

Now Turrell can turn hotels and museums into kaleidoscopes that defy the diurnal rhythms and light and dark, replacing it with hues that directly affect how we perceive space.

Though the Guggenheim Museum in New York was the site of Turrell's most elaborate installation in 2014, it is the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern that has been the real engine through which the art of spectacle has motored through the public consciousness and into their hearts.

Starting with Olufar Eliasson's yellow sun in 2000, this vast space, which – at least architects might think – should be big enough to impress all by itself, has become the site for giant abstractions and slides that turned us all into children. Against Eliasson's and artist Carsten Holler's sophistication, the annual experiments at the Serpentine Gallery, which have become architecture's counterpoint to these installations, seem trivial.

The one piece that really engraved this new art on people's consciousness was the "bean" – Anish Kapoor's polished mirror torus, called Cloud Gate, which he installed at Chicago's Millennium Park in 2006. It has become the most photographed site in the city and the ultimate selfie magnet.

What is remarkable is that its effect is indeed to sum up Chicago: the famed skyscrapers, mirrored in the curving surfaces, become a halo around every person who takes a picture there, making everybody part of this most American of metropolises.

Over the last 15 years, this installation work has become both larger and more reliant on technology. When Turrell started using electric lights with changing spectrums, it was the art world equivalent of Bob Dylan playing electric guitar at the Newport Jazz Festival.

Eliasson has similarly traded in delicate pieces that used water, simple prisms, and sometimes just shaded walls, for complex constructions that come out of the factory-like workshop in Berlin that employs more people than most of the good architects in that city.

Anish Kapoor reached what many thought was the limit of what was possible or good when he designed the ArcelorMittal Orbit for the London 2012 Olympics. An ungainly persiflage of Tatlin's Monument to the Third International, it failed as both spectacle and aesthetic object. It was too big and too bad as a building.

Now artists such as Heatherwick are taking the medium to new heights and scales. He seems to be able to attract vast resources for floating parks, garden bridges, and now scissoring stairs.

It is hard to imagine that it all started (at least in the public realm) 12 years ago with a small pedestrian bridge that unfurled in a corner of a London harbour. By now, these spectacles command sums that are vast, at least in comparison to what we used to pay for public art.

Compared to what a building costs, most – though by no means all of them – still offer cheaper thrills, exactly because they can focus on providing that experience.

Is the work any good? That depends. It certainly seems to me that it is just as difficult for artists to control size and complexity as it is for architects. Perhaps it is even more of an issue for the artists, as they do not have practice in controlling forms, materials, functional elements, and the details that hold them all together in the manner that trained architects do.

What is more, much of this work is rooted in contemplation, and the more active it becomes – nowhere more so than in the case of the Vessel – the further it finds itself from its greatest strength.

What once let us come to a realisation of something larger than ourselves – both because we were experiencing something together, as we would in a mass rally or a football match, and because we were sensing something limitless and amazing – now involves so many gizmos and so much activity that many of these pieces resemble playgrounds for adults, rather than sites for the kind of replacement of religious experiences I thought this art would provide.

That sense of play is also the strength of much of this work. The Vessel transforms a device, usually hidden in the guts of a building, that works either to get us up or down, or to help us escape a disaster as a fire stair, and turns it into a giant, collective toy.

It also takes the ways stairs are perfect stage sets on which to see and be seen, to make an entrance and to watch an entrance being made, into something reserved not just for opera patrons, brides, or politicians, but office workers out on their lunch break. It glorifies fun and useless glamour.

The work that I like best takes play further, but in a way that is more involving. It turns us into actors who are essential to the work's success.

To walk into Tino Sehgal's The Variation (I saw the version at the Kassell Documenta exhibition in 2013) and find yourself dancing in the dark with somebody you can't see is one of the most exhilarating and both intimate and social experiences I have had in a long time.

To enter into Elmgreen & Dragset's stage sets means becoming an actor in some perverse play about, as in their recent Tomorrow at the Victoria & Albert Museum, a dead architect.

When these spectacles work, they serve to bring us together to experience something as a community. We are no longer cocooned observers of isolated works of art, nor are we mindless users of dull buildings.

The art takes us out of ourselves, brings us together, reenacts and reinvigorates our public lives, and, what is not unimportant, lets us have fun together. In an urban theatre where Big Brother is always watching and we fear each other, any art that accomplishes that, as I hope the Vessel will, is worth every penny.

It shows that there is still some life in architecture, even if we have to turn to artists to find the essence of social constructions.

Aaron Betsky is dean of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. A critic of art, architecture, and design, Betsky is the author of over a dozen books on those subjects, including a forthcoming survey of Modernism in architecture and design. He writes a twice-weekly blog for, Beyond Buildings.

Trained as an architect and in the humanities at Yale University, Betsky was previously director of the Cincinnati Art Museum (2006-2014) and the Netherlands Architecture Institute (2001-2006), and Curator of Architecture and Design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art(1995-2001). In 2008, he also directed the 11th Venice International Biennale of Architecture.