Subway riders visiting the Museum of Modern Art's interim location in Queens traveled on elevated tracks past a dynamic roofscape. A few large cubes with unintelligible graphics appeared in an oddly angled group. As the subway advanced, they seemed to align. For just a split second, they spelled out "MoMA" before the continuing forward motion eradicated the message, losing its fleeting clarity in urban delirium. The sign was compelling on its own, even better symbolizing a temporary museum.
Michael Maltzan's architecture, which included both the billboard and the building renovations beneath, can be best understood in terms of shifting planes and motion through space.
Pittsburghers are especially fortunate that Maltzan's work has moved here, albeit temporarily. Though internationally acclaimed for MoMA Queens, a recent installation at the Venice Biennale and other published projects mostly still in progress, the architect has not had a solo exhibition until this one at the Heinz Architectural Center. The show accompanies his work as designer of the installation of the Carnegie International, where his hand is noticeable. In the HAC exhibit, though, his talents are most clear. (He also lectures at 6 p.m. Fri., Feb. 25, in the Carnegie Lecture Hall).
One room in the show, the Media Corridor, uses a meandering grouping of 15 small video screens to portray different projects. Curator Raymund Ryan allows that this hallway is a frequent shortcut for Carnegie International viewers, so the presentation acknowledges and harnesses that situation. The motion of video speeds up the architecture, as it presents context, procession through space and the realities of transportation.
Ah, but viewers slow down to examine, even contemplate, the various projects. One is UCLA's Hammer Museum (that's Armand, not MC), which was designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes, architect of the Carnegie Museum's own Scaife Wing. The video of the Los Angeles structure is an animated fly-through of Maltzan's design interventions -- reopened galleries and shifted stairways -- complete with collaborative graphics by Bruce Mau and landscape and textile elements by Petra Blaisse (who will speak in the Carnegie Lecture Hall at noon on Thu., March 3). The renovated project promises to be more permeable and responsive than its original incarnation, more reflective of L.A.'s car and art culture.
The City of Process, the largest room in the gallery, might just stop visitors in their tracks. Here is a trove of models from 16 different projects, with different pieces emphasizing the developing stages of design. Tiny studies of the Fresno Metropolitan Museum explore its basic shapes in relationship to the surrounding city, while a gigantic volumetric sectional model of the Kidspace Children's Museum in Pasadena illustrates the precision of ramping surfaces, faceted planes of enclosure and intersecting spaces that give Maltzan's work subtlety and richness.
The architect controls a very broad palette of esthetic possibilities at each stage. The model of the Ministructure 16/Bookbar for the Jinhua Architecture Park in China is huge and seemingly interstellar, but its lattice-like truss elements are delicate and structurally evocative. Similarly, the model for the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, built for a competition for a site in Winnipeg, is both a deftly composed spatial allegory of conflict and resolution and a tour de force of translucency, reflectivity and texture in model-making.
Ryan seems to have studied the work with intensity befitting the architect's meticulous process. The thematic groupings of the show -- Assembled Movement, Conditional Ground; Inscribed Movement, Extended Ground; and Interstitial Movement, Alternate Ground -- organize projects in terms of their relationship to existing construction, context, surface and space. Ryan points out that Maltzan views earth and architecture as interacting strata -- layers to be perforated, manipulated, recapitulated. The forms are beautiful, but always in the service of functional need and habitable space.
Maltzan's work looks much like the breezy and uninhibited California where he works, but the Northeast Modernist rigor of Harvard and RISD, where he was educated, is also apparent. Like the shifting walls and floors of one of his museums, these seemingly divergent qualities coalesce quite effectively.
They may be about motion and transience, but their quality is lasting.