A leaky ceiling, in simplest terms, registers as an unusual way to celebrate an architectural landmark. But when each drop has been precisely orchestrated by Diller Scofidio + Renfro for a conceptual work titled 'Musings on a Glass Box', and when that glass box happens to be Jean Nouvel's iconic Fondation Cartier in Paris, the effect is a stirring performance of playfulness and respect.
Twenty years have passed since the acclaimed French architect conceived a centre for contemporary art clad entirely in layers of glass, with vegetation providing lush density between the façade - at street level - and the main building. This month also marks the 30th anniversary of the Fondation Cartier itself, which from inception, approached patronage and curation with a multi-disciplinary mindset.
Fittingly, 'Musings on a Glass Box' (opening on 25 October) uses sound, video, industrial design and countless engineering elements. 'We began to think very minimally,' said Elizabeth Diller from the Fondation's eighth floor, overlooking Paris. Partner Ricardo Scofidio offers: 'We wanted to be aware of the architecture in a distinct way.'
At the installation, this is imediately clear. Visitors enter and looking left, discover a robotic red acrylic bucket coasting around the floor, seemingly aimless until it senses that a droplet of water will be released from one of 12 points in the ceiling. It then pivots and darts to collect the leak. Simultaneously, a series of signals are sent via wireless transmitter to the second gallery to the right, where a giant LED screen suspended horizontally 1.2m from the ground projects a wavy, watery view of Nouvel's ceiling. Visitors can watch this play out from caster-footed loungers that slide under the screen.
Also inside the bucket, a microphone synced to the drop's impact amplifies the thump, while an external receiver converts it to a choral swell with ambient aftershocks. For this, Diller and Scofidio enlisted longtime collaborator Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang, who worked with sound designer Jody Elff in order for hundreds of recorded ethereal choir and instrumental options to trigger what he describes as 'a wild, randomised musical experience.' Lang notes how the remarkable cathedrals around Paris nudged him to think about the sound and its reverberations as a duality: 'absurd' in one room and 'sublime' in the other.
Meanwhile, the gallery windows have been coated with 'smart film' from Glass Apps whereby an electrical current turns the panes progressively transparent or translucent every few minutes. 'Anyone who has used this space has had to contend with the light,' said Diller speaking from experience. This is now their third time working with Fondation Cartier, however, the first in which there has been such a 'flirtatious and mischievous' interaction with Nouvel's design, she quipped.
And that levity couldn't be more satisfying for Hervé Chandès, the foundation's general director since 1994 and admirer of Diller Scofidio + Renfro. 'What they've done this time, it's a game - it's an intellectual pleasure, it's a visual pleasure, it's an audio surprise,' he says. 'Of course, it's a birthday for us; but with them, I am always learning new things.'
Turn to Wallpaper's October 2014 issue (W* 187) to read an interview with Elizabeth Diller on Diller Scofidio + Renfro's work and their ongoing relationship with the Cartier Foundation