Jacques Tati eyes Queen Street

Jacques Tati eyes Queen Street

MONOCLE, the wry, slightly unnerving work by Berlin-based realities:united, will cast an eye over Toronto’s Queen street West from smart House. By Michael Prokopow.

In 1958 French film director Jacques Tati presented his comedy Monocle to the world. An affecting story of the relationship between an eccentric uncle and his beloved nephew, the film was instantly acknowledged to be as much about the tensions in post World War II France between the past and the future as it was about family and character.

In the film the quixotic, bicycle-riding Monsieur Hulot lives in an old, slightly shabby district in Paris, that romanticized type of neighborhood where happy dogs run the streets, baguettes and berets are the trustworthy, ordinary things of everyday life, and the sound of accordion music is never far away. The young boy on the other hand — nine-year-old Gerard Arpel — lives with his striving, materialistic, middle-class parents in the family’s modernist and obviously anthropomorphized house.

Streamlined and concrete — a mix somewhere between the generically progressive architecture of the modern movement and the radical experimentation of Corbusier — and dominated by two round windows on the second floor, the house boasts an automated garage, abstract landscaping, an impossibly stylish curving path, and a fish sculpture fountain that is turned on only for visitors. As such, the house is a centrally important character in the film: a caricature of the Arpels’ questionable priorities and capitulation to a new social order, but also an undeniably enticing embodiment of progress and technological possibility.

One of the running jokes in the film is the transformation of the circular windows on the second floor into eyes. The heads of people become pupils that are looking and staring back. Suddenly the house — a machine for living — becomes a type of living machine. The technological marvel that is the Villa Arpel is at once humanized and made charming. Not surprisingly, the sight gag never fails to please and Tati’s critique is at once genial and smart.

Smart art

Monocle, the work by Berlin-based realities:united to be installed at Smart House, Urban Capital and Malibu’s groundbreaking micro-condominium development on Toronto’s Queen Street West at University, is a compelling example of the benefits of art in the public realm, and a wry reference to the transformational nature of Smart House itself. Designed for the prominent space above the residential entrance of the building, the artwork — intelligent and playfully provocative — blurs the lines between architecture and art. It is a work of both visual and intellectual consequence. Seemingly straightforward in appearance, Monocle is a kinetic device the simplicity of which belies the references it makes to art and architecture and the ideas that it presents. 

To the viewer, the work is a study in elementary forms: a large single circle containing a black disc is inset in the building’s stone façade. Evoking the machine æsthetics of 1930s modernist architecture — rational, minimal and urbane — and paying a type of homage to the spare details of the neighbouring 1920s classical bank building, Monocle manages to both bridge and claim the space between the new and the old.

At first glance, the cleverly named work makes coy reference to the precedent of the windows of the Arpel House, while at the same time moving beyond the visual language and optical ruse of Tati’s film. Indeed, Monocle both looks like an eye peering out from the building and, because of its mechanical capacity, operates as one. Designed so that the black disc moves continually back and forth at the bottom of the circle, the piece engages with the public on the street.

While the artwork evokes the matter of seeing and sight, it also raises the question about how art is regarded. With Monocle the standard fact of people looking at a work of art is inverted. Here the artwork is looking back. For just as it is claimed that the eyes of the Mona Lisa follow the movements of an admirer, so Monocle gives the impression of watching the comings Jan Edler and goings of throngs of city dwellers as well as the residents of Smart House. The effect is complicated. In an age of glass architecture and see-through condominiums, where exhibitionism and voyeurism can collide, and at a time when the welcome anonymity of the city meets the anxious culture of surveillance, Monocle is a work of art in which the charm of its representation of looking and being seen speaks to some of the more pressing issues of contemporary life.

Finally, Monocle connects the transformational nature of Smart House — its conscious redesign and recalibration of interior space to meet the increasingly smaller unit sizes that are being delivered to the market — to the transformation of an earlier era as embodied in Tati’s film. The former is to a new, significantly more urban and compact world; the latter was to what was then a new, more modern world in all its facets.

Catalytic conversion

The critical creativity that is embodied in Monocle is to be expected from the artists of realities:united. Long concerned with what is described as “architecture’s outward communicative capacity”, the Berlin-based studio is committed to thinking outside traditional definitions of place, With Monocle the standard fact of people looking at a work of art is inverted. æsthetics and creative objects. “Our projects are intended to serve as a catalyst in a given situation, and are therefore strongly determined by identifying, transforming, amplifying, and combining various existing potentials,” says Jan Edler, one of the firm’s two principals. “In that sense our approach centres on taking advantage of available opportunities, rather than specific skills, procedures, or tasks.”

The summary is clarifying. Monocle is a grounded and nuanced work and a particularly accomplished piece of public art. Oftentimes the process of putting art into the public realm suffers from concerns about ideological agendas being played out, or about being too radical or difficult to comprehend. To the credit of its makers and to its patrons, Monocle is at once appealing and light and an active invitation to contemplate the forces and implications of modernization, change, and social life at a specific point in time. UC

Michael Prokopow is an associate dean and professor at OCAD University, and was a member of the jury that selected Monocle as the public art piece for Smart House.

With a history of creative collaboration dating back to the early 1990s, realities:united has amassed an impressive body of work, including massive lighting installations, media interventions and autonomous art objects, and has partnered with leading architects worldwide on projects that range widely in terms of program, scale, character, materiality and function. Michael Prokopow interviews principal Jan Edler:

MP: Your practice is defined as an “art and architectural” one. Could you speak to its history and intellectual and artistic culture?

JE: Tim [Edler] and I are both trained architects. We started to initiate joint projects as part of the Berlin based trans-disciplinary art group “Kunst und Technik” in the late ’90s. In 2000 we founded “realities:united” as a studio for art and architecture. The name reflects our approach of trying to broaden the notion of architecture by synchronizing different working fields and by reprogramming reality. We are especially known for our art and media extensions to buildings by other architects and we are fortunate to have been able to collaborate with some of the most interesting figures of contemporary architecture including Minsuk Cho, Peter Cook, Coop HimmelB(l)au, Will Alsop, Bjarke Ingels, Diller Scofidio & Renfro, and Nieto Sobejano.

MP: How does your office work? How do you approach projects?

JE: We are interested in the specific potentials of each project. Through a thorough analysis of the specific conditions and aims of each project and situation we try to reveal and transform those potentials that otherwise remain undiscovered or unused. Most projects we develop are unique and we make use of a vast variety of artistic media. We pragmatically choose whatever medium appears most suitable to achieve the specific aims of a project. That can be fluorescent light tubes as for our BIX installation at Peter Cook’s Kunsthaus in Graz, that can be the transformed exhaust of a smokestack as for Bjarke Ingels’ waste-to-energy plant currently under construction in Copenhagen, or that can be an industrial robot as for our installation Sender in Bergkamen.

MP: In the case of Monocle, can you explain the genesis of the idea?

JE: We initially started off with investigating a variety of different and technically rather ambitious ideas and approaches all circling around themes of “dynamic” or “changeable” structures. But we couldn’t get them in line with the building’s use. Looking at a condominium structure we wanted to create a piece that would add a jolly tension and human notion to the building. That is when we started discussing and referencing movies by Jacques Tati, a French filmmaker whose œuvre we greatly admire. Quoting an element of ‘Villa Arpel’ in his most popular movie Monocle from 1958, Monocle is a built homage to Tati and his passionate reflections on modern architecture.

MP: Monocle is a smart, referential piece. Is it fair to say that it also operates on the level of critique? In Tati’s film modernist architecture is presented questionably as the embodiment of material progress. Monocle could be read in ways that both affirm and question contemporary modes of western life?

JE: Yes, with a twinkle in the eye! Tati creates satirical contrasts by pulling the leg of modern and traditional times at once, creating extraordinary comedic moments, joyfully expressed in a charming, affectionate and wise manner. Tati remains at a great distance passionately and lovingly observing the fate of modern man. In his films, ahead of his time, Tati unmasks the true nature of technological progress as a matter of devotion, much more than reason. With weightless magic, he inhales spirit into objects and machines, creating a mesmerizing theatre, which strikes us equally with amusement and awe. This ambiguity is an angle we consider worthwhile recollecting, when addressing the striving for a better living.


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