On the anniversary of Fountain’s rejection

In April 1917, the artist Marcel Duchamp submitted, pseudonymously, a common urinal as a work of art to a group show in New York. It was rejected and caused great controversy. This piece, dubbed the most influential art work of the 20th century, is often seen as the birth of conceptual art. Duchamp coined the idea of art as choice on the part of the artist. The object is qualified as art because an artist chooses it.

But is that it? Could it have been any old thing? Remember that this is Reyner Banham’s “machine age,” a time when mass production really hit the store shelves, unleashing an extraordinary range of consumer products — typewriters, kitchen devices, snow shovels, plumbing fixtures.

Duchamp saw a new world opening up. These goods displayed an inherent conflict, or irony: in optimizing its function, each object revealed a fascinating new form, beautiful in its own right. Yet the object was machine-produced — the trace of the creator’s hand was completely eliminated. There are symbolic readings of Duchamp’s urinal — some have seen it as a sitting Buddha, or Madonna, or a uterine/vaginal form — and these readings follow from the artist’s choice.

At the same moment in history, Le Corbusier had moved to Paris and was writing articles in L’Esprit Nouveau. He complained that architects were ignoring, “not seeing,” exciting technological developments in engineering and construction. Engineers, not architects, were designing amazing new factories that were airy, clean, efficient — and beautiful — as well as ocean liners and automobiles. Architects failed to appreciate these new forms and did not consider them “architecture.” In the most influential architecture book of the 20th century, Vers une architecture, Le Corbusier presents these factories and ocean liners as important architecture, while warning about the waning influence of architects.

Look at Duchamp and Le Corbusier together. They both recognized new developments in machine-age technology, outside their disciplines of art and architecture. In both cases, the discipline appears in crisis, threatened by the technology. Duchamp says, “painting is finished” (both by mass production — the propeller is more beautiful than a painting — and photography). Le Corbusier laments the weakness of architecture compared to the feats of engineering.

It is probably true that every artistic movement originates from a technological development outside the realm of art that is incorporated by artists with the impulse to integrate, who undoubtedly meet resistance from the establishment. Andy Warhol, half a century later, was the successor to Duchamp in the age of the image, recognizing the power of mass imagery and mass marketing in post-war America.

Duchamp recognized the transformation of the world of objects, that the sphere of mass-produced goods was connected conceptually to the sphere of art objects. Le Corbusier recognized that architecture needed to incorporate the efficiency and even recognize the beauty of machine-age engineering. As architects today, we must recognize that the network, connectedness, and the media content flowing through it are absolutely critical elements of our built environment, both as a space for action (in which we act) and as a production space (a means to build better).

Advances in building green and in incorporating networked technology will enable architects (or their successors) to design the next generation of inhabited spaces. The organization of these spaces will certainly incorporate the recognizable signs of our habits as social beings seeking shelter and pleasure, but they will be organized in new ways that we have only begun to imagine.

I started MESH with a seemingly simple question — what is the relationship between architectural (physical) space and networked (“virtual”) space? In a practice designing for both built and Internet realms, we explore the crossover. For twenty years we have built spaces, web sites, and hybrids of the two.

In examining the physical and virtual realms, recall the distinction between experience and information. We have historically tended to separate these categories. In Le Corbusier’s era, critics were concerned that the new media of the modern city — news, cinema — would preempt real experience, which requires continuous interaction with people and the immediate environment over a period of time. But we adapted: the newspaper is information, but reading the newspaper in the park or a café is an experience; going to cinema became a common social experience. Similarly, today, in the Internet’s adolescence, experience online (gaming, shopping, Facebook, etc.) is commonly accepted, if grudgingly, as experience. And we are only beginning to understand the implications of this transformation.