Natural phenomena have long inspired the design of architectural space. Louis Kahn is famously known for articulating his deep respect for natural phenomena in poetic terms: "All material in nature, the mountains and the streams and the air and we, are made of Light which has been spent, and this crumpled mass called material casts a shadow and the shadow belongs to Light."
Light is the subject of a small structure recently designed by Asif Khan at Art Basel in Miami. Commissioned by the Austrian crystal company Swarovski, Khan's pavilion represents an attempt to translate an atmospheric condition into built form. In particular, the structure is inspired by the phenomenon of parhelia—known colloquially as sun dogs—which occurs when sunlight is scattered by ice crystals in colder climates to create a halo effect.
I can personally appreciate Khan's interest in this phenomenon, having experienced my first parhelia event after moving to Minnesota five years ago. Driving south in Minneapolis on a bitterly cold yet clear day, I shielded my eyes from the sun—only to realize that it wasn't the actual sun I was seeing, but one of the sun's twin representations at the same level relative to the horizon. My initial shock at discovering "three suns" that day has since inspired me to anticipate this immersing atmospheric experience every winter.
For his Miami project, Khan claims that he challenged Swarovski. "We're not going to make an object or a piece of jewelry," Khan said. "We're going to make a building." Unfortunately, this aspiration limited the potential of the effort. To be sure, the desire to recreate the experience of parhelia in a space, rather than an object, makes perfect sense. But note Khan's use of the restrictive term "building." The pavilion employs no less than 1.5 million Swarovski crystals to create a shimmering, light-refracting envelope—a dream material for a dream project.
Despite the use of such a visually stunning (not to mention inconceivably expensive) material, though, its application falls flat. First, the crystalline surfaces are organized in repetitive—and predictable—rectangular panels. Second, these panels are fastened together by visible metal connectors which, although minimal, are highly conspicious. Third, the structure forms the familiar gabled-roof shape of a house, despite the fact that it could have assumed any form. In short, the project utilizes an extremely conventional means of applying an extremely unconventional material, and while our eyes should be focused on the crystals, we can't help but notice the elements of standard construction language. What could have been architecture is, unfortunately, only a building.
The ambition to recreate aspects of natural phenomena in spatial and material terms is a good thing. There are many successful demonstrations of this approach by architects and designers such as Tokujin Yoshioka, Thomas Heatherwick, Kengo Kuma, and Hitoshi Abe. We should therefore take note of these positive examples: in every case, the method of material application is at least as innovative as the material itself. In many cases, the way a material is applied represents the clear contribution of the work (see Kengo Kuma's use of cheap plastic panels in his Oribe Tea House, or Shinji Ohmaki's use of nylon string in his "Liminal Air" exhibit).
So, although Asif Khan's structure is beautiful, it doesn't live up to the full potential of harnessing a natural phenomenon. The lesson here is that we must always seek innovation in the way a material is used, regardless of how costly or rare it is.
Blaine Brownell is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.