The Museum of Ice Cream kicked our ass. It beat architecture to a project for a contemporary image-conscious culture in an era of social media. This is a shame considering architecture has a long history of staging the image of social life. From the success of the grand escalier at l’Opera Garnier de Paris and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim to the new and problematic Vessel at Hudson Yards, the faith in architecture to frame and showcase experience itself is unquestioned. An image-based culture has clearly developed and seeks to define its subsequent social media marketing as a major participant in the design process.
Yet, the Museum of Ice Cream was first to land on the maximized interior type resulting from that culture. The ‘pop-up museum’ is a series of rooms designed to tightly control the aesthetic output of the user experience. In the meantime architecture turns up its nose in collective dismissal, all the while pulling the plug on the idea as architecture itself. Since its unveiling in 2016, I have discussed the Museum of Ice Cream through various juries, lectures, and interpersonal conversations. So far, the attitude I get from others is that there is no architecture in the MOIC. Some even call it a vapid set of cheap stages created only to perpetuate the millennial need for attention with empty self-actualization. This is clearly selective criticism on the part of architects, as the display is clearly thoughtful, albeit two dimensional design. It is an interior renovation. I know plenty of designers who would kill for a project of its scale, and who have made architecture with less. It does not, however, stem from a discernible discursive architectural project. If it were by, say, T+E+A+M it would certainly be lauded, certainly more effective, and even have the opportunity to be canonical.
Could it be the age-old problem of architecture having trouble absorbing extra-disciplinary spatial experiments? Consider Duchamp’s double-door which was brought to my attention last week in a lecture by Andrew Atwood at the School of Architecture at Taliesin where I live and teach. The piece consists of two door frames that share one edge, where a hinged door can ‘close’ at zero and ninety degrees from one corner. Thus one can connect three rooms at one corner with a single door, and play a game with what you can close off and what you cannot. The door is simple and domestic, with normal white painted trim, which heightens its strangeness as a work of architecture. However, since it came from the arts, it was likely not taken seriously as an architectural offering. Yet it would be a great fit at Rem Koolhaas’ Biennale Fundamentals in 2014, and First Office has since worked with this door as part of a proposal for a shotgun house.
The more grave accusation for dismissal of the MOIC is that architects are naive about what today’s image culture means for their discipline. So out of touch is the average curmudgeon architect with the average selfie-taker I wonder where these judgements are coming from. The established voices seem to take “selfie culture is bad” as a given, which is an issue that stems from architecture’s makeup as a hobby of wealthy elitists. A younger, less wealthy group of newly-educated architects see it for what it is; a missed opportunity based on inherent bias about the nature of culture. And the truth is that we don’t really know that selfie culture (whatever that is) is making any positive or negative difference in your life at all. General criticisms of image culture coming from boomers is an ageist and classist remark, which is only compounded by the fact that boomers have the harder time on the internet.
I am reminded of a piece by Sylvia Lavin called Practice Makes Perfect in which she suggests we focus less on representation and more on practice.
I’ve heard from a few top architects that fairly deem the Museum of Ice Cream ‘superficial’ but at the same time claim that they’d like to be indifferent to Instagrammable architecture in their work. In one case even purport that a project they’ve designed is the ‘least Instagrammable’ space; as if that were a positive! As a critic interested in how the discipline must adapt to manifest itself, this idea terrifies me because one can’t critique image culture without participating.
So: is the Museum of Ice Cream good? Well, I am reminded of a piece by Sylvia Lavin called Practice Makes Perfect in which she suggests we focus less on representation and more on practice. She critiques architecture as representation because it becomes devalued over time. Architecture that claims to represent good or to cure social ills will eventually need to be attacked violently by a new architecture because it will inevitably fail. She suggests a return to practice through the example of Norman Foster’s 30 St Mary Axe tower, in which a lazy metaphor of a gherkin is used as a foil for architectural cucumbers. Lavin goes on to offer the Pet Rock as a model for design as purely pleasurable experience rather than architecture that tries to represent the good. She suggests we “sell them something they want [that] .. is exactly good enough.”
In other words, the Museum of Ice Cream isn’t good, but it is exactly good enough because it is what people want. Recently it was said that the only great building experiments in the world are taking place outside of the United States. The image-creation pop-up museum could be the most important typology as a new American phenomenon. Will we sit idly by, or will we play along?
About the Author
Ryan Scavnicky is the founder of Extra Office. The practice investigates architecture’s relationship to contemporary culture, aesthetics, and media to seek new agencies for critical practice. He studied at L’Ecole Speciale d’Architecture in Paris and DAAP in Cincinnati for his Masters of …