Whimsical Façades

A playful look at works of installation on city streets

A façade plays on the power of first impression: functioning as a building’s outward face, it sets the building’s tone, whether that be inviting, dour, whimsical or something else altogether. And just like how one might put on makeup, whip up a new ‘do, or spend hours trying different outfits in front of a mirror, artists are happy to revise a building’s exterior to dramatic effect.

Susan Stilton Pulls PMCA Inside-Out

At first glance, “Susan Stilton: Inside Out” evokes the fun and whimsy of a circus “big top” tent—but it actually takes the form of a fumigation tent, inspiring thoughts on infestation and contamination. A flea circus, perhaps?

Susan Silton: Inside Out, Susan Stilton, 2007 (From the collection of Pasadena Museum of California Art)

The colourful tarp marks a stark barrier between inside and outside. The choice of enveloping a museum in such a way—which seeks to make cultural artefacts available to the public at-large—invites interesting questions on how institutionalized art can easily become interactive art, depending where it is placed.

Simone Decker’s Chewy, Sugary Vandalism in Venice

Simone Decker’s “Chewing in Venice” intervention, in which entire public spaces are covered in chewed gum, prompts us to look back on memories of childhood delinquency. A walk down a Venetian street, can easily lead to a walk down memory lane with just one installation art piece.

Chewing in Venice 2: Chewing gum Albanesi, Simone Decker, 1999 (From the collection of Mudam Luxembourg – Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean)

Here’s something to chew on: Decker’s work contrasts the hard, stone walls of Venice with chewing gum’s malleability and organic shape. Saccharine-sweet yet goopy and gross, the sculptural gum form softens surfaces in a whimsical way.

The Trompe l’œil Technique

Sorry to burst the bubble on this, but Decker’s bubble-gum façades are illusory. By smearing gum on the camera lens or by using various camera perspectives and angles, she employs a trompe l’œil, or a strategy that makes a two-dimensional plane appear three-dimensional. The real façade here isn’t the building face, but rather the trick she plays on the viewer.

Chewing in Venice 2: Chewing gum Misericordi, by Simone Decker, 1999 (From the collection of Mudam Luxembourg - Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean)

No Handrail Here: Seon Ghi Bahk’s Startling Stairways

M.C. Escher’s Relativity? The grand staircase at Hogwarts, perhaps? Or maybe Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven? Bahk’s charcoal stairs set against a glassy, mirrored façade have a psychedelic and kaleidoscopic effect that lets the imagination wander.

Existence-stairs, Seon Ghi Bahk, 2004 (From the collection of Korean Art Museum Association)

If you’re afraid of heights, these steps might make you choose the elevator. But Bahk’s work isn’t for climbing; it explores the connection between humans and nature. Using wood as a medium, he’s built nature right into an office building—perhaps the furthest thing from a pastoral, natural scene.

All Eyes on Giant Binoculars

Ironically enough, these huge binoculars might remind you of toys by miniaturizing everything else around them. Looking as if a child discarded them in the middle of a playset, these binoculars provide a whimsical touch to the street-facing façade.

Giant Binoculars, Claes Oldenburg, Coosje van Bruggen, 1991 (From the collection of Public Art in Public Places)

The quirky binoculars expertly unify the building’s wildly different styles (note the boxy, white section on the left versus the chaotic brown on the right). You might say the binoculars provide a convenient focal point to the building’s overall look.

Oldenburg and van Bruggen’s “Giant Binoculars” adorn the façade of the Chiat/Day office building, which was designed by Frank Gehry. Like the Chiat/Day building, Gehry’s Serpentine Gallery Pavilion also features disparate elements pulled from many sources of inspiration, like feats of engineering designed by da Vinci versus primitive huts.

Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2008, Frank Gehry, 2008 (From the collection of Serpentine Galleries)
Written by Joseph Sutton
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