Inhabiting Geometry

Up on the lift

Photo by J. Katz

Paul and two guys from the crew are 35 feet up on the Genie lift, examining the first couple of loops of an airy helix.

“I think it looks cool,” Paul says. “But I think he’s going to want it tighter.” He turns a switch and the Genie squeals, lowering them to the floor.

Weeks from now, when the exhibition Anne Tyng: Inhabiting Geometry opens, the helix, made of crisscrossed pieces of Luan plywood, will fill that part of the gallery, looping down to meet up with its geometric forbearers: a cube, a triangular pyramid, a dodecahedron, and a couple of others. These shapes too will be big—big enough to stand in, to walk around in, to experience and explore. Big enough, as the show’s name implies, to inhabit if ICA were open 24/7, which we’re not. You’re welcome to spend the day in there, but we’ll ask you to leave at closing time.

One feels that Anne Tyng, who designed this installation and whose work the exhibition explores, does actually inhabit geometry. Or maybe it inhabits her. I’ve written before in this space about how Tyng’s love of architecture goes back to her childhood in China where her parents were missionaries, how she takes a sensual delight in form. She writes of the “magic revelation in my first creation of space for human use,” and of her “passionate search for essences of form and space.” Now ninety, having worked as an architect for thirty years and taught architecture for nearly another thirty, Tyng’s passion for form is literally taking shape in ICA’s gallery. Architect and professor Srdjan Weiss and his assistant Kristen Smith have been working with Tyng to realize her vision, and now ICA’s crew is bolting together thin strips of wood, dangling wires from wall and ceiling, and erecting octahedrons the size of minivans.

I love this moment in the museum, when everyday an exhibition comes a little further to life. When music is playing on speakers in the background and all kinds of bric-a-brac washes up on long tables as on a beach: scissors, work gloves, plans, newspapers, a camera, a pile of white art handling gloves, a notebook, time sheets, books, balls of wire, balls of yarn. Today the gallery floor is marked with angular spirals laid out in blue tape, as though an English garden maze is being planned. More blue tape brightens the walls at eye level, mysterious figures scribbled on it. The room smells of paint.
Miranda: Dodecahdron

Photo: Paul Swenbeck

I imagine Anne Tyng enjoyed moments like these all her life—moments when her plans and renderings began to take shape on building sites. You can see some of her buildings rise from the ground in photographs that will also be part of the exhibition. Darcey, ICA’s registrar, showed me the working checklist this morning. I was excited to see plans and pictures of the buildings I’ve read about, particularly the Four-Poster House in which the bed serves as the central organizing form and metaphor.

The plans and photos come from Penn’s Architectural Archive, which is co-presenting the show with ICA. Yesterday Ingrid, who is organizing the show, came back from the Archives with articles about Tyng’s early life and career. “Petite Blonde Succeeds As Architect in Phila” a headline in The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Women’s section proclaims in May of 1950. How’s that for news! “Just under five feet,” the article explains, Anne Tyng “has the look of ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ but don’t be misled by the façade for she has the astuteness of a woman who knows every facet of architecture.”

Is that use of the word “façade” an intentional joke? Did articles about architects in the men’s sections include their height?

A more interesting question: could Tyng, exploring secret passages in her childhood home in Jiangxi, China, imagine what the future held in store for her?

Well, maybe she could. She was always a visionary.

Anne Tyng: Inhabiting Geometry, opens at ICA on January 13 and runs through March 20. The exhibition is organized by ICA Senior Curator Ingrid Schaffner; consulting curator Srdjan Jovanović Weiss, Assistant Professor, Tyler Architecture, Temple University; and William Whitaker, Curator and Collections Manager, The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania. The exhibition is a collaboration between ICA and Penn’s Architectural Archives.