secret sky

This past weekend I joined an impromptu reunion of my 2013-2014 American Academy Fellows in Pinnebog, Michigan for the opening of Secret Sky, the latest piece by our colleague Catie Newell. Her work deals forthrightly with materials, architectural form, and how these can be manipulated to create experiences that are at once richly engaging and productively unsettling. Secret Sky is one of three barns around Port Austin, in the tip of Michigan’s ‘thumb’, that have been re-conceived by Detroit artists, and it provided a backdrop for a dinner, conversation, and party that provoked some deeply enjoyable questions…

Over two years, Catie and her team sliced through their barn, turning it into a pair of structures with a wedge-shaped gap between them. It’s a subtle move–from the road the barn seems normal at first, and it’s only on approach that the deeply strange geometries of the slice become apparent. The long, wedge-shaped voids seem physically impossible, and from the front the view of the sky through the barn takes a minute to understand–it occurs right where the post-and-beam structure of a typical barn would be most vital, and the combined stoutness of the gambrel-shaped roof and the apparent fragility of the two pieces underneath it make a sort of invitation to figure out what’s going on.

And close up, things get interesting, because it’s clear that the slice isn’t casual, but it’s been immaculately worked over–‘tailored’ was the best way I heard to describe the detailing of the slice’s walls. The void is the result of a careful re-construction, the original siding re-purposed and re-cut to match the faceted geometry needed to make the slice appear like a clean opening through the barn’s volume. Its scale and shape make walking between the sloping and vertical walls an uncanny experience and a structural riddle, which is answered by the last stop on a mowed path, at the entrance to the barn on the opposite side.

Here the ‘tailoring’ is apparent, with new timber and steel rods that do the work of supporting the slanting, re-constructed wall of the slice. Showing off the stitching that makes the clean lines possible is a bold move, but it’s a generous one, emphasizing the fragile construction that the barn shares with most agricultural outbuildings. The inseams are thoughtfully laid out but not overworked, and the ‘reveal’ of the steel rods contrasts with the weathered timbers supporting the roof.

It’s a rare combination of formal, structural, and material virtuosity–a moving meditation on how delicate and temporal building can be, and how much a simple defiance of architectural expectations can affect us. We’re used to buildings that shelter, that are sturdy, and that can be readily understood or appreciated, and coming across such an articulate enigma is a rare thing.

There are comparisons here to the sliced or cut buildings of Gordon Matta-Clark, but Catie’s work goes deeper than the shock value of his controlled demolitions; the attention she’s paid to the reconstruction of the barn into an intentional set of forms adds a sense of stewardship and, maybe, of hopefulness. Plans to preserve the barn by installing a new roof are underway (you can contribute through the Port Austin Artist-in-Residency website here…include in the memo “for Secret Sky roof”), which would mean that this exercise in sublime fragility would be around for a few more generations…

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