The Architectural League's Beaux Arts Ball: –ISM

CONCEPT and DESIGN: Alex Kahn and Sophia Michahelles
SOUNDSCAPE: Nathan Helpern

“the wildest, maddest, most intensely excited crowd that ever broke decorum in any scene that I have witnessed…" – 1913 account of the Armory Show’s closing night.

On the night of September 29th, attendees of the Architectural League of NY’s Beaux Arts Ball mingled under taut geometric canopies of industrial fabric suspended beneath the vast 80-foot vaulted ceiling of the 69th Regiment Armory. The 40,000 square-foot drill hall had hardly changed in the 100 years since it housed the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art, better known today as the "Armory Show". The League had chosen “–ISM” as its theme for the annual ball, to commemorate the exhibition that scandalized and tantalized American audiences and set American realism on a collision course with European abstraction.

A century removed from the clamor that attended the show’s opening, the prevailing tone that night amidst low ambient electronic music was one of rarified cool formalism. Then, in the darkened periphery of the hall, a few guests caught a glimpse of a figure clad in translucent torqued planes, then another in triangles, and one in the corner encrusted with intersecting rhomboids. As the music’s cadence quickened, one could discern hints of dissonance in the mix – atonal 1913 strains of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg punctuated with snare drums evoking the marching band that had incongruously played at the original Armory Show. Soon, larger figures began to appear, towering but lithe 14’-tall Duchampian nudes descending with mechanical grace toward the dance floor. At moments the figures burst into illumination as they passed through projections of American Realist paintings from the original exhibition. In a choreographed collision of abstraction and realism George Bellows cityscapes and Robert Henri portraits shattered and rippled across the Cubist contours of the figures. Then suddenly, the music struck one final dissonant chord, the figures froze, as if on the pedestals once arranged in the hall. When the tension finally broke, fevered techno music kicked in, and everyone joined together in a frenzy of spontaneous dancing. One architectural blog later described the scene as “the Beaux Arts Ball’s Burning Man Moment”

The performance was the result of a week-long intensive workshop with Architectural League members – architects, designers, artists, and visual thinkers. Since the first Beaux Arts Ball in 1914, thematic costumes and participatory tableaus had been a key part of the annual event (a famous photo from 1931 shows the great architects of their day costumed as their own buildings). The League commissioned PAW to rekindle some of the Carnivalesque spirit of the early Balls. We worked with a simple vocabulary of architectural materials: polycarbonate plastics, rivets, and Mylar drafting film. As Cubist-inspired modular forms were developed, refined, replicated, and ultimately applied to giant transparent armatures, conversations abounded across the worktables about tessellation and symmetry, ceremonial armor and body-adornment, scale-free origami machines, and, of course, the lingering reverberations of 1913. In the end, many of the makers followed their creations into performance, set amidst environmental designs by Situ Studios and an original score by Nathan Halpern, giving at last concrete form to the adage that “talking about painting is like dancing about architecture.”

View mini-documentary on the 2013 Beaux Arts Ball, from space installation to PAW performance.

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