Vito Acconci 1940-2017

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I was honored to be part of his memorial yesterday at Pratt School of Architecture, in collaboration with Acconci Studio. I first encountered Vito’s work as a student in architecture school. There was a postcard in my mailbox announcing his upcoming lecture with a photograph of his “Adjustable Wall Bra.” I thought, a wall needs to be held up, a wall needs a bra, how perfect. Then when I graduated during so-called lean times I got the most strait-laced job imaginable reviewing shop drawings for a project in the Philadelphia Airport, but the project fell under the percent-for-art program, and the art in question was Vito’s wondrous “Flying Floors.”

There are a handful of artists and architects whose work became my go-to sources when I started teaching and Vito is at the top of that list. His work, I think, IS architecture because it’s disciplined and it’s precise. Sometimes as an architect and always as a teacher you need a spotting point, like the spotting point that dancers use when they spin so that they don’t get dizzy and fall down. Vito’s work has plenty of this sort of spotting-point work; work that proves, that makes you question assumptions, but that also feels solid. For me, truly inhabiting Vito’s work is like shooting off into space while at the same time feeling your feet firmly planted.

It was this experience of his work that made me think to invite him one summer to an architecture program in northwest Spain, to Santiago de Compostela. This is a city where even today devout pilgrims walk for weeks to honor the remains of the apostle St James, but also a city that flaunts an impressive art and architecture collection, where drones film carts of grass still pulled by beasts of burden, where traditional drinks involve lighting them on fire and reciting incantations that keep the witches away.
By the time I spent three wine and seafood filled amazing summer days with Vito and María I had been attending Vito’s reviews at Pratt for years. I had seen my former students go through his advanced studio, and yes, sometimes they had that deer-in-the-headlights look, but it was a good thing, it was good for them to feel uneasy. I’m a core teacher through and through; I sometimes think I’m the Pilates instructor of architecture school. My job is to build that core in my students so that when they arrive in the advanced studios they stand a little taller. Vito’s job was to make these students wonderfully unstable again so that architecture lived on in their minds as the dynamic raw thing it can be.

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