Drop ceilings like you’ve never seen ‘em
Fanning out across the 4,200-square-foot ceiling of the Renwick Gallery’s Bettie Rubenstein Grand Salon, Parallax Gap, by Los Angeles– and New York City–based architecture firm FreelandBuck, sketches nine iconic US ceilings whose design and construction were roughly contemporaneous with that of James Renwick’s Second Empire masterpiece. Such resplendent canopies as those in Bernard Maybeck’s Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, Richard Morris Hunt’s Chateau-sur-Mer dining room in Newport, Rhode Island, and rooms in the Philadelphia City Hall by John McArthur Jr. are represented, but don’t expect to lean back and marvel at an array of familiar ceilings—at least not from any one spot on the floor.
The effect the title alludes to, known as parallax, is the way relationships between objects in space appear to change based on an observer’s position. Astronomers use it to triangulate the distance to celestial bodies, and our brains automatically perform the same sort of calculation for much closer objects—it’s a key part of human depth perception. The parallax effect that FreelandBuck’s principals, Brennan Buck and David Freeland, have harnessed was achieved by first creating multiple perspective drawings of the model ceilings. The crosshatches and contours of this line work were then transferred to polypropylene matrices supported by aluminum skeletons, and hung in stacks of two to five layers below the Grand Salon’s skylight. As viewers perambulate below, the architectonic harmony of drawn domes, coffers, ribs, brackets, and beams dissolves and is reconstituted in new combinations, a process that embodies the possibilities inherent in an architectural drawing but largely foreclosed by the time a concept is transformed into a building.
The installation might call to mind recent renditions of trompe l’oeil ceilings by the likes of artists such as James Turrell, but FreelandBuck doesn’t necessarily want to tromper you; they’d rather you figured it out. “Our ambition for Parallax Gap [is that] it offers you a visual puzzle to solve,” says Buck.
Parallax Gap is on view at the Renwick Gallery until February 18.