Architecture Only an Artist can Get Away With

New York’s Guggenheim Museum has just announced plans to install a new artwork by Maurizio Cattelan consisting of a toilet made of 18 karat solid gold. The references to Piero Manzoni and Marcel Duchamp are obvious, but there is one very important distinction here that cannot be overlooked: this crapper will actually be functional. It will replace an existing Kohler brand toilet in an existing bathroom stall inside the existing Frank Lloyd Wright landmark building. Apparently, once it is installed, any museum-goer will be allowed to relieve themselves in it (as long they can withstand the duration of the lengthy queues that can be expected).

As a functioning, usable toilet situated in a bathroom, is it not a work of ‘architecture’ more than it is ‘art’? We must remember here that Rem Koolhaas included the toilet in his ‘Elements of Architecture’ exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 2014:

Elements of Architecture looks under a microscope at the fundamentals of our buildings, used by any architect, anywhere, anytime: the floor, the wall, the ceiling, the roof, the door, the window, the façade, the balcony, the corridor, the fireplace, the toilet, the stair, the escalator, the elevator, the ramp. [emphasis added]

As one of the 15 most fundamental elements of architecture, the toilet is clearly being appropriated by Cattelan from another discipline. But I don’t want to ask the tiresome question of whether this is art or not. Art can, after all, be anything, including architecture, so that question has stopped being relevant. The question that is more interesting is whether or not this very same work would ‘stand up’ (pardon the sexism) if it were done by an architect instead of an artist. How would this work be received then?

The reception would undoubtedly be very different, for in the context of ‘architecture’, this work conjures up an entire history of golden toilets commissioned by monarchs, dictators, despots, and self-indulgent rich people such as Saddam Hussein, the Emir of Kuwait, the Shah of Iran, or The Donald of New York. There are actually very many golden toilets throughout history, as this Pinterest collection shows, so, as far as architecture goes, a golden toilet is absolutely nothing new, let alone a provocation. Architecturally, a golden toilet is in fact very much a cliché, which is surely the worst sin that any architect can commit.

Vladimir Lenin once famously said: “When we are victorious on a world scale I think we shall use gold for the purpose of building public lavatories in the streets of some of the largest cities of the world.” If Cattelan and the Guggenheim Museum want to make a real provocation, perhaps they should reconsider installing their functioning golden toilet in front of the museum, rather than inside it. In the context of present-day Manhattan, a golden public toilet might even hold up as architecture.

About Rafael Gomez-Moriana

I am an architect, writer and educator. rafagomo.com chronicles my architectural making, writing, teaching and curating activity, while criticalista.com is an archive of my writings as well as a platform for venting personal rants and observations. I studied architecture at the University of Waterloo (Canada) and at the Berlage Institute (the Netherlands). I direct the University of Calgary’s architecture term-abroad program in Barcelona and teach at CIEE, and have previously taught in the Metropolis Masters Program in Architecture and Urban Culture as well as at Carleton University and the University of Manitoba.

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