Sarah Oppenheimer

American, born 1972


Aluminum, steel, glass, and architecture Two forms: 191 x 124 x 34 and 156 x 124 x 34 inches
Commission, Landmarks, The University of Texas at Austin, 2022
Location: Peyton Yates Family Bridge at the Gary L Thomas Energy Engineering Building GPS: 30.287883, -97.735634

Activity Guides

A black and white version of Sarah Oppenheimer's "C-010106"
Sarah Oppenheimer
American, born 1972


Subject: Reflections

Activity: Drawing with Foil

Materials: Aluminum foil, white colored pencils or chalk, dark colored cardboard or poster board (at least 6 x 6 inches), glue, scissors, access to outdoors and/or an artificial light source

Vocabulary: Diagonal, glass, mirror, reflection

A black and white version of Sarah Oppenheimer's "C-010106"
Sarah Oppenheimer
American, 1972


Subject: Compound Images

Activity: Transparent Portrait and Landscape

Materials: 8.5 x 11 cardstock, tracing paper, markers, pencil, glue stick, phone camera (optional)

Vocabulary: Architecture, diagonal, pedestrian, reflection, transparency

A black and white version of Sarah Oppenheimer's "C-010106"
Sarah Oppenheimer
American, born 1972


Subject: Reflections

Activity: Double reflection life drawing

Materials: Two mirrors (that can stand on their own, or be propped up), 8.5 x 11 cardstock/paper, pencils or varying hardness, colored pencils (Optional: tracing paper, markers, glue stick, phone camera)

Vocabulary: Apparatus, architecture, axis, pedestrian, reflection, transparency

More Information

Essay by Lumi Tan

Sarah Oppenheimer’s artistic practice considers how our behaviors adapt to architectural spaces and the permissions and possibilities perceived through the regulation of bodies. By questioning assumed spatial relationships to portals such as doors and windows, one could say that Oppenheimer’s work gives agency to the viewer instead of what is on view. As such, the work often disrupts the unidirectional gaze that is endemic to traditional displays of art objects. From one project to the next, the through lines of Oppenheimer’s research and process are made clear, consistently utilizing three-dimensional space with the ideas of perception and participation at its core—thus ultimately conjuring a fourth dimension.

Oppenheimer’s permanent intervention in the contemporary galleries of the Baltimore Museum of Art, W-120301 (2012), interrupts the typical museum gaze by inviting interchanges between visitors on two separate floors of the museum. With aluminum and reflective glass imbedded in the walls, the artist creates a picture plane divided into four sections. These include two windows into different museum spaces: one looks directly into a concrete atrium filled with natural light, while the other looks down at visitors in the gallery below. Both views can be taken in at once, without changing the body’s relationship to the wall. It is useful to note that this perspectival play rejects a dominant position of surveillance in favor of exchanges that are activated by what is seen and unseen.

Another way in which Oppenheimer subverts expected order can be seen in a series of works that shifts the relationships between museum visitor and guard. Accustomed to having their bodies on view, guards monitor the activities of those who come too close, intervening before surfaces are touched. At the Perez Museum of Art (2016) and the Wexner Center for the Arts (2017), Oppenheimer gave visitors the ability to not merely touch, but also to physically change the orientation of the works. Large forms made from plates of glass that reflected fluorescent and natural light could be rotated into different positions. Instead of playing a prohibitive role, guards embraced participation and demonstrated the license that Oppenheimer granted visitors, encouraging them to manipulate the objects through touch.

Later exhibitions at Kunstmuseum Thun (2020) and the Wellin Museum of Art (2021) continued the artist’s research into creating networks of actions. In them Oppenheimer devised systems in which our bodies’ energies became “inputs” that produce specific and multiple “outputs” with varying degrees of visibility. Visitors could not only observe but also determine the positions of walls and lighting mechanisms. In this way they were encouraged to collaborate as a group for greater impact.

Among many influences, Oppenheimer feels most connected to artists who may be initially regarded as object-makers, such as Lygia Clark and Senga Nengudi. Although their work is presented in museum settings, it also functions as an agent of social exchange. Clark began her artistic career in the 1950s as an abstract painter, establishing the Neo-Concrete movement with fellow Brazilian artists. Over the next thirty years, she transitioned into imaginary architectures, relational objects, and eventually devised her own body work technique called Structuring the Self in 1976. Nengudi’s most exhibited and collected works were sculptural installations created with pantyhose, which she debuted in 1977. Commonly installed without the evidence of the performances Nengudi conducted within them, their forms are radically changed. R.S.V.P, the title she gave this series, was an explicit call for audiences to respond.

Because Oppenheimer’s works are made of solid objects with great physical presence, one might identify the artist’s practice as sculptural. However, sculpture is a term that Oppenheimer pushes against. Such works are meant to be autonomous and they maintain their presence whether or not we interact with them. But in Oppenheimer’s view, the work is not complete without the conditional relationships it has to the light, the built architecture, and especially the people who surround it. Not surprisingly, “architecture” is consistently listed among Oppenheimer’s media.

To Oppenheimer, the word “apparatus” more accurately describes these relational qualities. An apparatus is part of a larger system and it typically has a specific purpose. One might not see Oppenheimer’s work as having a determined outcome. Perhaps that is precisely the point. While the works are designed to create the opportunity for infinite possibilities, the creation process includes many controls: the materials are chosen meticulously, their arrangements are modeled in the studio, and they are rigorously scripted and tested. The development is carried out with an acute understanding that the works become part of their environment, and that each environment is dynamic. For instance, Oppenheimer uses ADA accessibility regulations—often seen as cumbersome restrictions for able-bodied architects and designers—as a starting point for imagining the apparatus. This allows for what the artist calls “gestural access”—a type of embedded access that departs from purely utilitarian function—and demonstrates how readily mindsets can shift. By applying such codes into each step of the creative process, the end result becomes an “operational field” as opposed to a discrete object. As Oppenheimer states, these structural changes are not only problems to solve but also modifications of the “material, optical, social footprint” of the work. They would not exist as such without these limits of administrative and legal governance, controls that are enforced in all institutions

It is not only the architectural structures at the center of Oppenheimer’s work but also the mechanics that influence human interaction. As a critic at the Yale School of Art, the artist has long collaborated with the university’s school of engineering. Sensitive Machine, Oppenheimer’s Wellin Museum of Art exhibition (2021), shares a title with a workshop Oppenheimer taught at Yale’s Center for Engineering Innovation and Design. In it, students isolated a single gesture to be translated into mechanisms that became extensions of the body. Participants investigated how machines can become sensory conduits—a concept that signals how people come into contact within Oppenheimer’s exhibitions. The artist is equally curious to investigate these quotidian objects that shape our existence in built environments and enable social collaboration, including tuning forks, clocks, and barometers.

Oppenheimer’s relation to mechanical, structural, and behavioral engineering makes C-010106 ideally situated between two buildings at the Cockrell School of Engineering. Located on the pedestrian bridge between the Engineering Education and Research Center and the Energy Engineering Building, the floor-to-ceiling glass features prominently as a way to showcase students at work and to promote multidisciplinary collaboration through formal demonstrations of transparency and access. While C-010106 also uses glass as a material, its function shifts significantly.

C-010106 consists of two apparatus at opposite ends of a pedestrian bridge. At each location, a pair of diagonal reflective glass plates are buttressed between a pair of clear glass sheets. At the intersection of the four panes, the glass passes through an incision in the bridge surface, making the apparatus visible both to those above the bridge as well as to those below it. The reflective surfaces within the incision create a surprising effect—permitting pedestrians on top of the bridge to see the reflections of those underneath and vice versa.

The bridge serves as a connector between spaces and people. Its utility is clear; it makes travel from one building to another more efficient and direct. Into this transitional space intended for movement Oppenheimer invites new behavioral functions such as observation, contemplation, and social exchange. By siting one apparatus on a north/south axis and another on an east/west axis, a “switch” is created in the flow of traffic and the habitual patterns of movement. The viewer is not limited to a frontal confrontation with the object, but is able to engage through it. As the artist remarks, this act of transition is processional, rather than manual in the way one might open or close a door. C-010106 encourages a choreography between people as well as with the shifting light, sound, seasons, and greater environmental rhythms that are in constant flux.

The social impact of the architectural and art histories that have informed Oppenheimer recalls the literary theorist Caroline Levine and her expansive concept of “form,” which she defines as “any arrangement of elements—any ordering, patterning, or shaping.” By using the concept of “affordance” from design theory—the idea of what the environment offers the individual—she asks how material or design can be applied to the aesthetic form:

“Affordances point us both to what all forms are capable of—to the range of uses each could be put to, even if no one has yet taken advantage of those possibilities—and also to their limits, the restrictions intrinsic to particular materials and organizing principles… Form emerges from this perspective as transhistorical, portable, and abstract, on the one hand, and material, situated, and political, on the other.”

The affordances of glass are manifold. We understand its veracity, its one-to-one representation through translucence or reflection. The seamlessness of our glass screens is posited as the threshold between the individual and the network, becoming an all-encompassing source of information, labor, leisure and memory. But the glass itself is intended to disappear.

Oppenheimer uses these associations to reinscribe our relationships to matter and the knowledge it supports. The apparatus provides not only reflections of the condition of each precise moment but also representations of our individual selves with each other and the encounters that may regularly be dismissed or ignored. While the environmental and social convergences conveyed by C-010106 are fleeting, the apparatus is highly present. It insists that each individual is positioned amongst others—not only in the instance of contact but also in the continual approach and retreat of our collective body.

Lumi Tan is senior curator at The Kitchen in New York. 

Naming "C-010106"

Oppenheimer names works of art according to an alpha-numeric system. Each character indicates spatial relationships and other unique properties, such as perception and sight lines, light and air flows, and physical access. However ordered the typology may seem, it arises from a deeply personal system that is modified over time and results in titles that can be idiosyncratic. While they attempt to define the qualities and character of each piece, they also reveal insights into the evolution of Oppenheimer's understanding. 

Because the artist's titles raise general curiosity about their meanings, the below definitions are provided to help decode the name C-010106:

C = Shorthand for cinema, defined as the way an image is perceived as a dimensional projection on a flat surface. 

0 = The adjacency of one form over another; in this work glass is above and below the bridge surface.

1 = Flow indicates that light passes through the form.

0 = Flow indicates that air circulates through the form.

1 = Flow indicates sight lines; that one can look downward and upward through the form. 

0 = Flow indicates physical passage; that a person cannot walk through the form.

6 = The boundary (of the bridge surface) can be physically occupied both above and below.

This chart offers a more detailed view into Oppenheimer's naming classifications. Although the system may evolve, this typology was used to name C-010106 in 2022.


Bibliographic Highlights

Sarah Oppenheimer bibliography

Oppenheimer, Sarah. “The Array,” Art in America, May 2014,

Galloway, Alex. “Interview with Sarah Oppenheimer,” BOMB, September 5, 2016,

Stalder, Laurent. “A Switch.” Sarah Oppenheimer: S-337473. Wexner Center for the Arts, 2017.

Weber, Stephanie. “Ekphrasis.” Sarah Oppenheimer. Mills College Art Museum, 2015.

Yoon, Soyoung.  “Buffer Zone.” N-01. Verlag für moderne Kunst, 2020.

Project History

Landmarks commissioned artist Sarah Oppenheimer to create a work that activates the pedestrian bridge between the Engineering Education and Research Center (EER) and the new Gary L. Thomas Energy Engineering Building (GLT). C-010106 is comprised of two monumental glass forms that transect the surface of the bridge, creating new sightlines from above and below. 

Funding for C-010106 was provided by the GLT building capital improvement project for the Cockrell School of Engineering. Landmarks gives special thanks to the following:


Darrell Bazzell and Financial and Administrative Services
Andrée Bober and Landmarks
Roger Bonnecaze and the Cockrell School of Engineering
Campus Master Planning Committee
David Darling and the Office of Campus Planning and Facilities Management
Jay Hartzell and the Office of the President
Landmarks Advisory Committee
Ramón Rivera-Servera and the College of Fine Arts
Michael Uyeda and Capital Planning and Construction
Sharon Wood and the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost

Project Team

Arcadia, fabrication
Andrée Bober, curator and director, Landmarks
Nisa Barger, project manager, Landmarks
The Beck Group, construction
Ennead Architects, architecture
Jacobs Engineering, engineering
Sarah Oppenheimer, artist
James Richardson, engineering
Sedak, fabrication
Patrick Sheehy Fine Art Services, art installation
Werner Sobek, engineering
Thorton Thomasetti, engineering
TriPyramid, fabrication
UAP, project management
Keith Westmoreland, Capital Planning and Construction

Special Thanks

Kevin Alter, School of Architecture
Megan Ardery, Resnicow & Associates
Maggie Bailey, producer
Paul Bardagjy, photography
Richard Barnes, photography
Frank Bross, collections, Landmarks
Haley Carloni, ArtTable
Nathan Carruth, Jacobs
Anoush Crane, event planner, Landmarks
Elizabeth Danze, School of Architecture
Douglas Dempster, former dean, College of Fine Arts
John Ekerdt, associate dean, Cockrell School of Engineering
Eliot Fisher, ARCOS
André Fuqua, development, Landmarks
Robert Gilbert, Cockrell School of Engineering
Erica Gionfriddo, ARCOS
Austin Jarvis, Folding Enterprises
Bill Haddad, technology manager, Landmarks
Ken Haughton, Jacobs
Teresa Hubbard, College of Fine Arts
Andrew Ina, photography
Mary Margaret Kennedy, operations, Landmarks
Grant Kightlinger, Pivotal Lighting Design
Emily Kirkland, Ennead Architects
Logan Larsen, communications, Landmarks
Ryan Lewandowski, Ennead
Rubén Martínez, Martinez Moore
Andres Mazry, Jacobs
Christina Murrey, photography
Alex O'Briant, Ennead Architects
Meaghan Perry, conservator, Vault Fine Art Services
Matt Pickens, The Beck Group
Kevin Preuss, CPC construction inspector
Vanessa Rabe, Jacobs
David Rea, former campus planner
David Resnicow, Resnicow & Associates
James Richardson, engineer
Ramón Rivera-Servera, dean, College of Fine Arts
Kyle Sanderson, The Beck Group
Ron Seder, Jacobs
Jim Shackelford, former director, Capital Planning and Construction
Kathleen Brady Stimpert, deputy director, Landmarks
Story Minute, videography
Lumi Tan, curatorial contributor
Stephanie Taparauskas, development, Landmarks
Lauri Tredinnick, Pivotal Lighting Design
Mike Watson, The Beck Group
Catherine Whited, education, Landmarks
Michael Williams, building manager, Cockrell School of Engineering
Justin Wing, The Beck Group
Reagan Woodlock, design, Landmarks

A Conversation with Sarah Oppenheimer, Part I

A Conversation with Sarah Oppenheimer, including Andrée Bober, Elizabeth Danze, and Teresa Hubbard


Andrée Bober, Landmarks Founding Director and Curator
Elizabeth Danze, Bartlett Cocke Regents Professor in Architecture, School of Architecture
Teresa Hubbard, William & Bettye Nowlin Professor, Department of Art and Art History
Sarah Oppenheimer, Artist


Download a PDF version of this Conversation

The following conversation took place on April 14, 2022 and the transcripts were edited by the participants.

Teresa: To start, could you talk about the title of the work?

Sarah: Certainly! To a large extent, I imagine our built environment as an array. Generic spatial zones are reproduced in different permutations. The UT Austin campus is a wonderful example of this. The construction company, Beck, their subcontractors, and the architecture team, have designed and built multiple buildings across UT’s campus. The footbridge where C-010106 is sited is unique but not singular. The team uses the same tools, codes, materials, workflow logic, and so forth in other buildings and locations on campus. They operate within an architectural vocabulary, a building information and management model, where digital and physical objects are identical.

The titles of my work identify these generic spatial conditions. I’ve created a classification system that encodes relationships, such as orientation and spatial adjacency. What’s next to what? What flows from one zone to another zone? C-010106 is located within a footbridge, and borders two discrete spaces, above and below. The title describes the circulatory pathways between these spaces.

Each digit in the title is derived from this alphanumeric code. The first digit indicates a how the piece operates. “C” designates “cinema,” referring to the projection of light on a planar surface. In C-010106, views are displaced and re-sequenced. What appears over is under, what appears under is through.

The second digit of the title indicates the position of the work within a greater array: the number of spatial zones that the piece spans. The designator zero, signifies two spaces (A and B). The remaining digits describe the directional flow of light, air, and passage between these two spatial zones. If another piece shares these spatial relationships, it would have the same title. The system is simple and generic.

Andrée: That’s an interesting segue to my question: how do you align yourself in the tradition of other practicing artists, or in the broader art historical realm?

Sarah: I’m interested in artists, architects, and thinkers whose work extends and expands our patterned entanglements. These engagements do not need to involve objects – or even artworks for that matter.

In the 1980’s, sociologist William Whyte performed an extensive empirical study of social circulation through public squares. Using time-lapse photography, Whyte identified patterns in habitation, such as pedestrians flocking towards sunlight in winter, and shade in summer. Whyte’s studies, among others, have enabled me to anticipate circulatory paths and to imagine how patterns might be tweaked and distorted.

But Whyte’s time-lapse stills are frozen - and I’m aiming to stretch these discrete intervals into an entangled continuum. Lygia Clark’s work investigates this temporal threshold. She proposed an organic line, a boundary that differentiates the temporality of organic and inorganic materials. Her work uses the tactile transmission of energy to manipulate this boundary, playing between time scales. This is also true of Eileen Gray, in part because her architecture seems to be driven by gestural pattern. Both her furniture and architecture amplify bodily action.

Andrée: It's interesting that your points of reference are spatial and relational, as opposed to more purely formal. When Teresa and I were first talking about artists we would associate with qualities of your work, Gordon Matta-Clark came up and Dan Graham too. Do you ever think about your work in relation to them?

Sarah: Well, I think those artists are very different from one another. Matta-Clark performed a kind of social extraction – by cutting through an uninhabited building, he severed it from its functional pathways. This recalls Duchamp’s readymades: an object is taken out of circulation and becomes aesthetic form. Graham’s work, on the other hand, engages with relationships across the fabric of a built space. He creates complex temporal relationships through overlapping media, exploring how time is a result of media processing: the glass screen, the camera, video, the printed magazine. While I’m interested in these questions, I hope my work suggests a relationship to the material environment that is at once unmediated and reproducible.  

My work manipulates paths of circulation. Objects, bodies, light, air flow, are re-routed along new circulatory pathways. Lina Bo Bardi’s glass easels come to mind as a relevant material precedent to C-010106.

Teresa: But... I wasn't even thinking about cutting and splitting when I mentioned Gordon Matta-Clark—I was thinking much more about his project Food, and his interest in language in public space like his work with graffiti. I was coming at those projects with an understanding that there's something about urban space and architecture as a performative aesthetic. And that Matta-Clark was intensely interested in the bowels of buildings. That’s the way that I was approaching this particular aspect of your work. Porosity—the idea of a building as a porous, not only physical—but social and political structure.

Sarah: Yes, Food is surely relevant to this question.

Teresa, I have a question for you. I'm curious about the idea of a performative aesthetic. I'm wondering how you see that happening here.

Teresa: Well, I'm not entirely sure what or where I'm trying to get to–it's mostly just trying to get closer to understanding. On the one hand you talk about pattern behavior, but I would translate that as human interaction. It reminds me of Lisa Robertson’s work. She’s a writer, mostly prose and poetry, but I thought about one of her books when I saw your work in progress. It’s titled, Occasional Work and the Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture. It’s a short read and she takes on the voice of a person who experiences the exterior environment as though it's an interior room. She does this on seven structured walks in and around buildings in Vancouver, and I see some resonance with your work.

I think about the Latin and Norse roots of the word, window: vindr (wind) auga (eye) and I think about the Latin roots of the word, aperture: about that being an opening, to open, to uncover; and then I think about all of that not from a statistical or even an empirical position, but rather from a position exploring the relationship between visibility and materiality.

I'm also interested in the role of trespass with your work, and porosity. Those are the words that I wrote down in my journal when I saw your work in progress. I appreciate the language of your titles, and I'm interested in the kind of language used in architecture, for example: a gut renovation. It always comes back to the body as experienced in time and place. That might be uninteresting to you, but for me it makes for a deeply meaningful and memorable experience that that I take away. I'm interested in how your work functions as something in between—and for me, it’s a poetic experience. It's a collision between material and metaphor.

Sarah: That’s really astute. I’m particularly drawn to how the title, Occasional Work and the Seven Walks inverts the temporal relationship of work and walk. Suddenly work is the occasional and walk is the primary activity of the office. C-010106 also inverts temporal relationships, constantly recentering the relative motion of moving parts. The bridge shifts in response to a passerby, the person responds to sunlight’s reflection, the reflection warms the bridge surface and shifts the position of the glass, and so on.

Elizabeth: Something I've noticed is that there's a kind of specificity to the work. When you mentioned Eileen Gray, I think of her work as being materially oriented, very beautifully detailed, and specific. I'm thinking not only of her architectural work, but also of her furniture. There's also a dreamlike quality to it, a sort of fantasy, where it oscillates between very real, tangible detail, but also the incredibly experiential. And the same is true in Lina Bo Bardi’s work at the scale of the city, at a much larger scale. It also has this sort of fantasy, questioning what is exactly real, what's the frame of reference, or what’s my frame of reference relative to this piece. Where am I, relative to the piece and in the world? Where do I exist in this moment, with this, in this place?

These are some of the things that I thought about when I was on the site with your work. Where am I relative to these buildings that are surrounding us, that are surrounding me? Where am I in space? I'm not grounded, I'm not on the ground, I'm on a bridge, I’m elevated in space—floating.

All of those questions came to mind in a personal experience with the hyper-real and psychological, like experiencing wandering and emplacement relative to the hyper, all the while looking at how the piece was constructed, and the very, very slight tolerances that were necessary for it to work. I found that oscillation to be incredibly profound and interesting, and something that architects and architecture students try to articulate.

These things are seemingly opposed, but are very much in harmony. So, I wonder if that resonates with you and your work. Or maybe not, but it's what I experienced while I was there.

Sarah: I love how you're describing both Gray and Bo Bardi - I would never have thought about it quite like that. In both of their work, there is a tactile immediacy which shapes the experience of a situation, which radiates outward into a designed, orchestrated field.

I think what you're describing—an oscillation in locating oneself in relation to the world—is very much at the core of what I'm interested in. The last two years have been an exciting time creatively because it allowed me to register what is most immediate. I try to keep things close to hand. The more I can physically manipulate, touch, and absorb, the more I understand what I'm doing, even if what I'm working on ultimately operates beyond the range of my perception.

C-010106 is a singular example of this change in my working process. It required virtual coordination with a large team. It is embedded in a building project that was far greater in scale than any I had ever engaged with. The timeline was much longer. I was able to address this distance by asking: what is that detail, how close and intimate can I make it, can I model it at a 1:1 scale in the studio, can we touch it? The project has developed in this way from the beginning; it's kept everything very focused. It's very much what I hope would happen in the viewers’ encounter with the work – a reorientation of self within a much greater field.

Sarah: It's such a helpful way for me to think about this piece because as I said, it is so different from previous work. Everything I’d done previously occupied interior or interior/exterior space. Here it is all exterior: there's no stable horizon defining the field of vision, no threshold demarcating in and out. Creating intimacy within the scale of a city or campus was critical to the success of this work.

Elizabeth: Actually, it's interesting you bring this up, that you mention the horizon, because as we went up and then down the stairs, I was thinking about that—about how the horizon was changing with every step, that I was going into this other realm as I moved up and down. And then I turned ninety degrees and found myself in a new axial relationship to the space that existed between the buildings. I wondered about that axial relationship, and whether it was important to you that it exists.

It made me curious about the role of your piece in its physical context, how it affects this particular place, and how we understand that place now. You talked about a kind of generic-ness and I'm really interested in that; I like the idea of generic place and think that's fascinating because it’s not often how we think about the built environment.

I also wonder how your work will influence the way we perceive the larger existing space. With the axial relationship emphasized in a way that it wasn't before, other spaces come to life. We might not have been aware of them and of the horizon as we move up and down and across the bridge. I'll have to go back to your work again and again to see how I experience it over time, especially after the first time of being there which is always a unique experience. I find that interesting and I’ll be curious if my students notice it as well, or what they notice.

Sarah: These axial relations are fascinating and I find that they’re reflected in our daily tools. The design process for C-010106 required constant back and forth between the physical mockup and the 3d cad model. When navigating 3d software, the model is displayed in four view-ports. Each viewport has a different relationship to the horizon. For example, in the plan view, there is no representation of the horizon, while in the elevation viewports, the horizon is static. The software is unable to dynamically reflect the relationship between the moving body and the shifting horizon. Something as simple as walking up a set of stairs, or walking up a hill, always contains a beautiful flux. This embodied relationship to the world is the one thing that the digital model is always chasing after.

I love the fact that my work makes people aware of a changing horizon.

Teresa: I have one more question: what are your thoughts about misuse of the work? And what does that look like?

Andrée: To extend that line of thinking, I remember some time ago we talked about emergency responses, and risk, and we had a helpful conversation about experimentation in your work and in art practice. I’m curious if you might comment upon that again.

Sarah: I would just ask the question, what does use mean? Aldo van Eyck, the Dutch designer of post-World War II playgrounds, was a big fan of the sandbox. The sandbox has so many open-ended possibilities. What does it mean to misuse the sandbox? I am fascinated by the proposition that the urban environment poses all sorts of permutations for use. It’s my hope that C-010106 invites experimentation with public boundaries and expands our awareness of the actions of others.

A Conversation with Sarah Oppenheimer, Part II

A Conversation with Sarah Oppenheimer, including Kevin Alter and Andrée Bober

Kevin Alter, Sid W. Richardson Centennial Professor of Architecture, Partner, Alterstudio Architecture LLP
Andrée Bober, Landmarks Founding Director and Curator
Sarah Oppenheimer, Artist


Download a PDF version of this Conversation

The following conversation took place on April 15, 2022 and the transcripts were edited by the participants.

Andrée: There have been many twists and turns in the development of your concept for this piece. It seemed like each time you came up with an idea, we’d discover new conditions that were previously unknown and you’d have to go back to the drawing board again and again. I think most artists would have cracked, but at each stage—and there were dozens of them—you seemed to thrive on the challenges and were eager to invent solutions. Can you walk us through the overall arc of the work’s development?

Sarah: Yes, it's interesting to start with that question because there are constraints in every project. Constraint too often implies that a work is determined, shaped, and manipulated by its context. It is rarely recognized as an opportunity to manipulate these contextual parameters. But I find that constraints are profoundly generative. To imagine an artwork without constraint, or imagine anything without constraint, is to imagine it as autonomous. I'm not interested in making autonomous things.

This project in particular was an eye-opener in regard to constraints, because the work demanded I interface with a radically larger scale of operations. Collaboration with multiple players opened up a lot of possibilities while simultaneously imposing creative limits. I'm curious, Kevin, as an architect, what's your relationship to the constraints of a collaborative process?  

Kevin: I love hearing you talk about your work this way, in part because it reinforces my desire to see what you do as more like architecture than the autonomous version of art practice that you mention. In many ways, the most interesting part of architecture is working through a project’s constraints, rather than imagining a building as primarily the manifestation of the architect’s desire. In this way, the building and its conception evolve as they engage constraints.

I've always been interested in sculpture, but one of the things that drove me to architecture is that I enjoy the collaborative process with clients, professionals, other constituencies, sites, regulations, etc... There is a school of thought often present in academia that these constraints are difficulties to overcome, and they contaminate the purity of a project.  However, I often find that the most interesting ideas arise because of unexpected constraints, and the effort to negotiate these concerns both inform the end result and distill the conceptual apparatus of a project.

In spite of what I can imagine were myriad difficulties in coordination and concerns about liability (especially at the University of Texas), for example, I believe that this piece is all the more remarkable because it is in the public domain, and not privatized with a rope around it, for example. That constraint, I believe, has helped this work become so extraordinary.   

Sarah: What you're saying is so interesting. Every situation is composed of rhythmic patterns. There's a process in the development of a project where I'm looking for those primary rhythms within a situation, to play against them, or to play with them, depending on the work. Syncopation constrains and expands many of my works.

At the site of C-010106, architectural alignments and misalignments orient pedestrian flow above and below GLT’s pedestrian bridge, creating a rhythm, a pulse. In prior projects, these patterns of motion through a site were already in place. But in this instance, processional pathways emerged through the collaborative process between myself and others, as the architecture and the artwork developed in tandem.

Kevin: I like to see your work as architecture; architecture in the sense that it operates phenomenally, and through its experience invites the viewer to perceive the world with added insight.  One way in which we share common ground is in the experience of a work that might allow the visitor a new perspective on, for example, their circumstance, environment, or social & cultural conditions. I think what's most compelling in architecture, and indeed in this work, is that the experience of the artifact might provide a new perspective and an invitation to action.

I'm interested in shelter; I'm interested in construction; I'm interested in beautiful things. But in the end, I am most interested in architecture when it offers positive change and provides the opportunity to see the world, or the shadows of a tree, for example, afresh. I've always thought about your work in that way; the experience is not just looking at a handsome artifact, but one that allows the viewer to see their surroundings in an enlightened way.

I don’t mean to suggest that it is all choreographed. To the contrary, it’s clear that the many reflections, and kinds of insights from experiencing your piece are not preconceived – but you have set the stage, as it were. I’m thinking now of ceramics and the kinds of variegation in the glazes that come out of a gas kiln. There’s a kind of serendipity to it that seems similar in your work. Once it’s placed in the world its effects aren't entirely controlled, and I think it's richer as a consequence.

So much of the focus in architecture is on just addressing the constraints –  the problems of shelter, of order, of budgets, for example – that I think architects often get distracted from these more meaningful aspects of the field. The Roman architect Vitruvius is often cited for stating in his Ten Books of Architecture that architecture was firmness, commodity and delight. Firmness and commodity are easy to define and because it is more ephemeral, delight all too often is forgotten — but delight is where beauty and meaning are inculcated in architecture, and as a consequence is the most important aspect of Vitruvious’ three elements.

Sarah: That’s raising all sorts of associations for me; it's a very interesting notion of how architecture performs.

Kevin: I think if you asked a layperson what a modern building is, they’d probably answer with something like it's white, it's a simple form, it has a strip window. It is simple; abstract. However, I think if you asked the same layperson what modern art is they might point to Picasso or Braque, where one sees a portrait as well as that person’s profile; it shows them in movement as well as what they're thinking. There's a richer understanding of a person than what a previous portrait would have portrayed. I feel like the best modern buildings are the same. For example, glass is transparent, it’s reflective; but it is most interesting when it is transparent and reflective simultaneously.

Sarah: So are you saying that in some ways the strength of the modern is in its ambiguity?

Kevin: I think so; in its ability to address multifarious concerns and readings simultaneously. To be clear, I’m not particularly interested in work that is complex in its form, but rather in work that has a complexity to the way it is perceived and understood; the artifact might be abstract, but its experience is complex.

Sarah: Yes, that’s right. About twenty years ago, I travelled to Gifu Prefecture in Japan to Arakawa + Gins’ Reversible Destiny Project. They realized an architecture that was intended to reverse aging and undo death – an astonishing conceptual conceit. One of the most astounding pieces was an inverted hole covered in AstroTurf, approximately ½ km in diameter. Decaying Caligari-like house forms interrupted the convex green ground. There was a beauty and wonder in the structures’ material decay. It amplified the magnitude of Arakawa and Gins’ extraordinary claim.

There's something fascinating about conceptual architecture, and it’s potential to generate radical, unimaginable change. Does the material instantiation need to exist? Can the conceptual conceit do it alone? These questions are linked to the modern, and how we make relations between things both linguistically and spatially. That's what I think about associatively, when we talk about the promise of architecture to create a psychic or practical alternative. 

One related phenomenon I’ve noticed and tried to absorb in my work is that by greatly reducing the complexity of form, I am far more able to set up extremely complex relationships. If you begin with simple forms, you can explore the relationship between them, as well as the relationship between them and their environment. But when there's deep intricacy in each element, you lose the relational as a primary drive of inquiry.

Andrée: Something that struck me in your description is how great complexity and dynamic forms can arise from simplicity. It reminded me of when you were developing the concept for this commission. There was a moment where you pivoted from a much more complex proposal to a radically simplified form.

Sarah: Yes, that was such an important moment. I'm often preoccupied by the challenge of enmeshing a work, while allowing it to be distinguished from its environment. So that there’s some kind of bracket that indicates “this is not everything”. On the bridge, the artwork extends beyond its visible edge. Steel anchors are hidden beneath the pavers, structural rebar is buried in the slab. But the visual boundary between the artwork and environment is an essential perceptual bracket.

In an early draft of this project, the visual boundary of the artwork dispersed into the bridge’s paved surface. This blur between bridge and artwork limited the work’s potential. It became apparent to me that if an artwork aims to establish a relationship with a situation, it cannot become the situation. 

Kevin: I appreciate that observation. I think one often finds a desire, probably more among architects than artists, to control everything. But as you point out, if the work is fundamentally about setting up a relationship with the complex circumstances of this particular place – the people, buildings, and landscapes – then it must have its own identity and a distinction of its boundaries. 

Sarah: Over the past several years I've been interested in doorways, and prior to that I was extremely interested in apertures, specifically windows. Doors and windows function as thresholds, and thresholds are dependent on their environment to perform. A frame sited in an open field is not a doorway: when it’s decontextualized it becomes a ready-made. A threshold is distinguishable from the space around it and dependent upon the space’s variability – it’s both integrated and distinct.

I often imagine architecture as a hinge, a distinct condition that is not separate, a radial spoke in a wheel, or a switch in a larger network.

Kevin: I’m excited that you identify doorways or windows as an interest. I think thresholds of all kinds are full of possibility.  They are the elements that negotiate between different worlds, and I would argue that it is the threshold that identifies and defines them. Akin to Robert Irwin's early studies or the edges of so much of James Turrell’s work, we recognize how the frame both shapes the perspective of a space beyond and negotiates between different worlds.

I've often felt that much of an architect’s attention should be focused on the threshold; the moment that both separates and defines distinct spaces, as well as what is inside and what is outside. Modern architecture often tried to blur this relationship such that thresholds were ambiguous, and its authority often rested on the consequent intimate relationship of an interior with the immediate surroundings. Likewise, the physicality and a person’s engagement of a threshold matters in this relationship of circumstances. Grasping hold of a doorknob and cracking the door open is different than throwing it open entirely; as is the resistance that the door poses to opening. One becomes instantly aware of what is framed, what is not seen, and what constituencies are engaged.

I love thinking about your work in that way, as a threshold defining, connecting and highlighting the many conditions of its circumstance.

Andrée: I’d like to ask a question about thresholds. One thing that intrigues me about your piece is that you've taken this material—glass—which has a very high surface tension and is an amorphous solid. And you're inserting this fragile substance into a bridge which is inherently dynamic. This seems to create a new kind of threshold because we’re not accustomed to those materials being in relation to one another. How did you become interested in this juxtaposition? Did your interest arise more from the materiality, or from the logistical challenge, or from some other place?

Sarah: There are probably many answers to this question, but let’s start with materiality. For decades I’ve been interested in how a piece might engage with our built environment. When I first began manipulating architectural surfaces, I made everything by hand. Conceptually, the handmade acted as a citation of historically familiar processes of fabrication. This imprint of the hand had affect, a sort of cloud of nostalgia. I wanted to move past the imprint of the hand and integrate each piece into the material flows that comprise the built environment now. To do that, I had to acquire new tools and change how I worked. I learned new fabrication technologies and taught myself to manipulate 3D modeling software platforms. This process led to a very different relationship to materials. It has allowed me to integrate the materials of our contemporary urban environment - concrete and glass – into this piece. 

In the last ten years, I continued exploring the structural and conceptual possibilities of glass. In 2012 I completed W-120301, a permanent commission at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Like C-010106, the Baltimore piece is composed of two glass planes that pass through a hole in a concrete floor, ricocheting sightlines into the space below. Unlike C-010106, the surrounding wall of W-120301 is opaque and the structural support is obscured. In C-010106, the vertical glass planes operate as a transparent structural wall. The interior reflective relationships are legible – and the cross section of the reflective planes is diagrammatically present. You could say that glass transforms the structure into a drawing.

Kevin: That’s a beautiful piece. It’s interesting to hear you talk about glass and concrete being familiar; the norm. I agree. When you were talking about the Japanese architects and the pilgrimage you made, it seems to me that you were evaluating the presence of something unfamiliar, and I wonder if that interest had a role in this piece as well; that ‘normal’ elements were de-familiarized in the way that they were employed.

Sarah: Yes, that’s a really important tool I've used, the process of de-familiarization. I want to introduce a sense of the unfamiliar into the relationship between a human actor and the situation. I want the unfamiliar to cause a recalibration of our relationship with the built environment without resulting in radical separation or alienation.

Kevin: That seems important. 

Sarah: I want to refer to something you said earlier about serendipity, which is such a beautiful word. I am eager to see C-010106 completed. The work is not yet open to the public; I haven't had the opportunity to watch people engage with it. So, I'm incredibly curious about the serendipity that will emerge from these interactions, especially because the design process predicted many of the possible relational patterns.

Kevin: I think that it is brave to release control over the composition and invite the vicissitudes of circumstance to play a significant role in determining the character of the work. But it is this invitation that both allows a dynamism to the composition and focuses its relational content. I love the many overlapping relationships that are created through your piece, and how it is experienced with all the inclusiveness and serendipity of life, weather, people and place.

Sarah: And that goes right back to the beginning of our conversation, to the notion of constraint and how it holds potential for liberation from the autonomous object. Constraints direct chance operations. They make serendipitous encounters possible.

Kevin: That’s a beautiful turn of phrase, liberation from the autonomous object, while at the same time being so carefully composed. I had two more questions, albeit at opposite ends of the making of the piece. First, were there particular constraints that were formative, or more consequential in the final iteration of the piece? And second, on the more technical side, what elements of the construction were most consequential? I understand that there is some very precise engineering and detail that allows the final sculpture to appear almost effortless. I suppose that I’m contemplating the constraints that might be understood as consequential irritants – like the grain of sand that encourages a pearl to grow inside an oyster. 

Sarah: Well, one of the most positively generative constraints was the ADA code. ADA regulates the flow of bodies through buildings—establishing a range of horizontal datums shaped by human motion. For example, handrails must be between 34 inches and 38 inches above walking surfaces. I used this code requirement as a design parameter: instead of putting a stanchion around the piece, the uppermost edge of the lower sloped glass became the guard rail.

I also used material to set up its own kind of constraint game. By deciding that each apparatus would be constructed from four pieces of glass, our engineers had to focus on developing a modular connection detail between glass planes that allowed for material movement. These decisions constrained which engineers and fabricators I collaborated with, who could fabricate within certain tolerances and at certain scales—so much was driven by this material choice. 

Andree: That answers a question I had about whether the conditions drove material decisions, or if you chose the materials independently. In hindsight I recall those moments when we realized that if you were going to take this direction, then there were two fabricators who could reliably make the fittings, and only one glass manufacturer.

Sarah: It was exciting to get to work with this group of fabricators. It was an extraordinary fabrication challenge.

Andrée: I remember, Kevin, when we were on the bridge and you pointed out how fine the quality of the glass was, and contrasted it with the building glass.

Kevin: In the United States we tend to manufacture Insulated Glass Units (IGU) with tempered glass rather than laminated glass, and as a consequence they’re not entirely flat and bow, so they appear a little wavy when you look carefully. You might not notice it otherwise, but the reflections in the laminated glass of Sarah’s piece acts as a kind of datum against which one can measure the waves in the glass of the building.

Andrée: I loved that you pointed that out on the bridge, because you're looking with an architect’s eye and I doubt that I would have spotted that detail.

Kevin: I so hope that when this work is published that it will include documentation of the construction details that are mostly concealed and covered up with pavers. They are so very thoughtful and beautiful in their own right – and they address the very real differentials in expansion and movement between the glass and the bridge. They allow the piece to appear almost effortless, slicing through the bridge. In reality, that must have taken a great deal of thought and effort and precision.

Andrée: It’s an interesting question—how to share information about the structural thinking behind this piece, especially with students?

Sarah: I have a thought about this quite a bit. Materials expand and contract at different rates. Gravity and wind loads create dynamic change. So the project engineers had to develop systems that allowed materials to move. This occurred on many scales. The structural connection between the concrete ground plane and the glass planes had to allow each element to shift and yet remain tethered.

Kevin: Additionally, you had to contend with the other problems being outside of the controlled environment of a gallery. Environmental factors and social occasions add to the constraints with which you engaged. I think that publications tend to want to define the form of art and architecture as directly emerging from the will of its author. In contrast, I imagine that over the long period in which you worked on this piece that incorporating these other constraints that weren't part of a generating idea, became part of its conceptual apparatus and presumably made the piece richer.

Sarah: Yes. For many years now I’ve had an ongoing conversation about joints with the architect Julian Rose. This dialog has allowed me to think about architecture and the built environment as a site of constant flux. Everything I make, whether we think of it as still or moving, is always accommodating changing motion. And this has been one of the most interesting aspects of integrating work into the built environment: the work has located itself conceptually in the joint, between things.

Kevin: I think that is really astute. Moreover, I think the joint is most interesting when it is not the focus of visual attention and a form to elaborate upon.  At the scale of ameliorating the artifact to the bridge the joint allows movement to happen without drawing attention to itself.  Similarly, the whole piece is like the joint in a much larger circumstance, and it is that circumstance that is framed and highlighted.

Sarah: Exactly. If you make it really simple, then that joint can behave very complexly.