Reflective Architecture Works by W Gavin Robb

Merrimack College's Department of Visual and Performing Arts' (VPA) McCoy Gallery at the Rogers Center for the Arts hosted the exhibition by W Gavin Robb, a tomb, a cabinet, February 5–March 8, 2022.

This exhibition presents two distinct works about architecture. The first work, A Tomb for Manfredo Tafuri, pulls from the stories of Centralia Pennsylvania, a near-ghost town that has sat atop a burning coal mine fire since 1962. The second work, A Cabinet of Curiosities for Mahatma Gandhi, draws from 16th-century Wunderkammers of Baroque Europe, to take on an impossible question: what is a collection of extraordinary objects to a life devoid of possessions?

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Through the use of large digital drawings, 3D-printed models, photographs and video, the show presents the field of architecture as rooted in the sublime. Far beneath the prosaic surface of any building lies its order, organization, meaning, and through these works W Gavin Robb begins to excavate this hidden core, the fleeting and twinned drive that cradles the human condition.

Robb believes architecture’s purpose is best understood in relation to the human condition. He said, “Architecture is about people. Sure, buildings are made of stuff. But behind all that, architecture frames how we meet each other. It’s always unfinished because it exists in time, and it’s always fantastically incomplete because it is given life through people. The beauty of this discipline is architecture’s potential to structure the human condition. It speaks to us in a private language. I’d like to see a new way of teaching architecture that starts from the humane, the deeply personal.”

Prior to this exhibition, last fall 2021, Robb taught a new course for Merrimack’s Visual and Performing Arts Department, Design and the Human Condition. This course explored core questions about design and its intrinsic links to architecture, engineering and sustainability. It was a discussion-heavy course, which was intended to engage students with design through multiple scales of engagement: the inner, the self, the interpersonal, the communal, and the civic. Students engaged with deeply personal and communal questions: how do the spaces we design affect our way of being in the world? What does it mean to be beholden to our communities? How is design shaped by the larger forces of society, economy, and political systems? The course explored fundamental questions about how to relate to space as a complex person in a complex community.

Robb engaged the students in seeing and being in the world in new ways. He said “We really got experimental with it. What spaces on campus feel like your first childhood memory? How do you see a friend when you’re huddled together in a doorway, on a bridge? How is a city made up of different blocks of space, and how do they blend? These kinds of questions, to me, are things you need to grapple with as a designer before even putting pen to paper. Every human has a very sophisticated grasp on space — after all, it’s how we experience the world. In the course, we tried to open our eyes a little wider.”

W Gavin Robb founded Kin Design Studio in 2017, where he is the studio lead. Kin Design Studio uses advanced digital fabrication, community engagement, and a deep knowledge of how cities work to create inspiring places for people. His work has been exhibited at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale and the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial

Robb expresses his love and understanding of architecture and said: “Architecture is fundamentally represented—but drawings, models, renderings, even the built artifact of a building do not fully encapsulate what an architectural project is and does. Architecture as a medium has four fundamental dimensions—it is a complex act unfolding in space and time. Architecture also requires a body, or bodies in common. It is the act of our humanity shaping itself, it is the caring order of material, in space, for people. I believe that design has the power to structure the human condition.”

Associate Professor and Chair of VPA Nancy Wynn said, “It has been an honor hosting this exhibition at the McCoy Gallery, moreover it was a delight getting to know Gavin as a faculty colleague last semester. His course was thoughtful, reflective, as well as rigorous for our students. It pushed them to be comfortable with being uncomfortable when exploring the world around them and their place in it. Additionally, the exhibition’s artist talk was well attended with lots of questions from the students. The students were engaged dealing with the works’ varied scale, as well its depth of creativity.”

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