Cloud City

Special exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through November 4.

Visiting Tomás Saraceno’s Cloud City, this summer’s Met rooftop installation, inevitably provokes memories of Doug and Mike Starn’s Big Bambú, the 2010 installation. Both are enormous structures that one can walk through; both encourage participants to seek new vantage points from which to view Central Park and the structure itself; and both come equipped with considerable academic-intellectual justifications of their artfulness.

But only with Big Bambú did I truly buy what that academic-intellectual justification was selling. The organically constructed, gorgeously chaotic Bambú stirred in me an aesthetic response, an emotional response, while the architectural Cloud leaves me cold. Cloud is undoubtedly cool—it’s “participatory” and fun to tromp around in—but unlike Bambú (also “participatory” and fun), it doesn’t seem to transcend that kind of shallow experience. No matter what kind of big words you use to describe it, it’s still just a high-end jungle gym for grown-ups.

Constructed of polyhedral modules with both reflective and transparent faces, Cloud City reminds me of 1960s-era “futuristic” visions: shiny, geometric, and utterly antiseptic. That said, the architecture of the project is impressive. Saraceno is, in fact, a trained architect as well as an artist, and Cloud stacks its twelve- and fourteen-sided polyhedrons together with mathematic exactitude. When you walk through the structure, the array of mirrors and windows is almost (but not quite) dizzying. It’s like an artsy funhouse, often catching you by surprise with your own reflection or that of the sky or the person next to you or the people below.

I enjoyed the funhouse trip, but it underwhelmed me. Whether because of Big Bambú or Sky Mirror or merely the nagging suspicion that I’d seen this thing in some movie or another,* I experienced a constant feeling of déjà vu as I wound my way through the angular path. Cloud City didn’t significantly “expand the ways in which [I] inhabit[ed] and experience[d] [my] environment,” but it did inspire a mental catalog of 1960s and ’70s sci-fi, a childlike enjoyment of the structure’s cockpit-like spaces and its spectacular views—and a renewed appreciation of the wonder of the Starns’ memorable Big Bambú.

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* The fact that the sweetly goofy name “Cloud City” is also the name for a major setting in the Star Wars movies surely doesn’t help.