In the first chapter of his book Animate Form (1999), Greg Lynn outlines formal properties of virtual architectural, aesthetic and scientific practices that take into account contextual and environmental factors using, among many other analogies, the very helpful and illustrative metaphor of a boat’s hull on the water. Lynn’s outline calls for a very radical and far-reaching (and Deleuzian) move away from the Cartesian habit of imagining that creations like artworks, performances, buildings and architectural models are created in a vacuum free of determining forces other than our own. Rather, such works should be conceived, designed and carried out in anticipation of the ever-shifting context in which they will invariably exist. He calls for a “shift from a passive space of static coordinates to an active space of interactions [that] implies a move from autonomous purity to contextual specificity” (11). With its development of, and frequent returns to the aforementioned nautical metaphor, Lynn’s argument anticipates the ongoing Waterpod Project conceived, developed and overseen by photographer, designer and environmental artist Mary Mattingly, which, it seems to me, explores and activates many of the suggestions Lynn makes regarding how artistic and architectural practice ought to evolve.
Though it has been built – indeed, an exhibition documenting its maiden voyage in the summer of 2009 is currently on view at the Midtown Manhattan gallery Exit Art – Mattingly’s Waterpod began as an architectural model created using computer rendering software to, as Lynn writes, “develop a systematic human intuition about the connective medium” (20). Using this technology, Mattingly created a digital plan for a boat that could support a self-sustaining community while traveling over another self-sustaining system, or an “architecture [that is] modeled as a participant immersed within dynamical flows” (11). The Waterpod, then, is not only a relatively static space where artists can create, exchange ideas and present their works, but a living architecture designed to be a traveling community of artists who can collect rainwater and solar energy, and grow their own food while being in constant movement over a surface that couldn’t be construed as static even on the calmest of days. Mattingly’s water bound ecosystem – a fusion of sorts of the post-apocalyptic floating communities of the spectacular blockbuster flop Waterworld (1995) and Captain Nemo’s tyrannical underwater utopia aboard the Nautilus in Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1869) – achieves a sustainable stability by “embrac[ing] a sensibility of micro and macro contextual specificity as a logic that can not be idealized in an abstract space of fixed coordinates” (15). The micro-context aboard the Waterpod is the set needs of its inhabitants, a community of artists and activists whose vessel is also built to respond and adapt to the changing conditions of the macro-context (oceans, seas, rivers, lakes, etc.) that it is designed to navigate. By making literal many of Lynn’s very ambitious suggestions for the future development of architectural and artistic practice, Mattingly’s Waterpod project represents a rigorous test of those theories, offers insights into their potential applications, and suggest ways in which animate forms have evolved in the decade since Lynn’s writing.
Here's a short tour of the Waterpod from Rocketboom: