by Malcolm Gay
Working at the intersection of art and architecture, Michael Jantzen has made a career out of inventing fantastical structures that reimagine the built environment, challenging viewers to rethink age-old structures and building practices in terms that are attuned to the mutability of particular contexts and are environmentally sustainable. Many of his designs, such as a solar-powered vineyard or a wind-turbine pavilion, remain conceptual works of the imagination — thrilling glimpses of alternative public spaces.
Among Jantzen's designs that have been realized, however, are his so-called M-Vironments, flexible structures built of sustainable modular parts that can be modified to suit a range of needs. Several of these designs are now on view at Bruno David Gallery, where Jantzen (who earned his MFA at Washington University) is exhibiting a series of maquettes and one life-size example of his kinetic architectural forms in M-velope — a peculiarly academic show, interesting if sparsely populated, that leaves you wanting more.
Positioned in the main gallery stands the show's eponymous M-velope, a twelve-foot-high structure of outward angled walls that is somewhat reminiscent of Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes. Like Fuller, Jantzen is trying to reimagine habitable spaces. His structures are malleable, capable of transforming to meet different environmental and personal needs.
Built around a simple frame, M-velope is constructed of moveable slatted panels that are connected to the frame and hinged to one another. In its "closed" position, the art structure would look like a miniature A-frame house. But Jantzen's structure invites transformation. Each panel is moveable — eight on the roof, two on each outside wall — and depending on its configuration, M-velope can be a private, traditional, intimate space, or a multi-angled, habitable and open sculpture that lends a host of views to the surrounding environment. Similarly, because the structure is made of prefabricated materials, M-velope can be expanded by joining it with a second structure, both of which can be deconstructed, transported and reassembled at another site — kinetic architecture in the true sense of the term.
As interesting as M-velope is, the structure is somewhat ill-suited to the Grand Center gallery. The architectural form feels cramped as it dominates the gallery's main room. What's more, this piece, which is meant to be transformed to suit shifting conditions, is here locked in place. Viewers are invited to sit inside, but M-velope's form remains fixed. It's unresponsive to both users and its environment, leaving viewers to theorize about its potential, but unable to experience it.
More successful in this setting are several intricately rendered maquettes from the same series exhibited in the gallery's front room. Some of these miniatures are simpler than the full-size M-velope, boasting only a few moving parts. Others, however, are significantly more complex sculptural forms, reminiscent of everything from spaceships to beach chairs, which merely nod in the direction of architecture.
Nevertheless, each of these intricate little maquettes shares M-velope's basic DNA — transmutable architectural structures that both adapt to and reflect a changing world.
M-velope Through August 23 at Bruno David Gallery, 3721 Washington Boulevard. Admission is free. Call 314-531-3030 or visit www.brunodavidgallery.com. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wed. and Sat.
Follow RFT critic-at-large Malcolm Gay on Twitter @malcolmgay.