“In all fictions, each time a man meets diverse alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the work of the virtually impossible-to-disentangle Ts’ui Pen, the character chooses—simultaneously— all of them. He creates, thereby, ‘several futures,’ several times, which themselves proliferate and fork.”
– The Garden of Forking Paths, Jorge Luis Borges
When the Institute for Contemporary Art [ICA] invited me to create an idiosyncratic visitor’s guide to the institute, I was delighted to discover Steven Holl’s design for the building was inspired by a short detective story from writer Jorge Luis Borges. As an artist, lover of detective stories and avid reader of experimental fiction, I could not have been more jazzed.
In The Garden of Forking Paths, one of Borges’ fictional characters describes the possibility for the structure of a story to have multiple forks in the road and an endless number of outcomes. Written in 1941, this notion surely describes the way we navigate the vast labyrinth of the Internet today. Borges’ focus on the malleability of time and multiple outcomes also seems very much present in a number of works of fiction from recent decades, such as Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and the Choose Your Own Adventure series of books for children.
Borges’ ideas play a significant role in contemporary fiction, but how could they possibly translate into architecture? In November of 2016, I had an opportunity to discuss this with Steven Holl and Senior Partner Chris McVoy at Steven Holl Architects’ New York studio.
At our meeting, I learned how the firm has designed a number of structures based on the works of writers and artists, such as Homer’s Odyssey and Jackson Pollock’s 1949 painting Seven in Eight. I also discovered that the ICA building is composed of several galleries that initiate at the same plane in space, or what Steven Holl refers to as “the plane of the present,” before simultaneously radiating out at different angles in space, much like Borges’ multiple outcomes of a story or the multiple trajectories found in contemporary art practices.
Since Steven Holl’s inspiration for the ICA comes from Borges’ playfulness with time and multiple outcomes, I decided it would be a fitting challenge to create a visitor guide for the ICA that would also play with these elements.
The guide will function as a hand-held, fold-out walking guide to the ICA. The blueprint-like publication will feature speculative floorplans. Accompanying captions written by an anonymous narrator from the past will predict the shape of a mysterious building appearing in the future at the corner of Richmond’s Broad and Belvidere and will attempt to imagine several scenarios as to what the interior might hold, floor by floor.
In the past, I have used the fork-in-the-road structure several times in large drawings, but never in a longer, book form, so it looks like I will be busy these next few months writing, poking around Richmond, and attempting to channel the spirit of Borges.
Deb Sokolow is an artist and writer based in Chicago.
Photography by Liz Ligon, January 2017. All images ©ICA at VCU:
1. Deb Sokolow holding Steven Holl Architects’ preliminary model of the ICA building
2. Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions
3. Steven Holl and Chris McVoy at Steven Holl Architects’ New York studio
4. Steven Holl, watercolor sketch
5. Deb Sokolow, preliminary sketch
6. Deb Sokolow, color study for blueprint walking guide