• 11.04.11

Exhibit Reveals A Famed Architect’s Oddball Inspiration: Security Envelopes

The Art Institute of Chicago offers a rare glimpse at Jürgen Mayer H.’s massive collection of security codes, and how it has inspired his buildings.

Exhibit Reveals A Famed Architect’s Oddball Inspiration: Security Envelopes

You expect architects, savvy renaissance men that they are, to collect art or wine or maybe vintage cars–ya’ know, consequential stuff. You do not expect them to spend more than a decade amassing a tremendous stockpile of security envelopes.


But that’s precisely what German architect and artist Jürgen Mayer H. has done. And not just security envelopes. He’ll snatch up anything with an encryption pattern on it: a security code, a personal ID number–whatever. Then he riffs off the patterns in his building designs. Remember his tremendous, mushroom-like wooden parasol in Seville? That was informed by a computer-generated security motif. So too was was his elegant, geometric Hasselt Court of Justice in Belgium, seen here:

[Note the visual echoes between the borders of the envelope window, and the concrete frame of the Hasselt Court of Justice.]

The German publishing house Hatje Cantz recently released a limited-edition book on Mayer’s collection. Pages from Wirrwarr are now the subject of an exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. Jürgen Mayer H.’s Wirrwarr features large-format images of more than 100 of the architect’s data sheets, offering a window onto his enigmatic creative inspiration.

In a way, security envelopes are the ultimate metaphor for the perils of living digitally. They’re designed to obscure personal information and protect our identities. Thing is, no one’s really entitled to privacy in the age of targeted ads and email scams. By throwing security codes onto buildings, Mayer makes the private quite literally public. He gives us Facebook as architecture. The irony (no doubt deliberate) is that the patterns are so complex, it’s only through the very thing he’s critiquing–digital technology–that Mayer is able to render them in brick and mortar.

[Images courtesy of the Art Institute]

About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D.