May in New York was a drizzly, dismal affair—the wettest in recent memory. When Tomás Saraceno’s Cloud City opened on May 15th, perched on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it seemed more like an unwitting lightning rod than a piece of installation art.
But as temperatures have risen, crowds have swarmed over the Argentinian artist’s glass-and-steel structures from dawn until dusk. Cloud City is the 15th installation in the Met’s annual roof garden program, and the first major U.S. commission for the 38-year-old artist.
Saraceno has risen to prominence by examining biological phenomena through large-scale installation art. A 2010 piece recreated the web of a Black Widow in nylon, while other work focuses prototyping airborne cities using molecular models. Cloud City belongs to the latter category. 16 steel-and-acrylic modules have been bolted together to create an inhabitable jungle gym of reflective pods. Saraceno calls it "a flying garden embedded in a cumulus cloud." Visitors can clamber up a metal staircase and explore the warren of mirror and glass on their own, provided they’re wearing flat-soled shoes. Refractions of the sky, Central Park treetops, and Manhattan cityscapes bounce off every surface—squint, and it’s easy to forget you’re not actually floating above the city.
Though they seem like simple polyhedrons, the modules are actually based on a type of foam bubble aggregation called Weaire-Phelan structures, discovered in 1993. The structures offer the most efficient way to aggregate cells of equal volume, using the least amount of surface area. Basically, they’re the most rational way to connect three-dimensional volumes without adding extra faces (Weaire-Phelan structures have 14 faces of two different sizes). The principle has numerous applications—NASA has studied modular aggregation for decades, in their search to design a super-lightweight, habitable modular system.
Saraceno is fascinated by space travel, and studied at NASA’s 2009 International Space University program. With Cloud City, he draws on ideas found in aerospace engineering, physics, and biology. "Saraceno challenges the boundaries of earthly living and explores the possibility of airborne habitation," write the curators. The artist even told one reporter that the installation will be visible from the International Space Station, if "only for 18 seconds."
Beyond testing the possibilities of airborne living, Cloud City appeals to an incredibly broad range of visitors. It doesn’t hurt that the modular reflective panels lend themselves to documentation—Instagram is full of MySpace-style self-portraits taken in the paneled mirrors. That’s sure to please the Met, whose curators have consciously stepped up such crowd-pleasing programming over the past few years.
Though reactions to Cloud City have been almost unfailingly positive, the New York Times’ Roberta Smith points out that the piece owes more to science than to art. "Mr. Saraceno’s work … combines architecture, art and science. It does, but unequally: Art is the loser." But as museums everywhere struggle to get visitors in the door, why shouldn’t science lend art a hand?
Cloud City is on view until November 4, 2012.