February 23, 2011
liberty economics
David Copperfield Vanishing the Statue of Liberty, New York City, 1983 (source)
UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering, San Diego, 2010 (Photo by Author)


Architects have long sought to make their buildings disappear through ‘transparency’, ‘dematerialization’, ‘contextualism’, and any number of other tricks. Largely, these efforts have failed. David Copperfield came close, however, when in 1983 he made the Statue of Liberty vanish. This amazing feat—developed with Jim Steinmeyer and Don Wayne and broadcast live on national television—remains one of Copperfield’s most famous.


How did Copperfield do it? No one has revealed the secret. However, the widely-accepted conclusion is that (in addition to lights, curtains, music, and fake radar) Copperfield employed a specially-constructed rotating seating area to imperceptibly shift the direction in which the audience was looking. A perfectly placed tower then hid the Statue from view.


In the words of one audience member, ‘I have never seen a Statue of Liberty disappear the way this one did’.


Jacob Reidel


‘What seems like a hall of mirrors is actually a highly organized shell game, but one in which the shells themselves are all there is to the game’.

—Reinhold Martin, on Mirror Glass



How do you make a building disappear?


Architecture–massive, costly, and permanent—would seem to be the least ephemeral of the arts. But like the military—another industry with a fondness for ‘disappearing’ large objects—architecture has its own repertoire of stealth techniques.


Though architecture’s stealth could be considered camouflage, it is really the opposite of razzle dazzle, flecktarn, or radar-absorbent paint. Architects use reflection to hide buildings in plain sight. It is surprisingly effective—witness the facade of the Jacobs School of Engineering melting into the cloudless SoCal sky, its unsightly bulk lurking behind a taut mirror veneer.


Given the ubiquity of mirror glass, the question of disappearing buildings is less a technical than a moral one. There is something sinister about dematerializing architecture, reducing mass to surface and surface to reflection. Does the designer have something to hide? Are they breaking the law? Ashamed of their work? Or have they found an invisibility cloak that conceals not with shadows, but with light?


Gaby Brainard


Edited by Erandi de Silva




« previous post

next post »