Exhibiting Architecture: A Paradox? - Op-ed - Domus

Exhibiting Architecture: A Paradox?

The conference “Exhibiting Architecture: A Paradox?” held at the Yale School of Architecture, introduced a series of panels to unpack some of the seeming contradictions in displaying architecture and to explore new forays for curatorial agency.

 

Op-ed / Simon Pennec

I don't build because I am an architect. I can make true Architecture because I do not build.   
Leon Krier

A man of his time, Leon Krier understood the power of paper architecture in the dissemination of his architectural language. As a way to deny the breadth of modernist architecture, he takes on the art of drawing over that of building. Today, he might consider taking up curating instead, as a viable tool to sketch out some of his urban visions. Indeed, exhibitions are yet another platform to allow for experiments.

Curatorship has become a focal point as much in the dissemination of architectural culture as in the production of architecture itself. Ranging from immersive installations that suggest new aesthetic qualities and spatial experiences, large biennales temporarily dispersed in the fabric of cities, commissions for new pavilions, thematic exhibitions or historic surveys traditionally displayed through models and drawings; the landscape of exhibition practice in architecture stretches into the horizon on all ends. Increasingly conspicuous, curating architecture both as a practice, but also as a field of research, seems to have reached a state of disciplinary legitimacy. In a recent interview, Sylvia Lavin argued to formalise a curating expertise as she considered exhibitions as a medium that had expanded as a “super discipline in which the curator is becoming the master conductor.“ [1]

The conference “Exhibiting Architecture: A Paradox?” held at the Yale School of Architecture this October, introduced a series of panels to unpack some of the seeming contradictions in displaying architecture and to explore new forays for curatorial agency. Although the title suggests the old paradoxical precept that architecture exhibitions are mostly exhibitions of representation of architecture rather than architecture itself, the symposium – developed in collaboration by Carson Chan, David Andrew Tasman and Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen – was shaped by the following questions: how does architecture push exhibitions as a medium, and, in turn, how do exhibitions push architects and curators to redefine the discipline? What aesthetic, socio-political and environmental discourses intersect with curating? Should exhibitions promote autonomy for architecture or rather should curators use exhibitions as a social practice?

Under consideration were some of the canonical exhibitions of the 20th century, including MoMA’s 1932 Modern Architecture: International Exhibition, Theo Crosby’s How to play the environment game in 1973 and the first Venice Biennale of Architecture, The Presence of the Past in 1980. These anchors in the history of architecture exhibitions served to frame the discussions around a broader inquiry tracing the legacy of smaller radical architecture exhibitions throughout the 20th century. Organised around four main panels with contemporary discussions as bookends, the conference sought to explore the idea of “exhibition as a medium”, “immersive environments”, “public encounters” and post-war “curatorial acts”.

At the centre of many conversations was the recent intervention of architecture directly within the space of the gallery at the same time as museums began to incorporate new activities as part of their broader curatorial strategies.

 

After all, the history of architecture curating demonstrates that the exhibition still offers the most pertinent medium through which to introduce social and political strategies

 

For architects, the exhibition space can represent not only a gateway into practice –if not as an architectural practice in itself. As a privileged container, the museum offers a flexible experimental space, arguably limited of constraints such as site and context. French architect Philippe Rahm – invited as keynote speaker – provided a fascinating account of the ways in which architects can use the gallery – the atmospheric cube – as a locus for a program which could not be easily deployed anywhere else. Rahm’s collaborations with museums and cultural institutions have produced some of his most experimental projects through the medium of the exhibition.

For museums, these architectural interventions signal the institutions’ interest in producing new forms of public space. Through commissions, the examples of the BMW Guggenheim Lab and MoMA PS1’s Young Architects Program manifest some of the most recent projects curated to stimulate the production of architecture. In parallel, they also attest for the changing role of the curator acting as client and promoter, as well as architect and urban planner. Yet the ephemerality of these installations questions the nature of the exhibition medium and the relationship between reality and representation of the objects built-in-situ. The question remains; how do these interventions loop back into traditional forms of architectural practice?

In his moderating comments for the Panel on “Public Encounters”, architect Joel Sanders raised the question of architectural autonomy. In light of a number of papers exploring the vanguard and sometimes contested curatorial acts of the post-war years, Sanders questioned the power of some of the contemporary developments described above in challenging the status-quo. “Can exhibitions challenge the cultural and political institutions of which they are an integral part; in other words, can curators bite the hand that feeds them”? Looking back at the golden age of social activism, he argued that curators today “operate within a more subdued and pragmatic format of social engagement, by providing more practical and problem-solving curatorial acts”.

In the face of an unsatisfactory reality – political and environment concerns, climate change and the global economic recession, it certainly seems that the architecture community is responding by searching for a new ideological standpoint and alternative terrains of practice. After all, the history of architecture curating demonstrates that the exhibition – however paradoxical it may be – still offers the most pertinent medium through which to introduce social and political strategies. As a public platform of dialogue and agitation, it resonates both within the architecture communities and within the broader constituencies of society. If the spectatorial regime of the museum ultimately constitutes the traditional spatial relationship between the viewer and the object, curatorial practice can travel beyond these boundaries and seek other spaces of disobedience in the city.

 

Curating has indeed become a discipline that accommodates for a plurality of platforms, strategies, contexts and actors

 

Missing from the discussions however, was the reference to the concept of the archive and collection objects and their inherent relationship to curating. As many institutions continuously acquire and preserve and disseminate the works of architects, they bear the responsibility to interpret the material through a multitude of readings that resonates and contributes to contemporary discourse.

Perhaps only recently can the actors in this expanded field assume the legitimacy of curatorship as a discipline with a practice and history of its own. Scholarly research is being produced, taught and disseminated, and historians, curators and practicing architects are coming together to reflect on some of the contemporary developments. This conference acts as a reminder that curating has indeed become a discipline that accommodates for a plurality of platforms, strategies, contexts and actors. The ubiquity of exhibitions of architecture has certainly reinforced the role of its maker, the curator. But as we begin to examine closer, curatorial practice as a space of research, experiment and critique provides a contemporary platform in architecture that perhaps other platforms including publishing but also building can no longer provide.

Today, as a number of institutions (which amongst those represented in the panels were the Venice Biennale of Architecture, Storefront for Art and Architecture and the Canadian Centre for Architecture) have reached their thirty year anniversaries and have begun a process of self-reflection through their own institutional history, one questions the curatorial strategies that will shape the forthcoming years. As they gain more momentum, will these institutions be able to continue the shift in focus from object to ideology?

 

[1] Pippo Ciorra In conversation with Sylvia Lavin. May 31, 2013. Sci-Arc Media Archive