Reply to Exhibiting Architecture

We publish Luis Berríos-Negrón’s comment, posted on 22 September in reply to the Carson Chan essay of 17 September. The Puerto Rican architect ends by asking questions on representation in the exhibition process.

Carson Chan is becoming one of the leading voices in the field of experimental architecture. The stimulating, general argument he puts forth in 'show don't tell' is to me evidenced by the many conversations we've had over the past four years, knowing that we agree on what the exhibition is in relationship to architecture, as architecture, and how it projects itself as a field of exploration. I therefore take issue with the simultaneous strengths and weaknesses of this important position-taking.

'How can architecture be at once the object and the context of display?' Indeed an extremely strong, well-crafted, endless question. In a world where architectural building has evolved both, on one hand, into an exciting, programmatic, theatrical, fluctuating, physical, mental, biological, collaborative practice, and on the other, a toxic, inadequate, crystallized, 'irresponsible' (specifically to Chan's use of the positive) pathology, this question distinctly speaks to the heart of the subset of ontology that is architecture today.

Indeed, 'a fundamental problem of exhibiting architecture – [is] that of representation.' On the surface, it is particularly amusing that the Beaux Arts student is one of the the primary elements of Carson's argument to discuss the polemics between the object and the context of architecture, specifically of drawings as proposals for architectural ideas. It is so particular, albeit metaphorical if one were to remember the word 'charette,' the used synonym to the relentless, industrial excercise of academic, and not-so academic architectural production. It informally evolved from those very Beaux Arts students whose drawings for final jury were collected with a wagon ('charrette'), not unlike that used to bring the indicted to the guillotine. And rightfully so, it is perhaps unclear if the presentation of student work precedes the exhibition of works of architecture, but it is surely well-engrained in the polemic of re-presentation and authority in architecture in the private, then institutional, and then, ultimately, the public domain. Enters the fairly new figure of the curator of architecture.

"The architecture curator’s function is thus twofold;"

Although I do unequivocally agree with the second part of Carson's folding, as I am Berlin-based, and I witness the accuracy of this statement, 'of cultivating an audience' which I know Carson relentlessly practices, I must ardently disagree with the first element of his bifurcation:
'to make exhibitions of architecture, not its representation;'

This statement is contradictory to what is being argued in the essay. This suggests that the action of the curator, and of exhibiting, is somehow a non-subjective process of cultural production. I believe that the fundamental directive, and strength, of a curator, is representation. By stating this, I am of course implying that curatorial action itself is unavoidably representational. That is, that the authorship and pre-sentation of the work belongs to the author of the work exhibited, an architect in this case, and that the curator deals inevitably with translating a dialogue with the subject and his or her authorship, whether alive or postmortem.

I do agree with Carson, if I understand correctly that the intent is to say that the creation of an architecture exhibition, as opposed to the exhibition by an architect, is embedded in the manifold, often transmutable complexities of an architectural gesture as a spatial proposition itself, conceptually and physically, not to mention the complexities of installation and performance which are so inextricably related. But to so loosely separate 'exhibition' from 'representation' reflects, not an assertion, but a truism that ineffectively addresses the very difficulty of the issue at hand. Otherwise, we are back again talking about the 'curator' being 'the artist', not about experiencing architectural ideas, in this case, its exhibition.

To be more precise, so my argument itself does not drown in these deep waters, I elucidate upon what seems close to the victimization of architectural drawing (technical, plans, sections, etc.) as a questionable technique for exhibiting and criticizing architecture. I would point-out a more specific review of the action of 'framing' and 'hanging' drawings in a much more rigorous context. Two respective reasons:
First, referring to institutions and exhibitions that also have a long-standing application of the same method of framing and hanging drawings in staged architectural installations seems difficult to assimilate as an argument to simultaneously critique the practice of showing architectural ideas. The use of the sketch and technical drawing is still a valuable, if indispensable, epistemological tool, and in my view a potentially sublime expression of architecture. Still to this day, and despite some extraordinary efforts to innovate the 'representation' of architectural ideas through drawing, both as a result of parametric modeling and digital fabrication, and of building optimization, the drawing, both CAD generated and by hand, whether flattened into plan or augmented into axonometric, is indeed in my view as potent as any staging of architectural experience.

Second, the more surprising argument in 'show don't tell'... is that the failure to 'express' 'previously untested architectural ideas' equates, or more precisely, dilutes into 'ending as an instrument of scenography.' I am wondering if this is a case of architectural insularism or protectionism? It is precisely scenography and its enormous potency and longstanding semiotic depth that can best serve curators working with architecture to understand and explore architectural ideas in exhibition, most specifically in this, contextually novel, if opportunistic position as cultural agents. It is precisely the defacto time-based, sculptural, and performative condition of an exhibition that is tangential and, if anything, indispensably related to scenography. This relationship is a delectable way to engage the ideas of activating and creating space that bleed out to life and are embedded in working out the difficult kinks of the contemporary, social and formal practice of architecture and its representation.

And so, as I read this reference of showing drawings and scenography as a reduction of architectural practice, I am therefore compelled to ask in this open-note to Carson's strategic provocation:

1. is the presentation of a drawing an ineffective representation of an architectural idea, or is it that its showing, as opposed to walls or objects or installation or performance, in exhibition, runs the risk of being banal and/or inarticulate?

2. exactly how is it that the process of exhibition is separate from representation?

3. why is the field of scenography inadequate to develop and present architectural ideas?

Luis Berríos-Negrón, architect/artist.
He currently lives between Madrid and Berlin.
<i>Immediate Archeologies</i> exhibition at Program, Berlin (2oo9). Photo by Morgan Beleguer
Immediate Archeologies exhibition at Program, Berlin (2oo9). Photo by Morgan Beleguer

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