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Objectifying the exhibition
The fifth Oslo Architecture Triennale curated by Rotor is all about objects, each one telling its own story. But the question remains: do these objects actually represent architectural ideas?
Oslo just launched its fifth Architecture Triennale in mid-September, a few days following the opening of Lisbon’s third.
In 2013 both cities have followed a similar strategic plan – lifting a so-far “local” happening to a more “global” endeavor by launching a call for proposals leading to the selection of a team of young and international in scope curators. But the approach adopted for the resulting exhibitions appear to be diametrically opposed. Portugal is thematizing intangibility and fiction in the creation of a public platform for debate, Norway is strong on objects and individual narratives fostering more private reflections and conversations. This divergence is opening up, once again, the debate on what is or what ought to be an architectural exhibition.
Under the working title of “Really Sustainable,” the Belgium collective Rotor, together with the French editorial team Criticat who later resigned, won the international call for proposals for the 2013 OAT. The original concept evolved into “Behind the Green Door” – an exhibited research project if not clandestine reference to the 1970s porn film that began by questioning “what it means to be an architect in a world of limited resources, a world that lives above its carrying capacity?” OAT, like the “Close, Closer,” uses the exhibition and the idea of crisis, as an investigative device for creating a rich programme of events and activities.
Yet the word “crisis” certainly doesn’t bare the same signification in Norway as it does in other part of the European Economic Area. During the opening weekend, a genuinely festive atmosphere and the smell of booming economy was palpable. The public was so numerous that it proved difficult to squeeze through the green doors and access Rotor’s 340 sq meters exhibition space inside DogA: the Norwegian Centre for Design and Architecture, situated in an old transformer station near Grunerlokka, the trendy former industrial district of Oslo.
The main exhibition display comprises a collection of more than 600 objects that carry claims of sustainability. Those weregathered together from over 200 collaborating architecture offices, companies and environmental organizations worldwide. The exhibition presents itself as a giant chronologically reversed archive or project index spanning from 2013 back to 1970. Each object tells a story and is the result of a selection process that went on for over a year. Both conventional in its somehow rigid format and chronological narrative and unconventional in its way of objectifying stories rather than buildings the exhibition essentially remains concerned with the act of making architecture.
A few aspects of the exhibition are questionable: the fact that all media are equally considered avoiding any hierarchical consideration or differentiation; the removal of each object’s original context; and the reuse of some of Rotor’s previous curatorial strategies (such as the detachable and collectable information sheets and the vertical banner of information spatially defining a specific zone of the exhibition). Yet overall the exhibition is an intelligent and well-informed attempt to critically and enjoyably treat a theme that might at first seem overrated and sterile.
But Rotor’s relatively small display isn’t the only thing in this year’s OAT. Another exhibition, also research-based, is on at the The National Museum – Architecture. Curated by scholar Caroline Maniaque-Benton and curator Jérémie McGowan, “Far-out Voices” is an exhibition organized around a series of documentary film interviews and offering a point of entry into the thinking of some of the leading advocates of alternative (and often low-tech) architecture and technology in the late-1960s and early-1970s. Pointing at yet another face of sustainability and giving access to a range of original and rare publications, “Far-out Voices” acts as a good complement to Rotor’s exhibition.
The 2013 OAT is all about objects, each one telling its own story. No fiction is allowed in Oslo, except for the grand fiction of “green architecture”. And if we can question the legibility of these narratives, or the fact that object have been decontextualized in an effort of simplification, we can also appreciate that Rotor is here trying to address the paradox of architectural representation. Taking the time to really understand the significance of at least some of the objects in the exhibition, the public might gain access to some aspect of the discipline and thus have a hint of what sustainable architecture means in today’s world.
In 2013, both the Lisbon and Oslo Triennale take on a critical stance. In Lisbon, conversation is in the public arena of the streets and piazzas, on large wooden circular platform that vaguely recall Hyde Park’s speaker’s corner. In Oslo it might be much quieter. As Rotor’s member Maarten Gielen explains, “Behind the Green Door” is an exhibition that acts as a conversation starter, on and around an object. And to foster this idea, the curators have asked public figures (Mirko Zardini, Andres Lepik, Eva Franch i Gilabert, etc.) to lead special guided tours of the exhibitions, pointing on some of their favorite artifacts and encouraging a layering of possible readings of the exhibition. But the question remains: Do these objects actually represent architectural ideas and open architecture to a wider public?