Beyond Art, The Challenge of Exhibiting Architecture

Unlike any other cultural endeavour, architecture is powerfully and intrinsically linked to our everyday experience and our collective culture. It operates at all levels of society and humanity ‘ architecture is both art and engineering, necessary and elitist. Its protagonists are revered and deplored and, throughout history, it seems that many influential positions have been taken on the relevance of architecture to the common good. However, despite this complex relationship, the architectural process has mostly remained exclusive to architects and, is often deemed inaccessible and mystical by the very people ‘ our collective society ‘ who commission and inhabit architects’ creations.

The architectural exhibition creates a unique opportunity to provide insight and understanding of the architectural profession and its process. In so doing it cultivates an understanding of the importance of design culture at every level of our society. However, in the context of other disciplines such as fine art, the development of the dedicated architecture exhibition has been surprisingly slow to realise the potential of a specialised environment with which to communicate to the general public.

Historically, the active collection of architectural materials can be traced back to the thirteenth century,1 however, it is only since the mid-1960s that the rapid rise of the dedicated architecture exhibition as a new typology has made an impact on the curatorial landscape.2 As Barry Bergdoll, the curator of Architecture and Design at MoMA, explains: ‘[Although architects] were displaying their work in salons and galleries before public museums emerged at the end of the eighteenth century’ exhibitions presenting [organised exhibitions of] architecture are in large measure a phenomenon of the late-twentieth century architectural and museological culture.’3

Traditionally architecture exhibitions were often staged in museums of applied art or attached to a school of architecture or a professional body. The exhibition context of an art museum or an education institution influenced how architecture exhibitions were made ‘ usually with an emphasis on a pedagogical narrative that tracked the subject from an emerging to established ‘artist’.4 However, in the early part of the twentieth century, significant contemporary art museums, such as New York’s Museum of Modern Art, began to recognise the importance of including architecture in their programmes. Under the direction of Alfred H. Barr and Philip Johnson, who both drew inspiration from the increasingly influential status of European Modernism, MoMA began what has become a seminal approach to exhibiting architecture. This legacy continues today in the contemporary art museum model with examples such as Ohio’s Wexner Center for the Arts, The Centre de Creation Industrielle at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the MAK, Vienna, which all share a commitment to presenting architecture as a vital component of their respective exhibition programs.

This burgeoning interest and recognition of architecture’s cultural importance within the contemporary art museum sector also influenced the establishment of institutions such as Montreal’s Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in 1979, and the National Architecture Institute (NAi) in 1996 in the Netherlands, which identified that placing architecture within context of a contemporary arts programme held limitations for the discipline. By recognising the need for a dedicated environment these visionary institutions provided a forum for investigating the intersection between architecture and society. Founder and Director of the CAA, Phyllis Lambert, explains that the museum was established with the three-fold conviction that ‘architecture, as part of the social and natural environment, is a public concern, that architectural research has a profound cultural influence and that scholars have a social responsibility of the highest order.’5

Director of the Aedes Gallery in Berlin and former NAi Director, Kristin Feireiss agrees that that the contemporary architecture museum has ‘both a cultural and social mission’.6 She suggests that the contemporary architectural museum must understand that architecture and urban development are vital ingredients of social life and cultural policy. Consequently, she believes they should respect their role as mediator and intermediary between professionals and non-professionals.

As Dutch curator and academic, Bart Lootsma suggests, this role of ‘mediator’ can provide a number of challenges for the architectural curator:
‘Contrary to what is often thought, exhibiting architecture simply by displaying original drawings, models and photographs ‘ in other words displaying an edited version of the design process ‘ is not always the ideal way of pointing out its cultural significance’ it is only a good way of illustrating the type of building process itself as a cultural act.’7

Former Curator of Architecture and Design at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Anne Watson agrees that the aspect of mediation presents challenges for the architectural curator and expands on the techniques that might be employed to add value to the mediation process:
“Because the display is always going to provide a second-hand, and thus lesser experience than the actual building and because the point of doing an architecture exhibition is to engage the audience, its important to value add to the display. All great buildings have good stories behind them & telling these narratives – technological, human, design, even political – can be an important means of making architecture more accessible to the layperson. Photos, drawings, models [can all] contribute to the story, but multimedia – films, interactives, interviews – can greatly assist the story telling.”8

Generally dedicated architecture exhibitions tend to employ specific techniques order to facilitate and navigate this mediation role. Broadly speaking, they can be collated into three categories for the purposes of a succinct investigation that this writer describes as: ‘Record, Research, Reflect’. The category of ‘Record’ describes curatorial strategies that have a particular function in documenting an individual architect or practice and placing their work within the public record. This type of curatorial strategy usually views an architect through a ‘master’ status lens and endeavours to give an insight into the rigorous and masterful personalities behind what is generally regarded as iconic work. The intention can also be to register the significance of an individual or collective of practitioners for future posterity and to contribute to the recording of architectural history.

The implicit documentation is often formal and academic and the curatorial outcome is rarely ambitious beyond a documentary-like objective. A substantial publication often accompanies the exhibition; both as a record of the event and as an expansion on the material included in the show that can be demonstrated by conventional media. Historically significant exhibitions within this typology include Frank Lloyd Wright (1931) at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and Mies van der Rohe at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1948. Contemporary exhibitions such as the Powerhouse’s, Beyond Beyond Architecture: Marion Mahoney and Walter Burley Griffin (1998) and Alvar Aalto, Through the Eyes of Shigeru Ban (2007) at The Barbican Centre in London have brought a fresh of vision to this curatorial approach.

The Research curatorial strategy is evolving in a similar manner to the emerging notion of how research should progress in architectural design practice. That is, how the action and activity of designing a building and exploring a spatial construct is, in itself, an important and intellectually valid form of research. Within the context of an architectural exhibition, research material can also inform and participate in an exploration of ideas and add value to a wider critical discourse. Research is often the most revealing and interesting strategy to professional peers and the general public as it deals directly with the core ‘making’ of the architectural process and attempts to mediate and communicate that journey in a gallery context.

Arguably the most embraced technique within the Research framework is the ‘Installation’ methodology, where the exhibition is used as a device for testing spatial propositions through the construction of physical environments (large-scale models, insertions or details) that actually demonstrate the research experientially. The genre came to international prominence in 1997, when Kristin Feireiss, then-Director of the NAi, commissioned Daniel Libeskind to insert an installation or sculpture within the confines of the NAi gallery in central Rotterdam. The continuing influence of the Installation strategy on contemporary curatorial practice can be seen at London’s Serpentine Gallery. Under the direction of Hans Ulrich Obrist and Julia Peyton-Jones, the gallery annually commissions a contemporary architect to produce the Serpentine Summer Pavilion ‘ a small piece of architecture that acts as an opportunity for an architect to produce a transient and experimental structure.

A further curatorial technique under the umbrella of Research seeks to capture the research narrative or process of design and production of an architectural project. This material is the output and working elements of the process of architectural design and may include sketches, prototypes, materials, models, digital renderings and samples; in other words, the material that passes through an architects’ office during the lifespan of a project. This process-driven strategy is exemplified by exhibitions such as the 2002 exhibition, Herzog & de Meuron: Archaeology of the Mind, at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, in which the curator, Philip Ursprung, suggests in his foreword for the exhibition’s catalogue, that for the Swiss architects the process of exhibiting their work lies alongside and with equal importance to the production of architecture. Research is often the most revealing and interesting strategy to professional peers and the general public as it deals directly with the core ‘making’ of the architectural process and attempts to mediate and communicate that journey in a gallery context. The methodology is more cerebral than other curatorial strategies used in exhibiting architecture and, often the curators who pursue this approach aspire to a cross-disciplinary approach that is embedded within cultural theory and contemporary philosophy discourse.

The third category identified, Reflect, attempts to address issues larger than individual contributions to architecture and architectural discourse. Often displayed in the form of group shows or international Biennales, these exhibitions attempt to collate a group of architects who are pursuing similar lines of enquiry and conceptual concerns into an identifiable ‘movement’. Resonant examples of this typology include the seminal exhibition Modern Architecture: International Exhibition (1932), at New York’s Museum of Modern Art organised by the influential curator and architect Philip Johnson. Unfortunately, the occasional negative aspect of these exercises in grouping is the emergence and consolidation of a distinct style. This may provide a useful framework for commentators and observers of architecture but allows little individuality for the architects involved.

More recently exhibitions such as Architectures Non-Standard, curated by Frederic Migayrou at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris (2003/2004), have attempted to allow more flexibility within a stylistic framework. Additionally, large-scale thematic exhibitions such as the Venice International Architecture Biennale provide flexibility for display by denoting a theme or issue to which architects are requested to respond within the installation or commentary. Often presented within a global theme such as housing, climate change, mobility or water this typology attempts to provide an international ‘exposition’ or forum in order to demonstrate the actions and concerns of architects around the world and expose similarities and differences.

While each of these methodologies has their inherent strengths and weaknesses, the opportunity for continued research and refinement into the most effective way to communicate the importance of our design heritage to our greater community relies on the continued patronage and investment in exhibition research. As Barry Bergdoll, Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, suggests:
‘The art of curating [architectural] exhibitions is young and if it is to be vital as a medium of scholarship as well as communication, it must remain in a continual state of inventing itself. In every case, such exhibitions are involved with a double absence, for the materials on display are asked not only to represent absent buildings but also to invoke absent contexts or environments in which the architecture participates ‘ historical, urban or theoretical.’9

Within an Australian context, the cultivation of an appreciation and understanding of architecture is of great significance to our collective culture ‘ a fact reflected in the growing public interest in dedicated architecture exhibitions within the museum sector. In this regard, a significant collecting and curatorial strategy for the documentation of our collective architectural and design heritage is of vital importance. The act of exhibiting architecture has the power to mediate and translate the architectural process; provide an environment where architecture can be viewed relation to other contexts; fuel further research, publications and discourse; and ultimately, communicate with people across all levels of society.

Certainly Anne Watson believes there is an urgent need to invest in a dedicated environment for the purposes of collecting and exhibiting Australian architecture. As she sums up: “[Curating architecture and design is simply] not as clear cut as other [creative] disciplines. There is also the issue of what significance criteria you apply to collecting architectural material – function, design, technology, name architect, innovation, award-winning, etc. At the Powerhouse we tend[ed] to collect models, the State Library collects drawings and photos while the Historic Houses Trust collects architectural materials so it’s all very uncoordinated and disparate. Ideally, we should have a separate architecture & design museum to bring it all together!”10

Fleur Watson is a design writer, curator and former Editor of MONUMENT magazine (2001-2007). She has recently returned from London where she completed an MA in Curating Contemporary Design at the Design Museum and Kingston University and recently established somethingtogether, a multi-disciplinary studio that is focused on collaborative design partnerships and communication.

Suggested further reading:
Betsky, Aaron et al. ‘Exhibiting Architecture: The Praxis Questionnaire for Architectural Curators’, in Praxis: Journal of Writing + Building, untitled, no. 7, 2005, pp.106’119.
Feireiss, Kristen. It’s Not About Art: The Art of Architecture Exhibitions, Rotterdam: Nai Publishers, 2001
Staniszewski, Mary Anne. The Power of Display: A History of Exhibition Installations at the Museum of Modern Art, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1988.

Powerhouse Museum
Aedes Gallery (Berlin)
CCA (Montreal)
NAi (Rotterdam)
Architecture Foundation (London)

  1. Lambert, Phyllis. ‘The Architectural Museum: A Founder’s Perspective’, The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol. 58, no. 3 (September 1999), p. 308. [back]
  2. Text based on Cohen, Jean-Louis. ‘Exhibitionist Revisionism: Exposing Architectural History, The Journal of Architectural Historians, vol. 58, no. 3, 1999/2000, pp 316. [back]
  3. Bergdoll, Barry. ‘Curating History’, in The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol. 57, no. 3, p. 257. [back]
  4. Lootsma, Bart, ‘Forgotten Worlds, Possible Worlds’, in It’s Not About Art: The Art of Architecture Exhibitions, Rotterdam: Nai Publishers, 2001. p. 17. [back]
  5. Lambert, Phyllis. op. cit., p. 309. [back]
  6. Kristin Freireiss, ‘It’s Not About Art’, in The Art of Architecture Exhibitions, Rotterdam: Nai Publishers, 2001. p. 8. [back]
  7. Lootsma, Bart. op. cit., p. 17. [back]
  8. Watson, Anne. Email interview with Fleur Watson, 6th December, 2007. [back]
  9. Bergdoll, Barry, op. cit., p. 257. [back]
  10. Watson, Anne. Email interview with Fleur Watson, 6th December, 2007. [back]