Based on a collection of conversations recorded in Avery Hall at a conference entitled Exhibition Models: Curating Architecture, and at the CCA in Montréal, this podcast—written and produced by James Taylor-Foster—considers the format, role, and impact of the architectural exhibition in different settings, ranging from established institutions to project-based Biennale and Triennale.
This inaugural episode features Amale Andraos (Dean, Columbia GSAPP), Giovanna Borasi (Canadian Centre for Architecture), Beatriz Colomina (Princeton University School of Architecture), Beatrice Galilee (The Metropolitan Museum of Art), Andrés Jaque (Office for Political Innovation), Sylvia Lavin (UCLA), Iván López Munuera (2016 Istanbul Design Biennale), André Tavares (2016 Lisbon Architecture Triennale), Marina Otero Verzier (Het Nieuwe Instituut / After Belonging Agency), and Mirko Zardini (Canadian Centre for Architecture).
It’s a cold, misty November day and I’m walking in the Giardini in Venice – one of the only places in the city where you can escape the narrow streets and the stone clad campi and walk beneath trees. In the summer, of course, these gardens are a sanctuary from the intense heat and humidity here but, as winter is now rapidly approaching, the gardens have an altogether different atmosphere.
The gates have been closed and the crowds have been replaced by people dismantling the exhibitions – exhibitions which, until a couple of days ago, formed part of the 15th International Architecture Exhibition (La Biennale di Venezia), Reporting from the Front.
My name is James Taylor-Foster and I’m a writer, editor and architect-in-training. I’m here because, for the larger part of this year, I’ve been living in Venice. I came here in the spring to oversee the installation of a show I was involved in with David Basulto. It was called In Therapy and was the national participation of the Nordic Countries: that is, Finland, Norway, and Sweden.
It was also the first major architecture exhibition that I had been involved with and now just after the closing of the Biennale, I’m in a position to reflect not only on what was presented in Venice this year, but also more widely on what it actually means to curate architecture.
2016 has been a year of Biennale and Triennale like no other. Alongside Venice were the triennales of Oslo, of Lisbon, and even the Istanbul Design Biennial – each of which addressed architecture as a practice, a process, and a way of understanding our position in the world in very different ways.
And so, for this inaugural GSAPP podcast—and with the help of a group of leading voices in the world of architectural exhibition-making—the large majority of whom convened in the school in New York for a conference entitled Exhibition Models, I want to probe a little into the rather enigmatic contemporary practice of “curating” the built environment.
The world of the architectural exhibition is split between two camps – although it’s not quite that clear cut. There are those curated by historians and archivists – exhibitions which present primary material, the stuff used in the process of designing a building. You have drawings and sketches, scale models of varying degrees and, if the project was built, documentation usually in the form of photography and film.
Sometimes bits and pieces which connect to the creation of a building—letters, emails, WhatsApp conversations, increasingly—are also used to flesh out its context. When these different types of media are assembled carefully and intelligently they can tell pretty much any story the curator intends, but they are focused first and foremost on the thought process of those involved in its creation.
More recently—and we’re still talking a fair while back—the architectural exhibition has been pushed and stretched and molded to do more: to provoke and imagine, as much as represent.
Becoming established in the 1970s, these types of exhibitions have become less about conventional presentation and the construction of a clear narrative, and more about the creation of an installation or a statement pertaining to the field as close or as loosely as the curator chooses. Whereas some exhibitions point to something over there—buildings more often than not—others offer an experience in and unto themselves. And the most broadly successful iteration of both these exhibition models has been that of the Biennale and Triennale.
These events, which are usually accompanied by a large-scale publication strategy and dense public programming, have the potential to reach large physical audiences – if they’re in the right location, that is. I will always maintain that the reason that the Venice Biennale has become so successful in this framework is because of the fact that it’s Venice. Even if the Biennale is terrible, you’re still in “the capital of the imagined world,” as Paulo Mendes da Rocha once described it.
TAYLOR-FOSTER: Now, as I mentioned before, many of the conversations you’re about to read were recorded in and around Avery Hall at Columbia in New York City. Exhibition Models, the conference we were all there for, was hosted by Amale Andraos, Dean of the School. Here she is explaining why this comparatively undervalued discourse is increasingly of renewed importance.
AMALE ANDRAOS: We’ve been kind of witnessing an explosion of Biennale and Triennale over the past two decades. But in particular, I think in the last couple of years, they’ve been of a very high quality. It used to be that Venice was the beginning and the end of it all until the next Venice. And now there is a kind of a circuit.
It’s also interesting to think about exhibitions not only as a lens through which to look at architecture and how it’s evolving, but how it’s also become a practice in itself as a kind of mode of intervention – both discursive and in practice. Exhibitions can do many things. They can take the pulse of the contemporary scene; they can propose alternates and new directions and trajectories for thinking about architecture and cities and the environment.
But they can also re-read the past and uncover important archives that allow us to once more look at the future in different ways.
TAYLOR-FOSTER: And it seems that the idea of an exhibition as a multifaceted method of condensing and provoking discourse is at the heart of what most people understand to be “curation” in architecture. Today, you could argue, display is less important than discussion.
Before we head back to New York let’s lay a little institutional groundwork. The Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) was founded in Montréal in 1979 by Phyllis Lambert, a rather eclectic tour de force of the architectural world who wanted to develop an international research institution based on the fundamental premise that “architecture is a public concern.”
TAYLOR-FOSTER: Almost four decades later the CCA is a bastion in the world of architectural research and production. It also has one of the world’s foremost drawing archives, to boot. Giovanna Borasi, a former writer and editor, became the institution’s Chief Curator in 2014.
GIOVANNA BORASI: I think in general exhibitions are a tool, not a goal per se. For me they are a way of visualizing an idea or something that you want to put out and will become part of a kind of discourse in architecture.
So, in this sense—also because we are in Montréal so we live with the fact that many of the things we do here are actually not seen—we put a lot of emphasis on all the rest (publications, events etc.) and how this should be communicated and so on. The issue of archiving and communicating—from one side it’s communicating and on the other it is archiving—we are trying to build a kind of institutional archive around what we do. But it’s very difficult because there are certain things that are very difficult to grasp. We always have to keep the plan of the show, the photos, and so on.
But how do you keep and archive the research? And for me this is a very difficult task because, for example, what is fascinating about looking at the archive of Cedric Price is not only that you have his drawings, his letters and so on, but you actually have all this mish-mash of things that eventually arrive to the ideas. And these are all the sorts of random things that we might now collect in our Instagrams.
So I think, in this moment, oral history is very much coming back as a system to maintain the ideas behind a project like an architectural exhibition. We are discussing how much we can describe the process more than the final outputs that are documented anyhow through photographs and film and so on.
But there is still a whole other part that is in the hands of the audience – comments in social media, for example, discussions that are happening that you might not even be aware of on Twitter.
I come more from an editorial background, or maybe really as an architect. So I see the idea of “curating” as not being that different from an intelligent architectural project. A nicely curated project has the same strength of an architectural one: it should see what is coming and even anticipate it; it should be able to put it in a context that is larger than the program you have; it should respond to audience needs; but also provoke through questioning, leave some things open, and also have a time that goes beyond the project in itself.
TAYLOR-FOSTER: And Mirko Zardini, who has been the Director of the CCA for over ten years now, agrees.
MIRKO ZARDINI: Until recently a lot of the activities that is done by curators were done by architects; all the important Biennale and Triennale in the past have been created by architects. The Rossi Triennale in Milan (1973) for example, which was very important, or the Portoghesi Biennale (1980) in Venice. They didn’t consider themselves curators.
Starting from the 1980s there has been a growing number of institutions dealing with architecture. There is an evolution in respect to the original idea of institutional architecture – a museum as was developed in Russia or in the Scandinavian countries, one very closely linked to the idea of national identity.
But let’s assume, just for the sake of simplifying the discourse a little, that from the 1980s on a new kind of institution started to be created which was not following the model of Scandinavian museums or the architectural department in American museums. It was a center for architecture, like the CCA. These are a center, a museum, and more. Other institutions, like the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal Institute of British Architects in London (with their conflictual relationships of love and hate) have adapted their models to operate more in this way.
So there’s an incredible number of new institutions who are also attracting a different sort of person. Who are these people? Until now they’ve been coming from the different fields of architecture and have wanted to engage in a more concrete and, perhaps at this moment strategic, way to discuss, criticize, and promote architecture. This comes at a time in which newspapers, magazines, and even universities look as if they have abandoned a little bit a kind of direct commitment to a public voice on architecture.
TAYLOR-FOSTER: Representing a public voice, that founding principle of the CCA, is fundamental to many other platforms that communicate architecture – including schools. Now, I just want to take the opportunity to add a little more context.
The day that we had most of these conversations was a difficult one. It was November the 11th, 2016: two days after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. As many of you can surely imagine, there was a very palpable sense of frustration, confusion, despair and fear. The conversations continued nevertheless, albeit in a rather more charged context.
SYLVIA LAVIN: I’m Sylvia Lavin. I’m an architectural educator and academic in the middle of throes of anxiety and depression after the election, since it seemed to be so much about the difference between people who are educated and people who are not educated. I think it was the first time that a major political event felt as deeply personal to both the importance of the academy and the failures of the academy in the United States.
Exhibitions occupy a particular space between the uncontrolled publicness of buildings and the overly controlled privacy of academic discourse. So exhibitions are a halfway house. And maybe what everybody is really imagining is an alternative public, and hoping that the architectural exhibition is a way to do that.
I’m not sure anybody talks about architecture as form and aesthetic anymore – I’m not sure that I would give the architectural exhibition any particular agency in that. I think it’s the state of existence today. It deals with the collapse of form as the unifying thematic of discourse in a particular way.
TAYLOR-FOSTER: And while the architectural exhibition certainly does have a profound reflective role to play, others have constructed entire curatorial theses on the notion that form is not only one of architecture’s fundamental legacies, but is also “a common language that brings together architects to engage in a collective conversation.” This, at least, was the foundation of The Form of Form, the 4th Lisbon Architecture Triennale (2016). Was it a reaction against a widespread move away from form and aesthetic in architectural discourse? Here’s its Chief Curator, André Tavares.
ANDRE TAVARES: There was a strong awareness of the architect losing track, and architectural exhibitions not being about architecture; curators making a huge effort to explain what architecture is about and then people going to visit exhibitions and thinking about everything but architecture.
It was a very conscious effort from myself, Diogo Seixas Lopes and the other curators, architects and people that we engaged to the program to say, “Let’s bring architecture into a different realm – one which is not just construction, which is not just design and practice. Let’s bring construction and design practice to museums, places, to public spaces, to debates, and let’s share the knowledge that as practitioners, as scholars, as curious people about what architecture is, we have.”
So exhibitions embody a knowledge that we have, and it’s about sharing this knowledge and not confusing exhibiting with practice. This is very important, this idea of sharing knowledge, because it’s something that you can bring back to practice and that can foster the way you think about your own practice. But, at the same time, that strengthens your relationship with material suppliers, clients, public authorities – any of the multiple players that in the end build architecture who are not architects.
And it is also about an aesthetic. I remember a colleague saying, “Oh, look at this building. It’s a natural consequence. I didn’t design anything.” So, if you think about the program and the restraints of the site, for example, you think that it’s nothing to do with a kind of aesthetic. And then you look at the building and it’s exactly the same as all the other buildings that he designed in different places, having different clients, having different constraints.
So it’s literally an aesthetic. It’s very important for us as curators to raise exhibitions to a theoretical level, a critical level, so that as architects we can also be aware of what we are doing.
TAYLOR-FOSTER: And it’s interesting here to note how for some, curation in architecture is totally interwoven with that of building.
Marina Otero Verzier is an architect based in Rotterdam and the Head of Research and Design at Het Nieuwe Instituut (HNI), formerly known as the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi). She was also one-fifth of the After Belonging Agency, the curatorial team who dispatched the 6th Oslo Architecture Triennale (2016), After Belonging. For her, the curatorial aspect of architecture, although undoubtedly present in her work, is just one part of her practice.
MARINA OTERO VERZIER: Before coming to New York and studying the Masters in Critical, Conceptual and Curatorial Practice (CCCP, Columbia GSAPP) I was a practicing architect; I was working in an architectural office. I was actually on the construction site for a long time. When I came to New York and I was totally amazed by the possibilities in which architectural practice could be expanded.
I’m not at all interested in the term “curating.” I have to say that, before actually starting the CCCP program, I didn’t even know what “curating” was. I thought it was maybe organizing events or, you know, co-ordinating things. I was using other terms to express what you now describe as curating. And even while I was studying the Master’s I wasn’t interested in the part of curating. So I tried not to describe my practice as “curation,” even if then as a matter of fact I became the co-curator of a Triennale!
But it doesn’t mean that is what represents my practice. To me, it’s not what describes what I do. I used to describe myself as an architect, so that’s why I think I want also to reclaim the word “Architect” as an individual that is involved in writing, editing, curating, building, et cetera, because it has always been the case. It’s not something that’s a recent invention.
TAYLOR-FOSTER: This pluralist approach to the practice of architecture is one which I personally identify with. The role of the architect has diversified (or, indeed, for some diluted) but in so doing has opened doors to alternative ways of thought and production. The practice of architecture embodies curatorial work and encompasses things like writing as ways of working through and presenting ideas. And a sketch, a working drawing, or a presentation model does exactly the same thing.
TAYLOR-FOSTER: So what about exhibition design, where an architect is asked not ostensibly to curate per se, but to design and build the framework through which people experience a show? Is this just about creating interiors, or is it more complex? Here’s Andrés Jaque, Principal of the Office for Political Innovation and the exhibition architect for the 3rd Istanbul Design Biennial, Are We Human? (2016).
ANDRES JAQUE: While most Biennale give space to authors and contributors, with the Istanbul Design Biennial we decided—together with the curators [Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley] to provide conflict. And that is what is given to the contributors. We are not dividing the space and giving lots to each of them, but we were creating constellations in which different contributions could react to one another – that was the first idea.
The second is that whereas most Biennale are separating content from the café, or the place where the events happen, we are actually colliding all these things together so it could be a place where the evidence of the work of those that were participating could be the origin of conversations, formal and informal.
Images are becoming, as you said, immensely important in the way we get together as society. But, at the same time, I think that we’re becoming much more savvy in the way in which we decode images. We don’t only look at the image itself, but we look at the frame in which it’s given to us. We are looking at who’s proposed in it and what is the comment that comes with it – and what the image is that follows it.
In a way, we’re inhabiting images. And that means that we don’t see them that much from outside but we get to inhabit them in a way that we’re surrounded by them. We’re very much effectively connected and politically afraid by them.
TAYLOR-FOSTER: And I asked Andrés specifically about the role of the image in exhibitions, because it remains the one consistent thread between architectural exhibitions of the 20th Century and architectural exhibitions today – even if how the image is actually presented has shifted.
The Istanbul Design Biennial was unique among the Biennale and Triennale of 2016 because the curators were acutely aware of the role of new media and social media in syndicating a message. Exhibitions are enormously elite events: the proportion of people who are physically able to transport themselves from, say, Mumbai to Venice or Shenzhen to Istanbul, is almost infinitesimal. So how these events are disseminated is, now more than ever, of utmost importance. Iván Munuera helped to direct some of the online dimensions of the Istanbul Design Biennial.
IVAN MUNUERA: From the very beginning we were talking about the importance of social media and the online dimension of any kind of exhibition. It was funny that some of the people that were talking with us for the last year prior to the opening actually thought it the event had already happened… because it’s true, no? – in a way, even before the opening of the Biennial, it was already happening.
In Bomontiada [Tarihi Bomonti Bira Fabrikası, Istanbul] there was a space that called “Design in 2 Seconds.” It was describing this very specific organism of social media – not only like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, but also the urbanism of some other kind of media (like Tinder, Grindr, and some other kind of interactions) that we now have.
So this kind of space was suddenly a space that was also given another kind of temporality—these 2 seconds—but also another type of image, another kind of space that we ourselves living in through our cell phone, through our iPads and through, of course, our presence in any of these platforms.
BEATRIZ COLOMINA: I’m Beatriz Colomina. I’m, you know, who am I?
TAYLOR-FOSTER: Well, I can tell you! Along with Mark, Beatriz co-curated the Istanbul Design Biennial. But she’s also an extremely established historian and theorist and is the Director of the program in Media and Modernity at Princeton University School of Architecture. She’s written and curated widely, and one of her ongoing research themes is about the role of media and architecture.
TAYLOR-FOSTER: We’re in a position in the course of architectural communication—and I’m also wrapping in architectural exhibitions and also the role of communication within the field and for outside the field—in which the book will always maintain its relevance. The magazine appears to be losing its relevance in one format and gaining new relevance in a different format. And if we distill it down to the apparent dichotomy between print and digital: I’m constantly advocating that they are, contrary to popular belief, not paradoxical. They have to exist together. It’s a matter of pace; it’s a matter of the way in which the material is consumed.
But there is also a general feeling that, for example., when you’re creating an exhibition you create a catalogue, you create a constellation of objects in which you re-present and re-communicate and disperse the ideas behind the exhibition.
What was interesting with what you and Mark Wigley did in Istanbul was how you also had an incredible emphasis on digital design issues, whether it was through the “e-flux architecture” platform or based on your own research, and an incredible kind of handle on social media.
TAYLOR-FOSTER: This is still quite rare in the world of architectural exhibitions! Would you agree?
COLOMINA: Yes, probably. But if this is the case then they are completely missing the point. The whole history of architects in the 20th Century demonstrates that they understood perfectly well the medium of the exhibition, but also the media that was of importance to its time.
So you cannot separate all these great exhibitions from the publications that were produced alongside them. So l'Esprit Nouveau pavilion for example is inseparable from l'Esprit Nouveau magazine et cetera, et cetera.
And so it’s super-important to understand that, in the moment that we are in, the dominant media—the new media—is the digital media. So it’s not only the collaboration with “e-flux” that came up at a certain point, but also starting the Biennale in social media very early on. You reach a different kind of audience; a younger audience. So the Biennale does not start the moment that it opens, but the biennale starts many months before when you start reading the manifesto and you curate, in a way, some sort of discussion that happens on multiple platforms all over the world – including, of course, ArchDaily.
TAYLOR-FOSTER: Finally, I want to explore again that “other” model – the non-Biennale/Triennale model.
Beatrice Galilee has been the Associate Curator of Architecture and Design at The Met in New York since 2014. Before then she was Chief Curator of the 3rd Lisbon Architecture Triennale (2013) – so she’s experienced both sides of the coin, so to speak. What’s it like to be a curator in an institution where you have the luxury of time and a greater security in terms of funding perhaps, but a whole other range of pressures to contend with?
BEATRICE GALILEE: I found working with institutions to be difficult whether you’re working with a Biennale or a Triennale. And, actually, what’s amazing about having an institution that you go in day in and day out is that you develop relationships and so things get easier.
When you do Biennales you start from scratch every time. It’s a completely new site condition. It’s a radical new team. Everyone is new to you. They don’t know your sense of humor. Maybe there’s a cultural divide; maybe there isn’t. But you spend time building that – that’s part of what makes you a good Biennale curator: an ability to get the team together, move fast, get people inspired, find people who want to work with you, who want to deliver the best thing that they’ve ever done for you.
Whether I’m at The Met for another year or another ten years or another twenty-five years, I feel that I will get more done. I got more done in my second year than in my first year. I got more done in my third year than in my second year. And I think that’s great, and I feel so much more supported and nourished in that context than I ever did working with a Biennale where you have to also, on top of the Biennale itself, do several other things – take writing jobs or teaching jobs.
And at The Met, you just do everything and it’s all under the auspices of your position – that’s what you generate and that’s what you want to do as a curator. You write, you make publications, you make exhibitions, you make talks, you do installations. You work on site-specific things. One is able to practice if you can find the space for it.
I like talking about curation in architecture to some extent because I like understanding what the point of these things are and what we’re hoping to achieve. Because I think there was this let’s say the reaction against the model and the drawing, which happened whenever it was – ten, fifteen years ago. People were like, “We don’t want to see architecture exhibitions comprised of models and drawings. We prefer experiences, or we prefer other models of – you know, more experimental, performative architectural installations.” And I was definitely on that. That was really how I started.
And now I think about photography and about moving image, or I think about capturing architecture as something that’s really a complex idea, as something I really want to try to understand better. You can’t really show architecture if you’re showing models and drawings. You’re showing an intent or you’re showing an isolation of an homage of an image, or you’re showing a model of something which is isolated and looking down and all those kind of obvious points about models and drawings.
But when you start to deal with photography, or when you start to deal with commissions, or you start to deal with site-specific installations, you really come up against it in a really sort of beautiful way. One cannot present architecture as something that is definitive in the same way that you can with art.
TAYLOR-FOSTER: It’s now spring 2017 and I’m in Dublin, Ireland, walking through the courts of Trinity College. The connection between city, town and landscape in this country has been a fascination of mine ever since I first read Ulysses. But beyond the fiction, there is a unique considered poeticism to the way that practices tend to operate here. Among them, O'Donnell + Tuomey, but also Grafton Architects who, a little over a month ago, were announced as the Creative Directors of the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale. These things come around quickly!
Shelley and Yvonne, the two founders of Grafton Architects are (in their own paraphrased words) firmly rooted in the fertile Irish terra firma, but with their heads looking up to the sky. Their ambitious design sensibility is both grounded and, at the same time, highly aspirational – which is also how architects in Ireland tend to be trained. These words are reminiscent of course of those of one of Dublin’s more famous literary sons: “We are all in the gutter,” Oscar Wilde wrote, “but some of us are looking at the stars” [Lady Windermere’s Fan, 1893].
In the year leading up to the world’s largest and most established architectural exhibition—Venice—there is always an incredible amount of speculation. The approach that Shelley and Yvonne take is likely to be very different from what the Biennale has seen before but with a sense of continuity, too. Set against the backdrop of a world which is becoming ever more politically reckless, there is an urgency—in my opinion at least—to engage with it without pretending that all the crises we currently face can be solved by an exhibition.
It should seek to reconcile the gulf that has grown between those who contribute and respond to the architectural exhibition in its broadest sense, and those who yet do not. This is absolutely about aesthetic and language but also about how a static, if not temporal, event can be disseminated to contribute to the emerging global discourse – irrespective, to some degree, of what the event is actually about.
We’ve seen how the “wall,” for example, a beautiful and powerful architectural tool, can also be read as deeply sinister in the way that it’s deployed. So the ways in which we talk about space and, ultimately, where the discourse of architecture should land is of real importance.
I recently heard a talk given by a Brazilian-American Professor of architecture who mentioned something which has stuck with me. The Portuguese word for “window” is janela (forgive my pronunciation). And janela is rooted in the word “Janus” – the name of the Ancient Roman god of beginnings, gates, transitions, doorways and passages. He looked one way and the other simultaneously – which is really what an exhibition does. And I think that we shouldn’t lose sight of that, nor underestimate how important enriching discourse in a practice with such a tangible impact really is.
James Taylor-Foster is Editor-at-Large for ArchDaily, the world’s most visited architecture platform. He was Assistant Curator for the 2016 Nordic Pavilion at the 15th International Architecture Exhibition La Biennale di Venezia, and is an Editor at LOBBY Magazine (The Bartlett, UCL).