Essay published in the New City Reader Obituaries December 31, 2010, guest edited by MOS, executive editors Joseph Grima & Kazys Varnelis, managing editor Alan Rapp.
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The New City Reader is a performance-based editorial residency conceived to take place in the context of The Last Newspaper, an exhibition at the New Museum in New York in fall-winter 2010.
The Architectural Exhibition, 96, Atrophied After August History
The Architectural Exhibition, long a culture-defining endeavor, died this year from a rare neurological disorder. It was 96.
The symptoms of the Architectural Exhibition’s painful degenerative condition included memory loss, dementia, postural instability and slowness of movement. The last decade had seen the exhibition become obsessed with the more immaterial aspects of architecture, getting caught up in the politics and agency of practice without reconceptualizing the techniques of representation. The result was a denigrated exhibition that recycled historical techniques of representation, force-fitting them to works they don’t suit.
The Architectural Exhibition had a distinguished history. From the seminal Modern Architecture: International Exhibition (Johnson, Hitchcock & Barr) show in 1932 and the last great taxonomic exhibition, Deconstructivist Architecture (Johnson & Wigley) in 1988, to the monographic shows that kick-started a new generation in the 90s (Bernard Tschumi: Architecture and Event, Rem Koolhaas and the Place of Public Architecture, Scanning: The Aberrant Architectures of Diller + Scofidio) and the series of survey shows that defined the late 90s and early 00s (Mood River, Intricacy, Folds, Blobs & Boxes, Tall Buildings, Nonstandard Architecture to name a few), the exhibition left a lasting imprint on architectural practice.
From its beginnings in the late nineteenth century, the Architectural Exhibition functioned as a performative act of situating the new, rising to a climax with the work of the Futurists in Milan in 1914 and the Constructivists in Moscow in 1921. The architectural exhibit reached middle age with the International Style exhibition, when modernism had advanced to such a degree that a survey could be undertaken, and the position of architecture curator was institutionalized in the persona of Philip Johnson. There, Johnson treated architectural representations as works of art, placing models on poor man’s plinths or tables covered in white cloths and hanging drawings on the wall. Thus institutionalized, the exhibition became a means of historical research. Exhibits such as Machine Art, Built in USA 1932–1944 and the 1947 Mies show reconsidered an architect’s oeuvre, situated a movement or set out to identify parallel themes across disciplines.
The last heroic moment for that medium was the Deconstructivist Architecture exhibition in 1988, serving to crystallize a set of ideas opposed to pure form and bringing deserved attention to a group of architects who would define the discipline over the following decades.
Abandoning this heroic, epoch-defining condition, the exhibition continued to thrive in its old age through monographic and survey shows. Decline began in the early 00s, as curatorial positions multiplied and the discipline become more dispersed. Even as curators of architecture had the opportunity to posit order, they instead retreated to the fringes.
As the exhibition’s condition became terminal, the heaviest blows were brought on by an inability to conceptualize or present architecture as the open (unstable) spatial practice that it has become; the focus centered on the niche-obsessed periphery. Barry Bergdoll, current Director of the Architecture & Design Department at MoMA, called this a “reactive mode of exhibition,” (“In the Wake of Rising Currents” in Log Fall 2010) where “the curator culls from contemporary or recent production what he or she admires and thinks deserves contextualization and wider publicity.” If, however, as Beatriz Colomina suggested in her editorial for the Leisure section of the New City Reader, print media in an age of instantaneous communication can only chronicle historical events rather than report breaking news, this model for the exhibit can only produce work that is even more stale. Shows like Home Delivery had an air of lateness about them; after all, we had seen the work in Dwell over the course of the decade.
The Architectural Exhibition is survived by the curator, who is continuing to multiply at an alarming rate. Rather than promoting architecture, curators of architecture seem to be fleeing it, presenting shows on fashion, cars and wine instead. In the end, the death of the architectural exhibit comes because we are all curators now. Not not only are architects constantly asked to curate shows, but sites like Tumblr or FFFFOUND! make curation available for everyone, blurring the lines between producer, editor and curator.