Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 27, 2017
Thordis Arrhenius, Mari Lending, Wallis Miller, and Jérémie Michael McGowan, eds. Place and Displacement: Exhibiting Architecture Zurich: Lars Müller Publishers, 2014. 248 pp.; 82 ills. Paper $50.00 (9783037784167)

Exhibitions of architecture have recently moved from the margins to the center of architectural history and theory. This shift reflects a greater tendency in scholarship to focus less on individual buildings and more on issues such as the institutional structures that underpin architectural practice, theoretical discourse and its dissemination, as well as architecture’s relationship to its publics and to mass media. These three themes provide the structure for the edited volume Place and Displacement: Exhibiting Architecture, which collects fifteen essays grouped in three sections entitled “Discourse,” “Institutions,” and “Circulation.”

The volume contains the contributions to a 2013 symposium held in Oslo, which perhaps explains its heavy emphasis on Scandinavia, specifically Norway. Some of the volume’s best texts focus on the historical evolution of exhibition practices in architecture, and Wallis Miller’s essay on Berlin exhibitions during the long nineteenth century is one of them. Miller traces the emergence of the specialized architectural exhibition out of the established exhibition system of the art academy. Based on extensive research, she convincingly argues that it was the responses of the public, both general and specialist, that determined the types of objects that were included in nineteenth-century architectural exhibitions, ranging from technical drawings of infrastructure to vedute of historical architecture, scale models of unrealized projects, and, eventually, photographs. It was such trial-and-error interactions with audiences that gave shape to the architectural exhibition in the wake of modernism.

Barry Bergdoll’s essay focuses on the place of Latin American architecture in the exhibitions of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) from 1933 to 1955. Unlike Miller’s analysis of the architectural exhibition as a self-contained system, Bergdoll’s discussion is inscribed within its socio-political context, namely U.S.-Latin America relations during the period in question. This meticulously documented social history integrates key exhibitions such as Brazil Builds of 1943 and the landmark Latin American Architecture since 1945 of 1955 into larger historical phenomena, such as MoMA’s well-known role in cold-war cultural diplomacy and the museum’s ongoing engagement with Latin American art.

Miller’s and Bergdoll’s essays, both featured in the section on institutions, are the only ones in the volume that focus on the conventional forms of architectural exhibition strictly defined to include drawings, photographs, and models of buildings and cities shown inside a gallery space. This is an intriguing aspect of the book: the “exhibiting architecture” of the title is interpreted very loosely, to the benefit of some essays and the detriment of others. Four texts, clustered in the “Discourse” section, focus on the breakdown of this model of exhibition. The new generation of exhibitions from the late 1960s and 1970s favored immersive environments, shifting the focus from the representation of architecture through documents to the viewer’s direct, unmediated experience within the exhibition space.

Exemplary of this group is Felicity D. Scott’s essay on Arata Isozaki’s Electric Labyrinth, his immersive environment for the 1968 Milan Triennale. Scott interprets it as a “work of architecture that exhibited itself as architecture (its stakes remaining firmly within the discipline) and in which the gallery and its conditions of viewing were incorporated within its medium” (24). She contrasts this with Isozaki’s subsequent participation in more conventional commercial group exhibitions of architectural drawings, such as Houses for Sale (1980) at the Leo Castelli Gallery, seen as emblematic of the commodification of experimental architecture. This is a familiar narrative in histories of postwar architecture, as well as of culture in general: 1968 is construed as a moment of pure experimentation, which then gets reversed in the conservative backlash of the 1980s. What is lacking from Scott’s account is a discussion of Isozaki’s work in relation to the greater shifts in the art of the time, such as the breakdown of medium specificity and the emergence of new ephemeral practices, namely environments and happenings.

The shortcomings of such disciplinary division between the histories of 1960s exhibitions of art on the one hand and of architecture on the other become more evident in Martin Braathen’s essay on the exhibition Byen i mennesket (The city in man), held in Oslo in 1968. Through a careful examination of archival sources, Braathen demonstrates the institutional processes that led to a shift in architectural exhibitions, away from conveying information through documents and toward creating immediate sensory experiences for the viewers. This experimental exhibition was described as a “city simulator” by its curators (43) and employed projections, sounds, and works by Norwegian Pop artists, as well as a remote-controlled monitor by the British group Archigram. Braathen interprets this project as institutional critique, yet his use of the term varies slightly from its habitual use in art history: it is not the gallery that is subject to critique, but the architectural institutional framework of the exhibition, namely the Oslo Association of Architects. Such slight semantic elisions are key to understanding exhibitions such as Byen i mennesket; it is perhaps by following some conventions of the art of its time that the exhibition could critique the architectural establishment.

Helena Mattsson’s article on Konsument i oändligheten (Consumer ad infinitum), an exhibition by Swedish artist Björn Lövin at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet (1971), espouses an even looser definition of an architectural exhibition. Lövin’s installation consists of a series of realistic tableaux of everyday spaces such as a street and an apartment, all purportedly related a fictional character, Mr. P. This theoretically acute essay strives to describe the work as an exhibited architectural interior focusing on consumerism, yet avoids any mention of the obvious context of the work: Pop Art and its immersive environments, for example the Swedish-American Claes Odenburg’s The Street (1960), The Store (1961–64), and Bedroom Ensemble (1963). By viewing Konsument i oändligheten through the narrow prism of architectural exhibitions and ignoring this larger context, some of its key aspects are obscured.

The design of museum exhibitions is also absorbed into the book’s increasingly diffuse notion of “exhibiting architecture.” Examples are Natalie Hope O’Donnell’s essay on Sverre Fehn’s design of a medieval art exhibition at the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, as well as Wenche Volle’s essay on the exhibitions of Edvard Munch’s Frieze of Life (1890s) from 1902 to 2013. While valuable in their own right, such studies of accrochage move further away from the book’s focus.

Victor Plahte Tschudi’s excellent essay is a welcome foray into the early modern period. Its subject is the emergence of copyright in Italian architectural prints of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and its effect on establishing concepts of originality and authenticity. The essay’s inclusion, under the rubric “Circulation,” suggests that the production, circulation, and collection of architectural prints implies their exhibition. Yet collecting and exhibiting are not synonymous, and occasionally they are competing practices: while exhibiting is a public activity (however this might be defined), this is often not the case for collecting.

The relationship between exhibition and reproduction is examined in Mari Lending’s essay in the same section focusing on the production, circulation, and exhibition of architectural plaster casts since the nineteenth century, in this case portals from Norwegian stave churches. Her valuable contribution balances the book’s focus on the post-1960 period and also proposes a historical model of exhibition in which the two opposing strategies of representing architecture and directly experiencing it within the gallery collapse into one.

The volume’s inclusion of historic preservation into its constellation of exhibition practices constitutes perhaps the most productive expansion of the definition of an architectural exhibition. Examples are Lothar Diem’s analysis of the open-air museum of traditional architecture in Røros, Norway, and Jorge Otero-Pailos’s essay positing self-effacement as the central aesthetic goal of historic preservation. On a more technical note, Adam Lowe’s text describes new techniques for the production of three-dimensional facsimiles of architectural surfaces, and speculates about their possible effects on both preservation and exhibition-making. Read together, these essays point to the intrinsic, complex interrelations between preservation and exhibition, opening up a fruitful avenue for future inquiry.

Léa-Catherine Szacka’s essay focuses on the 1976 Venice Biennale and the central role of architecture in it, three years prior to the establishment of a dedicated Architecture Biennale. Her emphasis on the public debates that took place in the context of the exhibition demonstrates another important characteristic of architectural exhibitions: their role as generators of discourse. Entitled “Debates on Display,” the essay describes a historical shift in the architectural congresses and symposia that had been crucial in the shaping of architectural modernism in the twentieth century. Inspired by the public mode of the exhibition from which it emerged, the 1976 debate was no longer a closed event destined for specialists, but was open to the public, staged in a way that made it another exhibition of the biennale.

The supplementary relationship between exhibition and discourse is explored in an essay by Daniel Birnbaum and Sven-Olov Wallenstein, which focuses on Jean-François Lyotard’s landmark exhibition Les immatériaux (1985). The authors argue that the exhibition is an integral part of Lyotard’s philosophical oeuvre, and suggest the possibility of articulating philosophical positions through exhibitions. While erudite and well-argued, the essay seems to exceed the book’s stated scope: architecture is never mentioned in the essay. In a similar way, Ines Weizman’s “The Three Lives of Modern Architecture: Wills, Copyrights and Their Violations” focuses on architecture, yet completely forgoes exhibitions. Forming a sort of pendant to Tschudi’s essay, Weizman’s contribution draws attention to the fact that copyrights of foundational modernist texts are about to expire, and therefore imagines a “third life” of modernism, when the works’ untethering from their authors can realize their full potential. Intelligent and provocative, the essay unfortunately misses the opportunity to reflect on the implications of this for exhibitions.

In a case of form mirroring content, the format of this edited volume recalls an exhibition. Different essays, some clearly motivated by concerns that are not fully relevant to the topic, are brought together in order to collectively generate new insights. While it contains many bright moments, the final result feels quite loosely “curated.” Multiple definitions of architectural exhibitions might have been productive for the symposium that generated it, but Place and Displacement would have benefited from a tighter definition of its scope. As it is, the volume covers everything from artists’ installations to historic preservation and the design of museum exhibitions, yet does not fully address the specificity of architectural exhibitions against exhibitions tout court.

Nikolas Drosos
independent scholar