Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 22, 2017
Lawrence Rinder Architecture of Life Exh. cat. Berkeley: University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2016. 349 pp.; 280 color ills. Paper $39.95 (9780983881315)
Exhibition schedule: University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley, January 31–May 29, 2016
Architecture of Life. Installation view of Qiu Zhijie, The World Garden. Photo: Sibila Savage.

Architecture of Life, the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive’s (BAMPFA) inaugural exhibition in its new building, opens with something of a self-portrait. A photograph, taken four years before the museum itself would open to the public, shows a hand holding an early architect’s model of the new building. In the black-and-white image, the wood model is a small, abstracted form that has been sanded, blackened, and polished to a fine sheen. The hand holds the tiny wooden “museum” between its thumb and forefinger, gripping the middle of the model at the exact point in the architecture where an extant building—the former site of the University of California’s printing press—and new construction are merged to create BAMPFA. The disembodied hand is outstretched, as if offering the model to a viewer. Architecture of Life holds the museum building itself at just the same point. Lingering on the juxtapositions and similarities that make up BAMPFA’s diverse collection, Architecture of Life offers not a model but the entire building itself to the viewer to consider, to explore, and to admire.

Unlike the singular photograph, Architecture of Life displays a sweeping, cacophonous vision. The exhibition is loosely organized around the notion that architecture can be “the framework” for understanding everything from human relationships, to spiritualties, to the “fundamental nature of reality.” Architecture of Life, BAMPFA director and curator Lawrence Rinder explains in the accompanying exhibition catalogue, “is a poetic excursion rather than an argument or comprehensive history” (17). In practice, this poetic excursion is a smart curatorial strategy on the part of BAMPFA to establish their home in Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s new building. As an exhibition, Architecture of Life is a compelling examination in homemaking. The show opens up the galleries and film programming to a diverse and historically broad collection of artworks placed in conversation with one another. By conceiving of architecture as the organizing principle of everything from reality to society and human relationships, Architecture of Life establishes BAMPFA’s new building as a home for objects and artworks, scholars and museumgoers, divided by time, geography, ideology, or background. While sprawling in scope—the artworks included span nearly two millennia—the exhibition cleverly incorporates recent acquisitions, a wide selection of loaned works, long-cherished BAMPFA favorites, and the new building.

One way in which these diverse artworks and objects interact within the exhibition is in patterns of isomorphism. Artworks that are separate in time by centuries but that share a common visual vocabulary are often clustered as though in conversation with one another. Rinder, in his catalogue essay, alludes to a rationale for the kinds of aesthetic conversations in the exhibition. “The architecture of location is,” he writes, “metaphorically speaking, the creation of an awareness of relationships through the organization of images and forms” (21). Architecture of Life is rich with such relationships for a viewer to find. The exhibition offers frequently stimulating reflections on the similarities or differences between particular works or groups of works. In one compelling pair, for example, an all-black abstract painting by Ad Reinhardt from the early 1960s is placed near a small black Rajasthani tantric drawing of a small black triangle framed against a black square ground. More than merely matching on aesthetic terms, the two images speak to the same artistic impulse to immerse oneself completely in a field of color.

Similarly, a suite of abstracted clay vessels decorated in a reddish-brown terra-cotta slip, by the Mississippi potter George Ohr, pairs nicely with an installation by the contemporary British artist Ben Rivers. Rivers’s work consists of a film following the life of a hermit living in the Scottish Highlands that is projected into a small cabin that the artist assembled of cast-off materials and construction debris. The rusting corrugated steel and patched scrap wood of the cabin share the same material roughness of the torn and burnt edges of clay in Ohr’s vessels.

Nevertheless, this kind of comparison of complementary objects has its risks. At times these organizations feel clunky, as in the case of eight photographs of broken windows in Gordon Matta-Clark’s Window Blow-Out from 1976 placed directly across the gallery from Robert Overby’s Broken Window Maps (1972), in which cotton canvas patches stitched into the shapes of broken window panes are lined up along the wall. Both works offer interesting ways to consider the documentation of architectural destruction and decay, and yet their proximity in the gallery feels more repetitive than dynamic.

At times these organizations bring the building itself into conversation with the works in the exhibition. I laughed out loud to find, at the bottom of a low ramp leading between two levels on the museum’s lower story, a phenomenal “drawing” of a staircase stitched in red thread on paper by the artist Do Ho Suh. Nearby, an untitled string installation by Fred Sandback—tracing a wide triangle between the floor, ceiling, and walls of the corner of a gallery—stands opposite a stunning photorealistic graphite drawing of bricks by the Oakland artist Ed Loftus and a perspective drawing by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe of his Barcelona Pavilion. The trio question architectural drawing or mark-making in space, playfully reminding a viewer that the BAMPFA building itself began as marks on a page beneath an architect’s hand.

Within the architectural details of the building itself, clear efforts are made to integrate the new museum building within its site. Large sections of the Art Deco former university publishing building are maintained and are thoughtfully assimilated with the new construction. Much of the gallery space, for example, is in this former structure, whose ceiling of saw-tooth windows has been preserved to provide wide swaths of natural light on the ground floor. In a space on the lower level, dedicated to art from the Himalayas, the floor is made of tiles of endgrain wood in an homage to the wooden floor of the press (too much toxic ink from years of printing had made the original floorboards impossible to repurpose). Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s building even incorporates natural elements of the former site. Pine wood from trees felled in the construction make up the benches of a two-story amphitheater that immediately greets visitors walking into the museum. Yet, unlike the massive and commanding new amphitheater and staircase of Snøhetta’s San Francisco Museum of Modern Art across the bay, Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s amphitheater feels laid-back, a genuine public space within the fabric of the museum. Parents chase their kids around gallery attendants hanging out on their breaks and tour groups strategizing their visits. This interest in the natural material of the former site continues into the Koret Reading Room on the museum’s lower level, where local woodworkers Jonathan Anzalone and Joseph Ferriso designed contemporary-looking wooden furniture with live-edge planks and accents in bold, primary colors from trees felled at the site.

But throughout the building this integration of new and old spaces is not perfect. The new construction—which houses a pair of theaters for BAMPFA’s cinema programming as well as a complex of administrative spaces—looms awkwardly over the repurposed press building. The building wraps ominously around the frame of the earlier structure. Its exterior is clad in sheets of steel, and its interior is punctuated with walls and a staircase in a bright orange. Although it includes a top-floor café that affords nice views onto the gallery below, this new construction is the least compelling space of the new BAMPFA complex. Aesthetically loud and needlessly flashy, it seems to match something of a Diller Scofidio + Renfro house style. Its shingle-like steel exterior and bright orange interior are also uncannily similar to the nearby McMurtry Art and Art History building at Stanford University, also designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro and opened only nine months before the BAMPFA building.

By integrating the building into the framework of the exhibition and using the exhibition as a cue for visitors to look critically at the new building, Architecture of Life turns the slithering steel structure and defunct publishing building into a thoughtful museum. In inculcating its site this way, the exhibition offers a unique kind of inaugural exhibition, distinct from the collection highlights and “greatest hits” shows common in sleek new museum buildings. Architecture of Life is not an exhibition that merely trumpets BAMPFA’s new building but, rather, one that questions it, plays with it, and jokes with it.

Danny Smith
PhD candidate, Department of Art and Art History, Stanford University