Best in Show

In a time of multiple crises and an increased understanding of architecture’s complicity in spatial injustice, what and who is an architectural exhibition for?

Courtesy Vishnu Jayarajan

  • Various architectural exhibitions in 2023

Most often, architects do not create architecture; they produce drawings, models, and instructions from which the architecture can be created. “Study the art, the architecture, the design,” says Zoë Ryan in Futures of the Architectural Exhibition, but also “study the ideas of the art, architecture and design.” Still, when architectural exhibitions do dare to subscribe to plentiful definitions of what practice can be; when they dissect the nonarchitectural forces that bear on buildings, construction sites, and offices; when they look to the extractive processes that enable architectural production, they create a friction that often makes people ask, where is the architecture? It’s an inane question that likely points to a desire for a focus on a finished product and a single author. The architecture is more often than not already in the gallery itself, but seeing it requires an understanding of all the abstractions that make up and shape the built environment. For curators, mounting such a show requires a tricky negotiation between challenging and educating an audience—being able to speak to a broad public about an often-esoteric profession—while still attesting to how architecture exists beyond the site boundary and outside of the architect’s office. An architectural exhibition that focuses solely on the building and the architect is at best a PR exercise and at worst a real estate show. (Sometimes it is both.)

In May, Lesley Lokko’s curation of the Eighteenth Venice Architecture Biennale opened to the public with a generous dissection of contemporary practice on the African continent. The Laboratory of the Future surveyed histories previously ignored by the canon and looked to new imaginings of African futures. Thandi Loewenson etched images of African liberation on panels made of graphite, the raw material required for lithium batteries, which is mined in Zimbabwe from sites of colonial expansion. Olalekan Jeyifous imagined a fantastical future in which Africa is freed from colonial legacies and exploitation, and the All-African Protoport applies Indigenous knowledge systems to a zero-emission transport network across the world for the African diaspora. Material consequences, the spatial implications of colonialism, and world making, Biennale contributors seemed to say, are all part of the practice of architecture. Simultaneously, just across the Grand Canal, world making of a different ilk was on display: an exhibition of the plans for the megacity of Neom in Saudi Arabia, with drawings and models by the architects involved. The project, among other structures, will see a 1600-foot-tall, 105-mile-long building scrape across the desert ground. This was an architectural exhibition at its most literal—it was about the building, not the idea; the architect not the user—and it offered few answers to the questions of whether it will be built and whether the proposed architecture could even sustain life. (Many of the models unrealistically showed blankets of greenery covering the desert buildings.)

Material consequences, the spatial implications of colonialism, and world making, Biennale contributors seemed to say, are all part of the practice of architecture.

The Venice Biennale takes its structure from the World’s Fair, with a national pavilion model. The pavilions are often funded by government entities and designed to showcase the achievements of individual nations. In this anachronistic model, such exhibitions become a stage on which countries can reinforce antiquated notions of nationalism and colonialism or interrogate urgent geopolitical issues. Lokko’s biennale arguably looked to reframe the need for such an event against its own history. Neom’s exhibition was a trade show. These two architectural exhibitions sit on opposite sides of a cultural divide: on one side, social issues and the betterment of the profession drive curation; on the other, real estate and self-promotion do. In 2023, architectural exhibitions proved the breadth of this spectrum: many, such as Lokko’s Biennale, demonstrated the way they can be a generative site for discussion, while others continued to verify the rampant property speculation that exists outside and without knowledge of more theoretical discourse. Resolve Collective’s Barbican show, for example, asked us to imagine a cultural production beyond the institution, but others, in the stale format of starchitects’ monographical exhibition, stirred thoughts about what and who architectural exhibitions are for rather than any more meaningful interrogations. This essay surveys recent exhibitions on both sides of this rift, as well as the chasm of institutional failure and lack of cultural investment in the middle that brought us here.

FUTURES OF THE ARCHITECTURAL EXHIBITION, edited by Reto Geiser and Michael Kubo and released earlier this year, explores issues of architectural curation through a series of conversations, staged from 2018 to 2021, between students at Rice University and seven curators of architectural exhibitions. This book looks at exhibiting as a practice, giving voice to curators over architects or exhibition visitors and asking them to reflect on the place of archives and permanent collections, exhibition design and digital tools, authorship and publics, and the purpose of architectural exhibitions in the face of social, political, and environmental crises. Against all of these themes, the conversations demonstrate that architectural curation has the potential to be a productive site for imagining new ways of designing, living, and being. One such example: Resolve Collective’s show them’s the breaks, in Curve gallery at the Barbican, which looked at the matter and substance of the institutions that control cultural production. Ramps, benches, and stages, all made from institutional waste, lined the curved gallery: cork blocks from the Royal Academy, steel fencing from the ICA, plastic exhibition signage from Camden Arts Centre, bookshelves from Barbican’s own children’s library. Each piece was available to be taken away by the general public at the end of the exhibition. Accompanied by a thorough and expansive public program, the show looked to imagine the death of the institution and what could be made from institutional waste. Resolve was seemingly breaking down the institution from within, undertaking a once inconceivable act with the permission of the institution itself. Ultimately, it proved as impossible as ever. During one of its public program events, in an act of anti-Palestinian censorship, the institution canceled a talk between Elias Anastas of Radio AlHara and Nihal El Aasar as it was just beginning. Resolve pulled the show and canceled all future programming.

them’s the breaks celebrated the radical work that happens without formal institutions, and therefore its siting within a major one was risky. Initially, Barbican’s involvement seemed an act of solidarity—a recognition that it has been harmful and a gesture toward recompensation and future change. But the exhibition ultimately proved too radical for the Barbican. In hindsight, the gesture was a hollow promise—the institution, which thrives under the status quo, will only continue to protect its own interests. The Curve gallery remained open and empty for the rest of the show’s intended run, a reminder of what Resolve Collective was trying to build and the institutional limitations that prevented its coming to fruition.

The following month, the status quo persisted at the opening of Herzog & de Meuron’s Royal Academy exhibition, where Vicky Richardson introduced the monographical show by claiming that “you cannot bring architecture into the gallery.” The phrase was repeated in the text on the walls and through the show’s curational strategy. If by architecture we mean the matter itself—bricks and mortar, the solid stuff that makes up our built environment—then it’s a perfectly true statement. But the architecture—as in the ideas—were there. It comes in a long line of monographical shows, both at the Royal Academy and beyond, with a retrospective of Norman Foster’s work opening at the Centre Pompidou in Paris the previous month. As with most exhibitions that feature still-alive, still-practicing architects, the format encourages tightly controlled narratives and makes little room to recognize the staff that actually produces the work.

Herzog & de Meuron is curated around three rooms. First, visitors are welcomed by shelves stacked high with models behind Perspex; they are replicas of the archive shelves you would find at the Kabinett in Basel, the practice’s research and storage facility. Blue-foam massing models for the Elbphilharmonie Hamburg are lined up below a crisp cardboard model of its final form, while various models of the National Library of Israel’s seductive swooping facade sit next to a detailed study of its Jerusalem stone cladding. Large-scale photographs by renowned artists and friends of the practice Thomas Ruff and Andreas Gursky line the walls. Wall text and descriptive labels are lacking, and what is left unsaid speaks volumes: the national library is being built in and for an apartheid state; the Jerusalem stone is used as a tool by the Israeli state to further colonial erasure of Palestine; and the large quantity of blue foam models speaks to a level of cultural production that involves many more authors than the starchitects on the gallery walls.

The second room displays a film by Bêka & Lemoine, featuring the inhabitants of Herzog & de Meuron’s REHAB Clinic for Neurorehabilitation and Paraplegiology in Basel. The third contains a one-to-one mock-up of one of the bedrooms at Kinderspital in Zurich and is lined with drawings, models, and renderings of the children’s hospital due to be completed next year. The exhibition is supplemented by an app that allows visitors to walk around the bedroom in augmented reality. Across the exhibition, wooden blocks present prompts for the app to call out points of interest, but these add little to the curation. Richardson, pitching the show to a nonexpert audience, framed it as an invitation “into the design studio to understand the tools they use.” This struck me as missing the point: just as architectural exhibitions need not bring architecture into the gallery, they also don’t need to invite visitors into the architect’s office. Such a curatorial stance serves only to venerate the architects on display and cater to an assumed public of adoring fans. Architectural exhibitions have the potential to inspire debate and shape architectural production. A mere chronicle of design work seems a waste of curatorial resources. While it’s not possible to attend to all the world ills in an exhibition—it would be naive to try— the curator should have a line of inquiry.

The history of exhibiting and curating architecture is short. As Reto Geiser and Michael Kubo explain in the introduction for Futures of the Architectural Exhibition, museums and galleries did not widely have dedicated programs and collections of architecture until the late 1970s. (MoMA’s architecture and design department, established in 1932, is the only exception.) It was not until then that, as Geiser and Kobo describe it, “this exhibitionary complex has served as a primary site for architectural thinking and production within the design professions and as a key interface for shaping awareness of and interest in architecture for nondisciplinary audiences.” In a time of multiple crises and an increased understanding of architecture’s complicity in spatial violence that relates to race, gender, wealth, and labor conditions, what and who is an architectural exhibition for?

A few architectural exhibitions have constituted watershed moments in architectural thinking. The Whitechapel Gallery’s 1956 exhibition This Is Tomorrow is best known for launching and naming the pop art movement, but it can also be read as one of the earliest architectural exhibitions. Architect and critic Theo Crosby conceived the idea for the exhibition, bringing together artists, architects, graphic designers, and musicians, many of whom were already working together as the Independent Group, to work in teams on installations that presented their visions for the future, culminating in one immersive environment. The small, ring-bound catalog that accompanied the exhibition was envisaged as both a guidebook to add depth and context to some of the works, but also, as Ryan describes, “an object in its own right” that gave an afterlife to a show that is now seen as a seminal moment in British art and architecture. At the first Venice Architecture Biennale, in 1980, Paolo Portoghesi’s The Presence of the Past represented a departure from modernism with its Strada Novissima, a street of twenty facades, each designed by a different architect—from Bofill and Koolhaas to Venturi, Scott Brown and Rauch. Each bay represented the style and research interests of its author, but they were united by the classical symbols they borrowed and the new way in which they appropriated the past. Now considered a foundational moment in the birth of postmodernism, the show made space for plural voices and authors in the same space.

Just as architectural exhibitions need not bring architecture into the gallery, they also don’t need to invite visitors into the architect’s office. Such a curatorial stance serves only to venerate the architects on display and cater to an assumed public of adoring fans.

These moments in curatorial history represent optimistic times. Institutions were able to give space and resources to attend to burgeoning themes or vital issues of the day. Today, funding for such shows is either squeezed to near-negligible amounts or stems from compromised sources. Curation, as a result, must favor themes that are easy to research and market to broad audiences, resulting in monographical retrospectives and narrow groupings of practices. Neom in Venice, Herzog & de Meuron at the Royal Academy and Norman Foster at the Centre Pompidou result from this curatorial landscape. Such exhibitions also bring funding: Herzog & de Meuron’s exhibition was sponsored by the Swiss arts council Pro Helvetia and Foster’s by Bloomberg and JPMorgan, both clients of the practice. If it is the work of an exhibition curator to educate a broad public on architecture and the forces that influence it, then easily marketable and digestible shows have a place. If, however, exhibitions are also a way of seeing the world, of assessing a moment in time, and learning from this, then the restricted review of monographical shows, which present such a small subsect of ideas, have narrow horizons.

In July, the Financial Times published the details of its recent investigations into David Adjaye and the harrowing allegations against him, yet there is still an entire room at the Venice Architecture Biennale, in the Central Pavilion, dedicated to his work. In Futures of the Architectural Exhibition, Ryan writes that shows “compel us to look closely and reflect on who we are and our relationships with the world and one another.” And so, this year’s exhibitions hold up a mirror to today. In it, we see a profession that still steadfastly worships the cult of starchitectdom, favors an architectural production of rampant fossil-fueled real estate speculation, and silences the voices of those practitioners imagining livable futures.

Ellen Peirson will not be going to another architectural exhibition for a while.