March 22, 2018
by Canadian Architect
The Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) presents Lab Cult: An unorthodox history of interchanges between science and architecture. On view in the CCA’s Octagonal Gallery, the exhibition is curated by Evangelos Kotsioris, CCA Emerging Curator 2016–2017 and investigates the concept of the laboratory as a pervasive and recurring metaphor for experimentation in both science and architecture. As a place for the conduct of rigorous research, the lab has been an incredibly productive concept for both of these fields. But at the same time, this exhibition provocatively argues, the laboratory has developed into a cult – its seeming credibility has been repeatedly mobilized in order to normalize social behaviours, discipline the performance of bodies, regulate our environments, standardize the ways we live.
Kotsioris conducted his research during a three month residency at the CCA and developed the curatorial approach of the exhibition by juxtaposing archival material from the CCA collection with models, scientific instruments, photographs and films on loan from more than twelve international archives, museums, collections and scientific institutions. The majority of these interrelated objects will find themselves sharing the same space for the first time at the CCA.
Photograph: Marvin Minsky, MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, 1968.
Courtesy MIT Museum
Today, after many decades of questioning science’s capacity to provide answers to architecture’s social mandate, architects and designers are once again enchanted with the concept of the laboratory. Originally conceived as the physical space for the practice of alchemy and crystalized in its modern form during the Enlightenment, the laboratory has become an omnipresent term in architectural education, practice and theory. Architecture schools, corporate firms and governmental think tanks are once again saturated with “design labs,” all of which promise to provide objective and precise solutions to contemporary design challenges. In its ubiquity as metaphor, physical space, and visual aesthetic, the laboratory has become an unquestioned dogma. At a moment when science and the production of scientific knowledge are once again undergoing an attack, architecture’s reinvigorated faith in the infallibility of science paradoxically resembles the blind devotion of a religious cult.
Instead of reinforcing any preconceived hierarchies between these two fields, Lab Cult explores a more symmetrical narrative. Through an eclectic juxtaposition of case studies from science and architecture, this exhibition suggests a history of close-knit relationships and mutual exchanges. Architects are often accused of borrowing, transforming or even misappropriating scientific ideas, tools and working protocols in their attempt to systematize the intuitive aspects of the creative process. At the same time, though, scientists strongly rely on architectural concepts, representations and material means to stage and communicate sophisticated set-ups of rigorous investigation.
As the curator explains: “If science produced a new type of architect, architecture conversely molded a new type of scientist. By foregrounding these ambiguities and interconnections, Lab Cult seeks to position the laboratory as the space where these two cross-fertilizing cultures meet. It is a way of reclaiming the profound agency of architectural thinking in deciphering the workings of the natural world, and a provocation to critically reimagine future modes of spatial research.”
The exhibition is organized under six themes: “Designing Instruments, “Measuring Movement,” “Visualizing Forces”, “Testing Animals,” “Building Models” and “Observing Behaviour.” Each of these themes is presented by pairing one historical case study from science with one from architecture. Ranging from the late 19th century to the early 1980s, these case studies identify the ways in which working concepts, methods and protocols have been exchanged across different time periods between scientists and architects of diverse disciplinary backgrounds, such as architecture, psychology, engineering, physiology, mathematics, industrial design, computer science and others.