Artful Assemblage

Exhibition curators at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) face a constant challenge: since they can’t show actual buildings, what should they display? For the current blockbuster Herzog & de Meuron: Archaeology of the Mind, dedicated to the Pritzker Prize-winning Swiss firm, the CCA is betting that visitors to an architecture museum want to see contemporary art.

Curator Philip Ursprung, an art historian at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), has assembled “500-1000” models and drawings from the architects’ archives, but the stars of the show are works by 17 artists. You can see classics by Andy Warhol, Robert Smithson and Donald Judd. There’s also specially commissioned work, including some of American Richard Artschwager’s potent “Blps” [sic] and a stunning photograph from Canadian superstar Jeff Wall (see page 3). If that’s not enough, the exhibition is studded with items from museum collections, including toys and photographs from the CCA and fossils from the Muse du Sminaire de Sherbrooke.

It’s quite rich and stimulating, but is it architecture? Or to put it another way, who is the audience for this kind of architectural exhibition and how does it fit into the CCA’s goal of advancing public interest in contemporary architecture? Diehard Herzog & de Meuron fans aside, will the public care about the firm’s “accumulated waste” (their words) while standing right next to a sculpture by Alberto Giacometti or a painting by Gerhard Richter?

Moreover, even if you’re a jaded habitu of contemporary art who can ignore the Dan Graham installation and an Yves Klein Blue, or a know-it-all museum-goer who yawns at the sight of a millennium of Chinese scholars’ rocks from the Richard Rosenblum Family collection, the show might not satisfy your craving to see architecture. The exhibition contains objects left over from the process of design rather than the usual organized presentations meant to convince clients or get published. Archaeology of the Mind has no presentation models, no plans, no sections, no elevations, and no documentary photographs of built work from any of Herzog & de Meuron’s 200-odd projects. Real buildings won’t fit in the galleries, so instead there are many “real objects”: some of the concrete panels created for the Eberswalde Library, and some of the prototypes for furniture for the upcoming Prada Tokyo store–the first time they’ve been displayed publicly (the firm has projects for Prada in New York and Milan as well).

The total effect is unfamiliar and overwhelming. The architects seem to have ideas about form and materials as innumerable as snowflakes. And rather than explain how models and drawings precede the building and reveal architectural intentions, the objects are marshaled to help understand what comes after the building exists, and how architecture comes alive within a broader social and artistic culture. It’s a simple, provocative inversion of our usual expectations of what’s important about architecture.

This venturesome but frustrating profusion fills the 460-page accompanying “encyclopedia,” edited by Ursprung, entitled Herzog & de Meuron: Natural History. Stuffed with interviews and essays by clients (winemaker Christian Mouiex), artists (Rmy Zaugg), ex-CCA director Kurt Foster and architects (Herzog & de Meuron partners Harry Gugger and Christine Binswanger), the 26 contributors run through a cornucopia of thoughts about architecture, art, music, photography and video.

When the exhibit travels to Pittsburgh next summer, and Rotterdam in 2004, the number and selection of objects on display will change. In response, the exhibition designers, including Esther Zumsteg from Herzog & de Meuron’s office, came up with an unusual modular, flexible system. The galleries are filled with low plywood display cases. Items from museum collections are firmly protected in sturdy glass boxes, but those from the Herzog & de Meuron archives are accessible under open loops of plexiglass. Though one doesn’t dare touch anything, they are not “under glass”: one can imagine picking models up and holding them.

Ursprung has deliberately not provided any theoretical guidelines or overarching summary, a lack of explicitness meant to provoke personal encounters with concepts, ideas, materials and forms. This attitude is admirably humble, allowing each visitor to provide her own story of how the objects relate to one another. But while the curatorial team might be intellectually honest in saying that they “don’t know what they [the objects] mean,” it also feels like intellectual indolence. Their non-didactic stance makes the collection into a confusing assemblage rather than an “archeology.” Scholars, critics, historians and theorists–all those whose vocation it is to parse architecture, might be unimpressed.

Likewise, while the show marks an adventurous step for the CCA, it denies the working methods of corporate and professional architecture. Herzog & de Meuron is a corporation–over 140 employees, branch offices in London, Munich and San Francisco, projects under way on three continents–yet the show manifests little evidence of, and offers little insight into, clients, programs or budgets. One lonesome computer terminal allows visitors access to the firm’s internal database, where they can find basic information such as floor plans or sites. Herzog & de Meuron neophytes might find the lack of information about the practice perplexing.

This lack is crucial, since the firm’s attitudes are way out of sync with Canadian practice, given our concern for professional pragmatism, tectonics, and Rotterdam-fueled Modernism. For example, Herzog & de Meuron are concerned with environmentalism, but they don’t spout the familiar buzzwords of sustainability, LEED and efficiency we’re so used to hearing in the Canadian context. Instead they are trying to provide nests for migrating birds on the roof of their Barcelona Forum (under construction), or accommodating snakes in the stone walls of the Dominus winery in California’s Napa Valley (1998).

Finally, what’s most potentially alienating about the show is the ubiquitous presence of the late German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys. The designers line the entrance gallery with his trademark felt, and one of his performance suits is on display. Beuys is more than just a trendy art world reference for the firm. He was a key ideologue in their cultural formation in Basel, and the guide who showed them (and their generation) a way out of the formalist concerns so prevalent in the founders’ student days at architecture school. In North America, though, Beuys is still thought of more as a charlatan than a shaman. So the obsession here with the “meaning” of materials, their decontextualization, alchemical transformation and so on may strike many North American audiences as, well, pretentious: “artistic” rather than architectural.

To most Canadian viewers, even as they are captivated by the show’s strange, undeniable beauty, the reasons for displaying Herzog and de Meuron’s “waste” will probably appear obscure. Perhaps, then, the greatest value of this exhibition lies in this search for a way out of typical exhibition strategies that parallels the search for a way out of the often sterile analytical strategies of modern architecture. Certainly the show represents a sea change for the CCA. Time will tell if it turns out to be a minor contemporary art show or a landmark architectural exhibition.

David Theodore is a Research Associate and Lecturer at the McGill University School of Architecture. Herzog & de Meuron: Archaeology of the Mind runs at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal until April 6.