The CCA presents Architecture Itself and Other Postmodernist Myths

The Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) is presenting Architecture Itself and Other Postmodernist Myths, on view through April 7 2019. Curated by Sylvia Lavin, the exhibition suggests a reading of the postmodern movement in architecture based not on the images and buildings it produced but on the material evidence that was suppressed to maintain the myth of architecture as an irreducibly autonomous and artistic practice—the myth of “architecture itself.”

Madelon Vriesendorp. Freud Unlimited, used by Rem Koolhaas in his book Delirious New York, 1978. © Madelon Vriesendorp

Exhibition opened: November 6, 2018

Curator: Sylvia Lavin

Associate Curator: Sarah Hearne

Exhibition design: Besler & Sons

Graphic design: Chad Kloepfer

Lavin explains, “one version or another or the idea of ‘architecture itself’ has been used by architects to manage the encounters between things operating beyond individual control. The notion has been called upon since at least the early modern period when the notion that architecture was a godly rather than human matter was invented but postmodernity is what gave the idea the power of myth.”

Her project repositions the discipline through the presentation of its extraordinarily ordinary and bureaucratic procedures—adhering to building codes, applying for research grants, generating revenue through the art market, patenting architectural designs—the project dismantles postmodernism as a floating signifier and anchors it to the world of things.

John Hejduk. Chronology of projects by John Hejduk: 1954–1974, between 1974 and 1979. © CCA

Architecture Itself and Other Postmodernist Myths presents salvage from the wake of this postmodern story of autonomous signs. Illustrating empirically describable postmodern procedures, the broad selection of material evidence—invoices, surveys, exhibition posters, reproduced models, travel photography, Xeroxed drawings—come together with a series of architectural fragments to challenge some of postmodernism’s prevailing narratives.

Fragments cast off from some of postmodernism’s most recognizable buildings, serve as primary source witnesses to the physical actuality that the myth of “architecture itself” has long deemed irrelevant. The fragments—including a staircase from Peter Eisenman’s House I, a window from Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital and Maternity Center, and a beer-can building block from Michael Reynolds’ Earthship Biotecture—are displayed as archaeological artefacts, with extensions in cardboard linking them to the buildings from which they were cast off.

David Graham. Photograph of Langhorne Best Products Showroom by Venturi and Rauch, 1981. © David Graham

Throughout the CCA’s Main galleries, the exhibition is organized around seven thematic groupings that each describes the shortcomings of an otherwise mythical aspect of postmodernism. Visitors will encounter rereadings of the neutrality of architecture institutions, the inherent communicative abilities of architecture, the specificity of architectural research techniques, the postmodern architect’s independence from commercial interests and positioning as a humanist, and the artistry that is thought to have produced postmodern images.

Architecture Itself and Other Postmodernist Myths continues a long line of investigation at the CCA of how architecture relates to its own past, resulting in new readings of key moments in the history of modern architecture. Authored by Sylvia Lavin, a forthcoming publication by the same title serves as an extension of the counter-historiography of postmodernism presented in the exhibition. Original texts by Lavin and contributions from sixteen other authors study the material evidence to dismantle the predominant narratives of postmodern architecture and architects. To be released in English and French editions in early 2019, Architecture Itself and Other Postmodernist Myths is designed by Anna Haas (Zürich) and co-published by the CCA and Spector Books.

Exhibition sequence

The exhibition opens with a cardboard restaging of the site-specific installation Eisenman produced on the occasion of the presentation of his 1994 monographic exhibition, Cities of Artificial Excavation: The Work of Peter Eisenman, 1978–1988 at the CCA. Despite Eisenman’s declarations about the ephemerality of the installation, upon uninstalling the exhibition in 1995, the CCA meticulously preserved cardboard study models and fragments from the original installation, thereby assigning them cultural and economic value. Actions like these are presented through the objects that were produced by and displayed at the numerous institutions that had a focus on collecting and exhibiting architecture founded in the 1970s and 1980s, including the CCA, the Getty Center, the Museum of Modern Art, the Deutsches Architekkturmuseum, among others, to question the assumption that they were passive supporters of “architecture itself” and propose that they were often its principal protagonists.

Sussman/Prejza & Company. Wayfinding sonotubes for the Los Angeles Olympics, 1983–1984. Photograph by Elise Windsor © CCA

Though they had the agency to filter out all that did not belong to “architecture itself,” these institutions and philanthropic arts organizations were largely perceived of as benevolent in their support of the work of architects and architecture scholars. As some developed a practice of grant giving, their influence became even more pervasive in the production of architectural research. No one was exempt from the need for project funding, not even Rem Koolhaas, Charles Moore, Colin Rowe, or Arthur Drexler whose grant applications to the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts are on view. These documents demonstrate the willingness of producers, often thought of as autonomous in their work, to alter their projects, research interests, and travel destinations to satisfy the unwritten selection criteria for funding. On view alongside materials that chronicle architecture’s borrowing of research techniques from other disciplines, this grouping tells a new story of what is often perceived as an organic and independent professionalization of architectural research.

Jesse Reiser. Copy of composition with the Modena Cemetery by Aldo Rossi, Drawing Matter Somerset, 1979 © © Eredi Aldo Rossi, courtesy Fondazione Aldo Rossi

While architects were submitting proposals to garner research funds, they were simultaneously being solicited to present and sell their work at commercial art galleries. Asked to create artefacts for the specific purpose of being sold and circulated in the art market, architects focused their efforts on representational techniques and conceptual content over any consideration of building sites and construction methods. This approach is apparent in the projects commissioned for the Leo Castelli Gallery’s 1983 exhibition Architecture III, Follies: Architecture for the Late-Twentieth-Century Landscape—including Diana Agrest and Mario Gandelsonas’ contribution to the exhibition, which on view with other projects presented at the gallery’s trilogy of shows on architecture. Rather than architecture being autonomous, the art market impinged on the specificity of architectural work such that it could circulate as art.

Drawings produced for architectural projects that were to be built were also thought to be sites for the unfettered creativity of architects. Paradoxically, precisely because drawings provoked fantasies of autonomy and authorial control, they also attracted an extraordinary amount of technical development, regulatory conscription, and increasingly sophisticated forms of labour. The myth of this form of artistry is confronted in the galleries by objects that reveal that the colours palette of Venturi & Rauch’s drawings for their Best Products Showroom were governed by the newly developed Pantone Matching System and Michael Graves’ incredible output of drawings was sustained by a number of techniques for expedited self-reproduction, including Xeroxing sketches from his notebooks, to which he would add colour overlays.

Though once considered outside of “architecture itself” these and the over 400 other objects presented in the exhibition have been brought together to present a new account of postmodern architecture—an account to which they are central and fundamental.

Postcard collected by Vincent Scully. Sylvia Lavin © Petley Studio Inc.

About the curator

Sylvia Lavin received her PhD from the Department of Art and Archaeology at Columbia University in 1990. She is Professor of Architecture at Princeton University and was Director of the Critical Studies MA and PhD program in the Department of Architecture and Urban Design at UCLA, where she was Chairperson from 1996 to 2006. Her first books, Quatremère de Quincy and the Invention of a Modern Language of Architecture and Form Follows Libido: Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture were published by the MIT Press in 1992 and 2005 respectively. Her most recent books include, Kissing Architecture, published by Princeton University Press in 2011, and Flash in the Pan, an AA publication from 2015. Dr. Lavin is an active curator of architecture and design, the recipient of an Arts and Letters Award in Architecture from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Canadian Centre for Architecture.

Best Products Company. Best Products Catalog 1980-1981, 1980. The Virginia Museum of History & Culture © Best Products Company
Business card for Kenneth E. Fugitt/Marco Electronics Inc. from the Guild House files, ca. 1961
Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. Guild House perspective study, 1961–1966. © The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania by the gift of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown
Robert Venturi. Bibliographic research notes from the Guild House files, 1956–63. © The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania by the gift of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown
Cedric Price. Activity compatibility chart, Generator, 1977. © CCA
John Hejduk. Numbered sketches of projects by John Hejduk, between 1974 and 1979. © CCA
Vincent Scully. Photograph documenting pueblos. Sylvia Lavin © Estate of Vincent Scully
Postcard collected by Vincent Scully. Sylvia Lavin © Petley Studio Inc.
Michael Reynolds. Beer-can building blocks, Earthship Biotecture, 1973. © Michael Reynolds. Photo: Elise Windsor © CCA
Vincent Scully. Photograph documenting pueblos. Sylvia Lavin © Estate of Vincent Scully
David Hiser. Exhibition print of first experimental house completed using empty steel beer and soft drink cans, 1972. © Environment Protection Agency
James Stirling and Michael Wilford. Section of History Faculty Building at the University of Cambridge, ca. 1963–1967. © CCA
James Stirling and Michael Wilford. Cut-away axonometric of the History Faculty Building at the University of Cambridge, ca.1963–1967. © CCA


Architecture Itself and Other Postmodernist Myths is organized with the generous support of the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. The CCA gratefully acknowledges the generous support of la Ville de Montréal, le Ministère de la Culture et des Communications, the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Conseil des arts de Montréal.