Exhibition Review: The Other Architect
TEXT Tanya Southcott
PHOTOS CCA Montreal unless otherwise noted
The Other Architect, the current exhibition at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), points to a truth long upheld by the profession—that architectural practice involves much more than the realization of buildings. The artifacts displayed instead invite us to contemplate the work of architects in producing ideas. This other side of architecture, the exhibition argues, plays a central role in setting contemporary cultural agendas.
The exhibition is organized around 23 case studies—works by international and multidisciplinary groups dating from the 1960s to the present that challenge the methods, tools and organization of traditional design practice. The diverse material presented across the CCA’s main galleries shares a commitment to architectural research as a project in its own right.
At every stage, the exhibition challenges the idea that buildings are the ultimate architectural object. This is most notable at the entry, where an oversized presentation model by Office for Metropolitan Architecture literally blocks direct access. Too large for this foyer, the model squeezes visitors to the periphery, a bodily experience that reminds us how difficult seeing beyond the architect as builder of buildings can be. Entering The Other Architect reveals architecture through its alternative tools
of communication. Some are mundane—like e-mail correspondence and project-staffing diagrams. Others are extraordinary—like paper hats folded in the shape of buildings and notebooks filled with hand-drawn sketches of threatened structures. Many are not unfamiliar to architects but are often disregarded when describing their work to the public.
Each of the case studies is represented by an oversized wall graphic designed by COCCU of Munich, and accompanied by a collection of artifacts displayed on a series of large tables. MOS Architects of New York designed the elegant tables, each made of a glass top supported by three black sawhorses. This furniture bears the brunt of presenting over 700 objects, from letters, books, drawings and photographs to manifestos, surveys, meeting minutes and diagrams. Their clean detailing makes the artifact-heavy space feel light and airy.
As a key motif of the exhibition, the tables echo the typical environment of the architectural workspace, be it the studio, the office, or a hybrid of the two. The hybrid approach is evident in an oversized photograph of the Urban Innovations Group, an off-campus design and research laboratory that brought together students and professors in Los Angeles to work on real commissions such as the public space and fountain of the Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans, Louisiana. The tables also suggest a space for gathering to engage in conversation and to share ideas. This is appropriate to the CCA’s intention—not to present a chronology of alternative practices, but to create a space where alternate ideas are given equal weight.
Canadians will recognize the work of Montreal-born artist and architect Melvin Charney in the descriptions of Corridart, a large-scale outdoor exhibition staged and controversially dismantled as part of the 1976 Summer Olympics’ cultural program. Incorporating the work of local artists, Charney’s proposal used the street as a public space to address economic and social problems aggravated by urban development. Beyond its presentation as an outdoor museum, Corridart became
a much-needed platform for public debate over the evolution of the city.
According to curator Giovanna Borasi, the exhibition recognizes a shift occurring internationally in the contemporary architectural scene, as it moves away from individual authorship towards a more collective idea of practice. 2015 Turner Prize recipients Assemble, a London-based collaborative, is a prime example, with their work challenging divisions between art, architecture and design. Assemble and such groups as SITU and Rotor have been invited to participate in a lecture series
accompanying the exhibition, bringing contemporary voices to the ongoing research project that the exhibition hopes to spur.
Beyond the gallery walls, The Other Architect also takes form as a sourcebook edited by Borasi and designed by Jonathan Hares, as well as a series of weekly tours focused on exploring individual cases in more depth. Borasi plans to invite a panel of experts to criticize the show by suggesting groups overlooked by the current selection.
After several months on display, the exhibition is not without its challenges. Acronyms abound and wayfinding has proven difficult; visitors are often confused or overwhelmed by the amount of material and lack of guidance on how to approach it. Heavy-handed descriptions compounded by the CCA’s scholarly approach—which typically demands much work of its audience—make The Other Architect anything but a passive experience.
Soldiering through these challenges, however, has its rewards: this is a high-level conversation about the idea of architecture, one in which the non-architect, too, plays a significant role. Without privileging buildings, the exhibition makes clear that the buildings we do build are better for such investigations, especially when they provoke intimate exchanges across the perceived boundaries of the profession.
Despite its shortcomings, The Other Architect remains optimistic. It celebrates hopeful beginnings; each case study is marked by its manifesto or foundational moment. Although the majority are historic examples, some, like Brussels’ Atelier de recherche et d’action urbaines, a non-profit group that organizes walking tours critiquing urban development projects from the vantage point of local residents, remain active today. Above all, the exhibition celebrates the capacity of the architectural imagination to reveal possibilities outside of the profession where none existed before. Simply put, The Other Architect poses architecture as the question—rather than the answer—and a rich, fruitful inquiry at that.
The Other Architect is on display at the Canadian Centre for Architecture until April 10, 2016.
Tanya Southcott is a Montreal-based writer and Ph.D. student at McGill University’s School of Architecture.