You Are Here: Architecture and Experience at the Heinz Architectural Center

The Heinz Architectural Center at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh presents the powerful work of two contemporary artists – Candida Höfer and Cyprien Gaillard – who explore architectural environments and how they influence experiences and perceptions of the world.

“We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” With that simple but profound insight, Winston Churchill conveyed people’s complex relationship to architecture: the physical form of a building is controlled by its designer, but the impact a constructed environment has can be unpredictable, emotional, and even visceral. That dynamic is evident in the upcoming exhibition You Are Here: Architecture and Experience, which brings together the photographs of German artist Candida Höfer and a video and etchings by French artist Cyprien Gaillard. Both artists express the formative power of architecture in different but complementary ways, according to Tracy Myers, curator of architecture at the Heinz Architectural Center and organizer of the exhibition.

Candida Höfer’s lush colour photographs of ornate historical and contemporary interior spaces are usually devoid of humans, yet they reveal details that draw the viewer into a consideration of what each place means. Höfer’s photographs usually focus on spaces of cultural and social activity. Printed very large (from about 4 x 4 feet to a massive 6 x 8 feet), the 17 photographs in You Are Here represent the range of Höfer’s work in terms of scale, point of view, building type, and geographical location.

By contrast, Cyprien Gaillard’s video Desniansky Raion and his meticulously detailed etchings probe the human legacy of Modernist high-rise housing blocks. Constructed after World War II throughout the United States, Europe, and the Eastern Bloc to provide decent housing, these buildings often became warehouses for the poor, and incubators of crime and antisocial behaviours.

Named for an administrative district in Kiev, Desniansky Raion poignantly reflects on the gap between the utopian Modernist aspiration for universal housing and the banal reality that instead prevailed. It comprises three parts. In the first section, weekend fight clubs of 50 or 100 people face off against each other in a pugilistic ritual set against the backdrop of housing towers in St. Petersburg, Russia. The second part shows the implosion of a similar tower in Meaux, a small city near Paris; the demolition of the building was treated by the city government as a literal spectacle, with a light show and fireworks preceding the destruction. The final third is a very long panning aerial shot of seemingly endless ranks of virtually identical housing blocks in Kiev, Ukraine. The video is accompanied by a soundtrack composed by Koudlam, a young musician born in the Ivory Coast. Also featured are six etchings by Gaillard, collectively titled Belief in the Age of Disbelief, in which the Modernist housing tower is placed in classic picturesque landscapes.

“Gaillard’s video packs a powerful and direct emotional punch: each time I view it, I experience physically the anticipation that ebbs and flows through the course of the work,” said Myers. “By contrast, Höfer’s photographs embody a kind of quietude that encourages slow, sustained exploration of the meaning that builds through accumulation of detail. But both works are equally affecting and bring the viewer with compelling intensity into the realm of architectural experience. Höfer and Gaillard capture the constant oscillation between what we make of our buildings, and what they make of us.”

Candida Höfer has been creating photographs for more than 30 years. Born in 1944 in Eberswalde, Germany, she studied with Berndt Becher and is identified with a group of German artists – Thomas Ruff, Andreas Gursky, Axel Hütte, and Thomas Struth – best known for their unsentimental photographs of architecture, landscapes, and urban developments. Höfer has made interiors her focus.

Cyprien Gaillard, born in Paris in 1980 and currently based in Berlin, explores contemporary landscapes and buildings in a variety of media, including video, painting, and etchings. Much of his work is concerned with the legacy and inheritance of buildings and landscapes that are left to us, and the ways in which we interact with them.

The exhibition runs from March 5 to May 29, 2011. The opening reception features a free artist’s lecture by Cyprien Gaillard from 6:30pm to 7:30pm on Friday, March 4, 2011 in the CMA Theater. In it, curator Tracy Myers converses with Gaillard about his creative processes and his exploration of actions upon the built and natural landscape inherited from previous generations. A reception with cash bar follows, and the galleries are open until 9:00pm.

And on Thursday, April 21, from 5:30pm to 9:00pm, Culture Club: Experiencing Architecture through Film and Photography takes place in the exhibition galleries. Happy hour has never been so interesting. Start with a drink at 5:30pm, and then join in a salon-style conversation in the galleries. Tracy Myers, curator of architecture and organizer of You Are Here: Architecture and Experience, leads the discussion. A $10 fee includes museum admission, gallery discussion, and two drink tickets.

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