by Ruth LangAug 11, 2023
Seeing how the discourse around architectural practice has shifted in the past couple of years, it seems that in many ways that we are on the cusp of a sea change in architectural hegemony, finally giving a platform to the long-overlooked demographics of the profession from people of colour, women, and offering greater socioeconomic inclusivity. This was the driving force behind Lesley Lokko's curation of the Venice Biennale, but also underpins exhibitions such as the V&A/RIBA exhibition Surfacing Stories, revealing hidden authorships and a broader appreciation of the diversity which has long underpinned architectural production.
Yet despite this, there is still a wealth of exhibitions which seem to perpetuate the previous figureheads of practice. At the time of writing, London's Royal Academy is exhibiting the work of Herzog and de Meuron, and Richard Saltoun gallery has an installation of Peter Cook's and three dimensional installations, and Paris' Centre Pompidou recently hosted a retrospective on Norman Foster. Is this a signal that, despite all the shifts towards social and racial equity being undertaken in the profession, we are likely to revert to the 'business as usual' model in time? Or is something else going on?
To understand this further, it’s necessary to consider why galleries host such exhibitions in the first place.
There is, of course, an inherent time lag for changes to take place in architecture. The years-long duration of projects, from conception to realisation, means that there’s often little relationship between contemporary debates and the kinds of work which can be called upon to illustrate these. So, although concerted diversity strategies in commissioning processes may have shifted power to previously unknown practices and collaborative partnerships, boosting the numbers of projects by underrepresented demographics, which are soon to come to fruition, the products of these processes are as yet unable to be celebrated in the same manner as the enormous wealth of schemes produced under previous conditions.
When putting forward any exhibition, the host institution is risking much in terms of both finance and reputation, which—especially in an economically precarious sector—is sought to be minimised wherever possible. The draw of a big name is often thought necessary to bring in the number of visitors to make an exhibition financially viable, whilst their pre-existing fame demonstrates a ready audience for receiving their work. Focusing on recognisable figureheads and platforming known projects is often viewed as a ‘safe’ approach for a gallery, even if this goes against the growing acknowledgment of the multitude of contributions that shape and refine architectural projects. Hosting a show on a single practice also provides a simpler approach to sourcing display materials, as calling upon the practice’s archives helps minimise the complexity of loan agreements and transportation which more dispersed materials would entail. It can also be seen as a form of PR by the practice, who as a result are able to attribute funding for the exhibition’s development and dissemination.
It’s interesting therefore that the Centre Pompidou in ">Paris chose to market their ‘futurespective’ under the title of 'Norman Foster' rather than 'Foster + Partners', a concerted move which seems to frame the exhibition as a form of a legacy building of Foster’s individual ‘genius'. Apparently part-funded by the practice, the exhibition presents a comprehensive exploration of Foster’s work from university training to future projects, clustered thematically by building type, and framed in a manner that emphasises how Foster’s personal experience and inspiration has informed its development—alongside a wallpaper of names of every employee who ever worked at the practice. The rationale behind this may well stem from a misperception, as curator George Kafka of the Design Museum commented, that architecture is all too often thought of by the visiting public in terms of iconic buildings and singular authorships, offering what seems a clear narrative which galleries feel poorly placed to disassemble. This can lead to the perpetuation of scale models and drawings of buildings dominating architectural exhibitions, tools of the trade that call upon languages of communication that are specific to the architectural profession and can sometimes feel alienating as a result despite their familiarity. Yet this perception of an audience unable to grasp the greater complexity of such projects is being valiantly confronted by exhibitions such as the one Kafka has curated with Esme Hawes, demonstrating not only the architects whose work goes into How To Build A Low Carbon Home, but the workmanship, consultation, and research which forms an integral part of the development and realisation of such projects.
Herzog and de Meuron also seeks to challenge this singular authorial stance since, despite the self-titled nature of the exhibition which has offered an effective shorthand for the Royal Academy in publicising the exhibition, the curatorial strategy has been to foreground the public’s experience of the work—both through the ways they interact with the archive, using AR technology to offer new perspectives on different phases of more familiar schemes, and in the films which celebrate their users lives within which the architecture is situated as a backdrop. For the practice, the exhibition was instigated as a way of making use of their extensive archives, which have been compiled and catalogued since their formation. But the real draw here is the inventive way that the gallery’s audience is able to interact with the work, generating new possibilities for gaining deeper insights into the product and practice of architecture, and opening up to broader audiences as a result.
It’s a similar ethos adopted by Peter Cook in instigating an exhibition at the Richard Saltoun gallery, but one which has distinct differences. Cook’s back catalogue of drawings and collages from his Archigram era are complemented by new works—including three-dimensional installations, and a VR film. Considering these new works in the realm of architectural practice, it at first appears incongruous that these don’t speak more to the contemporary condition, and continue a trajectory that explores environmental issues and questions of how we might build cities. Instead, we experience a continuity of media, of exquisite pen drawings and collages which are symptomatic of both seeing and representing the world in a particular manner as he has in the 1970s. What was once a provocation for a bright new future, now seems inhibited within a purely aesthetic response. Unlike the interactive AR experiences created by Herzog and de Meuron’s team, here the VR film offers a god-like perspective of one of his projects translated into the digital realm. Given the contemporary appreciation of architecture which has moved on from the rarefied, deified approach of yesteryear, such an approach only really makes sense when you realise this is not intended to be considered as architecture, but art. The driver behind the exhibition is a reframing, speaking to different audiences, and with different demands.
Evidently, changes are happening in how we experience these exhibitions, even if the figureheads remain the same. Yet there is hope that in challenging the methods and media of contemporary curation, new voices, and messages can be brought to the fore, enabling galleries to enter the debate about how we might establish a more equitable future for the profession.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of STIR or its Editors.)