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Building a better world

In a departure from the institution’s staid past, MoMA stages a show examining the politics motivating architects and their buildings

Founded in 1932, MoMA’s department of architecture was the first in the world. In its early years, under Philip Johnson, it distinguished itself by a paradoxical combination of conservatism and incomprehensible radicalism: the department was committed to presenting Modernism − or the International Style as they dubbed it − to a bemused popular audience, but the notoriously right-wing Johnson stripped these buildings of any explanatory social or political context. Subsequent decades were not a huge improvement, and in 1965, Ada Louise Huxtable accused the museum of having ‘espoused the role of historian rather than of groundbreaker’.

But with the current exhibition, 9+1 Ways of Being Political: 50 Years of Political Stances in Architecture and Urban Design, curator Pedro Gadanho begins to pull MoMA out of this entrenchment. It is not groundbreaking, but rather than be constrained by the archive, MoMA’s historical vantage point gives new meaning and context to architecture’s political activism. With more than 100 pieces organised thematically as 10 examples of political architecture, 9+1 bursts open with the image of an exploding tower block by graphic designer Gunter Rambow from 1961.

Jason Crum, Project for a Painted Wall, NYC (1969). Under the direction of Barry Bergdoll, MoMA’s architectural department has taken a critical turn − a reaction in part to its own history of affirmatory (and downright reactionary) politics under Phili

Jason Crum, Project for a Painted Wall, NYC (1969). Under the direction of Barry Bergdoll, MoMA’s architectural department has taken a critical turn − a reaction in part to its own history of affirmatory (and downright reactionary) politics under Philip Johnson

Its resonance with the work of Gordon Matta-Clark, Archizoom and Laurids Ortner, among others, speaks to the social equality that Modernism failed to deliver and that consequently had to be re-imagined through alternative approaches to living, such as Archigram’s Plug-in City, 1965. From here, the stage is set for the radical theories and spatial reorganisation of Lebbeus Woods, Morphosis and Bernard Tschumi. Reading the poetic, riotous text accompanying Koolhaas, the Zenghelises and Vriesendorp’s Exodus, or The Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture (1972), it is hard not to feel that there existed a clearer political bent to these architects’ musings, compared with today.

Contemporary political building, however, has been defined by civic architecture and buildings dictated by economics. It is precisely this condition that Gadanho is trying to move away from in 9+1. Instead of Private Finance Initiatives and successful design-builds, the show highlights the ideas, dialogues, projects and plans by architects, artists and graphic designers that illustrate how architecture can express political viewpoints and attitudes, much like literature.

Yet, as the echo of one giant footstep precedes the next, and one arrives at Ai Wei Wei’s criticism of his native China, this nostalgic pang for architectural criticism to look so wild and free subsides to uncover a social commentary that befits our time. The use of technology and the merging of disciplines to create a new cultural practice are made visible, as in Picture a City, 2009, a video by Squint Opera to promote Bradford City Centre masterplan by Will Alsop. It becomes increasingly clear that architects today are indeed engaged in political dissent and debate.The fact that the works are picked from MoMA’s own collection speaks to the idea of the museum as a medium for criticism, a notion explored in a recent conference hosted by D-Crit in New York and attended by Gadanho, titled Is Curating The New Criticism?

As the meaning of curation expands to include websites and protests, our idea of spatial organisation has also shifted. ‘During the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, there was a concern from architects about their role,’ says Gadanho, ‘and I saw there was no platform for them.’ 9+1 seeks to present a critical outlook on current political, public and architectural swells through the lens of history.

In the final gallery, a cell-like room forms a cul-de-sac with two films, including Reynold Reynolds and Patrick Jolley’s Burn (2002) projected on the far wall. The startlingly unfazed actors sitting and walking among flames licking at their feet and across the ceiling is an abrupt finish. The shock effect is intentional and represents the exhibition title’s ‘+1’; leaving an open end to the problem of how architecture can be political, and how museums, even institutions, can help answer that question.

9+1 Ways of Being Political: 50 Years of Political Stances in Architecture and Urban Design

Venue: MoMA, New York
Dates: until 25 March 2013

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