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Don't Mention the Architecture: Kahn and Hollein Retrospectives

Two retrospecives of great architect-curators reach for wider appeal but stray towards misrepresentation. Who, then, is to curate these curators?

The Last Lonely Genius Great Architecture One-Man Show keeps on coming round, like the travelling circus to the village green, a curiosity that survives in spite of nightmare logistics and a market surfeited with alternative products. For the dutiful audience, the question is why the museum community still insists on keeping the monographic architecture exhibition on life support.

Hollein (now on the Ringstrasse) and Louis Kahn (by the Thames), tell us nothing much new about the architecture of two great architects, and nothing at all that a good book couldn’t do better. Oddly, it is the architecture of each architect here − if each for very different curatorial reasons − that is misrepresented even to the point of absence; that much odder, because both took their own strong positions as curators of architecture and of their own work.

The architecture of each architect here − if each for very different curatorial reasons − is misrepresented even to the point of absence

At the Design Museum, Louis Kahn’s architecture is jostled out of the exhibition spaces by monstrous didactic reproductions of his buildings. It is hard to imagine the curatorial process here − an architecture coaxed by Kahn, literally, out of the play of materials with scale and light, is instead rendered in uniform wood veneers, arbitrarily proportioned (to each other, and to the different conditions of the display), and then put inside perspex cases dimly lit from high overhead. The marketing department at Vitra talks with menace − at least, with no apparent irony − of reaching an audience unfamiliar with Kahn’s work; no doubt they argued (as marketing departments do) that this was the way to gather up buildings unevenly scattered across the world, and of making the architecture ‘present’ in the show. This is an important question, but not one best addressed with objects disingenuously made to resemble the lovely small study models from Kahn’s office, scattered through the same rooms.

In an awful way, the showmen are right − if there really is an interested public that doesn’t yet know the work, then these objects will become the image of it that endures for a generation. Something odd, besides, is happening to the exhibition as it progresses from venue to venue (Rotterdam, Weil am Rhein, Oslo, London …). Whether out of a concern for conservation, or from constraints of space, it is shrinking; original material, the drawings and maquettes (the only evidence we are offered of process), seem quietly to be slipping back to their homes in the US. As they go, the wretched reproductions loom ever larger in the exhibition spaces; eventually no doubt they will march on alone, patronising innocent audiences in ever more obscure parts of the world.

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The Kahn retrospective - shown here at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rein - attempts to recreate Kahn’s play of material and light with arbitrarily proportioned wood veneers

One problem with all this is that there is actually rather a good book attached to the exhibition. Given the travesty of the architecture itself, its thematic chapters are all there is to do the heavy-lifting at the Design Museum − humble footnotes obliged to perform in the Big Top. For sure, most of these are useful enquiries in their own right: there would be a lovely exhibition − particularly for a European audience − to be made out of Kahn’s coming-of-age during the American Academy trip of 1951, of the gorgeous line which he suddenly draws from the Plain of Giza to Trenton, NJ. Another (too donnish, perhaps) in the relationship with Edmund Bacon and the extended tragedy of Penn Center; another again, in the dynamic of Kahn’s collaborations with the structural engineers. But I am uneasy, as surely he would be, with the idea of abstracting the houses or the religious buildings each for their own typological studies.

The editors of the book, making another nod to Europe, and in a kind of gracious admission of defeat, have reprinted the wonderful early Kenneth Frampton essay that describes the impact of the work, as understood by the author as a late-flowering of the Beaux-Arts tradition. I don’t know how far this point should be taken, but there is tremendous value in witnessing any response to Kahn’s buildings that brings us a little closer to the moment when they were completed, or first published. By much the same token, it is hard to gather much from the short videos in which Peter Zumthor, Piano, Gehry et al tell us how close they feel to the spirit of the Master: as though Lou, Our Contemporary, is more important than understanding the revolutionary impact of his buildings on what it was possible for architects to do. More useful, surely, to have heard from Venturi and Doshi who were there at the time, as friends and colleagues. Or, indeed, from Hollein − the single figure to whom you have always to return to properly understand how radical architectural ideas were imported from the US during the 1960s.

The problem for the MAK is that Hans Hollein’s death this April invested an exercise, long planned as something of a collaborative enquiry, with all the uneasy expectation attached to the definitive statement on his work. It is hard to blame anyone for fumbling the awkward question of what should be said about his work as an architect, when we approach it as we would Kahn, say, as primarily a builder of buildings. If the curatorial issue with Kahn is the misrepresentation of the buildings in retrospect, for Hollein it is how a decision to include his built work − particularly later built work − might confuse the immense contribution he made as an architect before he built anything much.

It seems that the MAK curators planned to go one further with Hollein, avoiding any formal chronology and instead criss-crossing their way through the work under the useful cover of the disorder of the material available from the studio

The best solution to this conundrum − of uneven careers and uneasy institutional politics − was provided by the CCA three years ago in their treatment of James Stirling. Faced with a bid by Yale to appropriate Stirling for themselves (as, first and foremost, a Postmodernist), and with the two European exhibition venues each planned in buildings from late in his career, Anthony Vidler offered the hungry public a picaresque ‘first trawl’ through the riches of the archival material. It seems that the MAK curators planned to go one further with Hollein, avoiding any formal chronology and instead criss-crossing their way through the work under the useful cover of the disorder of the material available from the studio. Faced, no doubt, with the same tricky cocktail of politics and expectation − plus the urgent need for something big enough to fill the central hall − they stepped back from the abyss, and included specially commissioned photography of some of the buildings, as they appear now. The buildings are present, only too literally, at the heart of show but are also rather elegantly detached from its central arguments.

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Architecture in a pill, Hollein’s ‘Nonphysical Environment Comfort Kit’, transforming the mundane

What emerges most strongly from the curatorial argument is the seigneurial authority of Hollein’s voice as a curator of architecture, and one that spoke loudest at the time at which architecture was most in need of it or, more to the point, could only find expression in curatorial practice. The Hollein of the Austriennale in 1968, and of the Werke und Verhalten, Leben und Tod, at the 1972 Venice Biennale, shifted the ground, and not simply in Italy and Austria; it is work that is continuous with his three or four wonderful retail projects in New York and Vienna of the same period. As presented in the exhibition, it misses the cultural and artistic context of the 1960s; the exchange with Walter Pichler, the long shadow of Actionism, or of the direct links to Superstudio and Archizoom. Hollein was not less the Übermensch for being also a man of his times.

The MAK presentation is silent on Hollein’s last exhibition venture in 1996, as the first non-Italian curator of the Venice Biennale. His theme, Sensing the Future: The Architect as Seismographer, went down the wrong way with the critics − or was taken to mean something more like The Architect as Earthquake, and as a demonstration of the triumph of the architect auteur. In all fairness, Hollein’s own statements at the time had an elegiac regret, in an anxious search for some reconciliation with his own Alles ist Architektur manifesto: ‘the architect reacts as an instrument … only to eruptions that take place somewhere else, and are caused by others. I still see [the architect] … as an all-rounder, bringing together many different developments − technological, three dimensional and pictorial − and combining them in concrete shapes’.

It sounds as though the great curator is acknowledging a world in which his own early radical practices (and himself along with them) have merged fully into a mainstream he once despised, in which building and curating − as two things that an architect might legitimately have done in the name of architecture − have become instead the two elements of a reciprocal system, relentlessly inflecting each other as they try to upstage the competition. In the year of the Koolhaas Biennale, it may seem obvious enough that architects can no longer curate architecture in complete honesty, but still the question remains: who then is to curate these curators?

Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture

Where: Design Museum, London

When: Until 12 October

Hollein

Where: MAK Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art, Vienna

When: Until 5 October

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