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Japan Architects: Curating 60 Years of Architectural Production

Celebrating its 10-year anniversary, the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa presents two bold curatorial challenges

In 2004 the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa opened to the public. Today, it celebrates its 10-year anniversary by hosting two architectural exhibitions. One explores what they call ‘the new role of the architect’ in post-Fukushima Japan. The other depicts a ‘history of Japanese architecture from 1945 to 2010’.

Two ambitious curatorial challenges, two exhibition failures.Hosted in a building of great quality, the content of both exhibitions is of great interest, as much as the periods they cover are of major social, cultural and architectural impact. Which means that their weak point isn’t in their content but in the presentation format, the form. Indeed, it is only logical that the highly reinvigorating swamp of information we live in today reinstates the profession of curator (organiser of that information) as vital for the discipline. Yet, as you walk in, through and out of both exhibitions, you monotonously (and probably unconsciously) witness architecture’s major problem today: curatorship.

In defence of Kanazawa’s museum, it should be said that such failure isn’t an isolated symptom specific to these two exhibitions; in fact, it is symptomatic of a widespread disease affecting almost every recent architecture exhibition. Many have fallen into the worldwide exposure trap; one that forces curators to consider their exhibitions as simultaneously a question and its precise answer, apparently forgetting that no question has only one possible answer. Even more worrying, this category forgets that neither architects, nor curators should attempt to ‘rescue’ our discipline. Best exemplified in Koolhaas’s Venice Biennale, this dead-end formula Question + Answer = Salvation is a method that believes it is making a cultural product in the name of architecture, whereas it is actually digging its tomb (as Jean-Luc Godard so excellently described in a 1972 interview). It is not architecture that is in danger; it is architects. Architecture existed before architects, and will outdate them. It is therefore crucial, as museums invade every corner of our deserted, anonymous and booming cities, to remember what remains a relevant modus operandi for every artistic creation (in a Beuysian way): that the strength of art resides in its ability to go through exhibition, to continuously resist this exposure (no matter how questionable) and to ultimately impose itself in its own singularity and autonomous monstration. Put another way, we might ask for the minimum survival triptych:

Form / Rigour / Politic.
I, President, Curator, Architect, Politician, Teacher, Husband, Wife, Cook, Entrepreneur, etc:
I will Create (form),
I will Resist (rigour),
I will Reveal (politic).


The museum itself, which features in the exhibition, was conceived as a mini-city, drawing strength from the humble bluriness between the museum and highly urban ‘in-between’ spaces

We can certainly acknowledge that many architects exhibited in Japan Architects 1945-2010 did, or do, produce work of such a quality. It is the curator who fails to do so and forces architecture to fit between dates, to respond to events and to be (too) easily understandable, or ‘cataloguable’. A catalogue that is in fact much stronger, both in form and content, to support the curatorial concept, yet again proving that it is a format problem that burdens the exhibition. This works in a book, but it fails in a space. Physically, the exhibition is conceived as a set of periods, each given a precise space and a colour:

1. Black: Persistent Demolition.
2. Grey: Vision of Cities and National Land.
3. Light Grey: New Japanese Architecture.
4. Red: Metabolism, Expo and New Vision.
5. Non-Colour: Architecture of Disappearance.
6. White: From Reduction to a Narrative.

Curatorial racism at its best! Of course you might agree with such classification, and would be correct to do so. These so-called periods and moments are indeed facts, but certainly not exhaustive truths. As Douglas Adams rightly puts it, we have a tendency to use all incoming data to update models that are intrinsically faulty. To summarise 60 years of architectural production to six sections is such a faulty (and reactionary) model. A brief and simplified look back shows us how other disciplines have long overcome that naive need for historical cleanness. Be it art history and Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas (1925), philosophy and Michel Serres’s Parasite (1980) or political history and Mark Mazower’s The Dark Continent (2004), they all embrace the idea that for any dialogue to succeed there is a unconditional need for a third member, and that two-party dialogue only serves those who take part in it. Therefore, how astonishing it is that in 2014 you can still speak of architecture with dates, periods or even colours.

The 21st Century Museum building itself is shown in the exhibition, in Section 6. Yet this building, conceived as a mini-city, shows us perfectly why we can’t ever answer simply either yes or no to the question of affiliations. The museum is organised as a large programme-less circular ground floor in which boxes (or mini-buildings) are floating, creating highly urban and public in-between spaces. Of course the strength of the building is in its humble blurriness, in that ‘non-space’ that is far from ‘white narrative’, yet embedded in a possible Japanese architectural milieu. The building does exactly what architecture is great at, and what is sadly being vacuumed out with the exhibition: to rigorously create a form that reveals the intrinsic conditions and connections of a present and local context. Furthermore, both architecture and its curation should teach us how to reject our too common stiff logic and crude concepts in order, as Michel Serres might say, to understand our legacies with refined fingers rather than boxing gloves.

Japan Architects 1945-2010

Where: 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, Japan

When: Until 10 May 2015

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