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When did radicalism become merely chic?

Wither the mess of intense engagement? A conference at Yale on the curation of architecture lacked the courage to wrestle with the paradoxes at the heart of the profession

The first hours of any academic conference have me wondering what this is all about, and why I came. Sometimes the pieces drop into place the next day − even if the jigsaw isn’t anything like what was shown on the box, and with a parallel realisation that the ‘questions’ weren’t really the right ones. With a bit of luck the accumulating answers lead us into dangerous water. No doubt this is how knowledge is created, but it is a process that always makes me a little queasy.

Exhibiting Architecture: a Paradox? − organised and splendidly hosted by the Yale School of Architecture − was held in early October. The School is one of the few institutions in the architectural world that has the credibility and resources to directly address any important topical issue in the field. It seemed to me, in this context, that the topical question might be why there are so many places just now in which architecture seems merely to be exhibiting itself; the important one is why this self-display is often so mindlessly bad. That the event also coincided with the departure of Barry Bergdoll from MoMA − where he has presided over a run of impeccably presented exhibitions − and with the circulation of Rem Koolhaas’s radical brief for the Biennale in Venice next year, seemed to offer just the immediate intellectual frame that any such enquiry would need. The organisers at Yale decided instead on the indirect approach − perhaps they were hoping to keep the proceedings within reach of the shore.

Look back for anger

No protest here: Philippe Rahm’s naked display at the Venice Biennale, 2008

On that first evening, Philippe Rahm, master-practitioner of immersive architectural environments, presented a catalogue of his projects. His gorgeous critique of our use of heat and light in interior spaces seems to require the comforting armature of an exhibition programme; actual inhabitation is something else altogether.

The built work which emerges from the white cube is strangely awkward. We were shown an apartment which offered a remake of the Merzbau for an eco-warrior; and in Taiwan a series of open-air cooling structures in a public park, which combined high-minded gesture with bland literalness − Disneyworld for the eco-warrior.

Rahm and the practitioners who presented the following morning − mostly young Yale faculty working in New York − seem to inhabit a hermetic world, not unlike the artificial environments which they design. The architects as they described their work, failed to convince on the question of what they stood for, or why − betraying instead the familiar studied restraint, and the very familiar confusion between ‘curatorship’ and ‘practice’, of the artist-curator. My (unasked) question was why not, if you talk the talk (and you dress that way), just call yourself an artist and attach the work to a better developed market economy? Instead, Rahm, like Lear turning on his offspring, wondered if the curator wasn’t someone who hadn’t quite the courage to become a politician. The hipsters did squirm at the idea that calling a gallery installation ‘architectural’ was any way to change the world − or even to answer the conference question.

The formal research papers began with an elegiac analysis by Mari Lending of the great wave of architectural plaster casts which, by the end of the 19th century, had drowned historicism in its own debris. Fragments of fragments, as she expresses it, impossible to put (back) together as a coherent history of anything, let alone of architectural form. This made for an appropriate overture to the papers that followed, focused on picking through the rubble of heroic Modernism, starting with This is Tomorrow at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1956, and ending with the Paper Architecture movement in Riga, Leningrad and Moscow during the 1980s.

When did radicalism become merely chic_a

When did radicalism become merely chic_a

When did radicalism become merely chic_b

When did radicalism become merely chic_b

To be able to speak authoritatively about historical events there seems to be an unwritten rule of academe that it is proper not to have been around (even better, not to have been born) while they were all going on. At Yale, we waited in vain for a heckled intervention by some wild creature who had really been there, then. For sure, as expressed in the measured scholarly tones of younger academics, there was a whiff of antiseptic nostalgia in their tales of far away and long ago. Mostly, the listener had to provide all historical context; when some was offered, the emphasis was on architects and a profession anxiously repositioning themselves in relation to the prevailing political establishment. Probably this is what must happen to the memory of any charged political event, as recollected by their actors in the tranquillity of architecture school professorships. The pale ghost of Giancarlo De Carlo, from the back of the Paul Rudolph Hall, might instead have explained to us that in those years − beyond the reality of there being little work and far too many architects − the assault on the traditional territory of the profession in fact came from the New Left, over a very broad front: from C Wright Mills, Deleuze, the Vienna Actionists, Land Art, the Red Brigades, even from Jane Jacobs. But not, certainly, from Mitterrand or Jimmy Carter.

So if the story you want to tell is about architectural exhibitions as a form of activism or as a valid architectural practice in themselves, maybe it is important to have got this balance right.

By this account there are rather fewer heroes, and they are the ones who seemed then to be refusing to fight in defence of their profession. Theo Crosby, with his ‘Pessimist Utopia’ of the Hayward Gallery show in 1973 and the flirtation with Prince Charles; EAT in Osaka, or Boyarsky’s AA as a kind of catacomb religion; above all, De Carlo himself opening the door to the student protesters so that they could trash the XIV Triennale, and in particular his own huge photographic parody of the events in the street outside.

In his keynote address, Bergdoll had reminded us that ever since de Wailly’s pop-up booth at the Salon, exhibitions have been understood as in the mainstream of what architects do as architects − sometimes as a research tool, sometimes as a statement of a polemic position, always as a way of touting work and reputation. The lecture condensed the work that Bergdoll has been doing for the Slade Professorship and the Mellon Lectures; it is perhaps a pity that he had not the time to deal fully with Wright’s Broadacre City model, or The Show to End all Shows − still the most assured and effective statements of their kind by any architect. To have done so would have provided the exact preamble to the conference’s examination of the postwar exhibition, and softened the pervading impression that such events were rather messy failures that came from nowhere.

And, apparently, that had nowhere to go. A touch more courage here from the conference organisers, and we might have come closer to understanding the strangest paradox of the last 30 years: that, even as architecture as spectacle − sur place, or in the museum − gets more and more attention from the public, the voice of the architect in ideological debate has shrunk almost to a whisper.

To put this another way, it is quite right to understand the XIV Triennale as a painful and untidy performance. Mess will always be the condition of intense engagement, and it is the mess that makes those events in Milan 50-odd years ago a fine subject for scholars now. And its absence is just the reason that any thoughtful exhibition at MoMA − on the repossession crisis or rising sea levels − will struggle to escape the suggestion of being an uneasy exercise in topical chic. What chance of finding angry crowds picketing the doors on 53rd Street? Or, next summer, closing the vaporetto stop at the Giardini?

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