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Curatorial Practices: a call for architectural critical action

Rute Figueiredo
p. 67-81
Traduction(s) :
Pratiques curatoriales : un appel à l’action critique en architecture
L’Usage des ambiances : une épreuve sensible des situations
L’Usage des ambiances : une épreuve sensible des situations

Paris : Hermann, 2021, 495p. ill. en coul. 23 x 15cm, (Colloque de Cerisy)

ISBN : 9791037006233. _ 28,00 €

Sous la dir. de Didier Tallagrand, Jean-Paul Thibaud, Nicolas Tixier

Empavillonner
Empavillonner

Lille : Athom, 2021, 254p. ill. en noir et en coul. 18 x 11cm, (Focus)

ISBN : 9782957385508. _ 20,00 €

Sous la dir. de David Bihanic, Bernard Gabillon, Olivier Koettlitz, Jocelyn Le Creurer, Aurélien Maillard

Architecture on Display: On the History of the Venice Biennale of Architecture
Architecture on Display: On the History of the Venice Biennale of Architecture

London : Architectural Association, 2010, 206p. 18 x 11cm, eng

ISBN : 9781902902968

Sous la dir. d’Aaron Levy, William Menking. Préf. de Brett Steele

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Texte intégral

1A sort of call…

2“We have often said that the exhibition strives to be an instrument of knowledge and dialogue for insiders of the world of architecture.” Nonetheless, “an exhibition is also a ‘call’ to the public. […] An exhibition asks its visitors to be willing to broaden their gaze; it asks its curator to become both scientist and dramaturge.” In this statement, published online as part of the ongoing seventeenth architecture exhibition at the Venice Biennale, entitled How Will We Live Together? (22 May-21 November 2021), Paolo Baratta – the outgoing President of La Biennale di Venezia1 –, reiterated his position on the role architecture might play at the most visible of large-scale exhibitions, and what value such exhibitions could offer contemporary society. Ten years prior, Baratta queried whether an exhibition is an “instrument of knowledge or documentation”, or “an emotional experience”.2 Now, at a time of climate emergency, political polarization and a lasting state of urgency, there must be “a sort of call to arms for Architecture” at the Venice Biennale, he argues, that would formulate concrete solutions and alternative approaches to the systemic problems our cities, habitats and environment are facing today.3

3The curator’s “scrutinizing eye”

  • 4 Paolo Baratta’s introduction, People Meet in Architecture (12th International Architecture Exhibiti (...)
  • 5 People Meet in Architecture (29 August-21 November 2010), 12th international exhibition of architec (...)
  • 6 Levy, Aaron. Menking, William. “Kazuo Sejima”, Architecture on Display: On the History of the Venic (...)
  • 7 This reflection on Kazuyo Sejima’s contribution was previously drafted in my study Exhibiting Disci (...)

4Ten years before, Baratta explained that the choice of the Japanese architect Kazuyo Sejima as curator of the twelfth edition at the Venice Biennale (2010) and, particularly the “serene faith in architecture4” she established as an axial direction in People meet in Architecture,5 was indeed the first attempt to start a new approach to the Biennale’s discursive orientation. “I am an architect”6 –Sejima claimed. In reminding us of this undeniable evidence, she recalled the focus on the phenomenological experience of space as the elementary definition of the architecture exhibition.7 The distance between Sejima’s curatorial idea of “meeting” in 2010, and Hashim Sarkis’s current dramatic vision of “coexistence” as a question mark How Will We Live Together?–, emphasises how important it is to revisit Aaron Levy and William Menking’s book of interviews Architecture on Display: On the History of the Venice Biennale of Architecture, published by the Architectural Association in 2010.

  • 8 Available on http://architectureondisplay.org
  • 9 The second volume is based on a recorded archive of open-ended conversations with a relevant group (...)
  • 10 Levy, Aaron. « Introduction », Architecture on Display, op. cit., p. 12
  • 11 Steele, Brett, “Preface”, ibid., p. 7

5This volume assembles a series of conversations with all the then-living curators of the past editions of the Venice Biennale’s architecture department, from Vittorio Gregotti to Kazuyo Sejima, recorded between 2009 and 2010 in the scope of a research program bearing the same title, coordinated by Levy and Menking at the Slought Foundation.8 The book was published when the Venice Biennale inaugurated the cycle of discussions and meetings “Architecture Saturdays”, which was dedicated to all the former curators and which was extended, two years later, by Four Conversations on the Architecture of Discourse9 which clearly expressed the need to recall the active voices of curators in order to trace back the history of the architectural field. Moreover, this volume must be included in a wider tendency, first arising from art history and global studies focusing on the Biennale culture – which mainly manifested itself from 2010 onwards, through the rising number of debates and conferences on the topic. Strongly framed by the oral history format, the volume provides a significant documental contribution, which will stimulate further developments in the field. As stated, it does not present the architectural exhibitions whose importance and narratives have recently been the subjects of scientific research. Instead, it places the curators in context, trying to reconstruct the configuration of “the forgotten history of cultural experimentation”10 that has taken place every two years since 1980, “as the rolling index of curatorial instincts”,11 in Brett Steele’s words.

  • 12 Levy, Aaron. Menking, William. “Paolo Baratta”, ibid., p. 183
  • 13 I borrow an expression used by Baratta. Please see: https://www.labiennale.org/en/architecture/2020 (...)
  • 14 Levy, Aaron. Menking, William. “Kurt W Forster”, Architecture on Display, op. cit., p. 115

6Beyond the ritualization of the events, the Biennale became an impactful place whereby architecture acquired unprecedented visibility in a new global civil sphere. At the Giardini pavilions and along the 300-meters Arsenal – the “most impossible space” in which the “curator’s capacity is tested”12, contrasting installations react to the central topic each new curator introduces with his or her “scrutinizing eye”.13 Indeed, coming from very distinctive geopolitical locations, cultural angles, disciplinary beliefs, and temporalities, each new curator brings into focus individual perceptions and curatorial practices that are taken up as acts of inquiry, experimentation, and critical exercise. Despite the variety of viewpoints and strategies of display – ranging from real-scale original works (Paolo Portoghesi), to the typical model and drawing-based exhibition format (Deyan Sudjic), the exploration of digital approaches and disturbing images as critical tools (Massimiliano Fuksas), following “the metabolism of ideas”14 (Kurt W. Forster); taking the exhibition as a form of research (Richard Burdett); and subverting disciplinary codes into a provocative spectacle (Aaron Betsky) –; they all express the same conviction that the Biennale holds a unique position in the field of architecture– it inaugurated an idiosyncratic experience of knowledge that understands the relationship between experimentation, representation, and reflection as a key mechanism in order to construct new meanings and values in architecture.

7Two recent books, which are also reviewed here, further enhance the reflection on such a mechanism – experimentation/representation/reflection–, from very distinct (yet interconnected) points of view: Empavillonner, a compilation of essays co-edited by David Bihanic, Bernard Gabillon, Oliver Koettlitz, Jocelyn Le Creurer and Aurélien Maillard; and L’Usage des ambiances : une épreuve sensible des situations, co-edited by Didier Tallagrand, Jean-Paul Thibaud and Nicolas Tixier, in the sequence of a “séminaire-experimentation” held in Cerisy, in 2018. While Empavillonner offers a series of stories and concrete cases of global dominant exhibition pavilions, scrutinizing their double nature as both mise en scène and laboratorial space of scientific and creative experimentation; in L’Usage des ambiances, the incursion into “ambiance” and “atmosphere” as sensitive experiences, is inspired by cross-readings between artistic practices and the social sciences, comprising experience as their main methodological strategy. Both volumes are collective multidisciplinary works published in 2021, thus strongly motivated by present-day urban, ecological, and social concerns, as well as by important debates taking place today in the fields of cultural studies, social sciences, philosophy of science, and architectural studies that have been questioning past and dominant modes of knowledge construction and critical inquiry.

8Between laboratory and mise en scène

9Over the last few years, curatorial practices and spaces have been identified as flexible and efficient mechanisms to introduce new orders of thought into the field of architecture. For this reason, the study of architecture exhibitions has acquired new contours that go far beyond mere historical accounts or the neutral presentation of documents. What value can pavilion exhibitions and installations at global dominant events (such as the Biennale or the past Universal Exhibitions) add to disciplinary debate and social concerns? Why do these ephemeral structures remain as part of our collective memory? What might their contribution in the reinvention of urban, social, and ecological ambiences be?

  • 15 Empavillonner, Lille: Athom, 2021, (Focus). Edited by David Bihanic, Bernard Gabillon, Olivier Koet (...)
  • 16 Osterhammel, Jürgen. The Transformation of the World, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Pr (...)

10In Empavillonner these (and many other) inspiring questions are raised throughout twenty broad-ranging essays organized into three sections – History, Theory, and Fabula. Architecture is the reference point from which architects, artists, historians, philosophers, and designers scrutinize the origins, significance, and potentialities of the models and projects of the exhibition pavilion. In the preface, the co-editors remind us what this ephemeral architecture often introduces: “the ways and precepts of a resolutely new architecture which, contesting or sometimes refusing what is going on, foreshadows and marks what the epoch to come would be made of”15. The volume evokes a set of architecture landmarks – running from Sir Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, the remarkable glass and iron hall that celebrated economic and technological world progress at the first Universal Exhibition (London, 1851); to Robert Mallet-Stevens’ modernist formalizations and Richard Buckminster Fuller’s ecological and political criticism in Biosphere (Montreal, Expo 67); all the way up to recent critical manifests at the Venice Biennale, such as the fluctuant French Pavilion for the seventh edition in 2000 –; in order to embrace relevant topics relating to the performative force of these ephemeral structures “to put the contemporary world on display”.16

  • 17 Conceived by the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, together with the Greek architect and artist (...)
  • 18 Litzler, Pierre. Empavillonner, op. cit., p. 88
  • 19 Ibid., p. 92
  • 20 Rahm, Philippe. Ibid., p. 352
  • 21 Ibid., p. 354
  • 22 Ibid. p. 345

11As extremely visible mediums, their mise en scène abilities also made them powerful tools of social and political representation, as well as ways of empavillonner sensitive ambiences and laboratorial atmospheres only made possible in such specific contexts. A relevant example is given by the “poly-sensory space” of the Philips Pavilion (Brussels, Expo 58) which explored visual images and sounds inside one contained architectural form.17 “This pictorial architecture”, Pierre Litzler notes in his chapter, “did not aim to inform the public but to immerse them into ‘atmospheres’ capable of provoking emotions linked to Nature and creation”18. The pavilion constituted an “iconic” as well as an “immersive” experience of the synchrony of art and sciences, in which architecture was the “most tangible medium” of empaysagement19. Starting from a distinct starting point, Phillippe Rahm’s essay “Le Pavillon comme espace théorique de l’architecture” also draws attention to this same idea. By presenting his own curatorial agenda at the Venice Biennale in Hormonorium (Swiss Pavilion, 2002) – a sort of physiological representation” that simulates an alpine-like climate, working as an “assemblage of physiological devices acting on the endocrine and neurovegetative systems20–, and Digestible Gulf Stream (International Pavilion, 2008) – a work that aims to “reassess the field of architecture from the physiological to the atmospheric”21 – he explains that such installations were inspired by ecological concerns related to the global warming crisis. These unrepeatable displays, he reasons, were an exceptional “opportunity to theorize, experiment, demonstrate and make public […] architectural research findings”. In this sense, the notion of exhibition is strongly connected here with that of experimentation, as such defining the ephemeral structures of display as important laboratorial spaces “for the free exploration of new languages” in which “disciplinary tools and purposes are redefined to constitute a theoretical and plastic base” for future solutions22.

12Atmospheres of inquiry

  • 23 Tallagrand, Didier. Thibaud, Jean-Paul. Tixier, Nicolas. “L’Usage des ambiances : une épreuve sensi (...)
  • 24 Ibid., p. 17

13A constructed laboratorial atmosphere was likewise a medium and a method of inquiry on ambiance – the subject of a ten-day colloquium held in Cerisy. By creating a specific atmosphere of exchange and discussion, this meeting placed artistic and scientific practices “under reciprocal influence”, thus testing and extending the mechanisms of research beyond well-established limits. At a time of social isolation and confined atmospheres (indeed, a globally unprecedented experience), which amplified the crisis of sensitive ambiances and the difficult coexistences of ecosystems, it is indeed a timely moment to publish the scientific discussions, virgules matinales, moments sensibles, petites formes performatives, and the workshop design & space which structured this laboratorial space three years ago. L’Usage des ambiances, rather than simply speculating “about ambiance”, the editors state, is a book that actually works with and through ambiance”23. Coming from distinct epistemic traditions and practices – such as art, architecture, and sociology –, the co-editors attempt to find a comprehensive definition: “The ambiance is part of a general movement of openness to the sensitive and participates in the emergence of new frames of sensitivity”24. Ambience, however, is clearly more than an environment, a climate, or a landscape, thus blurring disciplinary delimitations that are, here, framed against the backdrop of five “models of intelligibility”: the situationist movement, new phenomenology, pragmatic position, non-representational theory, and Peter Sloterdijk’s Sphere Theory (p. 19). Over more than fifty essays, the book is an inventive research proposal that follows the daily rhythm of the colloquium itself. The essays rely on remarkable well-known references such as, among others, Georg Simmel, Siegfried Kracauer, and Walter Benjamin, who broadly speculated on modernist metropolitan atmospheres and sensibilities. They also recall major architectural theory discussions on atmospheric perceptions and constructions, such as the ones undertaken by the architect Mark Wigley, or the philosophers Gernot Böhme and Otto Friedrich Bollnow. But they also use site-specific installations, photo essays, performative exhibitions, poetry, cinema and music, revealing real and fictional perspectives that might be inferred from this new experience of knowledge construction.

  • 25 Wieczorek, Izabela. “Atmosphères en formation : seuils affectifs, champs immersifs et limites activ (...)

14The books reviewed here bring up three significant points of observation – from the viewpoint of agents, places, and concepts – in order to examine present-day alternative modes of knowledge construction and critical inquiry in the field of architecture. Laboratorial structures – which work as “improved” backgrounds in which the natural cycles of incidence are suspended to accommodate subject matters –, architectural exhibitions such as the Venice Biennale, exhibition pavilions and multidisciplinary networks of exchange might create physical and intellectual atmospheres, “deliberately produced, conditioned or manipulated”,25 in order to formulate concrete proposals as well as to call for architecture critical action.

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Notes

1 In 2020, the Italian film producer and Luce Cinecittà’s CEO Roberto Cicutto was appointed President of the Venice Biennale, replacing Paolo Baratta’s long-lasting presidency.

2 Interview with Paolo Baratta, in Architecture on Display: On the History of the Venice Biennale of Architecture, London: Architectural Association, 2010, p. 182. Edited by Aaron Levy, William Menking

3 Please see: https://www.labiennale.org/en/architecture/2020/introduction-paolo-baratta (accessed on September 4, 2021)

4 Paolo Baratta’s introduction, People Meet in Architecture (12th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia), Venice: Marsilio; Rizzoli, 2010, p. 12.

Levy, Aaron. Menking, William. « Paolo Baratta », Architecture on Display: On the History of the Venice Biennale of Architecture, op. cit., p. 182

5 People Meet in Architecture (29 August-21 November 2010), 12th international exhibition of architecture, Venice Biennale

6 Levy, Aaron. Menking, William. “Kazuo Sejima”, Architecture on Display: On the History of the Venice Biennale of Architecture, op. cit., p. 178

7 This reflection on Kazuyo Sejima’s contribution was previously drafted in my study Exhibiting Disciplinarity. The Venice Biennale of Architecture 1980-2012. Doctoral dissertation, Zurich: ETH Zurich, 2017, p. 210.

8 Available on http://architectureondisplay.org

9 The second volume is based on a recorded archive of open-ended conversations with a relevant group of architects, critics, historians, editors, scholars, and students, as well as the former curators of the Venice Biennale, that took place between 2011-2012 in four cities: Venice, New York, London, Chicago.

Levy, Aaron. Menking, William. Four Conversations on the Architecture of Discourse, London: AA Publications, 2012

10 Levy, Aaron. « Introduction », Architecture on Display, op. cit., p. 12

11 Steele, Brett, “Preface”, ibid., p. 7

12 Levy, Aaron. Menking, William. “Paolo Baratta”, ibid., p. 183

13 I borrow an expression used by Baratta. Please see: https://www.labiennale.org/en/architecture/2020/introduction-paolo-baratta (accessed on September 4, 2021)

14 Levy, Aaron. Menking, William. “Kurt W Forster”, Architecture on Display, op. cit., p. 115

15 Empavillonner, Lille: Athom, 2021, (Focus). Edited by David Bihanic, Bernard Gabillon, Olivier Koettlitz, Jocelyn Le Creurer, Aurélien Maillard, p. 12

16 Osterhammel, Jürgen. The Transformation of the World, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2015, p.15

17 Conceived by the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, together with the Greek architect and artist Yannis Xenakis and the French composer Edgar Varèse.

18 Litzler, Pierre. Empavillonner, op. cit., p. 88

19 Ibid., p. 92

20 Rahm, Philippe. Ibid., p. 352

21 Ibid., p. 354

22 Ibid. p. 345

23 Tallagrand, Didier. Thibaud, Jean-Paul. Tixier, Nicolas. “L’Usage des ambiances : une épreuve sensible des situations”, L’Usage des ambiances : une épreuve sensible des situations, Paris : Hermann, 2021, (Colloque de Cerisy), p. 21

24 Ibid., p. 17

25 Wieczorek, Izabela. “Atmosphères en formation : seuils affectifs, champs immersifs et limites actives”, L’Usage des ambiances, op. cit., p. 25

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Rute Figueiredo, « Curatorial Practices: a call for architectural critical action », Critique d’art, 57 | 2021, 67-81.

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Rute Figueiredo, « Curatorial Practices: a call for architectural critical action », Critique d’art [En ligne], 57 | Automne/hiver 2021, mis en ligne le 30 novembre 2022, consulté le 03 décembre 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/critiquedart/85180 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/critiquedart.85180

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Auteur

Rute Figueiredo

Rute Figueiredo is an architect and architectural historian (M.A. in Art History), who has long been studying the interplay between architecture and the institutions of critical mediation and discursive construction. She received her PhD in Architecture from the ETH - Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich (2018) and was Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Rennes 2 University. Author of the book Architecture and Critical Discourse in Portugal (Prize José Figueiredo 2008), she set up and coordinated the funded project The Site of Discourse (FCT 2012-15). Her work has been funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020, Swiss National Scientific Foundation, and the FCT. She is associated member of the scientific network Mapping Architectural Criticism, and member of ESPRit-European Society for Periodical Research, European Architectural History Network, and Society of Architectural Historians. She is currently FCT Researcher at the CEAA/ Escola Superior Artística do Porto, working in the international project MODSCAPES-Modernist Reinventions of the Rural Landscape (HERA 2016-2019) and co-coordinating the research axis Strong Relations: Studies on Architecture History, Theory and Criticism. She is also a Lecturer at Universidade Autónoma de Lisboa and is responsible for the Doctoral curricular unit Curatorial Practices.

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