A curator reflects on architecture as a cultural practice
By Jen Kinney / August 24, 2016
After spending three years as a curator in MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design, architect and writer Pedro Gadanho recently returned to his native Portugal to direct Lisbon’s new Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT). Scheduled to open in October, MAAT will explore the convergence of architecture, technology, and contemporary art.
I spoke to Gadanho in June about design, curation, and utopia versus dystopia.
You’ve spanned so many practices in your career as an architect, writer, curator. How does your multidisciplinary experience bear on your understanding of architecture, its possibilities and limitations?
Yes, well, certainly it made me see architecture more as a broad cultural practice. Architects should add something to culture with every gesture that we insert into the city. This, of course, translates into things that you do through buildings, but also into cultural discourse: bringing out new ideas to change cities and the way we live.
I have been reflecting critically about that in recent years. Sometimes I see what I call mainstream practices losing that perspective and responding only to technical and financial demands in a way that is certainly professional, certainly very exquisitely done, but that lacks that capacity to make a cultural statement.
So my work as an architect or curator or both has always been about identifying practices that bring those new ideas into the discipline. That naturally leads me to pay special attention to emerging practices. As an example, while I was conducting the Young Architects Program at MoMA, I tried to promote the work of younger architects that were thinking critically about the ecological challenges that we face nowadays and trying to make projects that do more than just solve a very immediate problem, which was to create a backdrop for a summer event.
I looked for work that could also bring some message to a larger audience and relate to the ways design thinking can respond to the challenges around us.
That makes me think of last year’s winning design, by Andrés Jaque.
Yes, he’s a very good example of someone who was playful and has an aesthetic eye that is very acute and singular, and at the same time produces amazing reflections about the ecological impacts of, in this case, the purification of water, garbage, and so on.
The Young Architects Program is an interesting example, because it is a way of bringing these new voices into an institution — the museum — that sometimes enshrines only the most traditional approaches. What do you see as the museum’s role in disseminating new ideas or bringing new voices to the stage?
I think, fortunately, different museums may have different roles. At MoMA, while there was traditionally a focus on the masters of architecture, we started to change that by introducing younger architects who were really shifting the way you could see the role of architecture in society.
But, of course, other institutions, like MAAT, bring ideas of activism or activating the city in other ways. This activism particularly relates to understanding contemporary art or architecture not so much as something that you go to the museum only to contemplate, but also to trigger some critical reflections on contemporary issues.
What are some of the trends that you see emerging right now in design and architecture curation?
There is certainly a shift to work that deals with the so-called 99%: the public that is not addressed by an economically driven system. The fact that [Alejandro] Aravena was chosen as director of the Venice Biennale addresses those issues more clearly. I think Aravena really marks a shift in terms also of how Venice brought to the center stage practices that were on the B lines of the profession. Just like in the field of art, I think there is a political edge that has been moving from the fringes, from the more intellectual field to mainstream exhibition curation.
Can you tell me more about MAAT? It’s explicitly multidisciplinary. What is the confluence of art, architecture, and technology, and how will the museum bring them together?
Well, the easiest path to do that, of course, is to organize side-by-side architecture exhibitions and art exhibitions. This will happen sometimes. But my intention is more to create what I call manifesto exhibitions that bring together a large number of artists and architects contributing ideas on a certain theme.
So the opening exhibition is on utopia and dystopia. Of course, there is a huge tradition of architects thinking about utopia, ideal cities, when considering how we can change society through design. But artists have also questioned those utopias and sometimes reflected dystopic aspects of our current reality. So bringing those together produces a sort of clash that for me is much more interesting.
If we were just another contemporary art museum, we would have a very broad field of possibilities ahead of us. If, on the other hand, we have architecture, city, and technology as a starting point, we can really explore work by contemporary artists that produces very unexpected views on those fields, and therefore instill a different kind of dialogue.
How does the city that you’re in affect your curatorial approach and your interests? How is it different to be thinking about art, architecture, and technology in Lisbon versus New York?
In Lisbon there has always been this connection between art and architecture. That was very strong up until 25, 20 years ago; the schools of art and architecture were still together then. I was still part of a generation that was formed with that very close affinity. Bringing the two together benefits both fields.
Then technology: it’s more connected to the context of the space that we have here. MAAT is in an old power station. It has already been producing exhibits on energy and science and has always had a tradition of exhibitions relating to aspects of technology. We are just maintaining, in a certain way, what was already here.
I would say being in Europe influences me more than being in Lisbon. I try to see MAAT as more a player in the European context than within Lisbon itself. Lisbon is welcoming more fluxes of people that are coming here, buying second homes here, coming as tourists.
Compared to New York, Europe has a much richer diversity of voices and a much more dynamic emerging field for artists and architects. There is a cultural discourse which is, I think, much more dynamic than in the States. In the States, there is a lot of pressure from the corporate culture. People join the professional markets very early and therefore lose any expectation of experimentation, of bringing some discussion into the projects they’re working on. In Europe, I think that sort of culture has more presence, and it has more stages, let’s say, to be presented on.
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