Architecture as the production of ideas?

The Canadian Centre for Architecture’s (CCA) current exhibition focuses on experimental practices that question the designer’s role in society. Presenting 23 groups spanning from the 1960s to today, The Other Architect offers a fascinating survey of architectural counterculture. The initiatives spotlighted range from AMO, the research- and publication-focused twin of Rem Koolhaas’s OMA, to Kommunen in der Neuen Welt, a book tracing the history of utopian communes in the United States, and the Center for Urban Pedagogy, which develops playful campaigns aimed at increasing civic engagement.

Doggerel spoke with CCA Chief Curator Giovanna Borasi in December.

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Do you think this need for activity that’s more experimental than the norm, and that stems largely from dissatisfaction with the norm, is something inherent in design? Like, as a comparison, could you do a show about The Other Accountant? And how has this activity influenced mainstream architecture?

Answering as an architect, I feel like we should always expand our perspective and think about what it means to be an architect. For me, the intent of this division between “architect” and “other architect” is to say, “Your work is not just about building; it’s about understanding the city, provoking discussion, educating people, challenging institutions.” I was interested in the idea that there is a persona that is actually much more flexible, that understands the needs of the time and has the intelligence to put in place new strategies, tools, and ideas in order to be relevant in that moment. The biggest success that this show could have would be to increase the integration of this kind of discussion in current practice.

Installation highlighting the Atelier de Recherche et d’Action Urbaines (ARAU), which explored alternatives to the dominant mode of development in postwar Brussels

One of the questions I often get when people visit the show is, “What was the impact of this group, or that one?” Some of these groups had a certain influence that can be seen over a long timespan. Today there is a very strong interest in the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, led by Peter Eisenman, because it was a hybrid institution where people could teach, learn, and practice in a more socially and politically engaged manner. Figures like Rem Koolhaas were there. He was a fellow, and it was in fact during this period that Koolhaas wrote Delirious New York.

Dinner at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies circa 1974

Because this kind of place existed, certain unexpected exchanges happened — the Italian influence on the global field of architecture during this time, from architects like Aldo Rossi and so on, arrived through the institute. It also led to magazines like Oppositions.

ArtNet, the gallery led by Peter Cook in London, was acting in a similar way and was a kind of British response to the institute.

This show doesn’t want to be nostalgic. It does not want to say, “Let’s look back on these great things that are not happening anymore.” It’s trying to look at these examples and understand why they were happening in that moment, then ask what can we gain from them today.

Credit: Andrea Meller, Damon Rich, Rosten Woo, and CUP

Still from “PHTV: What’s Up with Public Housing?”, a 2004 video produced by the Center for Urban Pedagogy

In parallel to the show, every Thursday evening we have a lecture. We are inviting current practices that are working in interesting and innovative ways. For example, in February we will have the Belgian group Rotor. They’ve established a new company called Rotor Deconstruction, a spin-off of their architectural office, which dismantles and sells reusable materials from buildings undergoing demolition.

How does this show fit into your curatorial mission? How does the CCA view its responsibility to the architecture community and the broader public?

One of our responsibilities is to be part of the contemporary discourse about what architecture is. It’s never about showing architects’ work for the sake of showing the work; there is always a thematization and an ambition to provoke questions. So we’ve done, for example, an exhibition on public health, one on the 1973 oil crisis, one about the architecture of World War II — which was about how architects respond to the urgent issues of their time, asking questions like: What was your role in the war? Did you work for the Nazis, did you work against them? What was your ethical responsibility?

We’ve done, for example, an exhibition on public health, one on the 1973 oil crisis, one about the architecture of World War II.

You released a book of the same name to accompany the current exhibition. How do the two relate? How did you decide what to show in both and how to show it?

For both the exhibition and the book, we had the idea that you should start with primary sources: you should read the letters, the documents, the budgets. My idea was that you would be able to enter into the minds of the people who were involved and understand what they wanted to achieve, why they were unhappy with their situation, what the context was. I was very much interested in the early periods of each group, because this was when they formed their mission statements: “This is what we want to do!” This document — sometimes a letter, sometimes a board meeting, sometimes a poster — is always the first thing you read.

Diagram showing the relationship between OMA, AMO, and other entities

The challenge with the exhibition is that the material we are showing is not particularly sexy — typewritten documents and such things. It also demands attention from visitors to actually sit down and read some of them. There are 700 objects in the show.

With the book, we included a much smaller selection of documents. The book has a large format so that you don’t see them as images but really as facsimiles of original documents. The idea was that the narrative would be mainly visual, based on the specific content inside the documents.

It’s been very interesting, because the idea of research was at the base of the project. The groups I was interested in were very connected to questions of how you come up with an idea and how you do the research you need to achieve that idea. But the project itself was one that required a huge amount of research, to go through all their letters, meeting minutes, and so on. It was a fascinating experience to read these today.

 

The Other Architect is on display through April 10 at CCA in Montreal, Quebec.

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