Sydney does not have a dedicated architecture gallery yet there is a steady stream of architectural exhibitions on the cultural calendar. From university halls and small galleries to the foyer of the Australian Institute of Architects at Tusculum, places all over the city regularly host exhibitions with architectural themes; which is somewhat surprising to me given the challenges of conceiving, designing and marketing a successful show.
Through my Byera Hadley Travelling Scholarship research and discussions with leading figures across the profession it appears that the architectural exhibition problematic exists on three fronts: subject, content and audience.
The subject of architecture is deceptively difficult to define. There is a rift between the popular ‘concept’ of architecture as a professional body of knowledge concerned with the production of building, and its ‘perception’ from within architectural circles as being a broad mode of thinking. In the words of Jorn Konijn, former Architecture Curator at the New Institute, in the Netherlands, “Architecture can be a curtain, architecture can be an event, architecture can be a feeling, architecture can be a smell…”. The uncertain terrain of the architectural subject is simultaneously fertile ground and a rocky foundation.
By definition, an exhibition requires tangible content. An architectural exhibition, however, is confronted with a conundrum: how do you exhibit architecture in a gallery context when the building ‒ as an artefact ‒ is absent, and the drawings, models and writing used to describe it are encoded in a specialised language. As Pippo Ciorra, Director at MAXXI Architettura, the National Museum of XXI Century Arts in Italy optimistically puts it, “In architecture the object has fewer auras but that gives you more freedom to work in the critical space of the object.” This critical space can become the driving force of an architectural exhibition where the objects facilitate an argument rather than demand individual reverence. The reverse position is also true, where architectural artefacts, such as drawings and so forth, do hold their own intrinsic value as aesthetic objects that may be exhibited and explored for their own artistic virtue; however, in this instance, their function as a codified tool for architectural expression is secondary. In an architectural exhibition the content on display is always forced to declare its purpose.