At the Lisbon Architecture Triennale, Wondering “Can Architects Curate?”

Despite some smart research, this edition’s glut of information and ignorance of context reflects architecture’s crisis of curation, our critic writes.

Economy of Means. Courtesy Hugo David

Halfway through the second day of the press trip to the 2019 Lisbon Architecture Triennale—themed “The Poetics of Reason” and curated by a nine-strong team headed by Parisian architect Éric Lapierre—I found myself chewing over the question: Why is it so seemingly difficult to create great exhibitions about architecture?

In a highly subjective, informal canvassing of opinion on Twitter asking what makes a good architecture exhibition, responses ranged from “not getting an architect to curate it” (architecture curator Pete Collard, expectedly) to “fun, interesting, vaguely understandable” (Dezeen editor, Tom Ravenscroft), to the succinct “1:1 [scale models]” (architect Eddie Blake, also expectedly). Although I don’t visit exhibitions in search of fun, I do agree that they should be interesting, comprehensible, and feature objects in different media at different scales. Why do so many architecture exhibitions fail to meet these simple criteria?

Of the five main shows that constitute this year’s Lisbon Architecture Triennale—Economy of Means, Agriculture and Architecture: Taking the Country’s Side, Inner Space, Natural Beauty, and What is Ornament?—all suffer from similar problems, namely, an overabundance of text and 2D work and a lack of compelling ideas or inability to express them clearly. This year’s theme, with its claim that “for all its subjective and non-scientific dimensions, architecture does rest on reason,” appealed to my inner contrarian. I was seduced by the almost willful disregard for topics outside the relatively narrow purview of architectural ornament, imagination, and beauty. What I discounted, however, is that Lapierre’s team of French, Italian, and British academics and academic-architects (who nearly all work and teach together in Paris), with little-to-no curatorial experience, would be unlikely to realize exceptional exhibitions.

Agriculture and Architecture. Courtesy Hugo David

In Agriculture and Architecture: Taking the Country’s Side, architectural theorist Sébastien Marot fills the cavernous, 8,000-square-meter Garagem Sul gallery with a handful of video interviews, a 60-meter-long illustrated timeline “synthesizing the parallel evolutions of agriculture and architecture,” and 42 boards hanging vertically from the ceiling in seven rows. Marot has essentially written a book on agriculture and architecture and printed it out on oversized index cards. He could be forgiven for such an approach were his thesis compelling, but the exhibition seems to stop at simply stating that agriculture and architecture are connected. By contrast, Rem Koolhaas, a past collaborator of Marot’s, has approached the subject in a way that assumes an inherent, causal relationship between agriculture and architecture, using that connection as the basis of provocative arguments on the consequences of rural depopulation, political radicalization, and large-scale reorganisation of land across the countryside. (Koolhaas commenced work on that topic in 2012 with writings and lectures, and it culminates next February with a massive show at the Guggenheim.)

Inner Space. Courtesy Hugo David

Inner Space, the strongest of the Triennale’s five presentations, is the product of a joint effort by Mariabruna Fabrizi and Fosco Lucarelli who together run the practice Microcities and the “magazine” Socks-studio. The pair organized a display for the last iteration of the Triennale and their previous curatorial experience is evident. In its exploration of the architectural imagination, Inner Space draws together a broad material spectrum—models, photographs, objects, installations, drawings, and VR—with an expanded understanding of architectural design—including sketchbooks, research projects, video games, and contemporary artworks—and a decent gender balance amongst exhibitors, something decidedly lacking elsewhere. Many works were surprising, even delightful. Reproduced images of Lina Bo Bardi and Carlo Pagani’s utterly fabulous Casa sul mare di Sicilia, an unbuilt project developed in 1940 solely for publication in Domus, sit alongside frames from the candy-colored, Escheresque fantasies of the video game Monument Valley and a 2018 research project by Forensic Architecture on the destruction of Yazidi cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria. But Fabrizi and Lucarelli’s overall theme is too generic, even superficial, to make meaningful connections among the work displayed and move beyond a mere collection of interesting things.

What is Ornament? Courtesy Hugo David

In chief curator Lapierre’s Economy of Means, housed in the Tejo Power Station gallery adjacent to Amada Levete’s undulating MAAT Museum, the same problems which beset Marot’s agriculture show resurface. Entering the first of five rooms, one is confronted by dozens of facsimiles of book pages papering the entire west wall. To aid his argument that “economy of means is the DNA of good forms” and that consequently “form is the horizon of any human activity pushed to a high level of accomplishment,” Lapierre displays historical systems for classifying and comparing typologies drawn from works by Pierre Le Muet, Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand, and César Daly. Binoculars are meant to help visitors read the book pages suspended high up on the walls and decide whether they agree with Lapierre’s reasoning. Relief from the monotony of book page reproductions and architectural drawings deployed as wallpaper comes in the last room, which is full of architectural models (top tip: you can combine text, drawings, photographs, and models all in one room!). Although many are beautiful—a white, domed model of an unbuilt church in Norway by Italian practice baukuh and Piovenefabi’s simple, elegant bar d’été are particular favorites—they’re accompanied by blurbs provided by each practice that are rife with nonsensical jargon, which only compounds the feeling of information overload that haunts his entire endeavor. 

Economy of Means. Courtesy Hugo David

It has always struck me as curious that major art and design exhibitions are typically curated by professional curators, while the norm in architecture is for practitioners to fill such roles. While this isn’t inherently problematic, most architects can’t operate with sufficient critical distance from their field to create interesting shows for the general public. Despite rhetoric professing the contrary—The Poetics of Reason pamphlet states, “Our goal is to turn architecture into a discipline understandable by everyone”—architect-curators are often uninterested in audiences beyond their peers. Hence, this triennale’s frequent appearance of reams of theory-laden waffle and technical jargon pasted to walls. And given that contemporary architecture at least pays lip service to the importance of context, why does this attentiveness, however rhetorical, often vanish at biennials and triennials? None of the five major presentations, for example, address the context of their host city.

As ongoing research projects, the works of Lapierre, et al. are undoubtedly of interest and value. But the communication of such research requires a different perspective and approach in order to function effectively within the specific format of the architecture exhibition, particularly when organized for a public audience. It is a shame that these architects were unable to recognize their own limitations and seek out the curatorial guidance they so evidently needed.

You may also enjoy “Deconstructing Degrowth at the Oslo Architecture Triennale.

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