The Museum of Modern Art, July 20 – October 20, 2008, July 23, 2008 – March 2, 2009
When the Museum of Modern Art staged its debut architecture exhibition in 1932, curators Philip Johnson and Henry Russell Hitchcock were tasked with a tricky little caper: to present modern architecture in such wise as to make it appear not only emphatically novel, but imminently plausible. The American public would have its first look at contemporary European developments with the International Exhibition, and if MoMA was to make its case for modernism, it had to convince skeptical museum goers bred on the Beaux Arts that the new architecture of the white wall and the strip window was beautiful as well as practical—was beautiful because it was practicable.
Accordingly Hitchcock and Johnson decided that the show would favor built work, and feature only architects who had realized projects in the past. Of course much—most—of modern architecture was still on the boards. But to sell the folks Stateside on the idea, modernism had to resemble an accomplished fact; and though a couple of strictly speculative projects did slip in, MoMA launched itself into architecture not with what could be done, but with what had been done.
Pedagogy has always been the cart behind the museum’s horse. With every new direction taken by practice and discourse over the last seven some-odd decades, MoMA has taken it upon itself to bring us the good news, and the success of modern art in America owes much to MoMA’s evangelism. But it’s different for the Department of Architecture and Design. As the recently installed chief curator, Barry Bergdoll, once observed, they don’t really show what they show: they don’t put up buildings (usually), they put up evidence of them, and between the gawker at the vitrine and the drawing beneath it there opens an epistemological gap that threatens the museum’s mission as a teaching institution. The Department is in a double bind, charged with demonstrating the significance of challenging new architecture to an unspecialized audience, but without the architecture actually being there. The resulting dialogical fix—between the real and the imagined, the apprehensible and the projective—is one the museum has never quite escaped.
Not to say they haven’t tried. There’s been “visionary architecture” at the Modern before—a show of that title was staged in 1960, and 1972 saw Italy: The New Domestic Landscape, which included radical collectives like Superstudio and Archizoom that must have left the squares sincerely freaked out. MoMA has never been allergic to conceptual or critical practices, however abstruse. But now, with the historian Bergdoll at the helm, the museum seems to be taking a reflexive tack, investigating the very means by which it teaches its public about architecture.
Dreamland: Architectural Experiments Since the 1970s, on exhibit through October 27th in the Robert B. Menschel Gallery, interrogates viewers’ own assumptions about what constitutes an experiment. Comprising photos, models, and renderings from the period shortly before and a great deal after the publication of Rem Koolhaas’ Delirious New York in 1978, the show is a remainder sale from last spring’s review of the permanent collection, and it plays coyly with one’s expectations of the architecturally possible. You have to look carefully at those placards to tell which of the featured projects are realized and which were simply proposed. Some of the most dreamy, such as Acconci Studio’s Hotel Habitat or Metropol Parasol from Jürgen Mayer H., are in fact constructed or under construction. Some of the more prosaic, like Jean Nouvel’s Landmark Lofts, are just dreams.
It’s only too bad that the subtlety of this tactic, demonstrating the presence and power of architectural fiction, is almost lost in shaggy curation. Dreamland’s premise gets caught in a thicket of Big Ideas: experimentalism, urbanism, delirium, villeggiatura. The renderings on the wall, provocative proposals for New York from the likes of Raimund Abraham and Gaetano Pesce, are oddly mismatched with the models. Two thirds in, there’s a patch of wall text that abruptly changes the subject to suburban homes. Andres Lepik and Christian Larsen put together the show, quite possibly with limited resources, since Bergdoll was busy building prefab houses in the lot next door.
That exhibition, Home Delivery, could be the most daring museological exercise of the decade—after all, it gives us real live buildings to look at. But the two shows make a good match. Even in the confused thematic scrum of Dreamland, Koolhaas is a logical benchmark—for the show and for MoMA—and not only because of the recent acquisition of the Koolhaas drawing for which Dreamland is named. Koolhaas puts architecture’s avant-garde back on a war footing, resituated in the real world. Bergdoll’s predecessor, Terry Riley, responded with a lot of bang and spectacle, making the Department a reflection of the world, but not a force to change it. Today MoMA might be primed for a more meaningful engagement, with a sharper eye for how architecture reaches its audience, and vice versa.
Ian Volner is a writer and critic, and former editor of Edificial.com.