The new curator: exhibiting architecture and design

Looking back, we could identify the 2006 Serpentine Gallery pavilion, by Rem Koolhaas and Cecil Balmond, as the moment when the idea of ​​conserving architecture crystallized into a separate subject. It was then that Hans Ulrich Obrist joined the gallery and introduced the 24-hour Interview Marathon program of events that accompanied the pavilion exhibition, co-hosting it with Koolhaas that year. This was clearly a time when the rise of the professional curator – the author curator, in Obrist’s case – collided with a rise in popularity of the architecture exhibition.

2006 Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, by Rem Koolhaas and Cecil Balmond.

Picture: John Offenbach

Although there has been much written about the transformations in curatorial practice since then, and about the long history and paradoxes of architectural exhibition, there have been surprisingly few attempts to dig deeper and better understand which, if at all, could constitute a specialist curatorial practice attached to architecture and design.

This is Fleur Watson book territory The new curator: exhibiting architecture and design (Routledge, 2021), which argues for the conservation of architecture and design as a specialized activity. To do this, Watson draws connections between new concepts in curatorial theory, including curatorial activism and the pedagogical turn, and the notion of expanded practice in architecture, describing the new curator as a figure who “actively seeks to serve as a mediator, to translate, engage and play these new forms of extended design practices in active exchange with the public” (page 17).

The New Curator by Fleur Watson (Routledge, 2021).

The New Curator by Fleur Watson (Routledge, 2021).

Watson’s tactic of personifying the new curator resonates with the contemporary phenomenon of the freelance author curator, exemplified by Obrist. However, her intention is to harness the performative potential of the role, rather than playing within a curatorial star system or valuing particular identities. As such, the book focuses primarily on curatorial strategies, or ‘movements’, and how these might constitute a repertoire or palette for the new curator. Watson elaborates each of these movements through the analysis of a series of cases that reveal the range of contexts in which the new commissioner could operate: inside and outside institutions, for public or private clients. , in galleries and found spaces, on the scale of an installation at a biennale. The question of the specificity of the architecture and design of these movements remains open. ‘Curator as space maker’, for example, is highly architectural, while ‘curator as intruder’ has broader applicability.

The Liquid Light project by Flores and Prats, for the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale, is used as an example of the “curator as creator of space” and the potential of large-scale exhibition of buildings or fragments to communicate design ideas. Watson approaches the work of architects as a logical extension of their architectural practice. Elsewhere, Koolhaas’s Elements of Architecture, for the 2014 Biennale, is presented as an example of the ‘curator as translator’ and of the exhibition’s potential to be a research platform. This example is a useful counterpoint to Flores and Prats’ more modest engagement with the behemoth of the biennale, inviting reflection on how these two scales of curatorial practice might be interdependent and open up the discipline in different ways.

Liquid Light by Flores and Prats

Liquid Light by Flores and Prats

Image: Flores and Prats

Much like an exhibit, the book is organized as a layered, multi-dimensional artifact. Case studies are supported by multi-page images with large font captions that mimic museum didactics, while explanations of conservation movements are interspersed with a series of conversations between curators of architecture and design. designs that provide an engaging and insightful snapshot of the contemporary scene. .

As the book seeks to clarify the specificity of architectural and design conservation, what emerges from the organized conversations is a sense of its hybridity, even its precariousness. Prem Krishnamurthy categorically rejects the term curator: “I don’t use the word ‘curator’ at the moment…I prefer…exhibition maker…I’ve always thought there was a strong overlap between design fields , curating, publishing, writing or teaching” (page 61). In her conversation with Marina Otero Verzier, Mimi Zeiger invites us to consider the work of curating, in particular the “emotional labor” of working as an independent content producer mediating between “the strategic objectives of an institution and … a exposure” (page 201) .

Part of the ambition to articulate the specificity of architectural and design conservation is to promote the built environment as a unique lens on contemporary global challenges, a sentiment expressed by Otero Verzier: “The world is changing dramatically , and architecture is one of the lenses through which we read and participate. Perhaps the work of curators is precisely to shed light on the social, political and ecological implications of architecture, and to propose strategies and knowledge for taking sides and intervening within them” (page 200).

But is it also worth going beyond the idea of ​​the exceptionality of architecture? Although beyond the scope of this book, it is perhaps equally important to explain how, through its conservation, architecture and design could reverberate in the wider cultural field and effect change. more direct in the way cultural institutions think. It is not about the specificity of curating architecture and design, but about the issue of architecture as part of culture; and an idea of ​​the curator as an operator, not within culture, but over culture – where value systems can be remade.

About Raymond A. Bentley

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