10.10.2005 | what’s on
by The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design
2004 was a great year for permanent architectural exhibitions. Early last year the Architectural museum in Stockholm moved back to their fine Raphael Moneo building and presented a renewed permanent exhibition. Then the NAI in Rotterdam followed up by replacing their old small permanent exhibition with a much bigger one, the Architekturzentrum Wien are opening their exhibition in Vienna in stages before and after the summer of 2004, and in November the same year Lord Norman Foster officially opened the RIBA/V&A partnership Architecture Gallery in London. The permanent exhibition of the Swedish Architectural Museum is in a spacious lofty hall, a former naval gymnasium. It is well lit, open and orderly – a great improvement on the 1998 exhibition. Along one side of the hall is a black strip with texts in Swedish and English plus some photographs. This is the story of the development of Swedish architecture. But perhaps the text is too long? That quantity of text is more manageable in a catalogue than on a wall. Along the opposite wall there are big shelves where one finds supplementary elements like furniture, models of foreign buildings and strips illustrating the colour ranges in two Swedish cities. In the middle of the room there are two rows of steel frame tables with glass tops. On the tables are models or other objects, like books, from the same period or related to one particular subject. I think the models look a bit lonely although they are close together. I would have preferred more supplementary material such as plans or photographs relating to each model.
At the end of the hall is a fantastic studio where schoolchildren try to create architecture for themselves, using inspiration from the exhibition. This marvellous studio and the classroom view of the exhibition hall emphasize that pedagogy is the focus in Stockholm.
The exhibition in Rotterdam is very different from the one in Stockholm. The room is rather dark to protect the original drawings that are on show. The space runs up on the mezzanine level like a corridor above the main exhibition hall at the Dutch institute. The total area is quite large, it has a certain degree of variation, but there is still a sameness about the spaces.
The NAI exhibition focuses on Dutch housing schemes from the 19th century up to the present. Housing is a key issue in architecture, something that concerns everyone, and the Dutch have a heritage in this field that they are rightly proud of.
Architectural museums have huge drawing collections that the general public doesn’t get to hear about. The Dutch ambition to present many original drawings is therefore to be much admired. But I have my doubts about the ability of these drawings to communicate with the visitors. I also miss more information about the inhabitants and their lives.
The Austrian exhibition is in a 300 sqm vaulted hall. It follows the Austrian development in the last 150 years and focuses on some major themes like housing and town planning. I am very impressed by the exhibition in Vienna. One can learn more from the exhibition at the Architekturzentrum Wien than from any of the others. We encounter 2000 images and 200 buildings. We get in-depth information about clients and users, architects and builders. And there are always plans of the buildings. The Viennese exhibition is more like a study centre than an exhibition. One is expected to sit down and read the texts, take the albums from the shelves and look closely at the photographs. Although there is depth in the information there is a certain flatness in the visual presentation. The headlines are written with thin boxy letters and remind one of the chairs and tables. There was only one model in the exhibition when I saw it in August, and I understand that it has been taken out now. One doesn’t experience architecture as a three dimensional subject. Perhaps the Austrian exhibition would work equally well on the flat screen and could have been made accessible on the web.
The London exhibition is the smallest but in some respects the most ambitious one. The Victoria & Albert Museum is a huge institution. It has a higher degree of professionalism. This shows in the writing of short and focused texts and the advantage of a broad staff that is well-trained in the craft of presenting difficult subjects to a wide audience.
There are at least three different elements that make up the new effort of presenting architecture at the Victoria & Albert Museum. First: The study centre where visitors may see the architectural drawings of both V&A and RIBA in rooms next to each other. The spaces are beautiful and have a dignity that fits both institutions. Then there is the book ‘Exploring Architecture. Buildings, Meanings and Making’ by Eleanor Gawne and Michael Snodin. It is very well illustrated and produced, and the text gives a thoughtful and much broader picture than any exhibition can provide. But it is of course the new permanent architectural exhibition that will receive most public and professional attention. I have no doubt that it will become a point of reference. It is an exhibition that no other institution could have made. The combined resources of the RIBA and the V&A are impossible to match by anyone. No other institution has such collections, so many beautiful models, both new and old, and such important drawings. The rich material is cleverly combined. A fragment of the model the Houses of Parliament is placed in front of a photo of the interior of Lincoln Cathedral, and in the same way we see a model of the Tempietto in Rome together with the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The Pantheon is near St Martin-in-the-Fields. And so on. Lines of inspiration are suggested, and we can compare a drawing of the classical orders in a Claude Perrault book published in 1708 with actual building fragments.
The permanent exhibitions in Stockholm, Vienna and Rotterdam tell us, as they should, how architecture developed in their country. The RIBA/V&A exhibition does not give the visitor the national story, the subject is architecture itself. The main reason for this is historic. The Victoria & Albert is part of the ‘museum world’ in South Kensington, the fruit of the Crystal Palace and the British Empire. Britain both started the industrial revolution and controlled a large part of the globe in the 19th century. That is why the V&A, like the British Museum, has ambitions of being a ‘universal museum’.
But there are also practical reasons. When space is somewhat limited it is wise to stick to the essentials. But perhaps some British visitors miss a national architectural gallery, a place where they may learn what the most important buildings in UK are and how the art of architecture has developed in this country? It is often the case that an advantage may become a disadvantage. RIBA and V&A both have fantastic collections and they have also been able to borrow excellent models from other institutions and firms. It seems that the biggest problem has been what to choose.
But maybe they should have produced new material instead of just relying on what was at hand. The section ‘Building in Context’ illustrates this. It tells the story of how Trafalgar Square has evolved. A fantastic (and very old) model of St Martin-in-the-Field, old prints and a video on the use of the square do not provide explanations of the special qualities of the place. A simple volumetric model would have given the visitors a much better understanding of the space and the way it is composed. As we all know, it is difficult to make good architecture exhibitions. We can not show the buildings themselves, but we can give the audience some ideas of what they look like. Or we may try to explain what they are all about. But architecture is such a complex subject. There are many ways of presenting it and we have to make our choices, for example:
History or core? Chronology is important, but it takes a lot of space to present a historic development in a meaningful way. In Stockholm, Vienna and London attempts are made, in different ways, both to present a historic development and to say something about the major aspects of architecture.
100 or 1000 years: How long a time span is it necessary to present? Must one start with the middle ages or prehistoric times? After all 90% of our built environment stems from the last hundred years.
National or International: Most of us have national obligations. If we do not present our architecture who will? And at the same time we would all like the visitors to know the major international works.
Heroes or Cooperation: We are fascinated by individuals, and it is justified that the general public knows the names of the major architects just as they know those of painters or authors. But may be it is just as important to present the complex way architecture is created, and that so many other professionals also contribute. Exhibitions come and go. Most of them disappear before one gets around to visiting them. Therefore it is a great responsibility to make a permanent exhibition. One must have something worth saying, and the subject should be presented so that the message reaches a broad audience. It may be ok for a short lived temporary exhibition to aim at the specialists, but a permanent exhibition must be for the general public.
The permanent exhibition is the backbone in our educational work, and the acid test is how well it communicates. Perhaps it is wise not to overwhelm the visitors with all our knowledge, but to seduce and stimulate them. Architecture is a difficult subject. But we should make our visitors feel that it is a magical world, and make our permanent exhibition a gateway into it.
ulf grønvold is head curator of the architecture department, the national museum of art,
architecture and design, oslo