Unlike fine art or museum displays, most architectural exhibitions are not comprised of the object (architecture) itself but rather visualisations of it. In lieu of an authentic physical experience, exhibitions allow audiences to understand and explore the architecture they cannot visit (because it is unbuilt, demolished or otherwise inaccessible) via the ideas captured in its representation.
Traditional exhibition content includes measured drawings, sketches, photographs, physical models and text, but this has expanded (in scope, experience and literally in size) to include digital displays and online exhibitions, projections, examples of fabrication techniques, 1:1 tests and installations. Some of these might be crafted specifically for an exhibition or even as a live performance piece during the exhibition, but the rest are artefacts; by-products or the sole outcomes leftover after the building has been completed, the project abandoned, the competition judged, the semester ended.
Once they are on exhibition these objects transform in function. They are no longer only instructions for how a piece of architecture should be put together. Instead they become educational evidence of a process and tools to make sense of histories and propose futures.
In considering the links between architecture exhibitions and design education, I felt drawn to reflect on two topics. The first is the role exhibitions play in educating the public as a proposition for a National Gallery of Architecture in Australia; and the second is the role of exhibitions in architecture school.
PART I: PUBLIC EXHIBITIONS
As a child I once visited the National Archives in Canberra to view a selection of restored entries for the 1912 Federal Capital Design Competition. Upon seeing the renders and plans up close I remember mixed feelings: being enchanted by Alf Agache’s pastel coloured scheme, full of fountains, palaces and Parisian arches, and dismissing with horror the ordered sterility of Eliel Saarinen’s Lego-like buildings and flat, futuristic landscape.
But above all, I was captivated by an exhibition of imagery that told the story of a city that was, is, and – most excitingly – could have been. An exhibition such as this provokes emotional responses because architecture permeates every aspect of life, and being able to reflect on its successes, failures and unmined potentials can profoundly affect the way we think and feel.
Despite this, in Australia we have no national gallery of architecture where professionals, students and the general public can explore the subject together. We cannot flit between the work of notables to a survey of historic publications and examples of new technologies. The wide range of representational techniques used in architecture has meant that many Australian institutions have the ability to host design themed exhibitions.
The benefit of this is idiosyncratic exhibitions, each with their own slant and ability to attract and educate a different type of audience. However, they are limited by the focus of the collection. For example ‘Hot Modernism’ at the State Library of Queensland could only examine the architecture of that region, screen exhibits belong at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image; student work often only appears in university galleries or the occasional display of subversiveness at pop-up galleries. Permanent ‘go-to’ exhibitions are critical when it comes to educating the general public but architecture themed examples of these in Australia are all together rare.
Additionally, because of the way organisations produce shows, architecture exhibitions most often occur in institutions in isolation, with no way for the public to understand them against other architectural movements or cultural and geographic contexts, creating an unfinished patchwork of information that is spread across galleries and states.
Without a way for audiences to experience and understand all this information together, the discipline’s public presence is weakened. Therefore, in order to enrich the culture of architecture in Australia, and to promote a better understanding of it, there is a need for a gallery devoted solely to the exhibition of architecture that communicates a broad range of topics to a variety of audiences.
PART II: SCHOOL EXHIBITIONS
Architecture exhibitions provide opportunities for learning that are not limited to those who simply participate as visitors. For example, most architecture schools hold exhibitions that celebrate the end of a semester’s work and provide a survey of the studios and themes on offer. As most students never produce a built version of their work, the exhibition becomes public and physical evidence of otherwise imaginary projects, and importantly allows them to see a development in skills and thinking across year groups.
Also apparent in student exhibitions are the trends that emerge in technical and aesthetic communication of architecture. Architects were once limited to representing their designs through a language of orthographic drawings and perspectives created by pen and paper, and physical models. Now – particularly in schools – the choice of media employed is more varied and open to experimentation.
The visual nature of exhibitions, combined with a competitive scholarly environment means the display of work becomes an opportunity to market a sophisticated set of graphic and technical skills through seductive and impactful imagery. This means that ideas shown through the abstractness of plan, section and elevation are increasingly pushed aside, replaced by vivid and quickly digestible digital representations.
As the exhibition’s content evolves, so do the thoughts that are conveyed through it. For example, 3D images show volumetric rather than planar composition, and provoke discussions about a building’s facades rather than mapping a sequence of movement. A physical model expresses an idea of making and tectonics that differs from the digital version.
Countering the formal and polished display of work is the (perhaps more interesting) informal exhibiting that occurs every day in the architecture school classroom. The crucial ritual of presenting the incomplete project and describing project development, combined with discussions and hypothesising create an atmosphere of exhibition where the lines between studio, gallery and laboratory blur. While each studio’s methodologies become more invisible by final exhibition, the pin-up is raw and focuses on the “how” and “why” of design (the difficult bit). Given this, there is scope to reimagine the school exhibition model as not just a wrap-up of a studio’s slick presentation boards, but as teaching tools that occur throughout the semester, showing each class’s approach to design and allowing students to understand the processes and journeys that lead to those glossy images.