City of Ideas, an exhibition at the University of Sydney’s Tin Shed Gallery, is the result of a fourteen year quest by Vladimir Belogolovsky, to secure answers from thirteen of the world’s most eminent architects to the question, “What is architecture?” Beginning in 2002 at presentations for New York’s World Trade Centre site with Daniel Libeskind, he interviewed one hundred architects. You would expect, at the completion of such an exhaustive process there might be a definitive outcome. This is far from being the case. As he admits: “Never have there been so many distinctive and original voices and visions in architecture” and asks, “how many architectures do we need?”
Indeed. The Middle Ages needed just one, Gothic. It spoke with one voice, and what a magnificent uplifting sound it was. Today there isn’t any such consensus. Instead, what we encounter is architecture treated as though it were sculpture. Entire buildings assume twisted, tortured shapes in order to startle and grab our attention. In the 19th century, sculpture was an extra that set buildings apart and marked them as important. Now architecture is sculpture, hugely so. The most obvious impression is the range and diversity of these architect’s visions.
“What is architecture?” is a difficult question that requires a single clear incisive definition we all can agree on. In his, ‘An Outline of European Architecture’, first published in 1943, Nikolaus Pevsner suggested, ‘Á bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is architecture.’ He went on to say that nearly everything that encloses space on a scale sufficient for a human being to move in is a building; the term architecture being confined only to buildings designed with a view to aesthetic appeal. Simple and clear. The rest is building. Architecture goes beyond building, it moves beyond simple utility, as a consequence, it provokes an emotive response that expresses its culture and has a manifest visual appeal that is beautiful.
Modernism in the 1920s set about reinventing humanity and reshaping the world in exciting new ways. It was at once dynamic and destructive, revolutionary instead of evolutionary. It reflected the violence of the time, by echoing the prevailing mood of frustration with the present and rejecting tradition. Our world is very different. We experience more change than we can handle comfortably and are faced by a potentially catastrophic environmental and existential crisis of planetary dimensions, at the same time civilization is challenged by the outbreak of a rising fundamental religious extremism we thought had been safely locked away in history that is apposed to modernism. Architecture lives within its time. Victor Hugo, defending Gothic, called architecture a stone book which he contended would be destroyed by Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. Nowadays, architecture serves very different purposes and is often a kind of commercial branding to advertise corporations and institutions and their products.
It is these new masters the present generation of star architects, the subject of the Tin Shed exhibition, now serve. The exhibition itself is a condensed version of the curator’s 2015 book of conversations with this elite leader group which documented their personal insights about architecture and their current thoughts. In the process, the interviews are reduced to terse ten-word statements. Entering the exhibition you are confronted by words — lots of words — not expected images, video clips or models. Just printed words on cards, in large capital letters to further emphasise their status as effusions of genius.
Everywhere you look, on the floor, around the walls, even along the skirting, quotations circle the room. The space is so busy one cannot imagine what ordinary men or women would make of it, of such enigmatic epistolatory statements:
‘Imagine, having improvised volumes ‘floating’ in space, like Balloons,’ from Yona Friedman
‘There should always be questioning of the fundamental premises of prevailing art forms,’ from James Wine. Or, better still, ‘Architecture makes more conscious, more fully aware of being in time and space and in the world.’
And so on. It is unclear who the exhibition is meant to address. Architects will come away confused, much more so, the uninitiated. Possibly it is because Belogolovsky is more interested in asking questions than in supplying answers, least of all, answers we can understand.
If the aim was to portray the state of architecture in all its myriad manifestations, it surely is a brilliant success. One cannot but speculate we are at the end of a period, that architecture is burnt out and running on petrol fumes. If the aim was to inform and enlighten us about architecture today it can only be seen as an impenetrable failure, so uncertain, so unclear is its message. What is absent is any critical commentary. The interview is a popular format in journalism and it has been done before in writing about architecture. Heinrick Klotz initiated the genre in 1973 with ‘Conversations with Architects’, and later by Barbaralee Diamonstein, ‘American Architecture Now’, in 1980. Belogolovsky has revived the interview and given it a public presence. The incorporation of words and texts is not new in art; however, it does present difficulties, especially on this scale if words alone are to have aesthetic impact and be intelligible at the same time. An obvious requirement is a careful choice and limit on texts to ensure their impact. If there is too many, they lose their impact. Fewer is better.
An exhibition is very different to a book. In this instance, one should look to Islamic architecture. Short beautiful quotations from the Qur’an were inscribed on interior wall surfaces and undersides of domes in mosques. During their Cubist phase, Braque and Picasso glued fragments from newspapers on their collage paintings. A recent contemporary instance in Sydney is the running quotations from Aboriginal texts on a diagonal steel brace under 8 Chifley Square. The letters are wrongly oriented and move much too fast to read easily. On the positive, the constant movement, colour and technology, does give life and energy in keeping with the high-tech sensibility of the tower.
There is just too much to absorb in ‘City of Ideas’. The effect is overwhelming. Vladimir Belogolovsky bravely stepped outside customary boundaries with his untried curatorial approach and is to be commended for his sustained commitment to exploring the ideas behind architecture today. It is to be hoped he can find a more effective vehicle to achieve such a worthy, if ambitious ambitious, objective.
Philip Drew is a Sydney architectural historian and critic. He is currently researching the career of the 19th century English master sculptor, T.V. Wran, who carved many major sandstone sculptures in Sydney after 1870