The Magazine

Building Blocs

An exhibition at the intersection of politics, art, and urban design.

Feb 11, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 21 • By EVE TUSHNET
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The phrase “political architecture” evokes the idea of architecture for and by politicians: a blank-faced Ministry of Truth; a giant Mussolini head on a wedding cake; or just the sullen civic compromises which remove anything distinctive because it might be offensive. And “architecture for the people” has mostly meant architecture imposed on the people, with the government as landlord. You’ll live in my future and you’ll like it!

This show at the Museum of Modern Art is an attempt to acknowledge, but get beyond, these criticisms. It opens with a critique: Gunter Rambow’s poster “Utopie Dynamit.” A giant blockbuster building blows open, and the shards form a border of tiny portraits, presumably showing the former inhabitants of the project. They hold chalkboards with their names and short messages. As the museum’s caption states:

What had begun as a utopian vision ended in architecture—large-scale housing projects, for instance—often perceived as impersonal, formulaic, and insensitive to the needs of everyday people.

 

MoMA takes its definitions lightly. There are 10 segments of the show, but the boundary between “Occupying Social Borders” (#8) and “Interrogating Shelter” (#9) is pretty fuzzy. And a good half of the pieces on display could have fit under #2, “Fiction and Dystopia.” The show tries to group artworks—including video of people actually building and using things, architectural blueprints, propaganda posters, and scale models—simultaneously by theme and by time period, which doesn’t quite work. The chronological narrative is strong, telling a story of repeated chastening of utopianism followed by a revival of smaller-scale hope; but the thematic grouping is forced.

Even in the show’s earliest installments there’s a sense that actual existing people need more control of their landscape, rather than having to change to fit the dreams of the architects. Cedric Price’s “Fun Palace” design (1959-61), which the show notes was “fully intended to be built,” is a giant industrial funfair with tons of scaffolding and lights, a kind of Soviet McDonald’s playland. Yet this imposing thing is meant to be constantly redesigned by its users. It’s a “flexible framework into which programmable spaces can be plugged.”

And in these earliest segments there is already a science-fictional sense of time: We’re always looking back on the beautiful future that never was. The aesthetic of decay and fading (familiar to us from Instagram) can be seen in Bernard Tschumi’s “Manhattan Transcripts,” which show blurred, degraded newsprint photographs of buildings. Arata Isozaki contributes an image of skyways among the ruins. There are also decaying space cities, a punk-influenced 1980 poster showing an enormous undefeated tree emerging from a tangle of highways, and a series of huge green landscapes in boxes, which tell the story of a utopian/dystopian future world in which the ceiling of your box comes down and crushes you if you rebel against the planners!

In Gordon Matta-Clark’s “Conical Intersect,” from 1975, the artist cut holes through two 17th-century buildings scheduled to be torn down in advance of the construction of the Centre Georges Pompidou. In a video, the holes’ outlines create powerful, jagged lines through which we see sky and birds. The images are reminiscent of the Surrealists: Magritte and—maybe especially—Lee Miller, the Surrealists’ war correspondent. And politically, the piece is fairly reactionary, concerned solely with the destruction of the small old things in the face of the big beautiful schemes. It’s startling to go from this piece to the video advertising Bradford, England’s city beautification scheme, which was crowdsourced to a certain extent, but which still imposes a “collective ambition” on actual inhabitants.

This is not to say that big ideas in architecture can never succeed. But MoMA doesn’t give us any examples of big success in action. We get lovely scale models of a proposed design for a public space in Seville, in which gentle, curving “mushroom-shaped growths” shade a plaza with open spaces for performance and commerce. It was launched before the financial crash but opened, incongruously, after it, in 2011. We never see how it was received. Even the hilltop library of Medellín, Colombia—a heartbreaking statement of hope in the face of violence, something anybody would want to applaud—is only seen from afar. We get photos of slum dwellers in the hills below, shadowed by their new library, but no pictures of people actually walking in and borrowing books.

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