There is an underlying structure of obedience in every architectural gig – always obey your master. No matter what their origin, upbringing, or birthright, there must be orthodox subservience to one’s master.
A slavery to politeness has been undermining exhibition venues for years – a spectrum of habits comprising the preaching of safeguards, the forwarding of content to gallery assistants, and indirect communications. Direct touch has been abandoned as an approach; bravery has been replaced by clinically detailed CC: (carbon copy) neutrality and proofread pdfs.
The exhibition design architecture process is subject to forced politeness, a behavioural mode that is suffocating contemporary museography. There is no force or lexicon available, no grounds for intricacy; the only thing that seems to matter are useless billing hours spent reconstructing, re-enacting, and babysitting elementary display policies that are on the verge of being incubation machines.
A reality check is that this is just art exhibition making, and no lives are at risk. In an architect’s life, exhibition making is an unparalleled hobby; it allows for no true effort and it justifies any literacy – there is nothing through which to assess an architect’s intellect, proficiency of referencing, and European semi-dumbness in exhibition design. In other words, display making has always been perceived as a win-win bet against any odds; it permits presence, there is no real risk management as no exhibition design has ever proven fatal, and it is jpeg-friendly.
This paradisiac context has resulted in a flourishing of waves, trends, and two-line press releases. As CV currency among architects, exhibition design constitutes the next level of companionship, up to six months of highs and lows bearing on every category of long-term relationship roles, such as building works. The results are innocuous and, in most cases, striking. Just like what happens in love stories.
There is a well-trodden Hollywood boulevard for the dead heroes of exhibition design, filled with concrete fingerprints by mostly known masters. There is nobody I particularly venerate among those names, but I have a separate name-dropping list of my own personal idolatry: Fritz von Valtier (a flat and basic German precursor to Herbert Beyer) and Paul Rudolph. These two had core display values and were less guilty than most of the Continental architects who were engaged in redefining exhibition strategies during and after the Second World War – two ideal top-level sparring partners. For readers who do not know, Fritz von Valtier was an exhibition architect who designed seminal large-scale propaganda exhibitions in Nazi Germany in the late 1930s. The relevant concept is Schandausstellungen (a word I got to know thanks to Micheal Tymkiw and an amazing book I received as a gift just before starting work on this exhibition); von Valtier and his associates were masters of this genre of ‘shame exhibitions’, the proxy version of contemporary collective exhibitions, but with a dark twist; these curators were called Propagandaleiter, and their work had no restrictions.
Design elements consisted only of woodwork and an assembly of large surfaces for the display of soon-to-be-dead image posters, nothing augmented or extraordinary; the relevance of these display works seems to act as a page-turner only for architectural readers. In the same vein, slightly shifting in time and geographical location, was the American version of the Propagandaleiter, incarnated in Edward Steichen and the buzz-cut architect Paul Rudolph, an architectural Protestant and one of my heroes.
Paul Rudolph was the unsung star of many projects; he was instrumental to boldness in exhibition design. His design for The Family of Man predates most contemporary concerns with art display by means of architectural Protestantism. Like von Valtier, he understood the futility of high design and the progressive charm of mobilisation. Neither of the two was conscious (simply for lack of time-travel technology) that a re-evaluation of their projects would inherently cause an automatic critique of the current display design system.
The general outcome of any exhibition environments consists of a set of images suitable for press distribution and a guided tour during the opening event. Most of the design work, papers, corrected drawings, working development schemes, and so forth will simply get an afterlife in an archive folder. Exhibitions, in the rare cases where there is a necessity to withdraw from the assumed standard gallery set-up, are packaged information.
The Family of the Man is no different, and is generally considered today to be a seminal exhibition – seven images and one drawing define our understanding of it. It is a fact that the overview axonometric plan showing the 1955 MoMA scheme has been heralded as a marvellous construction of copied and blown-up iconographic material in a not-necessarily linear configuration. Less is known about Paul Rudolph’s involvement with Steichen. Steichen was a pervasive curator; his exhibitions (ever since his involvement with the US Naval Aviation Photographic Unit) had distinctive traits and features, but these were almost obliterated by an identity scan for architects involved in the design of his exhibition. The agglomeration and recursiveness of patterns, halted planes, and depth games – always at play in developing and organising large image surfaces – left no space for recognisable architectural footprints.
An autonomy rebellion was then launched by Herbert Beyer, who stole Steichen’s image-processing brain and single-handedly created a 360-degree theory around it. Steichen needed ‘ghostwriters’ for image environments and Paul Rudolph gave his curator friend what he needed: exact museography, as in crowd control, seven wooden walls, and collateral functional spatial frames – nothing more than that. Less is known of the planning involved and architectural expertise Rudolph gave Steichen on the deployability of a show that travelled the USA (with the first material of the show actually going out in 1962) or how and when Kenzo Tange’s parallel staging in Tokyo was suggested by the American Brutalist. When we started working on this design we went through multiple iterations, from revamping the hangar architecture hosting the travelling exhibition to slogans such as ‘Adaptation over sameness’, building 16 identical galleries with slightly altered proportions to enable artist cocooned-exhibit-life critical autonomy and a fledging war against design.
The lesson we learned was that design and experimentation had no impact on the way the actual infrastructure of shows is made: now most materials available for custom display design are dominated by one standard – fairs. They are responsible for the material transformation of and standards applied in most exhibition works planned today. Fairs, being the biggest client, set the standards for wall structures and panelisation measures. These materials, after their first use in global car/art/weapons/sport/leisure/wedding (etc.) fairs, are then redistributed and rented to a museum for the average life of an exhibition (six months), so that any current exhibition engineering is ruled by easy assemblage, self-supporting panels, and genetic booth heritage.
In a way, nothing has changed since Rudolph (or his German precursor) hinted that design work for art exhibitions mostly deals with linear masses and not being ‘cool’. So we did our best to forget to obey, forget any master, exorcise any ghost, be complicit, do some maths, or follow some rules.
The entire exhibition design takes the reuse of 16,500 square metres of pre-used fair exhibition walls into account, merging the normative praxis of galleries and standardised features. Mimicking current spatial behaviour and the assumption that the only thing that every project manages to understand is the word ‘walls’, with adjunct lengths, sizes, and depths. The exhibition design reprises the high deployability of the original by using and restoring the current commodity in global exhibition design – self-supporting walls. Due to the high demand for standard partitions by large-scale art fairs, the current market for exhibition design materials is overfed by monothematic architectural elements in the form of 5x1 m and 3x1 m honeycombed wall partitions. We found an IRL rendering technology that mixes HydroPaint and traditional RAL palettes. This technology is constituted by Truck Logistics with no precautions; all wood panels comprising the walls will be coloured in a standard choice of colours for preservation, and will be stored and arranged in a huge warehouse in which companies traditionally store materials for fairs (they will be used in the meantime). The storage and transportation of the partitions to Luxembourg will wear out the paint and downgrade each of the walls. It is basically 1955 again, but with contemporary infrastructures. Ghosts will never truly go away; neither will exhibitions.