The latest offering from the Mori Art Museum lives up to its big name: “Archilab: New Experiments in Architecture, Art and the City, 1950-2005.” The first architecture exhibition at the Mori, this is a big show, ambitious in both scale and manner of presentation. Featuring drawings, videos and maquettes of some 220 projects by 90 architects, “Archilab” is being presented in association with FRAC (Fonds Regional d’Art Contemporain du Centre), a radical architecture center located on the Loire in Orleans, France.
Since its inception in 1991, FRAC has amassed one of the world’s foremost collections of architectural models. With assistance from the city of Orleans and the French Ministry of Culture and Communication, FRAC has, for the last six years, invited the world’s leading visionary architects to participate in its annual “Archilab” event. Charting a sometimes choppy course between pragmatism and utopia, FRAC has brought some of their best (with a few items on loan from the Centre Pompidou as well) to the Mori for a show that puts man and his world into perspectives that are in turn startling and amusing, confounding and breathtaking. The Centre’s director, Marie Anjou-Brayer, succinctly describes the FRAC philosophy as follows: “We try to keep an open mind.”
In his “Genealogy of Morals,” the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that: “Everyone who has ever built anywhere a ‘new heaven’ first found the power thereto in his own hell.” And so it is not surprising that this exhibition opens with visions of utopia born out of the rubble of post-war Europe.
The first of the four sections is titled “The Pulsating City — The Body as Laboratory” and sees man at a time when the modernism of the 1920s and ’30s was still crippled by its association with the war. The opening note is set by none other than the Situationists, that wacky bunch of ’60s French avant-gardists who proposed mapping a city’s different neighborhoods by their “psychogeography,” or immediate, subjective effect on one’s consciousness. Guy Debord and the Situationists did more than reject existing values, they mocked them. In one of their tracts, it was suggested that if Paris were attacked again, the city should be barricaded with the treasures from the Louvre, as fine art apparently meant more to modern man than life itself.
Suspicious of his urban environment, man seeks reassurance in natural forms. Here the houses and models, many in clay, are shaped more like caves or hollows than like boxes. The politics of this section are also the most radical found in the show.
In “The Endless City — An Expanding Environment,” we see the attempts at transcendence — structures reaching to the sky, floating above the cities below. French-Hungarian architect Yona Friedman, who is still active at 82 and participated in the Yokohama Triennale in 2001, projected “spatial cities” over New York, Paris and London, as if citizens had to move to another plane to continue to inhabit increasingly dense environments. I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but in this section the gallery has a panoramic view on Tokyo, sprawled out far below.
In the section titled “The Deconstructed City — Creating a New Syntax,” there is a focus on the Italian collective Superstudio and their work in the ’70s and ’80s. Speaking at a curator’s seminar, philosopher and critic Frederic Migayrou, who has been with FRAC since its inception, said, “For Superstudio, in the city now the grid was closed, and there was no escape, no choice, so they deal with the grid. From this point, we had become voluntary prisoners of architecture.”
Here, among the famous and the influential architects we find Rem Koolhaas, Bernard Tschumi and Polish-born Daniel Libeskind, whose angular skyscrapers will fill the World Trade Center site. Featured in “Archilab” is a large-scale model of an ’80s Libeskind project intended to be built on the west side of the Berlin Wall, which featured its own 60-meter-high wall facing the East. There is no shortage of satire and wink-of-the-eye humor in this show — for example, the look at James Wines’ ’70s Best Products Company (an American retailer) Showroom, which featured a crumbling facade, is fun for the film of the sideburned architect expounding the rationale behind the facade and the reactions of the flabbergasted locals.
It is worth noting that many of the projects here, so-called “conceptual architecture,” were never intended to actually be built. But in the children’s building blocks and cylinders, in the parasite cells attached to the sides of other buildings, and in the balloon rooms, we find the hint of possibilities for the lives we could have if we actually inhabited these sort of places — an exciting exercise in imagination.
In the final section, “The Contextualized City — A Computerized Symbiosis,” we see contemporary visions of the future — ever-grander projects, including “smart houses” controlled by computers. A foreboding thought is that these models may reflect the way we think we want to live, in the same manner the one-piece molded plastic room and modular houses represented the way people thought they wanted to live back in the 1950s. As someone who has suffered with a “unit bath,” I would suggest we be careful what we wish for — we might get it.
Throughout “Archilab,” the Mori galleries have been adjusted to reflect their respective displays. Floors have been contoured, carpeted with materials such as Astroturf, and so on. In all, this is a very well-crafted exhibition. Of particular appeal is the fact that while some of the models are re-creations, the great majority are originals. It is interesting to follow the evolution from clay and wood to styrofoam and wire, to plastics and steel, to computer-aided design, which has taken place over the last half century. There are also a number of archive videos playing throughout, some hands-on stuff, and plenty of schemas and hand jottings by architects.
The curating is decidedly Franco-Japanese-centric, these countries account for about a third of the architects, while conspicuous by their absence are the likes of Buckminster Fuller, Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, I.M. Pei and Frank Gehry. Nonetheless, FRAC and the Mori have put together a thought-provoking and visually stunning show, which will have appeal well beyond the architectural community.
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