Looking at the wider definitions of architecture, Marcin Szczelina chats with Carson Chan, co-director of PROGRAM in Berlin. To continue the debate, read the current issue of Aesthetica for a feature on Architectures of Social Change.
Firstly, I would like to ask you about your definition of architecture. What is Architecture?
Architecture is the spatial practice of a body of knowledge dealing with socio-historical contexts, structures and subjective experience.
You have said that “not all buildings are architecture.” Can you expand on this idea?
Buildings are the physical structures we live in; they protect us from the elements. Architecture is when we wish to communicate ideas or concepts through built structures. Traditionally, the architectural ideas conveyed through buildings have been about lifestyle and socio-political ideologies. Architects have also tried to express literary concepts such as deconstruction through architecture to varying degrees of success. Architecture does not have to occur in built structures, but we may find moments of architecture in many other disciplines. The music of John Cage, the artwork of Olafur Eliasson, are obvious examples of architecture outside of building design.
You have been a guest speaker at events such as Ex-Architects Lecture in Wroclaw, Poland. What is your stance on activities such as these, which address the problem of the identity of architecture? Does asking such questions help define the architecture itself?
Yes, I would say that such activities are absolutely necessary for architecture—particularly when there are non-architects in the audience. Your average person engages regularly with opinions on film, literature and music, but rarely gives much thought to buildings, let alone architecture. I hope to engage people in thinking about the built world, and the meaning of the experiences it both provides and produces.
How does the curating of architecture different from that of the fine arts?
Curating is the process of mediating between the work and the audience. Both artwork and architecture need to be contextualized for it to become expressible. Work installed incorrectly is distorted. Imagine Duchamp’s Fountain installed in a place that doesn’t signify its artistic intentions! Art and architecture are different disciplines, so naturally, their mediation requires different techniques.
What is the role of the architectural exhibition?
Traditionally, the architecture exhibition has been a place for the display of representations of architecture- such as models and drawings. I think architecture exhibitions can themselves show architecture without recourse to representation. Exhibitions are produced in spaces, and the experience of space, for me, is the primary way we perceive architecture.
As the Director of the PROGRAM Gallery, which deals with presenting exhibitions that break the boundaries between art and architecture, does the fact that your point of reference is architecture make it a challenge to find a “middle ground”?
Architecture, as I mentioned earlier, can exist in media other than building design, such as art or music or installation, which are much easier to exhibit in gallery spaces. One of the aims of PROGRAM is to test the boundaries between architecture and other disciplines. In doing so we can know to what extent architecture is still architecture, even though it doesn’t behave like a building anymore. If architecture is traditionally embodied in buildings, which take a long time to build and cost millions to realise, then manifesting it in a gallery space allows for more its most experimental form. The gallery becomes a place where ideas are vetted, and mistakes are made.
Can you tell us a little bit about the exhibitions you are currently working on?
At PROGRAM, we’ve become somewhat interested in dark spaces. By darkening the exhibition space, the visitor has to use their entire sensual faculty to navigate. We just presented an exhibition by an experimental architecture installation group called Raurouw. They created four different spaces with lasers arranged in the four stages of loss and mourning. The exhibition with Miessen, Pflugfelder and McCusker was in a dark space, as were two other ones we made last year. I have also recently curated a solo exhibition in Milan with Luca Pozzi. Luca works with theoretical physics in his artwork and it was a challenge to convey them spatially in the exhibition. We ended up using different types of light with different tones, temperatures, and luminosity to show the variety and variability of ideas in these theories.
Before the Venice Architecture Biennale you were a bit wary about the vagueness of this year’s theme. After visiting the event what do you have to say about architect’s ability to communicate their ideas and the meaning behind their architecture?
I would still say that the title, People Meet in Architecture, is pretty loose, to the point where it’s almost meaningless. Sejima, the director, had a strong statement in her catalogue text, and I think her ideas to use space as a primary material to express architectural ideas really come through. The arsenal, which was the only part completely curated by her, holds together as an exhibition quite well—it was like a succession of different experiences that activated different senses and positions towards architecture. I also enjoyed how Sejima included artists in the exhibition. The success here was that she showed artwork made by artists, unlike Aaron Betsky’s exhibition, which asked architects to make installations.
You often speak about different ways of exhibiting architecture and new curatorial strategies presenting or perhaps lacking in architectural discourse. Do you think that biennales really present innovative ideas and theories and are they also meaningful for non-architectural audiences?Biennials are more celebrations than anything. Most of the exhibitors are invited with less than a year’s time to make something. It’s a length of time that artists are comfortable working in, but most professional architects aren’t used to completing projects within the span of several months—let alone in a medium they are not accustomed to working in. There are always interesting ideas when people do work for the sake of exposing it to a community of like minded people, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that bienniales, by definition, are able to innovate ideas and theories.
What, for you, have been the most inspiring exhibitions of recent times?
I recently toured through the Hansa Viertel with some of my students. The Berlin neighbourhood, made in the late 1950s, was intended to be an exhibition of actual buildings, and moving around buildings by Alvaro Aalto, Egon Eiermann, Walter Gropius and Oscar Niemeyer, while observing how people actually live in and amongst them was a pretty satisfying experience. The organic, modern utopian ideals of the exhibition are still communicated quite clearly. It still retains the ideology active in its inception.
Marcin Szczelina (b.1982) is an architecture critic and curator based in Wroclaw, Poland.
For further information on PROGRAM visit www.programonline.de