- Interview by Peter Buchanan & Jason Sayer
A curator’s eye
Although for architects, exhibitions are mostly for enjoying and learning about the works of others, they are also a format to communicate their own ideas. All architects at some time curate and design an exhibition, if only a student end of year show or a client presentation. This interview was to explore the potential of exhibitions as an educative medium, but instead veered off into the equally instructive subjects of curation and design as the alert responses to the exhibition setting as much as to its content. There are lessons here for architects and students in thinking about design as a mode of interactive response as much as of willful imposition and on how to communicate ideas to an audience as effectively as possible.
You trained as an architect, how has that played a role in your curatorial work?
Working curatorially at the Royal Academy brought my architectural training into play. Being attuned to the functioning, operation and activation of space has informed a lot of my curatorial practice and motivated my commissioning. Early on I became especially conscious of the impact the traditional, formal Fine Rooms on people’s experience and perception of events being hosted. As a team, we discussed the layout of chairs, arrival and welcome, how things flowed, the psychology of visitors and speakers. We played with these dynamics in different ways and sought different, sometimes unconventional spaces for different programming. Architecture was not merely a backdrop, but sometimes it became the setting and almost a protagonist.
This was especially so when devising the programming to accompany the exhibition Sensing Spaces which was about heightening the visitors’ sensual responses to the occupation and inhabitation of architecture. We wanted to test perceptions of the spaces and commissioned musicians, choreographers and poets to respond to the various installations in a series of different events. Some, including children’s workshops, were during normal exhibition hours and I observed how what was done, where and how it was orchestrated, complemented, or disrupted the exhibition experience. That gave a curatorial understanding of how architecture is both the foreground and the background to our experiences.
Exhibitions are particularly compelling for an architect as you encounter ideas spatially in a social and communal context. The physical setting, the relationship between works, objects and images, and the viewer is a powerful part of communication. And it is a social experience, unlike reading a book on your own. At an exhibition, you might look at things on your own, in your own mental space; but you know those around have absorbed the same material and perhaps seen it differently. You’re aware of how others spend time, you gauge your own pace. This guides you — someone clearly finding something very interesting intrigues you too. You also converse with companions about what is seen or overheard. As an exhibition maker, you can manipulate the pacing of the visitor, the atmosphere of the exhibition and create moments to encourage shared experience.
Thinking as an architect when curating, I consider the space, ideas and works as one. In some ways, the work makes sense of, or is made sense of, by its setting. The RA’s architecture department occupied many different spaces around the building, a stimulating testbed for a young curator. We used a challenging space with a ramp down to the restaurant, just kind of occupying it. Not a formal space; it was all we could get to present architecture to a wide audience, often visitors who would not have seen architecture exhibits – especially contemporary ones. The programme drew support because it could be experimental and modest, without the financial and reputational pressures of the main galleries.
I enjoyed working with architects in that space as they pushed its limits and brought a particular understanding of scale and use of space. I remember when Ai Weiwei exhibited in the ramp and increased the height of the partitioning boards, so the space contained you more intensely. Such architectural interventions enabled the work to be more present and to feel less like a passage and more like a gallery.
What do you use to gauge an exhibition? What informs your curatorial process?
There is an immediacy to curating, you receive feedback to what you have created. As well as being told, I could observe peoples’ responses. You could gauge the mood of an event and know how effective it had been. The ramp space was not an obvious gallery, with no starting point or place to pause. People walked through some shows oblivious; only on return did it have impact. Curating events and exhibitions is an ongoing process of critical observation and reflection. So, after every event or exhibition we sat down and debriefed. What worked in those spaces? What didn’t and why not? What was the relationship between the activity and the space? What was the impact of how it was managed? And all those architectural concerns.
Important too was reaching a non-professional audience and a cross-disciplinary conversation. Particularly with exhibits in the RA’s public spaces, the audience could be anyone. It was always a provocation to think of how to engage such a broad mix. It’s important also for an audience that conversations with others at an exhibition, event or at after-lecture drinks provided differing perspectives.
What you’ve emphasized, is that curating is a highly active process to promote active viewing.
Maybe because I think of it akin to a design process – testing ideas with and for an audience. You want to be inventive with curating “architecture”. I always wanted to think about exhibitions creatively and playfully — it then becomes exciting.
Curating architecture is a challenging but great experience. It’s often asked, can you ever exhibit architecture? Well, not the building, but you can exhibit architecture as a bigger sphere of ideas. The architect thinks at the scale of the city when designing, though that might not be immediately apparent. So, the question for curators is, how can you make that evident in an exhibition? Architecture is so often undervalued. Can exhibitions make manifest some of these things and expose its generative processes? Doing so helps people understand that a building is not simply a product of inspiration; it comes about in an iterative process involving a huge amount of knowledge, testing, questioning and generating design solutions.
The OMA exhibition, Process Progress at the Barbican comes to mind, particularly the room just covered with emails, correspondence with the client, stakeholders, financiers, consultants and all those who shape buildings. In showing that, the exhibition communicated: what architecture is (or was to the client); how design is a negotiation; and how compromise is required — all the forces that work with and against architecture.
Exhibitions are a space of critical interrogation and research. They can be a research tool for younger architects to explore ideas and speculate, and even for more established firms to reflect on their work. I worked on an exhibition with Herzog & de Meuron for whom it was a means to think through and reassess their own ideas, a chance to progress their practice. This was very different from, say, Renzo Piano for whom the exhibition was a way to present work.
What do you aim to achieve with an exhibition?
I approach curating with the audience in mind. An exhibition must work at different registers. Some people want a quick headline experience and are likely to spend 20 or 30 minutes looking, so it needs to be easily digestible. And then others, an architect or artist perhaps, want to spend hours, reading, examining material to really uncover something for themselves. That’s the brilliance of an exhibition, it can be constructed of layers to meet different needs.
The motivations and expectations of exhibition goers is significant too, particularly those visiting the RA. They make the effort of getting into central London, pay 10, 15, 20 quid and are therefore committed, open to ideas, to being educated. It is a motivated, captive audience which is brilliant.
I’m curious what curatorial tools you initially had, and then discovered you had, and then used to convey certain architectural ideas.
Two experiences while studying architecture were valuable and laid the ground for my future. I was a fourth-year exchange student at McGill University and was involved in a small student-run gallery where we proposed ideas and activations and then implemented them. Then, my final honours thesis at Sydney University was a text accompanied by photographic works about architectural experience. I created an exhibition that was in the building that was the focus of the photographic works.
When I went to the RA as a recent architecture graduate, I have learnt from many people. My first boss, MaryAnne Stevens was a specialist in 19th century art with a love of architecture. I loved watching her hang paintings and talk about the rationale. She would come into the ramp and look at what was going up and review it with me. You can plan extensively, but things become evident in situ, especially the scale and relationship of works, texts and images. Their positioning and distancing can direct visitors’ attention and influence understanding. The height and spacing of works must feel comfortable for most visitors – on a narrow steep ramp, a particular challenge – my architecture training helped. Likewise, each architect who hung the Architecture Room of the Summer Exhibition had different tactics to make sense of the very disparate works that were submitted and create a coherent room. From each I gained new insights, as from art handlers installing works.
If you could condense your approach to curating, what would that look like?
Curating exhibitions involves research, identifying relevant ideas or a thesis, and finding ways to convey them through objects, artefacts or related material, in a spatial setting. Great care, critique and editing is applied when selecting and presenting works. It should be possible for an uninformed audience to perceive the logic and intent of the exhibition. Students do something similar when presenting their own projects — distilling ideas, making them legible.
In the act of curating, the ideas are clarified.