Museum Pieces

Museum Pieces

In the U.S., it seems as if everyone is a lawyer. In Italy, word is that everyone is an architect. Franco Purini, a professor of architecture at Valle Giulia in Rome, characterizes Italy’s 140,000 architects, many of them under-employed, as a “global crisis,” a fact made all the more poignant here because, according to Piero Ostilio Rossi, a professor of architecture at the University of Rome La Sapienza, there is “no social demand for architecture” in Italy anymore.

Such were the opening salvos launched at the “Exhibiting Architecture” conference in Rome, part of the inauguration of the new Zaha Hadid-designed National Museum of the Arts of the 21st Century, aka MAXXI. Columbia’s dean Mark Wigley and Purini exchanged laments, with a chorus of sad nods from other panelists, about the “rather dismal state of architecture in Italy” with nothing of greatness emerging from the hands of Italian architects since the 1970’s (Renzo Piano excepted, said Wigley, despite the hellish corridor walk MAXXI conference attendees were subjected at Piano’s Auditorium of the Parco della Musica in Rome).

Given the heavy underlying theme about the sad state of things in Italy, it is no wonder that the MAXXI is concerned about what it should do with, and even how to justify the architecture portion of Zaha Hadid’s recently completed and entirely empty art and architecture museum. To air some ideas, the MAXXI assembled 28 prominent directors, curators, scholars, and archivists from Europe and North Americas’ art and architecture museums, centers, and universities to debate, not only about what MAXXI should be doing with itself, but about what architecture is and, whatever it is, how it should be communicated.

There was passion in these presentations, as well as apparent disconnect in approaches. First, since the MAXXI is to be a 21st century museum, what does that mean for exhibitions that concern 20th century or earlier architecture? And, if the focus is solely on 21st century architecture, what sort of archives can be collected from the ephemera of CAD and the tendency not to save or even print developmental studies?

The critical issue is that, unlike the visual arts, where the painting, photograph, drawing, film, sculpture or installation is, in fact, the final object intended as final by the artist, the only architecture that can ever actually be displayed in a museum is the museum building itself. Drawings, photographs and models capture a moment in the process of making architecture, or fall within the sphere of theoretical or conceptual architecture, but they are “un-buildings,” according to Aaron Betsky, the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum. Architecture “is like music that has to be performed” to be known, added Purini.

What, then, is exhibition-suitable architecture? There may be lessons to be learned from Zaha’s 1:1 scale MAXXI model, but is it architecture, or just a museum piece, and what of the building itself? How do you “tear down the barriers that hinder the communication of architecture?” asked Margherita Guccione, MAXXI’s architecture director.

Despite the charge to develop a 21st century collection for the MAXXI, some panelists, including Francesco Benelli from Columbia University, Marie Ange Brayer from FRAC Orleans, and the historian Jean Louis Cohen concentrated on the problem of protecting and making generally accessible the MAXXI’s vast collection of historical archives, recognizing the importance of such records in the development of past and future architectural theory and the dissemination of ideas.

Meanwhile, others saw the role of an architecture museum as essential to confronting global issues. The public sees architecture as “a discipline of sinners,” said Ole Bouman, director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam. An architecture museum should be a place that helps the public “not deny architecture,” but to see it as “a thing of consequence,” with redemptive powers to heal the world’s health, energy, and social crises.

To that end, a museum or center such as NAI or London’s Architecture Foundation, should engage the public and encourage different sectors to participate in events and debates that make them more aware of architecture and of its interdisciplinary nature. A museum should be a workshop, a factory, a laboratory of experimentation, exploration and change, suggested Gianfranco DioGuardi of the Bari Politecnico.

So what to put, then, in Zaha’s cavernous, winding galleries? Should it be Aaron Betsky’s installations and experiments that expose the visitor to architectural experiences about movement, light, construction, and structure—something along the lines of the Chinese artist Ai WeiWei’s balanced chairs and rods installation at the 2008 Venice Biennale—rather than attempting the impossible capture of a building?

Should the enormous space host the London Architecture Foundation’s Sarah Ichiokas’ 2000-person conversation and debate salons? Or should MAXXI continue in the ancient tradition of displaying drawings, images, and models, and risk, as Wigley suggested they will, “suppressing, taming, and controlling” architecture, instead of liberating it?

At the moment, these questions remain unanswered. Just the other night, however, dancers and musicians in black dresses and much less, whirled about, climbed on top of, suspended themselves from, and led several hundred captivated spectators through Zaha’s undulating architecture. That night, at least, the public had a chance to see the museum perform in nearly every way the MAXXI panelists would have wanted it to.