For addressing what some consider to be an extremely niche topic, As Seen: Exhibitions that Made Architecture and Design History makes a convincing argument for the importance of exhibitions in broader design. While the book may not convince those who are already skeptical of the role of exhibition in the design fields, those who are at all interested will find it an invaluable resource for understanding historical and contemporary exhibition practices. Using 11 benchmark exhibitions, editor Zoë Ryan builds a conversation between a number of today’s most noted curators, architects, designers, and academics through a series of essays. The end result is a brief critical history of historic and contemporary exhibitions that changed the way architecture and design are understood.
Ryan, the John H. Bryan Chair and curator of architecture and design at the Art Institute of Chicago, opens the book with an argument for each of the exhibitions and their places in history. These exhibitions include: This is Tomorrow (1956), the IBM Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair (1964), aper22 (1970), Italy: The New Domestic Landscape (1972), Man Transforms (1976), Memphis (1981), Droog (1993), Mutant Materials in Contemporary Design (1995–97), Massive Change: The Future of Global Design (2004– 06), Sense of the City: An Alternate Approach to Urbanism (2005), and Super Normal: Sensations of the Ordinary (2007). The remainder of the book is divided up into sections covering the exhibitions themselves, their catalogs, their critical reception, and thoughts on their lasting impact on the design fields.
Interestingly, as is pointed out multiple times in the text, many of these exhibitions were not necessarily popular or critically successful when they were first on show. This is Tomorrow, which was shown at the Whitechapel Art Gallery (now the Whitechapel Gallery) in London, was covered extensively by the press, and called everything from confusing to exciting.
Memphis—which ran in what would now be called a collateral gallery, located at the edge of the Salone del Mobile in Milan—caused a stir among critics and designers alike, some feeling like the show was some sort of media stunt to elevate the career of Ettore Sottsass. Notably, there are no photographs of the Memphis show. The IBM Pavilion structure, designed by Eero Saarinen and Roche Dinkeloo was not altogether loved, but the interior exhibition, Think, produced by Ray and Charles Eames, received rave reviews and a constant stream of visitors. In all cases, the book lays out why we should care about these shows today, despite or thanks to their initial reception. It is carefully pointed out early in the book that the most recent show was over ten years ago, in order to maintain a critical distance from early reactions.
Even with this distance, the book does bring some of the shows in very close with its choice of contributors. In more than one case, curators from the shows covered are given a chance to comment on the larger topic of exhibitions, if not their own work. Mirko Zardini outlines (in a text originally published in Log 20) what it means to show architectural work in Montreal, where his show Sense of the City was exhibited at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA). Paola Antonelli talks more directly about the role of digital content and how it relates to her show Mutant Materials, which was the first show at the Museum of Modern Art to be accompanied by a website.
A prevailing theme throughout the essays, if not the book as a whole, is the changing nature and role of exhibitions throughout time. Sylvia Lavin discusses the allure of contemporary exhibitions thanks to their blend of demonstration (full-scale architecture-artifacts), aesthetics (design as art), and information, all of which developed in design and architectural exhibitions in stops and starts in the past century. Meredith Carruthers dedicates an essay to the exhibition catalogs, another topic that pops up throughout the book. Stepping back even further from the exhibitions themselves, Penelope Dean and Alice Rawsthorn specifically discuss the changing shape of design criticism in the form of exhibition reviews over time.
The physical book, designed by Project Projects, is appropriately reminiscent of a museum catalog. Highly stylized graphic design, rich imagery, and bold use of multiple paper stocks and colors make it an artifact in itself, an idea discussed extensively in the text about catalogs. This is doubly fitting, as the genesis of the book was a research project conducted by Ryan and displayed at the 2014 Istanbul Design Biennial and eventually as a show at the Art Institute. While not actually a catalog of that show, the meta idea of a book about an exhibition about exhibitions seems fitting for the topic, more so than a simple catalog.
As Seen is not for everybody. Those who believe that the field of architecture and design is most importantly a professional one will likely find the conversation about long over exhibitions esoteric if not unnecessary. This book is not for them, though. For those who are interested in the expression of theoretical and avant-garde design concepts through exhibitions (which seems to be a growing number, considering the recent explosion of biennales and triennials around the world), As Seen: Exhibitions that Made Architecture and Design History is the closest thing to a textbook on the subject.
As Seen: Exhibitions that Made Architecture and Design History
Art Institute of Chicago, $30.49