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The Canadian Centre for Architecture gets reflective in The Museum is Not Enough

A Life Well Lived

The Canadian Centre for Architecture gets reflective in The Museum is Not Enough

The opening spread of The Museum is Not Enough. (Courtesy the CCA)
A white cover that reads The Museum is Not Enough
The cover of The Museum is Not Enough. (Courtesy the CCA)

What can an institution like the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) do, for architecture and for the world at large? The Museum is Not Enough offers a not unexpected answer. While the CCA certainly does what museums do—collecting architectural archives, producing exhibitions, running a research center—the scope of its ambition mirrors the vastness of contemporary dilemmas. Museums are institutions with social agency, but their power is dwarfed by the issues they are tempted to tackle. The CCA’s location in Montreal highlights this ambivalence: it is central by disciplinary measures but geographically and politically peripheral. This situation has inculcated a strong avant-garde spirit at the CCA. To pick a few examples of current topics, the CCA has made a film on homelessness (What It Takes to Make a Home), exhibitions on happiness and the medicalization of architecture (Our Happy Life and Imperfect Health), and an illustrated book on fossil fuel (Goodbye, Oil) that is part of a sweeping “counter-history of the modern Canadian environment.” Seemingly no big issue is left untouched, and every discursive genre is conscripted for the fight.

The Museum is Not Enough muses through the many roles of contemporary architectural institutions in a series of nine open-ended manifestos. Its timing is calculated, arriving just as the CCA’s director of the past 15 years, Mirko Zardini, has stepped down and Giovanna Borasi has been promoted to take his place. The book was a group effort (Borasi and Zardini are joined by Albert Ferré, Francesco Garutti, Jayne Kelley as editors), though it is written in the first person. It feels like listening in on an ongoing internal conversation among a close-knit team: “I try to act as a frame for making sense of, anticipating, and projecting on the world. I do this by focusing on architecture.”

The quick but thoughtful writing draws out the complexities and contradictions of its subject matter. To say it is not complacent about the role of the CCA would be an understatement. The dialogue often tips into a hyper-self-awareness that recalls David Foster Wallace: “I’m not sure to what degree we should protect (fetishize?) the experience of being in the archives, of uncovering something seemingly tangential or trivial that unlocks a new idea… Maybe we’ve become a little too obsessed with this. I know I’m also responsible.” Emerging from this self-questioning are gems of clarity. A series of interviews stand out in this regard. Kalle Lasn, the founder and editor-in-chief of Adbusters, says easily that “architects are living in their own bubble” and distills simple advice: “follow the money, always, and maintain a healthy allergy to cant… It’s about who benefits, where, how, and why.” A lively conversation between Kieran Long and Mark Wigley also catches the eye for its comparison of archives to graveyards—“that’s where the action is.” The book coheres as a multi-genre, multidisciplinary provocation for architects to be both more critical and more open to discovering vitality in unexpected places.

Interior spread of a book
Pages 50 through 51 of The Museum is Not Enough. (Courtesy the CCA)

This attitude was imparted on the CCA by its founder, Phyllis Lambert—“we try to make people think”—and it is echoed on the last page of book in a quote from Gordon Matta-Clark: “Here is what we have to offer you… confusion guided by a clear sense of purpose.” The purpose here does not focus on buildings or representations. Sometimes it is presented with a dash of mysticism: the chapter on exhibitions starts by noting that “architecture is a way of reading and redefining the present, the society in which we’re living and working.”

For all its questioning, however, The Museum is Not Enough offers a reassuring sense that architecture is a field that takes in all things. Pictures of architecture abound, but they don’t dominate. The freeform but careful graphic design (by Studio Jonathan Hares) works primarily through juxtaposition, generating connections between disparate words and things: Archival photographs, floorplans, scribbled questionnaires, screenshots of the CCA’s website, book covers, furtive snapshots taken through security doors. What emerges is a sense of the hidden order of the material world and the agency of design over everything from scrap of paper to vast landscapes. There is an inescapable sense that a vague institutional or disciplinary “center” is somehow at work to organize these operations. Architecture is in charge.

A book spread with a pink border
Pages 182 and 183 of The Museum is Not Enough. (Courtesy the CCA)

The book’s concluding chapter helpfully asks “what else might be enough?” The answer is somehow both specific and vaguely allegorical: to “really think differently” we need to “inhabit another persona” or “become a strange animal.” Before planning we may need to forget. A series of events at the CCA called Come and Forget led audiences on “fruitful acts of mass amnesia.” This invitation to clear the slate is followed by a conceptual art piece in the form of a series of fictive grant applications for possible institutions, modeled after a proposal by Gordon Matta-Clark. This is all certainly food for thought. One senses affinity with the loose movement in art known as Relational Aesthetics. Maybe the gallery is not a place for hanging paintings but rather for conversation and enjoying a meal? The chief curator has, after all, been hosting a series of events called Curatorial Loaf, which do just that. What may be enough, then, is something very much in the spirit of Montreal: encouraging lives to be well-lived.

Interior spread of a book with a black page
Pages 166 and 167 from The Museum is Not Enough. (Courtesy the CCA)

The Museum is Not Enough will appeal to architects and curators for its ability to transport readers into the backstage conversations at an institution not afraid to interrogate itself and its major subject. It is clear by the end that architects very often work like curators even if they like to imagine themselves producing iconic works of art. They set the stage for things to happen. And they face the same challenge as curators: museums have a history as rarified citadels of cultural value, separate from the messy life of society around them. The Museum is Not Enough shows that it doesn’t have to be this way. Intelligence and beauty emerge also from the mundane.