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You’ll learn more about architecture in Somerset than in Chicago

Ellis Woodman
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Ellis Woodman has come to realise that he doesn’t like most architecture exhibitions

‘Will I see you in Chicago?’ In email exchanges over the summer, I found myself confronted by this awkward question with increasing frequency. The larger part of my address book seemed to be heading to the Windy City for its second architecture biennale and yet, for all my respect for this year’s curators, Johnston Marklee, and enthusiasm for the work of many of the participants, the truth was I didn’t have the first intention of getting on a plane.  

My pat response to such enquiries was: ‘Why would I want to go to a biennale? My entire life is a biennale!’ But the true reason for my reluctance was simpler and, I suspect, more widely held. I have come to realise – and I say this as someone with a number of curatorial positions on my CV – that I don’t like most architecture exhibitions. Or, at least, I rarely understand what purpose they serve. 

I remember a few years ago talking to a curator from an art background who had just curated his first architecture show. He had a hit on his hands, not least, he felt, because he had declined to include any plans, deeming them too difficult for a general audience. ‘What’s the next big exhibition that architects are excited about?‘ he asked, and a long, embarrassing silence followed.

What I wanted to say to him was that architecture exhibitions – at least big architecture exhibitions – aren’t for architects. They don’t contribute to the discourse in the way that books, lectures and magazines can. They are effective at describing cultural developments that have taken place and may also – and this is certainly how the Chicago Biennial has been received – serve a role in the power politics of the profession, announcing a changing of the guard from one generation to the next. But by the time a curator gets around to staging an institutional show about the latest architectural tendency, you can be certain that the creative action has moved elsewhere.

Curating an exhibition isn’t like writing an essay … when you are making an exhibition, two ideas are one too many

Big exhibitions also represent a distinctly blunt instrument for communicating a complex subject. A visitor might, at most, spend a couple of hours looking at one and, in the context of a biennale, that window of engagement will certainly be a good deal narrower. The best tip I received when I curated the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2008 was from the architect and sometime curator William Mann. ‘Curating an exhibition isn’t like writing an essay,’ he told me. ‘The ideas don’t build one upon the next. In fact, when you are making an exhibition, two ideas are one too many.’ 

What one wants from any exhibition is a visual and intellectual intensity that is hard to sustain above a certain scale and quite impossible across the trade-fair dimensions of a biennale.

Markl83326

Markl83326

Peter Märkli: Drawings of facade studies, 1980-99. Pen on paper

The one architectural exhibition programme that I have consistently enjoyed in recent years is that presented by charitable trust Drawing Matter. Its latest, a show of drawings by the Swiss architect Peter Märkli and sculptures by his mentor and collaborator Hans Josephsohn, opened last weekend at Hauser & Wirth’s gallery in Somerset. As a small show of very beautiful objects brought together in considered dialogue, it is a characteristic Drawing Matter production. 

No one is under any illusions that this will draw a large audience, and no attempt has been made to dumb-down the presentation in the hope of finding one. It demands no expert knowledge but does ask the visitor to look at the work being presented with the same seriousness that Märkli and Josephsohn brought to its creation. We are afforded privileged access to their creative process and begin to see the world through their eyes.

I recommend the journey. You will likely have the gallery to yourself but, here, you can learn something about architecture.

Ellis Woodman is director of the Architecture Foundation and an AJ columnist

Read a Q&A with exhibition curator Niall Hobhouse here

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