In 1931, when the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) was still in its infancy, Philip Johnson sent a letter outlining his curatorial philosophy to Mary Quinn Sullivan, one of the institution’s founding trustees. Give him credit for brass. At the time, the museum had neither a department of architecture nor plans to start one, and Johnson was but a 24-year-old with exactly zero curatorial experience. He did, however, have some very concrete ideas about the way the museum should address its audience. “I believe every show should have a point,” he wrote. “An exhibition planned with the idea of explaining and developing a certain problem or aspect of modern art is much more certain to attract the public.”
Two years later, he set the standard for how one might actually curate such an exhibit, and won himself a department. A bloodless title was just about the only non-polemical thing about the landmark Modern Architecture: International Exhibition—aka the “International Style” show. For a century, we’ve been living with the consequences of its aestheticized vision of a modern architecture removed from the realm of politics.
That history struck me as especially pertinent when thinking about 9+1 Ways of Being Political: 50 Years of Political Stances in Architecture and Urban Design, the inaugural show from the newest member of MoMA’s architectural department, Pedro Gadanho. In the sense that it is clearly conceived to make a point, 9+1 falls squarely within the Johnsonian tradition, though Gadanho is trying to locate rather than efface the politics within architectural practice. “Current shifts in the profession announce the rebirth of political engagement as an essential element of architecture’s social relevance,” he writes in the show’s opening panel.
Gadanho has been quite explicit about his polemical ambitions at MoMA. In a recent interview in the magazine Domus—headline: “Curating Is the New Criticism”—he pronounced criticism dead, its function assumed by the curator. “We can mobilize materials to which the general public can react to more effectively than criticism can,” he said.
He’s right, in a sense. The power of traditional criticism has, inarguably, diminished with the fall of print journalism and the rise of the Internet, although I would suggest that this power was never that great in the first place. Though there are now countless outlets for criticism, there are few with a large readership or the funds to support a full-time professional. Critics, meanwhile, seem to be engaging in curatorial activities as never before. This past year Evening Standard critic Kieran Long served as assistant director of the Venice Architecture Biennale. The American entry to that event was curated by a team of current and reformed writers, including the editor-in-chief of this magazine.
Who wouldn’t envy the steady stream of bodies filtering through MoMA’s architectural galleries? The question is, what exactly is Gadanho telling them? Even after viewing his show several times, I wasn’t quite sure, though I found it well worth the repeated visits.
The essential premise of 9+1 is that, despite economic pressures, the architectural avant-garde has been, for the past half century, deeply politicized. Gadanho has mined the museum’s collection to illustrate the various forms of this engagement. Somewhat arbitrarily, he has divided the strategies of that activism into nine chronological but overlapping thematic categories (hence the show’s title), making it at once a survey of the collection and an operating manual for contemporary practice. (A pair of related video works constitute the “+1.”)
The effect is not unlike a lecture delivered by a particularly gifted member of the architectural professoriat, which is no accident. Gadanho is Portugese by birth, but hails from the borderless nation that is architectural academia. (He has a doctorate in architecture and mass media from the University of Porto, and served on its faculty.) Behind a lectern, the breadth of his knowledge, his sympathy for architectural culture, and his native optimism make him a sympathetic propagandist. But those qualities don’t seamlessly translate to the walls of MoMA’s galleries.
One of the ironies of this show is that, while it promotes a most proactive architectural culture, its own language—and there is a lot of expository wall text—is rather anemic and prone to academic jargon. A good example: Gadanho’s rubric for a thematic section devoted to radical experiments in home design is “Interrogating Shelter.”
This might seem like splitting hairs, but it gets to an important issue: Just who is the intended audience of the exhibit, and what is the best way to reach it? In his Domus interview, Gadanho references Umberto Eco’s theory of the “open work” as a source of his curatorial philosophy, specifically arguing that it is possible in a single show to “address different audiences with differing cultural baggage, allowing them to respond to what is there in their own ways.”