Launch Slideshow

Pedro Gadanho taught at the University of Porto before he was hired at MoMA in December 2011. "9" was his first exhibition for the museum.

Politics and Prose: Pedro Gadanho's First MoMA Show

Politics and Prose: Pedro Gadanho's First MoMA Show

  • Gadanho has argued that "curation is the new criticism."

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    Gadanho has argued that "curation is the new criticism."

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    Noah Kalina

    Pedro Gadanho has argued that "curation is the new criticism."

  • This exhibit by celebrated Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei was mounted for 9.

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    This exhibit by celebrated Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei was mounted for 9.

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    John Wronn

    This exhibit by celebrated Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei, showing his middle finger to the Middle Kingdom, was mounted for "9+1."

  • "9" explored the political side of architecture.

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    "9" explored the political side of architecture.

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    Noah Kalina

    "9+1" explored the political side of architecture.

  • The exhibit featured materials curated from the museum's collection.

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    The exhibit featured materials curated from the museum's collection.

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    Noah Kalina

    The exhibit featured materials curated from the museum's collection.

That may be a necessary approach today, but it seems unrealistic to mount a show using the insular language of the architectural academy and then expect a population not versed in that language to grasp its meaning. The curator’s job, or at least one of them, is to bridge that gap, to frame the ideas of the profession in a visible and verbal language that is at once accessible and inclusive. MoMA will always be subject to a certain charge of elitism—its recent Foreclosed show received unduly harsh criticism on this front—but surely the best way of countering the charge is through clear and straightforward presentation.

There are moments when the show achieves this, and takes almost literal flight. Among the works Gadanho has salvaged from obscurity is Max Peintner’s “Take-Off,” a 1974 perspective drawing of a passenger jet lifting off from an urban highway, which I read as parody of Le Corbusier’s images of planes flitting amidst his modern towers. Gadanho, betraying his subtle humor, has cleverly packaged it with Hans Hollein’s looming “Aircraft Carrier City in Landscape” collage of 1964, itself a wry note on modern urbanism.

But I began to wonder, as I toured the show, if Gadanho’s “open” philosophy was just a little too open. For every trenchant juxtaposition and surprising discovery—and there were many—there were corresponding moments when I was puzzled by precisely what I was intended to take away.

In a section entitled “Enacting Transparency,” for instance, Gadanho presents an array of projects that feature glass façades, some well known (Jean Nouvel’s Cartier Foundation) and some less so (Reiser & Umemoto’s House at Sagaponac). The wall text suggests that these models, inadequately displayed on a knee-high plinth, are shown as “projects with political potential,” ostensibly in their use of glass as a metaphor for political opacity. But it was hard to see how, especially in the case of that Sagaponac project—a luxury spec house—some of these projects could be seriously reconciled with any notion of political dissent.

I happened to run into Gadanho in the gallery, and he explained that the display’s assembled projects were actually there to serve as foils for Dan Graham’s 1978 “Alteration of a Suburban House,” a model presented adjacent to them as a commentary on transparency’s dystopian potential for social control. Of course, very few gallery-goers will have such access to the curator.

I was similarly unconvinced by Gadanho’s argument that Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s proposed National Commercial Bank in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, a punctured prismatic tower designed by Gordon Bunshaft, might be construed as a critique of architectural branding because it offers “a challenging spatial experiment.” That seems to me an overly generous way of looking at such a deliberately iconic work of corporate design—a dubious equation of formalist space-making with genuine political activism.

The question inevitably arises: What does it mean to be political? Gadanho provides one answer in the show’s first panel, defining it as “an interaction with the urban realm.” That is a very broad and very forgiving definition, the kind of wide-bore perspective that one might expect from a curator. Critics, on the other hand, tend to be less expansive and more jaundiced in framing their responses. Which is to say, even as these two disciplines collapse into one another, or perhaps as one collapses into the other, there remain distinctions between them. It seems unfortunate to think of the two engaged in a zero-sum battle for supremacy, rather than working in parallel—if not always harmony—toward a common goal. Sometimes the truth hurts, but please don’t shoot the messenger.