Launch Slideshow

The Single-Practice Architectural Exhibit: Substance or Advertising?

The Single-Practice Architectural Exhibit: Substance or Advertising?

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    Blaine Brownell

    "Building: Inside Studio Gang Architects," at The Art Institute of Chicago.

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    Blaine Brownell

    The "back room," which showcases architecture-in-process—a vibrant collection of random elements.

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    Blaine Brownell

    A mock-up of a cordwood masonry wall, a building technique whose history is barely discussed.

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    Blaine Brownell

    A brick press imported from India. Little indication is given regarding how Studio Gang intends to use this machine in their projects.

The brief for the exhibit "Building: Inside Studio Gang Architects" currently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago reads as follows:

Immerse yourself in the richly creative environment of one of today’s most innovative architectural firms with 'Building: Inside Studio Gang Architects,' the first exhibition in the world devoted to the Chicago-based group headed by MacArthur Fellow Jeanne Gang. This innovative presentation of the work of Studio Gang Architects (SGA) allows visitors to see how buildings and projects are created, what issues they resolve, and how solutions are shaped. Rightly recognized for such landmark buildings as Chicago’s Aqua Tower, SGA is as much a laboratory for ideas and problem-solving as it is an architectural firm. 'Building' brings visitors into that laboratory by examining SGA’s built and unbuilt works in an engaging studio-like space.

Visitors who flock to the Art Institute to take a peak into a working architectural studio will be disappointed. Although much of Studio Gang's creative production is on full display, the installation retains the rarified qualities of a gallery environment—complete with acrylic enclosure boxes and a warning alarm that beeps incessantly when visitors get too close to a collection of models. That said, the exhibit does a good job of presenting Studio Gang's diverse design interests, as represented by the firm's variegated assortment of projects and multidisciplinary research.

My favorite of the two exhibition rooms is the rear space, which showcases various production equipment, material samples, and sketches that represent critical components of the design and construction processes. Although the installation seems a bit unbalanced here—as if the organizers were uncertain whether to reinforce an atmosphere of accumulation or one of simplicity—the inclusion of full-scale construction mock-ups, fabrication machinery, and working models is refreshing to witness. The effort to bring full-size samples and construction equipment to the gallery context results in a more comprehensive experience of architecture for visitors, and is a welcome trend seen in other exhibits such as "Material World," which opened at the Danish Architecture Center last spring.

Like other single-practice exhibits, "Building: Inside Studio Gang Architects" raises some interesting questions. Certainly, we should applaud the fact that a venerable institution such as the Art Institute is willing to showcase well-designed architecture to a broad public. But because Studio Gang was intimately involved with the design of its own exhibit, the critical voice of the museum's curatorial staff in helping place the work in artistic, historic, and cultural perspective is largely absent. As a result, textual descriptions of the architects' design and material research highlight the firm's cleverness in arriving at seemingly original solutions, rather than situating the efforts within a broader sociotechnical trajectory of building. When material practices such as cordwood masonry and on-site brick-casting are exhibited with minimal references to their origins, for example, I wonder how we are expected to qualify Studio Gang's use of these techniques without a more developed historical and technical background? The danger here is that content gives way to marketing.

Given the economy's devastating toll on architectural practice over the past few years, it may seem unfair to criticize architects for promoting their work. One can only hope that the more exposure the public has to the thoughtful and innovative design approaches of firms such as Studio Gang's, the more meaningful opportunities will arise for architects in the future. But the strong urge of architects to control the representation of their work can be a detriment to the broader cause of design. By micromanaging the message, architects can unwittingly reinforce the negative image of unbending prima donnas with limited tolerance for other perspectives. Although Studio Gang does not project this kind of unflinching, negative image, "Building" nevertheless limits its audience's ability to develop a comprehensive, balanced assessment of the content. The outcome suggests a different approach for architects: loosen up, and collaborate more. By encouraging the agency of the curator, architectural historian, and design critic in a way that contributes positive feedback to the architectural discipline, firms such as Studio Gang can ensure that its work is appreciated within a more holistic frame of reference.