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Nick Korody on architecture's "exhibitionary complex"

Over at Archinect, Nick Korody writes lucidly about the exploitative dynamics of architecture exhibitions while making the case for a new model of the exhibitionist architect. Some highlights below, in full here.

In many ways, these are the architects producing the most radical thinking and the most engaging work. As such, rather than looking at exhibitions as a site of mere representation, present conditions demand that they be viewed as a site of the practice of architecture. Or, more precisely, as a site within the larger architectonics of architecture: a launching ground for careers, a venue for the display of new ideas, and a mechanism for the production of discourse. And, like most architecture, exhibitionary architecture requires real estate to happen. In the case of big biennials, that real estate is purchased by corporate sponsors (unless you’re in Oslo, where your triennale is funded in part by an oil-funded government).

Then there’s academic galleries hosted by universities. Of course, this real estate is also, indirectly, funded by corporations. But, probably more to the point, such exhibitions produce a discourse so hermeneutic that it’s even rare for students outside of the architecture department to participate in it. A few alum will probably come by. One or two visitors to campus. It would be hard to defend these exhibitions as truly public. In other words, it’s private land on which private space, for private ideas, is built.

In other cases, the real estate is purchased, or leased, by an individual, typically called a gallerist. In general, these architecture exhibitions are a floundering mess when it comes to money (and, to be frank, form, but that’s for another essay). By and large, they borrow their financial model from the art industry. But, unlike (some) artists, architects don’t accumulate collectors over time. Their work doesn’t accrue more value the more they exhibit. In other words, there’s no real point for architects to exhibit besides the production of discourse and the collection of social capital. But you can’t eat discourse or social capital.

To make matters worse, architects don’t really tend to produce exhibitable work on their own. Instead, architects usually make pieces specifically for a given exhibit, which can be a costly endeavor. After all, architectural works tend to be more expensive to make than your average acrylic painting or bricolage sculpture. Either the gallery coughs up some money, which is bad business, or the architect scrounges up some cash, which means their participation in the exhibition is a cost-negative affair. So, it’s not really a coincidence that most exhibiting architects are also (often financially precarious, adjunct) professors. Of course, there are many architecture galleries that valiantly try to develop a collector base for the architects whom they exhibit—but this is a difficult challenge and, from what I’ve gathered anecdotally, it rarely pans out. And, for what it’s worth, many architects seem to prefer it this way since, particularly among the politically “woke” bourgeoisie, money is still a bad word. But then what’s the point? Is architectural discourse really worth precarity? If the political language of big biennials serves to distract from their complicity with corporations, then the price list for a small gallery is basically a streaker that nobody notices trying to draw attention away from the fact that architects are, by and large, completely victim to economic configurations that marginalize them. And they’re not really doing anything about it.

I agree with the sentiment of the article, but there is another side to the story. Many architectural offices do make money and do participate in biennials to develop research (whether the outcome is good or bad is another conversation) outside of market constraints, and this research is offset by commercial work, but used later for commercial work. This is one type of value.

Timothy you have a good point. Exhibitions allow architecture firms who actually build to do stuff without the constraints of a client, to be more expressive and explorative, yet the economic logic is still exploitative. Do we have to view “research” as self-investment (ie categorically distinct from the “final object” of architectural practice, ie a building), and not a service that architects should be paid for? Sure there is always (limited) time in the design process for a building for research, but what about those who don’t build? Must architecture, architectural practice, architectural knowledge, be limited to building buildings? I think what the essay succeeds at is pointing to the fact that there is no sustainable architectural market, or economy, outside of building.

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