When Hurricane Sandy hit New York in October, inundating low-lying coastal areas, flooding parts of the subway system and causing billions of dollars of damage, the larger public was suddenly talking about a subject that had been intimately dissected in a provocative 2010 exhibition at the city’s Museum of Modern Art. Organized by Barry Bergdoll, “Rising Currents” was a prescient look at how global warming, rising seas, urban neglect and ecological decay were affecting the coastal areas of New York City.
By inviting interdisciplinary teams of architects, designers and other experts to the museum to explore and address these problems, Bergdoll wasn’t just confronting an obvious infrastructure problem. He was demonstrating his belief in the museum in action, as a place that doesn’t just celebrate the history of forms, designs and styles, but also creates an interactive forum for pushing forward architectural thinking.
Washingtonians will have a chance to hear Bergdoll on the subject of architecture and museums when he presents the 62nd A.W. Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery of Art, beginning this Sunday afternoon and running weekly through May 12. Titled “Out of Site in Plain View: A History of Exhibiting Architecture Since 1750,” the lectures take up the subject of how architecture has been presented in museums and other venues, including world’s fairs and outdoor parks such as Colonial Williamsburg. Bergdoll’s thesis, brutally distilled, is this: Although it may seem ridiculous to rip architecture out of its context in the real world and show it off (through drawings, models and other media) in museums and other public places, there is, in fact, a long history of doing just that, that this history needs to be written, and the impact of architectural exhibitions on the actual practice of architecture analyzed and acknowledged.
It is an esoteric subject, but a rich one, too.
“I noticed that from the middle of the 18th century, when architects begin to exhibit their work in public, until today, the number and type of exhibitions on architecture have proliferated,” says Bergdoll, and that proliferation has happened despite a philosophical uneasiness with putting architecture on museum display. Architecture, after all, is meant to be lived in, viewed in its proper context, experienced through the body and through time, as something that surrounds us, houses us, and gives symbolic form to our ideas and aspirations. Putting architecture on display in a museum is a bit like photographing sculpture and using the two-
dimensional image as a substitute for the real thing.
“How is it that something that is supposed to be impossible has grown exponentially?” Bergdoll asks.
His six lectures will explore not just the history of the display of architecture, but how that history has changed the nature of architecture. The mid-18th-century display, he argues, created a forum for a more public and democratic engagement with architecture. Later developments helped create the idea that architecture had its own, integral history, that it wasn’t just a set of immediate responses to particular needs but an ongoing, developing, evolving discipline. Displaying architecture also helped architects think of their work as having the ability to mold the future, giving it larger, utopian ambitions.
Architecture thus becomes self-conscious, parallel to the emergence of what scholars such as Jurgen Habermas have called “the public sphere,” the vast transformation of ossified, authoritarian structures into a more dynamic realm in which people (propelled initially by economic motives) assert the right to monitor, talk about and influence the world they live in. Bergdoll’s lectures will explore the emergence of a world in which we take it for granted that we have the right to an opinion on that ugly new government building that grew like a mushroom down the street.
Elizabeth Cropper, dean of the National Gallery’s Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (which officially hosts the Mellon lecturer.), calls Bergdoll “a very distinguished historian, and one of the liveliest international minds working in the field of architecture and urban design.” Cropper, who is part of a small group of top National Gallery leaders who chose scholars to present the prestigious annual lecture series, says Bergdoll has been moving beyond a purely historical and scholarly interest in architecture to a more engaged, social, political and ethical understanding of the profession.
Since being appointed the Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at MoMA in 2007, Bergdoll has been widely praised for topical, popular and engaging shows, including a 2008 exhibition called “Home Delivery” that focused on new developments in pre-fabricated housing. The show spilled out of the museum into a nearby open lot that was full of small housing units open to visitors. A 2012 show, “Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream,” also invited teams of architects and other professionals to present possibilities emerging from one of the greatest economic and urban crises of the past century.
“He has become very interested in some of the more contemporary issues,” says Cropper, including housing and sustainability. Bergdoll has used his position at MoMA to open the museum up to “a more worldwide set of questions.”
Thinking back on his recent work at MoMA, Bergdoll stresses the interactive process of shows such as “Foreclosed” and “Rising Currents,” which used models, maps, drawings, video and other media to propose architectural interventions in the New York waterfront, over the purely visual or aesthetic presentation of the results. He was particularly pleased that Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan visited an open house event that was part of the “Foreclosed” show. By stressing process, Bergdoll hopes to “demystify” architecture.
“Instead of putting architecture in the museum so people can come and stand in awe of it, I want to open it up,” he says, meaning giving people insight into how architects research and refine issues, how they make decisions, and what the options are.
Bergdoll’s last lecture is titled “Architecture and the Rise of the Event Economy.” Without going deeply into the lecture’s focus, Bergdoll says that he will have to tip his hand about his own view of where architecture is today. It’s easy to see one very powerful trend in contemporary architecture — buildings designed mainly for “wow” factor, to overwhelm through visual impact, and often to represent powerful new government or economic forces rising throughout the world — that may fall far from Bergdoll’s scholarly and practical emphasis on open public process and engagement. Anyone who has visited countries such as the United Arab Emirates, or China, and confronted the powerful tools for marketing monumental architecture through slick models, video and other media, will wonder if the history of exhibiting architecture has brought us far from the Enlightenment idealism of opening up a new public forum for discussing the discipline.
“I decided that since I am a practicing curator, that when it got to the present, it would be disingenuous if I didn’t talk about my own beliefs and practices as a curator,” says Bergdoll. The last talk, he says, will be a hybrid of history and other things, including “a bit of a manifesto of what I believe are the possibilities of an architectural exhibition in the 21st century.”
The 62nd A.W. Mellon Lectures, delivered by Barry Bergdoll, begin Sunday, April 7, at 2 p.m. in the East Building of the National Gallery of Art and continue every Sunday through May 12. For more information, visit www.nga.gov.