Two outstanding new exhibitions question how we inhabit and imagine our buildings and cities, and highlight the gaps between our dreams and our realities. Both shows follow a historical survey, though In Situ: Architecture and Landscape at MoMA starts with mid-century modernism whereas Work AC: 49 Cities at the recently renovated Storefront for Art and Architecture works its way all the way back to the Roman Empire. The exhibitions have significantly different theses (49 Cities wonders if Utopian cities are really feasible, whereas In Situ tackles the humbler monumental question of how architects respond to the spaces around their designs), but both are fundamentally concerned with architecture’s ability to change the world.
The exhibition at MoMA — partly as a result of its installation — prizes innovative design and conceptual work over responsible social programs and planning. Drawings, paintings, videos and collages occupy the gallery walls and a waist-level podium at its center displays models of structures — most but not all of which were built — by household names in modern and postmodern architecture. From Frank Lloyd Wright’s cantilevered nuclear family palace Falling Water to Bernard Tschumi’s blood red Parc de la Villette via Superstudio’s globe-spanning skyscrapers (pictured above), the artists represented mix conceptual and practical designs, local solutions and global programs.
Each building falls somewhere on the exhibition’s spectrum between buildings that appear to exist in a void (as if the only place they could be built is on the surface of the moon) and set completely within their surroundings (like Hans Hollein’s volcano museum, which is both shaped like a cone and sunk into an extinct caldera like Dr. Evil’s headquarters in the third Austin Powers film). Unlike MoMA’s preceding architecture exhibition — devoted almost entirely to conceptual, unrealized designs — the architects represented in In Situ display a much greater sense of responsibility for their structures’ role in their setting. Still, devoid of much explanatory text or criticism, the perils of building without accounting for context could easily be missed in the show’s spectacular plans.
At the Storefront for Art and Architecture — itself a study in art and context whose open sidewalk space looks better now than it has in nearly 15 years — Work AC: 49 Cities brings together infographic representations and extrapolated statistics for Utopian urban designs throughout history (like Paolo Soleri's 1969 vision for a city in the sea, at right). A contextualizing paragraph and various charts explaining density, elevation, energy use and similar data accompany maps of each work.
The premise is exciting, and allows viewers to encounter many familiar avant-garde dreams in decidedly more realistic representations. After all, maps of Roman cities are familiar public school history class stuff, but haven’t you always wondered what kind of electricity bill Archigram’s Plug-In-City proposal from 1965 would rack up? Such novel discoveries make 49 Cities an especially fun exhibition, although it stops short of throwing any new ideas into the pile, and viewers are (thankfully) left to guess what the most appropriate urban form will be moving forward.
What the Storefront show lacks in visual flair (nothing but graphs, charts and diagrams) it recovers in its ability to keep a critical distance from the art objects it’s discussing — something MoMA isn’t always good about. Looking back, then, we should be thankful that Frank Lloyd Wright’s entry in 49 Cities — the highway criss-crossed agrarian fantasy Broadacre City (1934) — only exists as a graph. Even the greatest minds get carried away, and as these two exhibitions show it’s probably wise to present their ideas to the public’s critical eyes before breaking out the shovels.