City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Entrance to the exhibition (Please excuse the image quality; photos taken on a 2008-era Leica D-LUX 3)

Including some notes on architecture and design exhibitions in general, and flipping the museum inside-out

Ed. This piece was originally published at cityofsound.com on September 1st 2008. Please excuse the image quality of the photos; they were taken with a 2008-era Leica D-LUX 3.
And a follow-up: A crowdsourced map of modernism in Australia, as a contribution to the exhibition.

The Modern Times exhibition at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum is something of a curate’s egg. Containing some wonderful artefacts, the show is worth seeing for a few items alone. However, the unimaginative presentation is disappointing and you walk away sensing an opportunity lost, as much as you are enlivened by the possibilities inherent in the material.

Right away, the tagline—“The untold story of modernism in Australia”—is open to misinterpretation. It’s not that modernism in Australia is an “untold story” — as Australian modernism, through the likes of Boyd, Grounds, Seidler, Nolan, Preston, Dupain, the Featherstons et al, is a well-documented history, and the architectural scene in Sydney in particular has an ongoing symbiotic relationship with modernism. Presumably, the curators intended to tell a different story of modernism, one that focused perhaps a little less on architecture and built environment, and more on the social and cultural patterns emerging throughout the modern period. (This is reinforced in an interview with curator Ann Stephen on ABC Radio National’s By Design show.)

While this is laudable, it should not negate engaging with architecture and urban planning, as the built expression of those social and cultural patterns. After all, it’s the buildings that we are left with, articulating modernism in the streets around us every day, long after the fashions, posters and poems have faded. And sure enough, many of the artefacts directly relate to architecture and urbanism nonetheless. In fact, although the exhibition opens on ‘the body’, health and the emerging fashion, the focus tends to re-centre around architecture, cities, and other fragments of built fabric as the exhibition unfolds.

Some of the exhibits in the show are fascinating, and highly valuable. Numerous drawings, photographs and models explore alternative futures for Sydney, many of which shed light on the city currently around us.

A proposed new Sydney Airport of towers for personal aircraft (charmingly perched in “vertical dovecotes”) is to be located on the corners of Hyde Park, and seems as viable as any currently proposed expansions of the current Sydney Kingsford Smith airport, given the gentle downward spiral of air traffic from now on—and rather more exciting.

It’s useful to see sketches, and photographs of the models, for Seidler’s Australia Square and MLC Centre in particular, given their impact on Sydney. Also illuminating are some great photographs of Sydney’s streets of the modern era, usually as the backdrop for fashion shoots or Holden ads.

A few Max Dupains are predictable choices but worthy enough, particularly focusing on the modern view of the body. A particularly lovely glass door shines, though I can’t recall the provenance. The work of Gallery A in Melbourne also looked interesting enough to warrant deeper treatment. Some choice items of furniture are hoisted up but also left a little unexplored. An attempt to wrap indigenous art into the themes of the show seems a little forced, part of a sequence on visual art and writing, yet here the omission of the significant Ern Malley controversy seems odd. Again, perhaps the “untold story” was the idea here, as Malley has been told many times (perhaps best obliquely, via Peter Carey’s My Life As A Fake).

Similarly Sidney Nolan, Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington-Smith are featured, though in an appropriately low key fashion given the major exhibitions focusing on these painters recently. Music and sound is largely absent — the ocularcentric approach most museums have continues here, sadly. (If you’re interested, the release Artefacts of Australian Experimental Music 1930–1973 covers a few examples of the avant-garde here.)

The Sydney Opera House is here, of course, represented by a beautiful wooden model—though the model on display at Customs House at Circular Quay is arguably more interesting in terms of understanding the building’s system, and some fascinating BIM-based 3D databases exist too, from which public exhibits could be reverse-engineered.)

There is the nagging sensation that the show is focusing a little too much on Sydney. For many, Melbourne can be seen as the crucible of modernism in Australia just as much, Canberra has perhaps the richest representation per capita, and Brisbane, despite its contemporaneous conservatism, has a fine tradition via the likes of Hayes & Scott through James Birrell and beyond. The show is due to tour to Melbourne’s Heide and the State Library of Queensland next year, so it’ll be interesting to see how, or whether, the curation bends towards its hosts.

An exhibition will often attempt to play to the home crowd, of course, but this show seems a little symptomatic of an outdated idea that people don’t travel between the city-states of Australia (nothing could be further from the truth, particularly for this crowd). Equally, there are better ways to balance local interest, more diverse and extensive curation and engagement, by taking the exhibition out onto the streets, as well as producing a conventional in-house exhibition (more on this later.)

There are three standout displays.

  • A large 3-screen rear projection of swimming pool architecture, in particular James Birrell’s supreme Centenary Pool in Brisbane, where the elongated aspect ratio perfectly lends itself to the form, and is supported by a relatively subtle audio backing. It really is rather beautiful.
  • A reconstruction of Harry Seidler’s office, or at least a corner of it, is intriguing — rather more dry than the reconstructed Archigram office at the Design Museum exhibition a few years ago, perhaps, but that may well be just one facet of the sizeable differences between Archigram and Seidler.
  • And a few of the Grant and Mary Featherston ‘sound chairs’ and costumes from Robin Boyd’s design for the Australian pavilion at the Montreal Expo in 1967 ends the exhibition, surrounded by flickering newsreel of celebs and royals visiting the installation.
James Birrell’s supreme Centenary Pool in Brisbane (top), Grant and Mary Featherston ‘sound chairs’ and costumes (bottom)

All in all, though, it falls a little short. The exposition and narrative is too low-key, as is often the case. The accompanying book (with Philip Goad as one of the editors) will contain detail on the context, influence, and arguments that still fizz around modernism, yet very little of that discussion makes it into the show, onto boards. Although fashionable, this lack of exposition really neglects the museum or gallery’s core mission. (One of Sydney’s greatest writers, Robert Hughes, showed what this kind of informed appreciation of the subject can deliver, when writing about the V&A’s modernism show for The Guardian a few years ago.)

The exhibition design lets the show down. It’s near non-existent. Most photos and prints are displayed in glass cases or framed on walls, and the lighting is too low throughout (surely one of the many themes that a modernism show could engage with is the more basic experiential exploration of punching light through an open plan?) There’s little that really addresses the ideas of the show in terms of the exhibition design, save for those set-pieces mentioned above, and a series of booths from a reconstructed milkbar.

Flipping the museum inside out

Over the last decade, exhibitions at the world’s leading museums and galleries have demonstrated how the design of the show isn’t simply about mounting a display; it is an exhibit, a cultural artefact, in its own right. (The crowd going to the Powerhouse for a modernism show can be assumed to be fairly savvy in this respect.)

Personally, I’m thinking of several shows at the Pompidou in Paris in particular (and especially the extraordinary Hitchcock and Art), and several at Tate Modern, Barbican or Hayward Gallery in London, or the small but perfect 21:21 Design Sight gallery in Tokyo, or several in NYC, and so on. Yet small galleries in Zürich, Amsterdam, Barcelona and others indicate you don’t have to be a world city gallery. Having said that, I’ve sat through several recent NSW State Government presentations indicating Sydney’s placing in various ‘quality of life’ surveys—usually in the top ten, and often ahead of cities like Paris — so if Sydney is really up there, then there’s no reason that its largest public museum shouldn’t aspire to punch its weight.

With that ambition, and commensurate budget, perhaps a fuller version of the Seidler office could’ve been reconstructed outside the building? Robin Boyd’s 1949 House of Tomorrow could have been rendered more fully, at least room by room, adorned with Grant Featherstone’s furniture (London’s little Geffrye Museum provides a decent precursor here). Could not the entire Montreal Expo 67 Australian pavilion by Boyd have been reconstructed, with replica Featherston sound chairs talking away, enabling visitors to really begin to feel the spaces? The idea of avoiding too much focus on built forms makes sense, so exploring these ideas in other media might layer further meaning. Perhaps a series of specially-commissioned films or other installations could add context to the artefacts? Maybe an information design approach to the themes, as with of 010’s Metropolitan World Atlas, or various MVRDV titles.

Photographs of the interior of Robin Boyd’s House of Tomorrow, 1949 (top) model of the house (bottom)

The building doesn’t help. A labyrinthine interior, difficult to read, the areas of the Powerhouse that are reserved for shows like this aren’t really appropriate for, well, a show like this. The building somehow intrinsically conveys the sense that the vast proportion of its collection is in archive at any one time—which isn’t necessarily a good feeling when you’re in an exhibition in the building.

Ed. Some years later, I did some strategic design work for the Powerhouse Museum whilst at Arup, on a proposed remodelling of the entrance and courtyard, working with Shigeru Ban. The work included an idea for extending the Powerhouse out the back, and leading up the hill towards UTS, in what would one day become The Goods Line. I'll write about that one day.

Yet this is hardly something that can be a ‘quick fix’, nor something to which the current adminstration can be held responsible. And while it might be worthwhile considering how to remodel the space, there are some strategies that could be enacted to extend the exhibition in the short term either way.

Five years ago, after visiting the Art Deco exhibition at London’s V&A (which has now washed up on the shores of Melbourne, incidentally), I wrote about extending the exhibition into the city. I’d make exactly the same recommendation here, with the same premise.

With Art Deco and London, the city itself offered up numerous examples of the style, ideas, originating context and resulting reactions. I wrote the post—The city as exhibition—some years before the mainstream existence of smartphones with 3G and GPS, or user-generated, collaborative Google Maps and the like, though I did suggest that they’d be good examples of what to create. Yet simple fold-out maps would’ve also done the job, marking and describing examples of art deco in concentric rings around the V&A, and handed out to those who leave the exhibition, inspired by the subject matter and ready to see more.

With modernism and Sydney — and the other Australian capital cities — this is another golden opportunity to extend an exhibition into the city. As well as the Google Maps, walking tours and audio guides, I’d advocate marking up buildings in the city i.e. fix temporary plaques outside the MLC Centre, Rose Seidler House, El Alamein Memorial Fountain, NGV etc., which offer up a short note about the structure and indicate they’re part of a major exhibition around modernism in Australia.

In this way, the exhibition is distributed, each building is adopted to become a node threaded into a wider network, each small plaque strung together thematically, connecting structures across cities and pulling the ideas out of the glass cases and into the streets.

Of course, the digital layer could be even more detailed — smartphone-based in particular; featuring audio, building off the recent Unbuilt Australia project, or even, video and phone camera-based augmented reality — but these simple analogue interventions would also be interesting, discreet and more widely accessible. Plaques, analog or digital, could indeed denote unbuilt projects too, or the converse of that — ruined spaces, like the laneways cleared to enable the MLC Centre, discussing the impact of the modern era of urban planning in situ.

This approach also doesn’t limit the exhibition to Sydney. It enables the actual museum exhibit to take a more balanced view of the artefacts that don’t relate to the host city — as this distributed exhibition is already reaching out to the host city, by taking it to the streets. So the Powerhouse is experienced outside the Powerhouse, even outside Sydney, and the modernism exhibition likewise. (When the exhibition tours, and other institutions host the exhibit, the plaques and exhibits can switch accordingly.)

An accompanying Google Map (or equivalent), detailing modernist places of interest, could be Bluetooth’d or SMS’d to phones and other mobile devices from the exhibition (or the exhibition’s website) as well as from transmitters embedded in the plaques mentioned above. Walk away with the map on your phone (current issues around accessing collaborative maps on mobiles notwithstanding.)

The Powerhouse has started a decent Flickr pool around the exhibition, which is a very good thing to do (and there are some great digital initiatives going on around the museum too) — but the location-based nature of many of the exhibits, leaving aside much of the fashion, furniture, and graphic design, lends itself to maps most easily. And I’m pretty sure they haven’t done this. At least, as far as I can tell. No links from the website, nothing from their Flickr experiment, nothing found by searching.

Ed. Accompanying this piece, I produced a simple crowdsourced map of modernism in Australia, with expert contributions from colleagues and friends, to indicate some of this possibility.

View at Medium.com

Architecture and exhibitions

Given the obvious problems of scale and complexity, it’s notoriously difficult to deliver illuminating exhibitions about architecture. A good friend reported that the recent Richard Rogers retrospective at the Pompidou was the the worst architectural presentation he’d ever seen in Paris.

Yet apart from that unusual misstep by the Pompidou, it’s perhaps unfortunate that Modern Times runs at the same time as a number of shows that may outdo it: Place Makers at GOMA in Brisbane, which shows how to elegantly mount a modest architectural exhibition; Homo Faber at the Melbourne Museum, which will probably deal with models more profoundly (caveat: I haven’t visited; I’m judging via a précis from The Architects); Home Delivery at MoMA in New York, which builds a series of prefabs in a disused parking lot to allow visitors to genuinely engage with the ideas in the show; SITE in Santa Fe or indeed Sydney’s Biennale, which indicate the value of taking art to the streets …

Place Makers at GOMA in Brisbane

And perhaps most of all, and putting things in even sharper relief, the latest edition of Japanese architecture and urbanism magazine A+U (picked up at the extraordinarily good Kinokuniya bookshop here in Sydney) focuses on Reconsidering the museum, with detailed discussion of architectural exhibitions from the world’s leading curators. The presentation here is often relatively traditional in format, yet it’s executed with such rigour, craft, imagination and ambition.

A+U Reconsidering the museum (2008)

In particular, look at the extraordinary exhibition of Peter Zumthor’s work at the Kunsthaus Bregenz, with these models of Zumthor’s buildings situated in reconstructed landscapes, or on tables mounted at eye-level. And in particular, in the commissioning of two filmworks exploring ideas in Zumthor’s work, displayed in a dedicated space for audio-visuals. This show also indicates how to balance darkness — for the video installations — amidst light for the models and texts.

(The Kunsthaus itself was designed by Zumthor, who also designed the wonderful new Kolumba Museum — the Art Museum of the Cologne Archdiocese — rising from the ruins of the late gothic Saint Kolumba Church, also featured.)

Elsewhere, we hear from the curators of the Miami Art Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art LA, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Cité de l’Architecture, Centre Pompidou, Louvre-Lens, Tate Modern, Serpentine Gallery, Austrian Museum of Applied Arts + Contemporary Art, Amsterdam Centre for Architecture, and others.

This issue of A+U, as is generally the case, is worth tracking down. It sheds new light onto the issues, possibilities and practices in displaying architectural exhibits. Save a few examples (Morphosis at Pompidou; Koolhaas/Balmond collaboration for the Serpentine) it doesn’t necessarily discuss the different formats and distributed exhibition ideas above, but in observing the quality of thinking and execution in ‘reconsidering the museum’, it indicates numerous ways forward for exhibitions about architecture nonetheless.

Ed. This piece was originally published at cityofsound.com on September 1st 2008. Please excuse the image quality of the photos; they were taken with a 2008-era Leica D-LUX 3.
And a follow-up: A related map, as a contribution to the exhibition.

View at Medium.com

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