In late 2008, an exhibition of models of contemporary housing at the Vienna Künstlerhaus was setting out to reformulate the conventions of classical exhibitions of architecture. Instead of operating within the conventional logic of showing architectural projects ‘in their best light’, featuring glossy plans, ambitious models and high-end architecture photography, which normally excludes those who have to ‘live with it’, namely the users, this project shifted the focus from these typical architectural presentations to the perspective of the everyday user. Based on the ambiguous wordplay between model as an architectural tool and model as a paradigmatic example, the exhibition assembled singular housing projects from all over the world. Local correspondents and advisors were part of the process of selecting eleven projects as well as moderating the process of communicating with the inhabitants. In the end eleven projects were selected, which were all already inhabited for at least two years – in order to be able to address questions of usability, everyday qualities and processes of appropriation.
The exhibition included such diverse projects as a collective ‘Baugruppen’ model from Berlin, non-profit association housing in Vienna, a multi-storey building block in Tokyo, a converted post-war block in Chicago, a highly flexible ‘shelving structure’ building close to Zurich, low-cost terraced housing in the Netherlands, terraced houses for migrants in Colorado, a house divided into several freestanding cubes in Japan, social housing in Croatia, a social housing project with maximized cheap space in France and a basic housing structure to be extended by its inhabitants in Chile. Each project was chosen for posing symptomatic questions on the conditions of housing and how strategies other than a primarily formalistic architectural discourse can be brought into discussion.
One could read all of the chosen projects as a localized contextual articulation transversed by translocal modes of communication and intensified transfers of images as well as economics. In spite of their differences, people living in Chile’s Elemental housing project might just be watching the same soap operas as the people living in Zurich’s spacious lofts of the Uster project or in terraced housing in Colorado. However, one determinable crucial common denominator in all of these projects is a very smart and peculiar interpretation of the legal, economic and social frameworks, which these projects negotiate in ways often unseen before. Therefore they implicitly oppose a discourse of architectural autonomy in favour of site-specific and context-specific strategic thinking. Form then is often conceived as a by-product or as a spatialized diagram of these contextual readings and processes. In these new versions of ‘critical regionalism’, projects like Elemental Iquique in Chile, initiated by a group of four architects operating as a ‘do-tank’, this means engaging with economic limitations, where only the infrastructure and a very basic architectural setting is built. The rest is filled by the inhabitants themselves, thereby also strengthening modes of self-organisation. In the case of the Moriyama House in Tokyo by Ryue Nishizawa – located at the other end of the economic spectrum – this means to carefully analyze the urban landscape in the area, its thresholds and transitions between public and private and reinvent these qualities of everyday life in a typically dense Japanese low-rise living area in a highly abstracted formal language. But this can also mean to choose a strategy of revitalizing existing buildings and injecting new qualities and potential into the existing fabric, like in the Archer Courts Project by Landon Bone Baker Architects, where newly designed gallery walkways allowed for the creation of new public spaces and all kinds of activities and appropriations. It is especially a sensibility for designing spaces that might be appropriated and interpreted by their inhabitants, which shows up in all projects included in the exhibition. The question here is by which means the users are brought into a situation in which they can actively engage with the architecture, change, extend or negotiate the spaces they inhabit. Maybe the most radical statement in this respect, although a very luxurious one, is the Balance Uster project by Haerle and Hubacher architects. In this concept the multi-storey blocks resemble stacked single family-houses, allowing for almost any configuration of the placement of walls within a 190 m2 range. Thereby questions of sustainability are also discussed on levels other than mere energy coefficients, since these multi-storey blocks might be able to help avoid suburban sprawl and its subsequent effects on traffic increase, growing energy consumption, but also on social dispersal. Also in the case of the POS social housing project in Krapinske Toplice by Iva Letilović and Morana Vlahović, placed in a setting one would expect to be swallowed up by single-family housing sprawl, this was a crucial argument. Here, as in other projects in the exhibition, the contextual dialogue is developed in deliberate contrast to the surrounding environment, even when referencing local building elements. However sophisticated the architectural approaches may be, this exhibition also made evident that, especially in the realm of housing, the ‘success’ of a project crucially depends on finding situational answers to peculiar local problems and very often on the capability to re-interpret existing limitations in surprising ways. Here the role of the architect is increasingly one of a moderator or catalyst of processes that reach far beyond classic architectural questions.
The broad scope of the questions attached to the projects surely called for a clear concept of filtering these complexities into a setting, which makes relations, analogies, but also differences perceivable to the visitor. The exhibition setting at the Vienna Künstlerhaus was based on a concept of three formats in which all the projects were presented: first, a huge plot laid out on cardboard tables including plans, an image and texts including technical data; secondly, a cardboard model, whose scale ranged from 2:1 to 1:50, depending on the crucial parts of the projects that were selected to be shown in detail; and finally slide shows, which included photos shot by the users living in the buildings, accompanied by statements by inhabitants and the local correspondents responsible for soliciting the users through the process of photographing their living environments. This conceptually coherent approach towards the exhibition display was enhanced by the decision to take the typical material of model-building in architecture as the basic device for (almost) all spatial elements in the exhibition, hybridizing the architectural models with the devices of display. This approach raised particular hopes for a statement not only about housing models but also about exhibition models, about the translation of the very peculiar and difficult question of how to represent lived spaces in the format of an exhibition at all. Beatriz Colomina once argued that the history of modern architecture and especially the history of housíng cannot be separated from the history of the house as a showcase, as a form of display. Many icons of modern architecture were primarily conceived as showcases, as models for representing and marketing new forms of living, from Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion to the Werkbund exhibitions with their collages of housing types to Smithson’s House of the Future. Also the rich Viennese history of architects developing groundbreaking models for exhibition display, from Friedrich Kiesler to the early Hans Hollein to Hermann Czech might have served as a productive background. Here maybe a phenomenon comes into play, which Mary Anne Stanisziewski in her study of the ‘Power of Display’ in New York’s MOMA, termed ‘institutional amnesia’. The effect of temporary exhibitions being judged and discussed almost exclusively along the chosen works, but hardly ever in respect to their intentions concerning the display and the subsequent spatialization of a curatorial position into a scenographic setting. This effect, she argues, is then further enhanced by the convention of exhibition spaces being routinely rebuilt and changed completely every few months.
The housing models exhibition clearly showed an ambition to develop a notion of display as an activating tool, not only being a support structure, but a performative device. The material cardboard makes the exhibited objects seem much more approachable and also some of the models were intended to be entered and the spaces to be experienced, as in the case of Chile’s Elemental housing project. The smart decision to bring these very heterogeneous projects onto one reference plane by primarily using cardboard for all the scale models creates a conceptually coherent ‘look’, but it also produces an effect of aesthetic homogenisation, which is based on the model’s potential of rendering complex realities manageable. This is precisely the seductive effect of the model as an abstraction in general. In its playfulness, the seductive atmosphere of the exhibition setting works just fine, but still it contributes to a de-contextualizing effect on the specific projects. And often the scope of the depicted detail addressed in the model fails to deliver a specific argument for the respective project. The suggested spatialization of the core agendas of the projects only randomly is comprehensible, since the crucial arguments of the projects cannot be found in the details of the empirical space of the architecture, but more in the often opaque processes of the economic and social frameworks and in the politics of participation and negotiation. These questions find their platform much better in the highly recommendable contributions to the catalogue. Also, here one could have wished for the courage to include the user’s perspective more radically, showing a more messy ‘dirty realism’, of which the slide projections in the exhibition spaces gave some impression. In the catalogue a certain tendency of ‘domesticating’ these aesthetically incoherent and ‘unclean’ depictions into an almost classical form of a conventional architectural publication can be observed.
Nevertheless it must be stated that usually hardly any attempt at critical methods of exhibition display can be found when it comes to architectural exhibitions. While in the field of fine arts there has been an intense critique of ideologies of display, the effects of framing, of producing an aura, of controlling the visitor’s gazes for decades, this discourse is almost completely lacking in the field of architecture exhibitions. Even if at some points it gets caught in some traps of self-referentiality and formalism, this exhibition proves enormously valuable: in trying to experiment with the question of how to represent lived environments, in trying to balance on the tricky interface between architects’ discourse and the interests of the users in the format of an exhibition, in trying to allow the subject to enter the field of debate, which architecture addresses in the end: the user.