Exhibition as Experience

Of course, the V&A is by no means the first museum to bring an exhibition audience face-to-face with full-scale architectural commissions. In fact, the Museum of Modern Art in New York has a rather rich history in the presentation of architectural projects. In 1940, one year before America’s entry into the Second World War, Richard Buckminster Fuller (he of geodesic dome fame) was invited to exhibit a full-scale Dymaxion Deployment Unit – a mass-production version of his 1927 Dymaxion House – in the MoMA garden.

Eight years later, perhaps inspired by the tradition of demonstration houses and show-homes often seen at World’s Fairs and building trade exhibitions, MoMA commissioned Marcel Breuer to build an elegant butterfly-roofed house (above) which was also constructed in the Museum’s garden. These two projects were followed in the 1950s by Gregory Ain’s Exhibition House (1950) and the Japanese Exhibition House (1955). One of the key figures behind the 1949 Breuer commission was Philip Johnson, who had founded MoMA’s Department of Architecture in 1932 with the ground-breaking Modern Architecture exhibition. Coincidentally, 1949 was also the year that Johnson launched himself headlong into an illustrious career as an architect – unveiling his Glass House, in New Canaan, Connecticut.

The Glass House (left), with it’s ultra-transparency seems to have been intended not so much as an architectural space to be lived in, but almost as a viewing platform or a stage; one from which to admire the surrounding idyllic landscape. This idea of rural retreat is something that I have been thinking about recently when trying to sketch out the themes for our ‘1:1’ exhibition. Perhaps one could explore the notion of garden idylls, looking back at the tradition of the 18th/19th-century garden folly, but also examining contemporary interpretations of the relationship between inside space and outside space – something that is at the heart of traditional Japanese architecture, for example.

I didn’t get the opportunity to check it out, but MoMA staged a fantastic exhibition, Home Delivery, last year – one which looked at the role of pre-fabrication and mass-production within architecture. In addition to a broad, historical review, the exhibition also included five contemporary full-scale built commisions which explored these themes. The site for construction was this time not the garden, but an extensive (18,000 square feet) vacant lot which is about to be taken over by the French superstar architect, Jean Nouvel, who is building a 75-storey mixed-use tower for the Museum. The Home Delivery exhibition has been extremely useful in my early research for the ‘1:1’ exhibition, especially as an obvious precedent for the kind of work that we’ll be exhibiting. It’s always interesting to see how museum audiences respond to exhibitions where you’re not simply showing objects on walls, in cases or on plinths – but instead are offering the public something more experiential, something with perhaps a touch of theatrical narrative to it.

Did you see the Home Delivery exhibition? What was your experience like?

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