Building Politics Into Architecture

Rani Molla
Written 2 years ago
in Design

Like Data Visualization, Architecture and design are often located at the commercial, pragmatic end of the art fields—art’s older brother who sold out. The Museum of Modern Art’s 9+1 Ways of Being Political: 50 Years of Political Stances in Architecture and Urban Design reminds us these technical arts can also be disruptive forces—more like a wayward aunt fond of practicing civil disobedience.

Jason Crum (American, 1935-2004). Project for a Painted Wall, New York City, New York. Perspective. 1969. Gouache on photograph. 30 x 20″ (76.2 x 50.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase, 1969

The exhibition’s 100 cross-departmental pieces are not necessarily meant to be realized. Some look less like buildings than something to be hung inside them (consider Lebbeus Woods’  scratchy, labryinthine “Terrain” sketches).  Rather, the pieces themselves evoke discussion.

Thematically, the works tackle numerous subjects including waste, consumerism, class, environmentalism, the state—as well as the state of architecture and design. Officially, the pieces are divided into 10 sections: Radical Stances, Fiction & Dystopia, Deconstruction, Consuming Brandscapes, Performing Public Space, Iconoclasm, Enacting Transparency, Occupying Social Borders, Interrogating Shelter and Politics of the Domestic.

REM KOOLHAAS (Dutch, born 1944) and ELIA ZENGHELIS (British, born Greece 1937) with MADELON VRIESENDORP (Dutch, born 1945) and ZOE ZENGHELIS (British, born Greece 1937) Exodus, or the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture The Reception Area, project 1972 Gelatin silver photograph with color ink 10 1/2 x 14 1/2″ (26.7 x 36.8 cm) Gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, Takeo Ohbayashi Purchase Fund, and Susan de Menil Purchase Fund

The political messages in the exhibition aren’t necessarily obvious,  tending more toward obscure than overt.

A tree drawn in the middle of a superhighway junction speaks to optimism during the Cold War  but reads more like an environmental critique (Klaus Staek’s “Und neues Leben Blüht aus den Ruinen” or “And new life flowers from the ruins”), while a windowless tower in Saudi Arabia considers building as branding (National Commercial Bank  by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill). A film called “Burn” by Reynold Reynolds and Patrick Jolley tracks a man as he destroys a home with fire in an exploration of domesticity.

In two pieces that seem more political than architectural, Ai Weiwei gives a blurry middle finger in the foreground to the White House and Tienamen Square (“Study of Perspective – White House” and “Study of Perspective – Tiananmen Square” respectively).

Perhaps a piece from Weiwei more fitting for the show would have been his ideas for China’s 2008 Summer Olympics stadium, also known as the “Bird’s Nest.” The embattled Chinese artist has since publicly reneged his contribution on grounds of it being a Chinese propaganda tool—making his relationship to the building political in retrospect.

AI WEIWEI (Chinese, born 1957) Study of Perspective – Tiananmen Square 1995-2003 Gelatin silver print 15 5/16 x 23 1/4″ (38.9 x 59 cm) Acquired through the generosity of the Photography Council and the Contemporary Arts Council of The Museum of Modern Art

Particular politics aside, as a whole the exhibition is an important reminder of art’s ability to communicate and, by extension, protest. For designers, the exhibition encourages us to be critical of our creations, regardless of the commission. It also reminds us there are more effective ways to subvert a commission than turning it down.

Museum of Modern Art
9 + 1 Ways of Being Political: 50 Years of Political Stances in Architecture and Urban Design
Through March 25, 2013

Rani Molla has a digital media master’s degree from Columbia Journalism School. She’s a journalism reader, writer, photographer, videographer, data visualizer and general doer. Follow her on Twitter.