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.
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.
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.
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.