What Now? Thoughts on Exhibiting the History of Architectural Activism
This post features photographs by Michael Kurt Mayer, an architecture student at McGill University, Montreal, with a passion for written and photographic expression.
The exhibition Now What?! opened in Montreal on February 12, 2019 (figure 1). This is the fourth showing and the first one outside the United States for this 280-piece exhibit, curated by Lori Brown, Andrea Merrett, Sarah Rafson, and Roberta Washington. For readers who may not have encountered Now What?!, it’s a 110-foot paper timeline (figure 2), with 11 x 17 inch panels posted above and below graphic indicators of the years since 1968, that could wrap the four walls of most architecture-school exhibition spaces. The focus of Now What?! is architectural activism in American architecture according to four themes: academy, advocacy, workplace, and representation. It explores landmark moments of racial equity, housing reform, LGBTQ events, and some buildings, but is mostly about the slow embrace of women architects over the past half century. Now What?! claims in its Montreal press release to be the “only comprehensive narrative of activism in US architecture and design,” but it may be more accurately the first exhibit to illustrate activist histories intersectionally, overlaying gender and race. After all, it’s a timeline, not a comprehensive history. The main ambition of this date-focused exhibit is to inspire students and architects today to see themselves as agents of change. Its accessible, collage-style graphic layout is ideally suited to schools of architecture, where we are very accustomed to the design-crit aesthetic: carefully arranged pieces of paper, clustered, and pinned up on a wall to make a point.
What is especially nifty about Now What?! is its open-endedness. Even though it’s a real exhibition (as opposed to virtual), it functions something like a wiki, whereby visitors can participate in the ongoing production of knowledge about architectural activism by adding suggestions on themed, color-coded cards (figure 3), in this case tacked to the wall of our School’s Exhibition Room just below the timeline. Two white, modular, polygonal tables, with color-coded, informative graphics, invite visitors to pause and to participate in this way (figure 4). When the curators de-mount the exhibit, they’ll presumably incorporate some of these suggestions into the next iteration of the exhibit. This means the living, growing exhibit is actually composed collectively, reinforcing the major emphasis on collaboration and alliances. Host institutions, too, get to add material when the exhibit arrives. For example, graduate students at McGill University prepared a forty-foot wall of material on architectural activism in Canada (mostly at McGill) using the templates established by the curators (figure 5 and figure 6). So Now What?! gets bigger and better each time it’s seen and is itself a form of collaborative activism.
Now What?! links to other historic and current exhibitions, too. The team of curators point to Susana Torre’s 1977 exhibition for The Architectural League, Women in Architecture, as a significant precedent for Now What?! Across town, at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), a poster from Torre’s exhibit is part of curator Sylvia Lavin’s Architecture Itself and Other Postmodernist Myths (Figure 7). In the sixth of seven galleries at the CCA dedicated to Architecture Itself, entitled “Bodies Return,” is another strong link to Now What?!: images (including a video from Smith College) of the Women’s School of Planning and Architecture, 1975-1981 (figure 8). As part of the community-based programming that is part of the Now What?! exhibition package, co-curator Andrea Merrett led a tour of both exhibits, making these heady connections. She comments: “Our exhibition and Lavin’s at the CCA speak to each other through the content they share. The inclusion of material from our show contributes to challenging the myth of postmodern architecture as autonomous.”
Needless to say, visitors comparing the two exhibitions might be struck by Now What?!’s paper-and-tacks, touchable and responsive aesthetic, while the CCA show boasts a more traditional museum style, with precious artifacts framed in glass accompanied by captions (and security guards). While the layout of the CCA show implies that feminist architecture and activism was part of postmodernism, Now What?! makes no such connections to that era.
After gender, race is a major theme in Now What?! (figure 9). The starting point for the timeline, 1968, comes from civil rights leader Whitney Young, Jr.’s influential speech at the AIA National Convention in Portland, Oregon. Among the “Academy” themes contributing to Now What?!’s look at race is Dell Upton’s 1984 “White and Black Landscapes in Eighteenth Century Virginia” article, published in Places. While resistance to African-American architects and issues gets the most attention in the exhibit, panels also deal with Hispanic San Francisco and road signs that misrepresent Indigenous territories. In re-thinking race activism, visitors to the Montreal exhibit may feel inspired to add suggestions for nods to Indigenous architects and activism, such as the recent founding of a new architecture school at Laurentian University with an emphasis on Indigenous design cultures, the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s Indigenous Task Force, or Canada’s contribution to the Venice Biennale in 2018, led by eighteen Indigenous architects including four from the U.S.
My favorite part of Now What?! is how it makes us all into activists and collaborators. The invitation to add or tweak the content gets us immediately making connections from what’s in the exhibit, to events or people or books not yet included. The impact of the #metoo movement and the sheer existence of the shitty-men-in-architecture list, for example, beg for attention. Like other wiki events and by this very invitation, it makes us all feel part of the story. It is thereby inclusive, just like the story it unravels. And most importantly, it gets us all asking “what now?,” ensuring a bright future for architectural activism.