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Insides and Outsides:
The Other Architect: Another Way of Building Architecture
Esther Choi

October 27, 2015-April 10, 2016
Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal
Giovanna Borasi, curator

—Joyce Carol Oates1Right now, otherness is a political category with a highly charged social valence. To be “other” is to be alien, not included, held apart. Disturbingly different or inferior. A threat, a surplus. Though recent uprisings on both sides of the political spectrum have drawn attention to the power dynamics of exclusionary practices, the concept of otherness precedes our current political climate. For many of us on the outside, to be ostracized as Other already was, and has always been, commonplace. To exist on the margins is, for some, simply a part of everyday life.Thus, to call an architecture exhibition The Other Architect brings up all sorts of questions about what constitutes the norm versus the alternative, or the center versus the periphery. Curator Giovanna Borasi’s choice of adjective implies that the broad swath of projects included in this exhibit, which span the 1960s to the present, are adversarial, novel, and countercultural. Like the brigade of shows over the past few years that have fed our fascination with the “radical,” “hippie modern” sixties and its legacy of alternative practices, The Other Architect adopts this curatorial turn, to showcase “architects who expanded their role in society to shape the contemporary cultural agenda without the intervention of built form.”2 Its varied selection of twenty-three unusual case studies includes a road trip taken by Liselotte and O. M. Ungers to catalog utopian communes; a televised architecture charette called Design-A-Thon; Giancarlo De Carlo’s International Laboratory of Architecture and Urban Design; a yacht cruise conference organized by Constantine Doxiadis and Jacqueline Tyrwhitt; a mobile library dubbed AD/AA/Polyark; and Pidgeon Audio Visual, a mail-order lecture kit; among others. These are placed alongside more recent projects such as the conferences and publications of Anyone Corporation; the Center for Urban Pedagogy’s exhibitions and educational programs; AMO’s branding reports; and Eyal Weizman’s university course and consultancy, Forensic Architecture.

Despite the eclectic range of architectural projects, the show is mainly a display of documents, calling to mind Benjamin Buchloh’s characterization of the sixties’ Conceptual art practices as an “aesthetics of administration.”3 Borasi has marshaled an impressive array of archival material spanning four decades. Taking the form of reports, memos, letters, photographs, and some time-based documentation culled from events and conferences, the institutional authority of this “information” takes the place of museum didactics and curatorial interpretation. While the exhibition’s first installation at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, designed by MOS Architects, made use of the exhibition walls as a graphic extension of the written page to spatialize each case study, its second installment (also designed by MOS) in the close quarters of the Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery at Columbia GSAPP exacerbates a sense of info-matic bureaucracy through its arrangement of low stools and long tables containing printed ephemera. The gallery takes on an air of managerial office work: viewers are expected to sit down and read.Yet for all of its attention to archival research, at the heart of The Other Architect is the presentation of a set of symptoms without the provision of a diagnostic. Ultimately, it’s unclear what the criteria are for the exhibition’s hodgepodge selection of projects, beyond their basic testament to the novel things that architects have thought and done outside of traditional building design. Case studies are not organized historically or thematically, nor are they analyzed in terms of their embeddedness in wider economic and social processes. Numerous points of contradiction also arise amongst the projects, making it difficult to understand whether a project’s “otherness” is qualified by an active critical stance it has taken against the forces of inequality in the world or by its antagonism to insular disciplinary debates. Instead, the exhibition’s narrative implies that these projects innately contributed to the discipline in an almost mechanical way, by funneling information into an imaginary reservoir or cloud of architectural “data.” We are repeatedly told that architectural knowledge constitutes a particular type of epistemological inquiry and a form of practice in its own right, but the implications of these presuppositions are unclear.

The unevenness of the projects included in the show, and the lack of analysis throughout, is a detriment to the practices that actively seek to reflexively interrogate the discipline or use architecture as a tool for cultural critique and intervention. Whereas Eyal Weizman’s Forensic Architecture has wielded architectural analysis to excavate geopolitical tensions, Price and Newby’s project, in contrast, focused inadvertently on the literal inflation of them. Or consider the urban activist “counter-projects” of the Brussels-based Atelier de Researche et d’Action Urbains, which openly critiqued profit-driven development and the demolition of working-class neighborhoods caused by infrastructural expansion in the late 1960s and 1970s. Likewise, the Center for Urban Pedagogy’s lateral organization, which integrates community-building workshops in secondary schools for transformative ends, stands in direct opposition to the IAUS’s approach, which leveraged its Ivy League connections for government-funded research subsidization.

The concept of otherness in this exhibition is more than a problem of language: it’s a sign of how hegemonic narratives of architecture are subtly perpetuated, romanticized, and canonized. A claim for alterity cannot be made without problematizing what it means to be a stranger in both a profession and a society, without examining if the internal politics of particular social formations of practice reflect an actual alternative, or if they are merely circumstantial consequences. A simple look at the range of subjectivities in the exhibition, for instance, shows how racial minorities and the working class were often the subjects, rather than authors, of study. To imagine that architecture, made of paperwork or bricks, could exist independently of core conceptualizations of class, race, gender, or political economy is a vacuous exercise. Rather than facing this type of investigation as an unimaginative moral burden, we might query, instead, what privileged few can afford the luxury of forgetting about these social realities in the first place.
The strategy of The Other Architect seems endemic to the status of “information” in our post-Internet era: although the rampant accessibility of data has, on the one hand, promoted a democratic leveling of voices and sources, it has also produced a sense of confusion between expertise and opinion, erasing important categorical distinctions, values, and motives. But if curation is but one of the many skills that the architect can leverage to engender new and transformative cultural perspectives, the exhibition can act as an opportune platform for prototyping innovative, theoretical approaches that treat history and its documents as a site for productive contestation. Who fits in the category of the other architect? Who gets to count? There are a number of exits this question could take. To investigate the concept of otherness in architecture would go beyond the simple skills of arithmetic or data collection. To address this question of “otherness,” we’d have to direct critical attention to the contexts in which knowledge is “authoritatively” produced. The task would demand that we become astute observers of how insides and outsides are constructed.8 Indeed, to recuperate the discipline’s many, “othered” architects would require letting go of the stories and images that we’ve clung to, in order to excavate, reanimate, and ultimately rewrite history through its margins.
Joyce Carol Oates, “Against Nature” (1988).
“The Other Architect,” press release, Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, https://www.arch.columbia.edu/exhibitions/37-the-other-architect.
Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Conceptual Art 1962–1969: From the Aesthetics of Administration to the Critique of Institutions,” October 55 (1990): 105–43.
See, for instance, Sylvia Lavin’s discussion of the status of the document in Rem Koolhaas’s curation of the Fourteenth Venice Architecture Biennale. Lavin, “Too Much Information,” Artforum 53, no. 1 (September 2014): 347–53, on 398.
Giovanna Borasi, “The Other Architect: Another Way of Building Architecture,” in The Other Architect (Montreal: Canadian Centre for Architecture, 2015), 362.
See Lucia Allais, “The Real and the Theoretical, 1968,” Perspecta 42 (2010): 27–41.
Borasi, “The Other Architect” (note 5), 365.
Here I refer to a point about leftist resistance made by writer Sara Marcus: “I think that people who come into a leftist state of mind, often that comes in part from having a strong ability to identify with whoever is being left out of something, and that can very easily spill into assuming that you, too, are being left out of something. That feeling isn’t necessarily coming from the outside; it’s coming from one’s own keen observations and analyses of the ways insides and outsides get constructed.” See “An Interview with Sara Marcus,” Nassau Weekly, March 28, 2015, http://www.nassauweekly.com/an-interview-with-sara-marcus/ (accessed March 16, 2017).

How to Cite This Article: Choi, Esther. “Insides and Outsides,” review of The Other Architect: Another Way of Building Architecture, curated by Giovanna Borasi. Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal, QC, October 27, 2015 – April 10, 2016. JAE Online. May 17, 2017. https://jaeonline.org/issue-article/insides-and-outsides/.