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Review> MoMA's Rabble Rousers
New exhibition emphasizes architecture and urbanism's potential role for political engagement.
Didier Faustino's Stairway to Heaven, 2002.
Courtesy MoMA

9+1 Ways of Being Political: 50 Years of Political Stances in Architecture and Urban Design
Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street, New York
Through March 25, 2013

The floor space devoted to architecture at MoMA is so minuscule (even “design” objects have more space on the third floor) that it’s difficult to do justice to the Modern’s extraordinary collection of architectural drawings, models, and ephemera. Even before its recent co-acquisition (with Columbia’s Avery Library) of the vast Frank Lloyd Wright archive, MoMA’s collection was one of the most extraordinary architectural resources in the city. Chief Curator Barry Bergdoll has thoughtfully and carefully reinstalled the collection periodically to show off the collections depth and breadth. Now Pedro Gadanho—who was hired last year as a curator—along with Curatorial Assistant Margot Weller, has created an exhibition that selects work from the collection that emphasizes architecture and its potential for political engagement.

Despite this well-worn and heavy theme, 9+1 Ways of Being Political: 50 Years of Political Stances in Architecture and Urban Design is a thrilling and joyous survey of architecture as we are likely to see in New York. It may simply be that Gadanho comes from Portugal and is able to scroll through the collection with fresh eyes—something we desperately need in New York. But he also has a sophisticated understanding of how contemporary architecture is contingent on economic power. This exhibition wants to challenge this view and focuses on architectural works that “represent the diversity of the way in which political attitudes have been expressed in architectural concepts and urban interventions since the 1960s.”

Hans Hollein's Aircraft Carrier City in Landscape, 1964.

The exhibition is divided into 10 thematic sections beginning in 1961 with “Radical Stances,” which focuses on the unbuilt projects of radical architectural imagination. This section highlights include iconic works by Cedric Price, Peter Cook, and Andrea Branzi (all gifts of the extraordinary Howard Gillman Foundation) and these examples of architecture as art remind us that drawing can be a form of provocative manifesto. But like the other nine sections there are several little known works by Gunter Rambow and Laurids Ortner that show how innovative and creative radical anti-modern stances were in the 1960s. Several architects who might find affiliation with the other radicals in this first section are found around the exhibit in other categories: Superstudio in “Fiction and Dystopia,” Yona Friedman and Hans  Hollein in “Iconoclasm,” Ant Farm in “Interrogating Shelter,” or even Lebbeus Woods in the “Deconstruction” section.

One architect who was influenced by the 1960s radicals, Rem Koolhaas, makes no less than 13 appearances in the exhibit in all his various OMA groupings (with Madelon Vriesendorp, Elia Zenghelis, etc.), making him by far the most ubiquitous, if not influential, architect in the show. But Gadanho also seems to have wanted to include New York–centered work and here Bernard Tschumi has eight works in various sections and may be a sympathetic reminder of someone, like Gadanho, who came from Europe to New York, making his mark with Manhattan Transcripts (1980). There are several works in the show that really stand out for the power of their image making: Aldo Rossi’s Urban Construction (1978), Gordon Matta Clark’s Conical Intersect (1975), Skidmore, Owing & Merrill’s National Commercial Bank Jedda (1970), Lebbeus Woods’ gorgeous nine-paneled Terrain (1999), and even Leon Krier’s spare and lithe House Without Rooms (1972). One gets the sense that Gadanho’s real passion is for the final three sections: “Occupying Social Space,” “Interrogating Housing,” and “Politics of the Domestic,” which bring the exhibit up to date with current notions of political practice. Oddly enough these sections seem to predict a turn away from buildings to an interest in art as a possible political commentary and criticism. These sections have works like Didier Faustino’s surreal Stairway to Heaven (2002)  David Goldblatt’s Street Traders and Montecasino, Fourways, Johannesburg (2001), Raumlaborberlin’s video and installation Cantiere Barca (2011), and Marjetica Potrc’s Caracas Growing House (2003). The exhibition underscores that, despite our emphasis on sustainability, what matters for architects is still powerful physical form, creative expression, and response to the revolving polis as well as convincing politics. This show is a great reason to battle the crowds at MoMA and be reenergized by the power of exhibitions. And a note to the MoMA leadership: please give the architecture collection more space and Gadanho a real show!

William Menking

William Menking is AN’s Editor-in-Chief.