After a delightful, extended Thanksgiving celebration, Ian and I headed to the Barbican, a giant concrete ziggurat that, though located in central London, feels like its in the middle of nowhere.
Its a sprawling arts complex, with a theater, a design shop, a gallery, a cafe with an award-winning design, and floors of offices and condos above. We saw Ruddigore, a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta at odds with the aggressive modernism of everything else about the place, and then we went to look at an exhibit on OMA, Rem Koolhaas’ firm. The exhibit poster featured an image of the famous building Koolhaas did for the Beijing Olympics, a building that was like the Sydney Opera House in its defiance of conventional engineering. I was psyched.
I was disappointed.
The exhibit, in a word, sucked. Although it is a brand-new exhibit that just opened last month, the intro to the exhibit was an excerpt from a book published six or seven years ago, and contained a factual error about Central Michigan University (conflating it with Carnegie Mellon) that Ian and I are both sensitive to, seeing as its our alma mater. One of the centerpiece graphics was a site analysis map of Beijing cultural spaces – made in Illustrator with a Google aerial underlay. It was the sort of thing that everyone learns to do in their first semester of grad school – something essential, but that you don’t put in your portfolio.
The next component of the exhibit was a compendium of OMA buildings – while the display was interesting, laminate posters hung from a track, the content (as the exhibit acknowledged) was just ripped from the website. Everything about it was sloppy.
I was particularly disappointed by how little attention was devoted to individual buildings. Anyone who’s been paying attention (the sort of person who might be interested in going to such an exhibit, for example0 knows that you can look at OMA’s website and see the buildings they’ve been working on, and even people who aren’t paying attention may have seen images of Koolhaas’ more famous buildings (the Beijing Olympics building, the Seattle Public Library, etc). I wasn’t interested in outdated publications or lists of projects, but that was all that was on offer.
There was a three-room exhibit preview before ticketholders passed through a door to the (presumably) more substantive material. To be fair, I was so disgusted by the preview that I didn’t bother to pay for the exhibit, which might have had some actual content. Also, architecture is a difficult subject to curate. With other art, the object in question is right in front of you, whereas with architecture, you have to resort to models, renderings, and images that show the architect’s process. Its not the same as just looking at the building. Even Zaha Hadid, who works primarily with conceptual rather than built architecture (and is the number one badass in the world of architecture right now), is difficult to curate.
When I was in college I wanted to be an architectural historian (its not so far from there to city planner) and I used to visit the Heinz Architectural Center at the Carnegie Museum a lot. I was taking architectural history classes and had some knowledge of buildings, but even so, I found the exhibits impenetrable. Architects have been notoriously poor at conveying their message to a lay audience when they’re not actually building anything, and I think the Barbican exhibit was perhaps the apotheosis of this complaint.