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Designing a Pompidou Exhibition

Bernard Tschumi Architects

In early 2014, the Centre Pompidou approached our office about a comprehensive retrospective at the museum. It was to be the first major exhibition of my work in Europe and the first career retrospective from the office. Frédéric Migayrou, the chief curator, with Aurélien Lemonier, suggested the work could be seen through two architectural themes that have been present in my work since the 1970s: Concept and Notation. The publication of “Architecture Concepts: Red is Not a Color”, had just happened and curators felt that an exhibition could be generated based on some of the material and themes of the book.
The opportunity posed a challenge, as designing the exhibition was a project in itself. As with many projects that we do in our office, we wanted not just to satisfy the requirements of the program (in this case, exhibiting works in a gallery), but to question the program itself: to see if there is a new architectural idea or concept that can reinvent the requirements. We began to generate studies focused around critical questions. How are exhibitions of architecture different from architecture? What architecture exhibitions have worked or not worked in the past? How can one exhibit “architecture” when the artworks are hundreds and thousands of miles away? In a digital era when there are no more “original” artworks, how to display works of architectural notation in a museum context?
We began to look into what I would call “reference” exhibitions that took place over the years: starting with The International Style exhibition at MoMA, 1932. We looked also at architect-designed exhibitions by Mies van der Rohe and Lily Reich. We looked at theories of exhibition promulgated by Bauhaus artist and architect Herbert Bayer. We also explored more contemporary exhibitions, starting with the 1988 Deconstructivist Architecture show, to more contemporary examples by OMA and Herzog and De Meuron.
One thing became especially clear: as the modes of architectural representation have expanded from drawing and models to include renderings, 3-D models, videos, satellite photographs, and marketing brochures, the architectural exhibition as a form has struggled to accommodate the changing nature of representation that has accompanied the digital age. With a career spanning both the analogue and the digital, it was clear that a consistent language needed to be developed so that projects and the concepts behind them could be appreciate whether drawn by hand or rendered on the computer, built or unbuilt, as small pavilions or very large masterplans.
The space was given: the Galerie Sud, a street level large gallery of about 1,100 sq m. “Red is Not a Color” arranged the projects into five themes. We took this as a starting point; but there could be variations - for instance, did it make sense to isolate theoretical projects like “The Manhattan Transcripts” or pedagogical work like the “Paperless Studios” at Columbia?
Even in a very diagrammatic way, it seemed clear that the exhibition would have zones; the route through those zones was part of the narrative or argument. We started to plot these ideas, very conceptually, into an imagined space.
Around this time, the firm was wrapping up the design of the Paris Zoo, which created a common architectural language for animals and visitors. Could this be appropriated? What about the “Folies” at La Villette? Furthermore, there was a question of what could be built given the budgetary and practical constraints. It was learned that drywall partitions (the standard white walls seen in museum galleries around the world) would actually be very expensive to construct.
For the zoo, I had developed a strategy of aviaries made of single geometries arranged in different configurations for each animal. Using a similar strategy at the Pompidou would correlate to the arguments or themes of the work, and a group of tables that would provide context to the projects in and on the cages; we began to explore the ramifications of mounting works. Is there a psychological effect on the viewer if the project is mounted on the inside or outside wall of the enclosure? Also we began a discussion of how text would play into the show. Architecture exhibitions often make use of too much text, marginalizing words by oversupplying them. It was clear the text and images would need to work together in the service of a story and an argument. Finally, 28 video monitors were devised to show the built buildings as a way to document the finished architecture as curators wanted to avoid mounted photos of buildings (it was not a photography exhibition, after all), as well as more in-depth videos and interviews.
The next iteration was to take the documents/artifacts/works and begin to place them so as to make a coherent argument or narrative that created a logical path through the exhibition. Emphasis was placed on works that could be considered “originals,” knowing that in many cases, this did not exist in the museological sense. We also started to think about audio/visual components, which were encouraged. Some archival video existed, but could there be a way to use moving images to create “silent lectures” that could be engaging and pedagogical without feeling didactic? Placing models at approximate scale started to help understand how they would feel in the space. The tables also started to become clearer. The strategy of points or nodes proved most successful. We began testing concepts for each of these points to serve as “digressions” or “subplots” that went into more detail on certain topics outside of the main argument.
The text for the exhibition was being worked on simultaneously with the design of the exhibition, but the graphic strategy for the text remained outstanding until very late in the design process. Typeface, sizing, and placement all factored into the desire to create a cohesive narrative around the works, but at a certain point, something still was missing, namely the necessity to engage the viewer into the problematic of the work. Much of what I do is to question the nature of architecture. How could one communicate this to the viewer?
A series of “questions,” posed in large type, roughly one per project, were prepared for many of the works: a way to engage the viewer not just with images, but also with words.
I draw by hand on A4 sheets while working on a project as a way to work out the architectural concept. These sketches or notations often become diagrams for articulating the generating concept or idea that determines the architecture. For the show, it was important to highlight these sketches, which were the single constant from the early work of the 1970s through the present. “Slogans” or short, theoretical statements about architecture, were also a constant through the years. A few of these statements were designed to appear on the façade with the reproductions of the sketches, another constant. A strategy of applying a series of these sketches and slogans to the exterior façade helped mediate the barrier between the city and the gallery; the private and public. “Architecture is not so much a knowledge of form, but a form of knowledge” and “architecture is the materialization of concepts,” were two of the key points.

Bernard Tschumi

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