[en] Architektur Galerie Berlin

The greatest potential lies in working with the third dimension – Jeannette Merker in conversation with Ulrich Müller

One of the first things you mention in preliminary meetings with architects who want to exhibit at your gallery is: “You can show anything, except for plans!” How do they react to that?

This wish no longer draws such a surprise. Not only is the gallery’s approach well established by now, architects’ attitudes towards architectural exhibitions have c­­­­hanged as well. Many recognize that architectural plans are more for museums or the Internet. That’s why we are now going even further: not only do our exhibitions refrain from showing plans, they also address – in addition to their own themes – the configuration of the gallery space, transforming it to reflect the architectural principles of the exhibiting architect. The consequences of this wish sometimes lead to quite intensive discussions.

What is the idea behind it?

The aim of the gallery is to combine intellectual scrutiny with the physical aspect that makes architecture what it is, namely the third dimension. This combination gives rise to a distinctive and vivid experiential space whose atmosphere plays a central role. It’s like an experiment, combining information with spatial moments, in order to illustrate or interpret interrelations. This approach enables the rather conservative format of the exhibition to distinguish itself and persevere over the long term. Another impetus for this approach is the immediate context of Architektur Galerie Berlin and its work. Within the broad spectrum of Berlin’s many exhibition spaces and institutions, it’s vital to position oneself with an independent and recognizable profile, in order to be perceived at all. Since the gallery is a private exhibition space, we naturally have very different possibilities than, for example, a public institution.

Following the initial discussion, once an architecture firm has agreed to the gallery concept, what happens next? What is your role and what tasks do you undertake in the creation and implementation of the exhibition?

Usually the architects make one or two, sometimes even three proposals addressing themes that interest them or which they are currently working on. This includes concepts for their visual and spatial implementation, and often these elements quickly gel. If not, I try to find points we can work through in conversation, in order to strengthen the proposals. It’s important to keep the goal in mind, which remains the same, even after more than 60 exhibitions: to create a unique exhibition theme with an appropriate design. At 65 square meters, our space is not very large. This means that the exhibition must be both multilayered and clearly comprehensible. Uniting all these criteria is always a great challenge for the architects, and one that is not seldom underestimated. In addition, I am quite intensively involved in further preparations surrounding the show. A good exhibition not only depends on the exhibited objects work itself, but also the right invitation card, strategic media relations, and a suitable speaker to introduce the works.

How and according to what criteria do you select the architects? What are some of the main themes?

On the one hand, I look for architects whose work I have already been following for a number of years. In the 15 years of my work as a gallerist, I have accumulated a long list of names of architects, photographers, and artists, where I believe that the presentation of their work in Berlin could make an important contribution to the current architectural discourse. These positions make up around 50 percent of the gallery’s program. The other half is generated from the numerous requests I receive from architectural firms whose work I was not actively following, but which I would like to know better. Regardless of who reaches out first, our approach remains the same: the gallery focuses exclusively architecture as a conscious act of design. Within this framework, there are no stylistic or thematic boundaries. What counts is the intensity of intellectual reflection or confrontation of a theme. Currently I am in the “hot” phase for next year’s program, which I always publish in autumn of the previous year. I plan an entire year in order to establish an exhibition rhythm that is balanced with regard to both content and form, in which young as well as established architectural firms are represented as equally as possible.

You are a trained architect. What took you from building to exhibiting?

In a way, my work in the gallery is a continuation of my work in architecture – just using other means. As an architect, I worked for many years as an office and project manager. It was extremely enjoyable – in my opinion, being an architect is the most beautiful profession in the world. At the same time, I was also always very interested in the work of other architects. I didn’t want to look at their buildings in silence, but wished to engage with others by discussing it and sharing my enthusiasm. With this in mind, I collaborated with a university friend to organize a first exhibition series in 1998 in Leipzig. However, I quickly realized that the professions of architect and gallery owner cannot be combined if you want to be successful in the long run. That’s why I’ve been running the gallery professionally since 2002. Still, my work as an architect is the foundation for my work as an architecture gallerist – if that job title even exists. My experience enables me to understand how architects think, what problems they encounter, and how they position themselves within society.

What makes Architektur Galerie Berlin stand out from the rest of the Berlin (architecture) exhibition scene?

I already mentioned the broad diversity of Berlin’s exhibition scene. My many years of research on the international exhibition landscape have shown that Berlin’s scene is one of the most complex worldwide. That’s why it’s imperative that each institution has a clear profile. Architektur Galerie Berlin exclusively shows monographic exhibitions of contemporary architects. The exhibitions are conceptual, meaning each show addresses a specific theme that has been designed exclusively for the gallery. The spatial transformation of the gallery plays a central role.

What kind of a public do you address with your exhibitions?

Architektur Galerie Berlin attracts a public comprised of around 90 percent specialists. A third of that consists of Berlin-based architects, and another third are international students. We also get many visits from architecture tourists who have come to explore Karl-Marx-Allee. The other ten percent are non-specialists, about whom I am always very pleased. Due to their specific nature, our exhibitions often demand quite a bit of foreknowledge. Nonetheless, I aim to present and discuss the work not only with experts and peers in mind. It’s important to me that the exhibitions spark interest and curiosity among the general public. In a way, I would like to make the world a better place with my work…

You describe architecture exhibitions as a form of “practicing contemporary architectural communication.” In your opinion, what role do exhibitions play with regard to the public perception of architecture and building culture?

I already mentioned the various forms of architectural communication. Each one has its strengths, and is necessary in its own way. Nevertheless, I believe that in this context architecture exhibitions play a special role. Although the new media have a far greater reach, exhibitions are one-of-a-kind. They condense information in a way that cannot be reproduced, and their venues serve as key locations for discovery and exchange in a city. However, it must be noted that there is no “one” architecture exhibition. Depending on content, target audience, cultural background, etc., there are different types. For example: monographic supershows that naturally attract and reach a large audience; or discursive exhibitions that address the interconnections between society, economy, and politics; or crossover projects in which artists explore architecture-related topics. Common to all formats is that the measure of their success lies not only in the number of visitors or press reviews. These days, the communication surrounding an exhibition often plays an even greater role than the actual visit. In my case, only around 20 percent of the people who speak about the gallery have actually been to an exhibition here. We reach the rest through our website, Facebook, lectures, press reviews, and our program calendar. It could be considered unfortunate, but for curators this is one of the realities that they must not only accept, but also take advantage of. Ultimately all paths are legitimate when it comes to the great goal that drives us all: the constant quest for new horizons and doing our part to prevent or at least to slow down the trivialization of our built environment.

What is the potential of the architecture exhibition as a medium, and what are the limitations?

The greatest potential lies in working with the third dimension. In terms of communicating architecture, only an exhibition can create an atmosphere and work with originals. It also allows one to combine various media. The “un-displayable” aspects of architecture should not be considered a shortcoming, but rather an opportunity. Last but not least, exhibitions are publically accessible. With this in mind, the act of viewing is also a critical factor, and the exhibition format gains meaning as a place of encounter in these times of increasing virtualization. Of course there are systemic disadvantages as well, such as the temporal nature and the spatial constraints. Such exhibitions also require a great deal of effort, although this helps keep them from being arbitrary.

You have been publishing the online calendar “AAB – Architektur Ausstellungen Berlin” (Architecture Exhibitions) since 2010. What is the idea behind this extension of your program?

The AAB emerged from two considerations. Firstly, I was always interested in programs that other colleagues were developing. Although the gallery follows a unique idea, it naturally lives from a constant reflection of general tendencies in which it’s ultimately embedded. The ongoing review and fine-tuning of one’s own work is an important basis for a successful gallery. Secondly, visitors to the gallery often ask me what other architecture exhibitions in Berlin I can recommend. The “AAB – Architektur Ausstellungen Berlin” is published every two months, not only online, but also in print, and is available at all relevant Berlin institutions. The response to the exhibition calendar by both visitors as well as colleagues was so positive that in 2012, I launched the website “AAD – Architektur Ausstellungen Deutschland” (Architecture Exhibitions Germany). After two years of research, in 2014 this was expanded to “AEX – Architecture Exhibitions International”. AEX currently lists more than 1,400 exhibition venues – it’s a huge project. Since the website now has around 3,000 to 4,000 clicks per week, I assume that it’s not only architects who use it. And I’ve been thinking about how this can be developed into a tool for urban tourists. At the moment, AEX is a passive information platform. In the future, users should also be actively involved. Since we don’t have the capacity to do that singlehandedly, I hope to find partners for this endeavor. Essentially, AAB, AAD, and AEX are simultaneously an information platform, research project, and networking tool.

And with that, you have already taken a step towards the future. In your opinion, how will architectural exhibitions evolve in the upcoming years?

I would like to address the answer to this question in terms of two levels. The first is the formal aspect – we already spoke about that. One cannot stress enough that in the future, curators and exhibition organizers will need to pay even greater attention to new media. By this I don’t simply mean that more iPads should be placed around the exhibition. Many colleagues don’t seem to be sufficiently aware of how fundamentally the new media are transforming the flow of information and experiences of potential visitors. Ultimately, the successful concepts will be those that achieve a balance between the virtual and real world.
The second level pertains to content. The design of our built environment is increasingly the result of democratic decision-making processes. So it follows that this will also be a major exhibition theme in the future. But it’s not enough to merely display these processes. Such exhibitions must simultaneously be platforms for exchange and encounter. There are already many fine examples of this kind of linkage. Parallel to global trends of architectural production, the gap will continue to widen between exhibitions about star architects and discursive exhibitions, in terms of exhibition content. Even more important is the observation that the number of exhibition venues is steadily increasing. Clearly, society’s interest in the confrontation with architecture is large and continues to grow! So in closing, I would like to express a wish – even if this was not the intention of your question: For the future, I hope that Germany will have a central architecture institute, which can bring together the vast expertise of this country’s talent, free from economic constraints.