Marta Jecu: The idea of model is still strong in architectural practice and in exhibiting architecture. How do you see its transformation in the last decades and how do you use this polymorphous formula of representing space (including ideal prototype, working maquette, instrument of presentation, and scenographic and illusionistic setting) in your exhibitions? We can take as a starting point, a consideration of the model in a large sense, not necessarily understood as object, miniature, but as a form of essentialising the principle that structures space. The present exhibition in your gallery, by the Mexican architect Tatiana Bilbao, is also a condensed representation of a real context, and can be considered a space-filling model. The border between model and installation is blurred here. Is this “extended model” a medium of representation that presents “architecture as art”?
Ulrich Müller: This is a very complex question and of course you are right: The architectural model still plays a very important role in the communication of architecture. In spite all the fantastic new technologies for visualizing architecture only the model allows us to experience the three dimensionalitiy of architecture in the most immediate way. But I want to talk about the model as a contemplative object which has a lot to do with what I’m doing as a curator of the Architektur Galerie Berlin. When I make an exhibition, the model then assumes all possible forms. Insofar it is an aid, but it is not the only means. I see the model as one of the classic ways to show architecture in an exhibition, beside plans, photographs, sketches, documentation, etc. But my idea when I am showing an architecture exhibitions is not only to simply document architecture in this – let’s say – classic way. My idea is always to create an atmosphere which brings the visitors – either physically or intellectually – as close as possible to the real building or architecture we discuss – in spite that this is of course absent. That’s why I always ask the architects that exhibit in my gallery to visualize their idea of architecture and not only to make a kind of documentation, as is the common practice. At the end, the aim is always to see the gallery space as a huge model which the architects transform with their spatial inventions. In this type of oversized model the architect can represent not only what we see in a real building, but also what cannot be represented in the project itself: one can represent model-wise the idea behind it.
The installation by Tatiana Bilbao – an original wood construction from a Mexican site that divides the gallery space into two levels – has a lot of different meanings, it is a brilliant example of what I have in mind of what an architectural model can be nowadays. Firstly, the wooden construction gives us an exact idea of the construction technology imployed in the part of the world where Tatiana is working. Through its seemingly anarchic structure, which is totally different from the high technology we use, the influence of the building process on the finished building becomes transparent. Second, the gallery space is totally changed: it is divided into two levels so that we have a totally different spatial experience now. Thirdly, the main point for an architect is to always present his real work. In the case of Tatiana’s show, she totally dispenses with the presentation of the completed buildings. Tatiana designed the exhibition as to transport an idea and stresses how important the aspect of the construction of the building site is. In this way, her work comes close to arts, since it works on a high level of abstraction.
M. J. : There is an ambiguity between the projective and documentary character of models (and of architecture exhibitions as well): they are both documenting an essential form of buildings, and projecting and anticipating the potential of the discipline itself, surpassing concrete possibilities. How would you consider the role of the model in your curatorial practice from this perspective?
U.M.: Of course, the classic architecture model still plays an important role, as before. Maybe not like it was 20 or 15 years ago, as today more the question is posed how I visualize an architectural idea. There is a transition from a concrete model-nature to a more abstract one in the presentation of architecture. Many architects ask themselves whether it is possible to exhibit architecture at all. Many exhibition strategies recall a classic architectural model. There is also this intense exchange: artists watch what makes the architecture and architects look at what makes the art. I cannot actually exhibit architecture and in this situation I need to find an alternative solution. It is, just as in art as well, about finding a substitute for reality, where in architecture it has to do with before all something usable. Art reflects reality and interprets the reflection. Many architects look to apply these special opportunities that art offers in architecture. The exhibition looks then as different as possible from the real building. There are also, of course, places in Berlin and in Germany that exhibit architecture in a way that I call “classical”. In the more than 50 exhibitions that I have done in this gallery up to now (where I do six exhibitions per year), the common architecture model plays nevertheless still an important role in about one of three exhibitions. The point is to realize that classic presentation media can also be somewhat exhausting and the concern is to find new presentation models of architecture in space. This is why the current exhibition of Tatiana Bilbao is an outstanding example of how architecture is represented as a model of extreme abstraction.
M.J.: In which way do you consider the various medial representation and documentation forms of architecture (architectonic photography, drawing or architectural sketch, models) to be constructing the discipline? Can architecture be reinvented and influenced in its concrete realization through its representation?
U.M.: I hope that this is indeed possible. But of course an exhibition is quite an extraordinary format in the complex cosmos of architecture. Most architects build houses rather than engage themselves with theoretical problems. An architecture exhibition, in any case, is but a field of experimentation for which an architect must/can have time, desire, and capacity. I always request to the architects to consider the exhibition space as a model workshop, and I ask them to please make something here that they do not otherwise have the chance to do! This is since I believe that creating something in a gallery that only stays for six weeks gives a special freedom that they should use. In the best case this temporary work has an influence on daily architectural work, but I would not overestimate it. I am curious what Jürgen Mayer H. would say about it. He works a lot with exhibitions and ultimately an exhibition serves in essence to reflect and possibly find a faster rhythm.
M.J.: An architecture exhibition also has a virtual character. It represents a concrete realization of virtual architecture. How do you work with this dimension in the exhibitions that you curate?
U.M.: Why does one make architectural exhibitions anyway? The architectural process is protracted and complicated. But usually a good and successful architect does not want to communicate his or her architecture only through a real building standing in on a fix location. A good architect also wants to use other ways of communication, to be a part of current debates and enrich them with new arguments. Unlike other forms of communication (images, internet, books etc.) an architecture exhibition provides the work three-dimensionally. And this is essential because architecture lives from the third dimension. In an exhibition, an architect has intermediate formats to develop architectural discourse and bring his own ideas to the public faster and easier. Also he can find a new or different audience with whom to stage a discussion about his architecture. In the temporary format of an exhibition, an architect can realize aspects that he cannot realize in architecture or does not dare to do so, and in turn these can then open new ways for the everyday, in which they can be then applied.
M.J.: A model is also architecture without the social and historical framework for which architecture is meant (an exhibition is theoretically abstracting the social context of a building as well). In recent projects though, the social context becomes more present and almost replaces the focus on the building as an end product.
U.M.: That’s right and as we pointed out before: architecture is actually unexhibitable, because it functions only in reality and in scale 1:1. Architecture is not only a piece of art, its success also depends on its social components, of the manner in which it is adopted by the user. This important function of architecture you can try to show but not really experience in an exhibition. But as you correctly said,a change takes place in discussing architecture. I give you another example: until only about ten years ago, the representation of architecture (especially in photos) worked mostly without any representation of the people that use it This is gradually changing more and more now: photographers try to show the urban and social context in irder to describe how the building works, beside its aesthetic aspects. Ten years ago, it was about a perfectly clean condition of architectural space, which was stripped being photographed using central perspective without people, so that the space appeared visually larger. Architecture has been presented in this sense primarily as an aesthetic phenomenon. Although this has changed in the medium of photography, it is not that easy to transform in this sense architecture exhibitions as well, there are other conditions at play there. Nevertheless, I see a new challenge there for which new forms have to be developed. Maybe we come to the conclusion that an exhibition is after all limited by this point of view and we will finally focus on architecture as the art to build – which is something we should not forget in front of all the new debates.
M.J.: How did you treat the social context, the lived and transformative dimension of architecture in your last shows?
U.M.: There was, for example, an exhibition of Holzer Kobler Architects, who placed their entire office in the gallery through a kind of photo collage, where it became unclear whether it was a theater stage or a real space. The boundary between exhibition space and the utilized location was blurred. I think it was a brilliant way to connect the social context with aesthetic questions and I hope to generate other shows with this focus in the future.