A Very Special Museum

Hubert Damish, "A Very Special Museum" in Skyline: The Narcissistic City (2001).   1   2   3

14. See Heinz Kaehler, Hadrian und seine Villa bei Tivoli (Berlin: n.p., 1950), R. Bianchi-Bandinelli, Rome: Le centre du pouvoir (Paris: Gallimard coll. "L’univers des forms," 1969), 264 ff.

15. Choay, L'Allégorie du patrimoine, 28.

16. See Heinz Klotz, "City Wall and Adam's House," in Museum Architecture in Frankfurt, 1980-1990 (Munich: Prestel, 1990), 150-51.

17. G.-W.-F. Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Art, trans. T. M. Knox, 2 vols. (Oxford, Eng.: Clarendon Press, 1975), 2:638-39; see D. Hollier, Against Architecture, 13.

18. Jacques Derrida, "Cinquante-deux aphorismes pour un avant-propos (1986), reprinted in Psyche (Paris: Galilee, 1987), 510. I discuss the work of architectural metaphor at length in my preface to a collection of excerpts from Viollet-le-Duc's Dictionnaire d'architecture français (L'Architecture raisonnée [Paris: Hermann, 1978], 7-29), as well as in "Aujourd'hui, l'architecture" (Le Temps de fa réflexion II [1981]: 463-80).

19. See The Renaissance from Brunelleschi to Michelangelo: The Representation of Architecture, ed. Henry A. Millon and Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani (New York: Rizzoli, 1994). A smaller version of this exhibition was presented in Washington, D.C., and Paris in 1995.

20. See Hubert Damisch, The Origin of Perspective, trans. John Goodman (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994).

21. A good example would be the string of small romanesque churches ringing the city of Tournus, all of which served as experimental structural laboratories for the cathedral.

22. Henry Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, The International Style (new ed., New York: W W Norton & Company, 1966). First published in 1932.

23. Herbert Bayer, Walter Gropius, and Ise Gropius, Bauhaus 1919-1928 (Boston: Charles T. Branford, 1959.

What does this have to do with Borges's Immortals and the parody of the city that they felt compelled to build to indicate their refusal of their condition? At the moment of its initial institution, during the Terror, history and memory were very much implicated in the museum of architecture, as was the overthrow of an established order that accommodated only too well the renewed affirmation of the perpetuity of classical models and the continuity of a cherished inheritance. Save, I repeat, that, as regards architecture, the functions of conservation and edification (in the pedagogic sense of the word) would initially have been strictly dissociated. The Revolution, at the same time that it inscribed on its agenda the creation of a museum of architectural models, introduced--the two functions being explicitly separated--the notion of "monuments" declared to be "historic," which is to say monuments that could not, by their very nature, be stored away but that nonetheless seemed worth preserving in more than image. It is but a short step from this notion to conceiving of the city itself as a museum, and a museum, preeininently, of architecture, one that would have nothing imaginary about it because the monuments themselves would be preserved there, in situ, with or without the adjacent urban tissue. But it is clear that such a notion would put into question not only the idea of the museum and the idea of the city but also that of architecture itself, insofar as it is a project oriented by definition toward the future.

Contemporary tourists who go to Rome, as pilgrims did in the past, do not fail, time permitting, to visit, near Tivoli, in the immediate environs of the city itself said to be "eternal," a spectacular set of ruins known as Hadrian's Villa. Doubtless this immense architectural complex, built by the Emperor Hadrian, that great dilettante, at the end of his life as a kind of final refuge, did not in the slightest resemble an inside-out city. Yet occasionally, when walking there, I have thought about Borges's troglodytes, if only because of the manifestly ludic, even parodic, character of many of the structures scattered among the site's trees, valleys, and hills. Not to mention how, although some of the buildings with domes whose structures are relatively well preserved seem anachronistic, and although the functions of these varied constructions, which include a "maritime theater" and a large arcaded esplanade, are not always clear, there can be no question as to the site's general character as a "theater of memory." But here again, it is important to avoid being seduced by words, or rather by names. Although several of these buildings house replicas of famous works of art, fine ancient copies of classical statuary, including replicas of the Erechtheion caryatids, found in the "Canopus," as well as mosaic floors emulating the Hellenistic practice of reproducing famous paintings, we must not allow ourselves to be deceived by the names given to these structures (beginning with "Canopus," evocative of ancient Egypt): contrary to a glib notion that is widespread, these buildings were not intended to reproduce those that the emperor had visited in the course of his travels, although the names attached to them might indeed have prompted such memories in him.14

Françoise Choay has nonetheless described Hadrian's Villa as "the first museum of architecture at actual scale."15 But a museum in what sense, if tourists are not permitted to visit buildings deemed too fragile, in accordance with the practice of many open-air museums in Scandinavia and the United States, especially as regards wooden structures? And if there are no full-scale reproductions of buildings analogous to those of statues and paintings, such as were to be found in Pergamon under the Attalids (given to erecting copies of large Hellenistic monuments in their capital), or like the life-size reproduction of the Parthenon now in Nashville, Tennessee. As though, in the matter of architecture, fact counted less, in its museum, than idea, history less than utopia, the real less than the imaginary or the symbolic. It has been suggested that Hadrian's Villa is a kind of architectural treatise written in stone, in bricks and mortar as well as in light and shadow, in water, earth, and vegetation. Piranesi already saw it in much this way: not in terms of parody, but as a kind of paradigmatic, if irreparably ruined, free variation on the basics of ancient architecture, which found here, and in the palace of Diocletian in Split, their ultimate expression, in large part fantasmatic.

Should we be surprised that, among contemporary museums of architecture, one of the first to be built expressly for this purpose, the one recently erected in Frankfurt to designs by Oswald Mathias Ungers, is organized in large part around what its author calls its "thematic component," its fictional dimension:16 the building having been conceived not only to house the German museum of architecture but also to represent, to signify, in its appearance, in its very disposition such as this reveals itself to visitors, what architecture is and could be? That this museum should be situated inside a large villa built early in the present century, and whose architecture, however crudely, sought to evoke that of Michelangelo's Laurentian Library: such a choice assumes particular significance in the context of a city that has suffered destruction on so massive a scale. But what matters still more is that, in the center of this house, Ungers erected another one that rises clear through it, from top to bottom: an empty structure in the form of a tower, rectangular in plan, that can be described as minimalist and archetypal, given that it rests on four pillars that evoke a baldachin (a structural type in which John Summerson has seen the origin of architecture), and around which are distributed, on four levels, exhibition rooms that, on the occasion of the opening, housed a show devoted to the many new museums in Frankfurt. As if this nested configuration were meant to imply that architecture and the museum are indissociable. To phrase this differently: as if, the validity of the idea of a museum of architecture having been assumed, the institution were obliged to compensate, by the means of architecture but in the mode of fiction, for the constitutive lack specific to the art of building, or, if you prefer, for its essential void, as manifested in the fable of the upside-down city, turned inside out like a glove, erected by the Immortals. The same lack, the same void that Hegel tries to conjure, positing the Tower of Babel as its origin in architecture--a building, according to Herodotus, that was not hollow inside but solid, with thick walls, a purgos stereos.17

The link thus created between architecture and the museum has a double meaning: while the institution is capable of restoring to the art of building some of the symbolic value that it has lost by the importance increasingly accorded use value or function, it expects of architecture in return not only that it procure for it the spaces it needs, but also that it strengthen the museum's desired self-image. At a moment when the museum has demonstrated its ability to receive, control, and even organize the contestation of which it is supposedly the object, and with it all the values it is charged with defending, beginning with that of "art," we have reason to interrogate it about the deep reasons that might have prompted it to open its doors to architecture, a domain that had hitherto eluded its grasp. In this regard, and remaining in the realm of symbols, it was not by chance that the part of the Centre Georges Pompidou originally dubbed the "forum"--a misleadingly grandiloquent name--should have been transformed into an exhibition space at the very moment when a show advocating a particular notion of what a museum of architecture should be opened on the fifth floor (see below). Conversely, the fact of the art of building's finding itself with.in an institution, as a museological object, inevitably raises questions about the very concept of architecture and the uses (Georges Bataille would say: the besognes, or "needs") of the word--a "crossroads" word if ever there was one--as well about the artifact that it designates, about the ends that might be assigned to architecture, about the conditions and forms of its practice, about its proper place, and at the same time about the place that the museum constitutes, institutes, represents for it, including in its own architecture.

A place, in this instance, that is not only, that is not initially, a place of exhibition: architecture has its own particular way of presenting itself to vision, of exhibiting itself; and it would be an abdication if it were to turn to the museum to program its own reception or--worse still--to achieve one form or another oflegitimation. But a place, likewise, that is neither exclusively nor initially a site of memory. Although it can shelter a few fragments, the preeminent function of the museum of architecture is not the preservation of monuments, nor even of their images, save in the derivative--I do not say substitutive--form of models and graphic representations. In the end, even a full-scale museum of architecture such as Hadrian's Villa might be presents the visitor not so much with examples as with a kind of paradigm of what ancient architecture might have been: and "paradigm," as Derrida has noted, is another of those words related to architecture, and in two senses, insofar as paradeigma designates, for example (in example of something that is itself exemplary), "an architect's plan," and that the paradigm, the model of conjugation and declension proposed by architecture, can figure, metaphorically and otherwise, in fields other than that of physical construction, as when we speak, for example, of the architecture of a language or of any system whatever.18 My thesis, which is by no means original and which corresponds quite closely to the one advanced by the Centre Georges Pompidou in its 1991 exhibition "Manifeste," is that the museum of architecture should accommodate only objects that might serve as examples or models, but in the strictly theoretical, epistemological, projective, or, even better, projectile sense of these terms ("projectile" designating, according to Littré, that which flings, hurls, or throws; that which produces a projection or inference of some kind). What the public, the general public as well as the specialized public, wants from a museum, in the matter of architecture, is not so much models that lend themselves to imitation, or agreeable images, representations intended to seduce, as information bearing upon what is, or what could be, the process of design-work: which inevitably entails criticism of the current practice of architecture, and of the institutional, ideological, and political factors that shape it.

Design-work is the focus of many objects and images already in traditional museums and collections, specialized and otherwise, whether the Museo dell' Opera in Florence, which houses the wooden model of Brunelleschi's dome, or the analogous museum in Strasbourg, which owns drawings for parts of the facade and towers of the cathedral, and also museums of painting, drawing cabinets, and collections like those of the king of Sweden and the Royal Institute of Architects in London, to say nothing of the collection of the Académic d'Architecture recently shown at the Pavilion de l'Arsenal. An exhibition mounted at Palazzo Grassi in Venice, in 1994, included a number of models and paintings, many of them justly celebrated, relating to the development of Italian Renaissance architecture.19 The fact that one encountered there Brunelleschi's above-mentioned model for the dome of Florence cathedral and Michelangelo's model for the facade of San Lorenzo, as well as one of the three perspective views known as urbinates that have long fascinated me,20 suffices to demonstrate the breadth of the field to which we refer when we speak of architectural "design" or architectural "models" (for the above-mentioned perspective paintings are indeed "models," despite their being confined to two dimensions). Not to mention that, where architecture is concerned, design-work need not entail the production of models, or even that of drawings. To those astonished by the survival of so very few graphic documents relating to medieval architecture, I would point out that, although there must have been resort to models of some kind, buildings themselves, or specific parts of them, could have served this purpose, and the same holds for ancient architecture as for that of the Romanesque and Gothic periods.21 This being said by way of evoking, in passing, everything that, by definition, would elude the grasp of the museum, however "special" it might aim to be, or be said to be.

The Palazzo Grassi exhibition itself functioned as a kind of model, alas short-lived, of what a museum of Italian Renaissance architecture might be. But even if we bracket out the museum's function of preservation, it still would not be reduced to a site of memory, much less an archival depository, for of necessity it would have to engage two notions simultaneously, that of the museum and that of architecture. If there is to be a museum of architecture, its function should be preeminently pedagogical, as was the intention of its supporters in the period of the Terror. But it should also accommodate critical and even philosophical perspectives, rather like the upside-down city conceived by Borges's Immortals and near which they decided to remain. Which amounts to saying that there can be no museum of architecture, in the "veritable" ["véridique"]--as opposed to the “true” ["vraie"]—sense of the words "museum" and "architecture," unless it is strictly contemporary and directly linked to current architectural practice.

The idea of establishing a gallery of modern architecture was born at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, with two exhibitions mounted a quarter-century apart. The first one, organized by Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock, presented the American public with its first image of what was already known as the "international style," calling upon American architects to situate themselves within it.22 The second one, which opened in New York in 1959, after the great wave of emigration had brought many masters of the modern movement to the United States, was devoted to an institution that seemed to best sum up their enterprise: the Bauhaus.23 Profiting from their expertise and experience, Alfred Barr and his successors, much aided by Philip Johnson, managed to assemble what might be described as a collection linked to modern architecture, one including several original models and many drawings, including a very large group by Mies Van der Rohe. But it also included models realized after the fact, which is to say reduced-scale models of several key buildings of the modern movement. Thereby affirming the pedagogical role that might be performed by a museum of modern art.

It is perhaps useful to recall here that it was within the field of architecture that a critique of modernity first developed. As was only natural, given architecture's key role in defining this same modernity, and in its material production as well as its imaginary projection, as was demonstrated early on, to striking effect, by the Museum of Modern Art's Bauhaus exhibition. The will to escape from the ideological and institutional system within which architects were the first to be enclosed; the concern to signal a moment of hiatus, in other words to institute a kind of architectural moratorium; and, above all, the aim of restoring to architecture some of the semantic energy stripped from it by the adherents of "functionalism": all of these factors prompted many architects to devote themselves to what has been called "paper architecture," with drawing assuming all functions inscribable under the heading "representation." The exhibition organized by the Centre Pompidou in 1984, under the title "Images et imaginaires d'architecture," set the tone, calling for the establishment of an international museum of modern architecture. This exhibition consisted exclusively, as regards architecture, of images thought to awaken or rekindle desire, while pretending to help reconstitute a common language, one capable of accommodating genuine critical debate. At roughly the same time, several galleries opened in New York and elsewhere in hopes of exploiting this lode, as had already been done with photography and, as early as the eighteenth century, with cork models.




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