Staging and the Staged: An overview of the gta exhibitions/Studio Tom Emerson fall semester construction program

Emma Letizia Jones
ETH Architecture Department, Zürich, 07.12.2014

The architecture faculty of the ETH Zürich is aesthetically a strange beast – somewhere, perhaps, between abandoned alien spaceship and post-apocalyptic virus lab. Its location certainly accounts for no small part of this impression. The building, completed in 1972, appears to have been unceremoniously dropped into place in the middle of an open field high above the city, its surroundings furnished with the odd stray cow to complete the picture. The evenly humming service corridors inside, with their rows upon rows of fluorescent lighting, are wonderfully broad and out of scale - leading onward in indeterminable directions. These “useless” spaces, for the interested visitor, can be given over utterly to exploration: with their circulation corridors five or six meters wide, and stair landings the size of lecture rooms. Out of term time, you can wander these halls without encountering anyone at all, nor even any sound, as the industrial rubber floors absorb all footsteps.
  The faculty community is dispersed throughout this silent maze, and somehow dwarfed by it. But despite the emptiness, wandering through this oversized labyrinth is a pleasure: Through one door, there is a room with a view over a field and a forest. Through another, a working studio, with students’ models and drawings tacked up on the walls. Through yet another, a gallery, or an unexpectedly grand, timber paneled lecture hall. And if the persevering wanderer makes it as far as the roof – hardly an easily navigable task, the astonishing view over the campus fields and city beyond proves a fair reward.
  Few are given to experiencing the spaces of the building in this way, but it was precisely through these kinds of wanderings that an architect and two curators gleaned their greater potential. By way of a response to these left-over zones, the architect and faculty Professor Tom Emerson, along with Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen, the joint curators at gta exhibitions (the faculty’s exhibitions department), have together formulated a program seeking to unite the fields of architecture, display, and pedagogy. This project has taken shape as a series of exhibitions and events that have dispersed themselves throughout the building, making use of its unloved spaces whilst becoming entwined with the often invisible structures of the school. The temporary displays are housed by a series of pavilions constructed by Emerson’s second-year architecture students.
  It is not the first time Emerson’s students have constructed a pavilion on the grounds of the university as a way of exploring the relationship between design, construction, and teaching. But this year, by siting these pavilions within the school’s walls instead of without, the studio seeks to activate previously un-programmed spaces; inviting visitors not only to interact with the interventions themselves, but also with the building anew.
  Also unique this year is the extension of the function of these pavilions from pedagogical tool to repository of public program. For the collaboration between Emerson, Fischli, and Olsen points to the changing role of the architecture exhibition, not only within the school itself but also in wider discourse. As the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale has recently demonstrated, the architecture exhibition has largely developed two distinct strands: On the one hand there is the more traditional showing of models, drawings, and photographs, an approach favored by, for example, the Austrian, Korean, or Japanese pavilions. This format treats the representative devices of architecture as both artworks in themselves as well as signifiers of larger projects – projects that are keenly felt only by their absence. These exhibitions speak a language familiar to those who know how to read it, but often mystifying to those in the wider culture. On the other hand, approaches such as that of the German pavilion, or the OMA-curated central pavilion, attempt to simulate “real” spatial experiences. Often building architectural spaces, fragments or elements at full scale, these exhibitions offer the immersive experience, one that does not require a specific understanding of the representational language of architecture. While they attempt to move away from the format of the art exhibition, the danger of these shows is the peddling of a kind of hollowness, by which sensory-spatial experience is privileged as the prime goal of architecture.
  For architecture often thrives through being curtailed, honed, and refined as it pushes against the parameters of a brief and program, set usually by the client. Without these restraining devices that often come from outside the logic of architecture itself, the architecture installation can often feel inadequate, or superfluous. And what’s more, architecture not only thrives through constraint, but also through use. The building of full-scale architectural motifs, often within a gallery setting, exploits architecture’s incarnation as timeless fetish object, but fails to explore its other, changing functions over time.
  It is clear that the current gta exhibitions program moves away from the first definition of the architecture exhibition, that is, the traditional showing of architecture’s representational devices as artworks (although this approach can be found in some aspects of the show). But more than this, it also manages to solve the problem of the lack of real constraint and use in the full-scale installation. By collaborating with Fischli and Olsen, who have their own separate set of requirements related to their delivery of a public exhibitions program, the students of Emerson’s studio have given themselves a real client, real constraints, and real goals – even if these goals only operate within the pedagogical structure of the school.
  The emphasis on these pavilions as teaching tools is clearly spelled out by the language of their construction. The steel substructure, exposed externally and clad internally in plasterboard and fiber-reinforced board, was a response to the fire regulations associated with building new structures inside the faculty.

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But it also gives the pavilions a perfunctory beauty, avoiding association with the holistic or overly romantic notion of “architect as craftsman” that the spectacle of students building in timber can often evoke. These structures do not make claims to the crafted, but rather, their instructional purpose is very literally laid bare. The exposing of the steel joints of each structure, for which the students were required to develop connection solutions, demonstrates this. Furthermore, the pavilions are designed to be transportable, reusable and un-precious. Besides housing further exhibitions at the faculty (such as the upcoming survey of Zurich’s playground architecture “Architektur für Kinder”), they will also be disassembled and reassembled on other sites at other times, facilitating other kinds of displays and realizing other purposes.
  The two most obvious constructions are to be found in the foyer and formal exhibition hall on the ground level of the school. Both of these pavilions were opened with a display of two archives (of sorts). The first, a semi-circular, miniature amphitheater, has been angled to turn its back upon the gallery entrance foyer, instead embracing the views outside. Stacked across its tiered steps (which are well proportioned as reading benches), is an array of what guest curator Elias Redstone has termed “Archizines.”

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This travelling exhibition of independent architecture publications has been touring since the year 2000, its archive growing to include publications from over twenty countries made by architects, artists, and students. Now on the cusp of retirement, “Archizines” has both prefigured and responded to the recent proliferation of independent artist and architect-initiated publications. “Archizines” gives us architecture not just in writing but also as writing, and is a testament to Redstone’s foresight in documenting, collecting, and disseminating the phenomenon of written architectural practice.
  The second archive – located in the gallery itself – displays a collection of models, drawings, books, and prints left behind in Skopje after the 1963 earthquake. The documents, which offered solutions for Skopje’s post-disaster reconstruction, were created by a United Nations funded working group of architects including Kenzo Tange and Constantinos Doxiadis, and they have now been re-presented by the gta as what they have termed a “performative archive.” Doctoral student Damjan Kokalevski is currently picking this archive apart, attempting to form a double dialogue during his research into the material: not only with the archive itself but also with the viewing public. In response, the structure designed to display the documents is built as a stage – with Kokalevski, seated at its center, as the primary player.

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This live experiment, designed to make visible the process-driven research facilitated by the school, lays Kokalevski’s unfinished work bare for public discussion, suggesting a democratic research process that is both fascinating and precarious: For alongside the potential for great insight there is also the danger of unwittingly engineering a scenario of non-criticality, in which the research process is both edited and limited in favor of the so-called ‘performative’ potential of the materials. In other words, real analysis has the potential to be shelved in favor of the manipulation of the collection’s more seductive display potential.
  Upstairs, a circle and a square pavilion built as enclosed galleries within a circulation landing exhibit the past work of Tom Emerson Studio’s students. In the exhibition titled “Atlas,” there are images of previous construction projects as well as case studies and urban surveys in the form of drawings, photographs, and models.

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Here we are offered a more familiar exhibition format with one distinct twist: The legibility of each project as a separate entity has been deliberately broken down and merged with the others, so that we don’t necessarily get a project-by-project survey of the work, but rather, a series of repeated motifs through which the central aim and aesthetic of the studio becomes clear. As the images attest, the studio is interested in the banal spaces of the city, seeking to draw out the latent patterns found within them. In the identification of these patterns, a subtle process of rarefication occurs by which the spaces are endowed with new meaning, with the photograph and the drawing acting as the agents of this re-seeing. A comparison between “Atlas” and the exhibition in which it is housed thus seems inescapable: both betray a desire to make special what is un-special, turning the alien into the familiar. In the case of “Atlas” these alien environments are found within the city itself, whilst the exhibition of pavilions coaxes visitors into some kind of communion with the school through placing alien structures directly within its milieu. These structures both stop the flow of movement through the building as well as encourage it, acting at once as dams, then as funnels.
  The last, hidden intervention is on the roof of the building, where students have built a viewing platform for the city. This framed cube’s bleachers are clad in red formwork timber boards, hinting at the precarious, temporary, tiered seating of numerous high school sports carnivals and assemblies past. Unlike the others, this structure is not for the display of other objects, but for the display of the city. Representing the culmination of the path through the building, this structure turns the gaze outward toward the brilliant view of that very environment of raw materials that shape the work of architects and students alike. 

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  Architects have always thrived in collaboration. By extension, the architecture exhibition distinguishes itself from the exhibition of art when it imagines itself as facilitator of a wider collaborative project, as this particular case demonstrates. In doing so, the exhibition evolves into a transmitter of ideas that are placed solely in neither the drawn nor the built. These ideas instead find their expression through far more informal, imperfect means – in event, in conversation, in play, or in wandering.

Atlas. Studio Tom Emerson / Archizines / Performative Archive: Skopje
October 8 to October 31, 2014 at the ETH Zurich, Hönggerberg, HIL, gta exhibitions

Fig. 1
Stages by Studio Tom Emerson

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Fig. 3 and 4
Performative Archive: Skopje

Fig. 5 und 6
Stages by Studio Tom Emerson

Photos by Martin Stollenwerk

Emma Jones is an architect, editor of London based publication E.R.O.S. Journal and current doctoral student at the University of Zürich.