Making Architecture Accessible, Pretense and All

To the general public, architecture simply means buildings, maybe the occasional shiny rendering displayed on a blog such as this

Is this architecture? (Getty)

To the general public, architecture simply means buildings, maybe the occasional shiny rendering displayed on a blog such as this one or inside the sales pamphlet for an as-yet-unbuilt condo. It might be some Frank Lloyd Wrigh models lining the rotunda of his Guggenheim Museum. For Tina DiCarlo, architecture is so much more.

“The fact of the matter is the general public equates architecture with buildings, so if you talk to them about an architect, let’s say Rem’s Exodus drawings from 1972, if you say that’s architecture, somebody would say, “Well, how, it’s on paper? It doesn’t make sense.” How is a book architecture? How is text architecture? How are Tschumi’s Manhattan Transcripts architecture? It’s just a drawing.”

Ms. DiCarlo hopes to broaden the public’s understanding of What Is Architecture through the creation of The Archive of Spatial Aesthetics and Praxis, or ASAP. Built out of a collection of different architectural materials, from models to manifestos, blueprints to blog posts, she and co-curator Danielle Rago hope to transform the dialogue not only about what constitutes architecture but where it fits into the greater realm of society and culture.

“That’s why I call it spatial practice, and not architecture,” Ms. DiCarlo said. “If you begin to collect a host of things, and you don’t differentiate them according to painting sculpture, drawings and illustrated books, but you say, O.K., this is a collection of objects and things that are emblematic of contemporary culture, of contemporary aesthetic practices, then the value of them begins to be judged in relation to one another. If we’re all talking about the spatial environment, architecture won’t be sidelined.

“I think the attempt is to raise the value of architecture but also to convey a broader understanding of what constitutes the built environment,” Ms DiCarlo added.

Is this architecture? (MoMA)

If your head is spinning, that only underscores this daunting task, both for Mses. Dicarlo and Rago and the audience they seek to reach. The pair tend to talk of architecture on a highly theoretical level, but it is one they swear they can share with a broader public through the proper exhibitions and events. Part of the hope is that by having a specific collection of work by a range of of-the-moment designers, the variations within and between their practices can be more easily revealed.

Still, Ms. DiCarlo believes that in the proper setting, she can draw in the audience she is seeking without compromising the work—indeed to do so would dampen the impact of the work. She used a favorite line from Sarah Herda, the former director of the Storefront for Art & Architecture: “I don’t think we give the public enough credit. We don’t need to dumb things down.”

The storefront is precisely the sort of designer-love-fest Ms. DiCarlo seems to be fighting against. She acknowledges that the challenge will be to get architects to “stop talking only to each other, as they like to do,” and through working with the designers who will comprise the collection, she hopes to create a sufficient discourse. Among the people currently signed up are such hot shots as Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Teddy Cruz, Bjarke Ingles and Caitlin Berrigan. If these names mean nothing to you, well, again, there is the challenge.

Still, Ms. DiCarlo knows a thing or two about the general public. She used to be an architecture curator at MoMA, before she departed for London in a few years ago, where she met Ms. Rago, then earning her masters at the Architectural Association. They bonded at a lecture, the sort they soon hope to expose the world to. Ms. DiCarlo had the idea for a gathering point of diffuse architectural thought, and decided it needed both a physical and electronic home, though not a temporary one.

Is this architecture? (BIG)

The project began in earnest two years ago, gathering its collection, which will be installed sometime next year in New York.  It will continue to develop as a body of work and interpretation through 2019, at which point it will be installed as part of another institution, though there had been talk of dismantling the project. The pair are now looking to go beyond that.

One of the keys to ASAP’s success will be its sense of engagement and even fun, something Ms. DiCarlo said she learned from her old boss, former MoMA chief architecture and design curator Terence Riley. While she and Ms. Rago are still working out the future shape of the collection and its presentation, the opening gala being held tonight at Le Bain presents a good guide. More the mere hedonism, which Ms. DiCarlo said is welcome, it is the perfect venue for exploring the city’s “spatial practice.”

“The Standard was, in some ways, a very fun choice, but in other ways, it was a very strategic choice,” she said. “It’s over the High Line, this icon that has begun to transform the discussion of design. It’s at the top of the Standard, so it overlooks the city scape.” In other words, the perfect backdrop for moving beyond this backdrop.

mchaban [at] | @MC_NYC Making Architecture Accessible, Pretense and All