Architectural centers: Mediation is the new Criticism
Marcela Garcia Martinez
University of Geneva
Architecture centers are a new type of museum institution that emerged in Europe in the early 1980s. Although they were established in response to particular local circumstances, they share common objectives, activities, and field of action: the mediation of contemporary architecture. This encompasses activities to foster the understanding and the enjoyment of the built environment to as large an audience as possible, with a special focus on the lay public. To this end, centers organize lectures, guided tours, exhibitions, and publications. The question that arises when studying these centers is whether they are capable of going beyond mediation and engaging in architectural criticism, understood as the evaluation of single architectural works.
The analysis of the institutional configuration and the exhibition program of two centers, the Aedes Architekturforum in Germany and the Haus der Architektur in Austria can help us elucidate this question. Aedes was founded in 1980 in West Berlin as an independent initiative of two friends, Kristin Feireiss and Helga Retzer. The center works following a subjective approach, in which its directors, Feireiss and since 1994 Hans-Jürgen Commerell, constitute its “nucleus”: they take all decisions related to its program and represent its image in front of the press and the public.
Throughout Aedes’ history, Feireiss has repeatedly stated that she only exhibits the architects and projects she finds interesting, supported by the center’s financial and professional independence. From a financial point of view, the center functioned as an entirely private organization until 1999, funding its activities through revenues from sales of its catalogues, occasional sales of architectural drawings, private sponsorship, and monetary contributions of exhibited architects. The center expanded its model in 2000, when it founded a parallel non-profit association while also keeping the private gallery. Aedes could then benefit from other revenues such as individual memberships and public subsidies. However, this new financial model did not change the most fundamental aspect of the center, which is that it does not need to adjust its program or its point of view to the demands of the local or federal government.
Aedes’ professional independence stems from its directors working in the realm of architecture, even though they are not architects themselves. Feireiss is an art historian and Jürgen-Commerell is an architectural photographer, therefore they can elude any obligation to please architects as peers or to cater to their interests. In addition, this places them in a privileged position: both close to the public who does not work in the field of architecture, and close to the architects in their network.
However, Aedes’ subjective approach and configuration restrict its capacity of engaging in architectural criticism. First, because being exhibited in the center is a mark of approval on the part of its directors. Second, because the center necessitates the cooperation – and at times the financial collaboration – of architects to exhibit their work. The center therefore cannot directly comment a project in a negative way; it needs to find alternative strategies to do so.
The Haus der Architektur (HDA), founded in 1988 as the first architecture center in Graz, Austria, is the total opposite of Aedes in both organization and approach. It works as a non-profit association, funded through contributions from its partner institutions, memberships, proceeds from events and publications, donations, and grants. An important characteristic of the HDA is that it was created through the collaboration of six institutions: the Faculty of Architecture of the Technical University of Graz, the local artists association Forum Stadtpark, two professional associations, and two public partners, the City of Graz and the Region of Styria.
As a result of this organization, the HDA works following an objective approach. Not only it has multiple institutions managing it, but also their representatives change constantly. The image of the center and, more importantly, the choices concerning its exhibition program do not rely on a single person. Until 1999, the representatives of the partner institutions directly selected the exhibitions, and since then they have been acting as advisors, with the power to approve or to reject them.
If Aedes stood out for its financial and professional independence, this is not the case for the HDA. The center is not only directly funded by public instances, but most of its members belong to the architecture field. For both reasons, the HDA has also difficulties engaging in architectural criticism. The center cannot show support for public projects and show favoritism, nor can it criticize them openly and upset its public partners. However, the center found a loophole when it produced an exhibition dealing with the evaluation of architecture: “Architektur 24/7 – eine alltägliche Beziehung” (Architecture 24/7 – an everyday relationship) in 2007.
To create the content of the exhibition, the center requested a selection of local architects and firms to submit a picture of one of their own projects, portrayed in an everyday situation and highlighting the appropriations of its users, in a gesture in total opposition to photographs of empty buildings taken soon after their completion. The exhibition thus opposed Modernist architectural photography and also constituted an alternative overview of Styrian architecture, as its curators stated. Indeed, the exhibition reflected the center’s preferences and network, since many of the exhibited architects were involved in the creation or management of the HDA at some point of its history. In addition, as a center with a heavy representation of architects, it constituted an evaluation coming from the profession itself.
The exhibition also dealt with the notion of mediation, since it ingeniously brought together professionals and the lay public in a common platform. By soliciting architects to take pictures of the users and usages of their projects, the center encouraged professionals to evaluate their own work and to symbolically open the discipline to outsiders. The exhibition also addressed the general public by showing that their appropriations, adaptations, and daily use of architecture constitute legitimate judgments of architecture, probably the most important ones.
Architecture centers share the intention of bringing the lay public closer to architecture. Kristin Feireiss has repeatedly stated that exhibitions in Aedes are not directed only to specialists because we all experience architecture and it therefore should be important to everyone. When the HDA was inaugurated, its founding members expressed their wish of the center becoming an intermediary between an interested public, policy decision-makers, and the architectural community at the local and international levels.
Nonetheless, the structures of architecture centers constitute their limits. Whether they are private and managed by a single team, as in the case of Aedes, or public-funded and managed by multiple institutions, as in the case of the HDA, centers have to find strategies to engage in criticism. Mediation is an essential element: it is the first step and lays the groundwork so that the general public is more receptive to the deeper questions that criticism addresses. Mediation and criticism are therefore complementary, to the point of being linked inextricably.
Marcela Garcia Martinez is an architect trained at the National Autonomous University of Honduras. She studied a Master in Art History from the University of Bordeaux 3, “Michel de Montaigne”, thanks to an Erasmus Mundus scholarship. She is currently completing her dissertation at the Art History Department of the University of Geneva, funded by the Swiss Government Excellence Scholarship for Foreign Scholars and the Schmidheiny Foundation. Her research focuses on architecture centers in Europe from the 1980s until now and analyzes their institutional framework, discourse, and impact, through exhibitions.