A MOVEABLE FEAST (at ROM)

Abridged version of review for the exhibition SNAPSHOT by Pavlina Lucas

Hemingway once wrote that “if you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”(1) Going through architecture school is like having lived as a young man, or woman, in Paris. Architecture is also a moveable feast that follows you wherever you go for the rest of your life.

However, most graduates who choose to practice architecture as the source of their livelihood find themselves in a world with little room for the idealistic and bohemian spirit of their youth. The state of the economy, the political regime, social tendencies and technological trends set the frame – more or less stringent and always changing – within which the practicing architect must operate. How to maneuver through this landscape of constraints? What resources to draw on so as to keep advancing? How much resistance is possible and which compromises are inevitable? What of Paris can be defended and preserved and what must be surrendered and wistfully forgotten (forever)?

When ROM asks What is architecture´s most important task today? and What is the potential of architecture in the future? it is essentially issuing a call to the invited architects to position themselves on the current topography of the profession and share the outlook – both foreground and background – from their standpoint. The diversity of the twenty-four exhibited contributions affirms the wide range of convictions and strategies in practice towards an architecture.(2)

The aim has not been to find consensus or to disclose a unique trend towards a certain direction. Rather the opposite in fact. The intention has been to trigger a polyphonic conversation between voices speaking on the same matter but with different tone, pitch and resonance. The risk of producing a cacophonous ensemble is inherent in this sort of approach to a group exhibition, but this one has managed to steer clear of that. Exhibited in the right density, contributions seem to have found their rightful place in the space of the gallery, composing together a spontaneous and vibrant constellation.

Naturally each star in this constellation emits a different sort of light, but all share the fact that their authoring agents chose to answer the call and to devote resources (in variable degrees) so as to express their particular point of view on the zeitgeist of the profession. The fact that this had to be done at one blow posed a common challenge. In a solo show the exhibitor benefits – apart from the glory – from the chance to elaborate while having the extended attention of the visitor. But here exhibitors had to be concise in vying for their stand – both physical and ideological – in the company of their colleagues.

What have the contributing parties prepared for this moveable feast at ROM? There are at least as many ways to look at and relate these entries as their number. But in any case, there is plenty of food for thought in the exhibition and many ways to partake of this, so go there and take your own pick. One thing is sure though: more questions are on the table now than at the outset of this feast, and fortunately so. For as long as there is discussion there is also freedom. Freedom to question, to explore, to express.

However, notwithstanding the need for discussion, the testing ground of architecture is the soil – here the architect comes up against a host of challenges in the effort to land architecture. The nature of these challenges varies according to the practice´s size, focus, and strategy, but they are invariably there and on the rise nevertheless. Every practitioner tries to safeguard his/her professional integrity – in whichever way each one understands this – when facing the questions posed at the beginning of this text. What of Paris remains in the end depends on the choices made along the way.

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(1) Hotchner, A.E., Papa Hemingway, New York: Random House, 1966, p.57 The term moveable feast – used as the title for the posthumous publication of Hemingway´s memoir from his early years in Paris – refers to holy days that are observed on a different date each year.
(2) The term "an architecture" – instead of just architecture – harkens back to the Romantic era, when the term was first used to contain the notion that cultural production is distinctive to and expressive of its historical and national roots and that architecture in particular ought to be an apt expression of the spirit of its age.


TO BE SEDUCED BY ARCHITECTURE IS ALL WE ASK…

Oh Architecture, what are you? Elusive and concrete at once, you give your charms away in glimpses and then you cloak yourself in mystery again. You make us thirst for you. You keep us awake all night thinking about you, laboring over you, contriving ways to reach you. And when we finally get to sleep, you haunt our dreams, enchanting us in all your different guises. You give us images that turn in our minds and stir our hearts, so that we can never stop longing for you, never stop hoping that one day you will make us privy to your secrets. Like the Sirens, you lure us with your song and we follow your seductive call into unchartered territories. And there is no going back, no thread to help us retrace our steps and find the exit from your labyrinth. We forget ourselves and we get lost in the madness of our desire for you. Sometimes we do manage to reach you, to touch you and to be touched by you, albeit briefly, but long enough to feel your pulse. These moments keep us aroused and astir in your pursuit. We travel the world over to meet you and to be in your company. We find you in stately places with high domes and coffered ceilings, we find you perched on mountain slopes, or hiding away in narrow alleys. Sometimes we find you in the soft contours of a carpet, in the gently carved cavity of a rock, or under a hot tin roof. Majestic and extravagant, or humble and serene, you are always so marvelous and compelling. In your presence we find ours and in your body we feel our own. You move us and you ground us. You give us the sounds and the smells, you give us the light in your shadows. You give us places where we can escape history, places where we can dream dreams of Bill the Lizard and the Mad Hatter. With you we are at home. We are so enamored of and so captivated by you Architecture. We are at your mercy. You know this of course, as you artfully tease us, pushing us and pulling us hither and thither with the vague promise of giving yourself to us now and then. And we get so excited by this prospect that our hearts begin to beat faster and our bodies tingle with anticipation. Sometimes we even start to hyperventilate and thoughts rush through our heads at an incredible speed. Questing after you keeps us alive. We stage festivals in your name and we all gather from near and far, dressed in our best attire, to pay homage to your various manifestations and talk about you. We are all so desperately trying to understand you Architecture. We strive to find your meaning in words, but just as we think that we have pinned you down, you slip away from us again. What do you want from us? We realize that the answer can not be that simple, for you are polymorphous and speak so many languages. So we each address you in our native tongue, pleading with you to give yourself to us and let us decipher your enigma. We photograph you, film you, sketch you, paint you, draw you. Like the maiden from Corinth, who traced the shadow of her departing lover on the wall, we also try to somehow keep you. We are always so afraid of losing you, you see. For sometimes you turn aloof and distant, mumbling incomprehensible theorems to yourself. Then you shed your vigor and your vibrant charm, you wither away and become lifeless and bare. And we drown in despair and loneliness, afraid that we have lost you forever. But then you rise, like a phoenix from your ashes, and so youthful and fresh you are again. You sweep us off our feet with your new vitality and all we wish is that you enchant us and seduce us once again. And so we keep courting you, striving to be your deft lovers and bear offspring that is worthy of your name. What reckless and unscrupulous hedonists we are! We squander our lives indulging in sybaritic liaisons with you while our planet is in dire straits. But we are not going to apologize. No one has ever apologized for loving. For we really do love you Architecture. (And sometimes we really do hate you too.) We need you. Do not forsake us. ARCHITECTURE, TO BE SEDUCED BY YOU IS ALL WE ASK.*

* Inspired by TO BE WITH ART IS ALL WE ASK…, Gilbert & George, 1970. Written in December 2012. Published in Conditions, Issue 13.