“How to exhibit art in a room of this size on peanuts?” After a lot of talking, we were wincing. It’s a problem as easy to call as a coin in the air, but one much harder to seize upon with any sort of plain intelligence. And good brains are what we lacked. Our ideas were nothing: drab lines and half-swallowed architectural foo-foo, hand-me-down bohemianism, sentimental theory, Alexander and water, or imitation Aldo van Eyck. We were out of breath. We hired Common Room (Lars Fischer and Todd Rouhe). The thaw was precipitated.
What Common Room came up with is plainly so, almost colloquial. Simple materials and simple construction, without simply succumbing to that chorus-boy slop that simpleness is a virtue in itself. They made a kind of ligature between what the space is now and what it could be. That had to happen, but it couldn’t happen here, as has often been thought by simply stationing ourselves in language. Incantation doesn’t build walls. (Quod Erat Demonstrandum.) Minimal as the architecture is, it still governs what we do like a rule in a game. The rule chalks boundaries within which to play the game, but does not provide a full definition of what is possible.
Common Room is an architectural practice with a publishing imprint and exhibition space. They are based in New York City and Brussels.
An interview between architect Cedric Price and curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist selected by Common Room
Hans Ulrich Obrist: In the context of Cities on the Move, I think one of the reasons your work has been so important to many architects in Asia is the importance of the notions of time and the ephemeral, which are better understood in Asia than in Europe.
Cedric Price: A short lifespan for a building is not seen as anything very strange in Asia. Angkor Wat in Cambodia is so vast, and yet it lasted for less than three hundred years. I liked the dependence on change in the Cities on the Move exhibition and I particularly liked the Bangkok exhibition where time was the key element. I see time as the fourth dimension, alongside height, breadth and length. The actual consumption of ideas and images exists in time, so the value of doing the show betrayed an immediacy, an awareness of time that does not exist in a place like London or indeed Manhattan. A city that does not change and reinvent itself is a dead city. But I do not know if we should use the word “city” anymore; I think it is a questionable term.
HUO: What could replace it?
CP: Perhaps a word associated with the human awareness of time, turned into a noun, which relates to space.
HUO: The paradox is that the city changes all the time, so it would have to be a word that can permanently mutate; it could not be a frozen term. But let’s return to the idea of dead cities, tell me more about why they die.
CP: Cities exist for citizens, and if they do not work for citizens, they die.
HUO: Which is interesting because you also talk about the fact that buildings can die.
CP: Yes, the Fun Palace was not planned to last more than ten years. The short life expectancy of the project had an effect on the costs, but not in a limiting, adverse way. No one, including the designers, wanted to spend more money to make it last for fifty years, and we had to persuade the generators and operators to be economic in terms of both time and money. The advantage, however, was that the owners, the producers and the operators, through necessity, began to think along the same lines, as the project created the same set of priorities for everyone. That should be one of the aims of architecture; it must create new appetites, rather than solve problems. Architecture is too slow to solve problems.
I suppose we should ask: what is the purpose of architecture? It used to be away of imposing order or establishing a belief, which is the purpose of religion to some extent. Architecture does not need that mental imperialism any more. As an architect, I do not want to be involved in creating law and order through fear and misery. I see the creation of a continuous dialogue as not just interesting but also perhaps the only reason for architecture. In the sixteenth or seventeenth century, someone defined architecture as “commodity, firmness and delight.” Vitruvius defined architecture as commoditas, firmitas and venustas. Commoditas represents good housekeeping, particularly in terms of money; firmness is the structure; and the delight factor is the dialogue.
HUO: On that subject of dialogue, let’s return to the Cities on the Move show in Bangkok. Due to the open structure of the show, and the lack of a contemporary art museum in Bangkok, the city entered the museum and the contents of the show were carried into the city. The museum opened up to the world.
CP: That’s it- museum world, world museum. The exhibition in Bangkok was all about dialogue; it acted as a key for the people who experienced the show, only to realize that they were experiencing it all the time. It was the same with the Fun Palace; it was never intended as a Mecca—a lovely alternative to the horror of living in London -but instead it served as a launch pad to help people realize how marvelous life is. After visiting the Fun Palace, they went home thankful that their wife looked as she did and that their children were noisy; the “key” had opened the door for them. The Fun Palace was a launch pad to reality, mixed with a large portion of delight.
However, I think that, at present, architecture does not do enough; it does not enrich or enliven people’s lives as much as, say, the Internet, or a good story, or music, does. Architecture is a poor performer; even the Magnet City schemes never happened. As an architect. I am trying to make architecture a better performer. With human beings answering questionnaires and me reading the answers, I hope to recognize opportunities for improving the human lot by architecture.
HUO: Alexander Dorner, the great hero of museums of change, who ran the Hannover museum in the early twentieth century, wrote that institutions should be like dynamic power plants. Could you tell me about your museum related projects, those which address the concept of the portable or ephemeral museum?
CP: When the Queen Mary was up for sale, I suggested a museum in the ship, so that you could travel like a millionaire while the ship stayed in the bay in Liverpool; it was at sea but only a short boat ride away. The Atlantic crossing which used to take four or five days was concentrated into eight hours, the time you could take to go around the ship. You could see the machine rooms, the kitchens, the lavatories, the tennis courts and all the paraphernalia of the ship—but primarily the luxury of it. The ship was on hydraulic jacks and a range of seasonal crossings, relating to the weather you would have experienced in the Atlantic, were on offer. You would then realize why, in rough weather for example, the tables were made with edges on them to prevent the plates from slipping off.
I also did a scheme for the Tate, which they did not select. It turned the power station into an object. I proposed building a glass box over the whole thing, so that the business of producing exhibitions would have become secondary to the main exhibit, which was in a box with a single door. In bad weather, it would have been like one of those snowstorms, with Jesus being the one to shake up the snow’ I was assuming that it could last at least a year or so, and then they could decide what kind of object they would put in the Tate.
HUO: So it was like a Russian doll, since the exhibition would have been an exhibition within an exhibition.
CP: Yes, that is right.
HUO: There is an interesting and productive paradox between, on the one hand, your projects for temporary buildings and dynamic institutions, which would eventually auto-dissolve, and, on the other, your interest in old museums.
CP: I think that the notion of the classic museum still has-limited -viability. At three o’clock every afternoon, I get very tired. I am no use in the office so I go to this wonderful distorter of time and place called the British Museum. It distorts the climate because the building has a roof over it; it distorts my laziness, because Ido not have to go to Egypt to see the pyramids; and it distorts time, because I can see someone wearing an Elizabethan dress. The distortion of time and place, along with convenience and delight, opens up a dialogue that reminds people how much freedom they have for the second half of their life.
This automatic distortion, whether of time or of place, when you visit a museum, is a good thing. If you visit the same museum on two consecutive wet Thursdays, it will be different on both occasions. You will have distorted the contents of the museum through familiarity, which only occurs if you go twice, rather than once. The distortion then becomes two-fold. There is the compaction of old bits of history into a convenient time and place for the consumer and then there is the added distortion of today, having gone there with you, which was quite different from the experience of going there alone.
HUO: We both looked at it differently than we would have done, had we been on our own.
CP: Yes, but the distortion was also that we were both in London, which is not our home. It is about the enrichment and enlivening of a new time dimension, or anew pace of events, which differs from the normal passing of time.
Museums, far more than art galleries, have to distort time, otherwise the element of coincidence in the collection does not occur—the distortion of time between when the objects were created and when they are shown. There is a quality to museums which is more relevant to the present time and to the actual viewing of the objects in the museum than to the date of their creation.
HUO: Some people stay longer than others when they visit museums.
CP: Yes, and it does not matter whether a lot or a little is seen. A person who gets bored after five minutes in the museum can enjoy just as much as the person who stays for an hour. Museums are not only about a distortion of time, but also a distortion of the quantitative quality of content.
HUO: You mentioned a survey that the Tate conducted on their visitors.
CP: Yes, they discovered that most of the people they observed spent between five seconds and one minute reading texts about the work and from two to fifteen seconds looking at the work itself!
HUO: This fact influenced your project at CCA in Toronto, called Mean Time. Could you tell me about the exhibition?
CP: Yes, I created a series of symbols which were shorthand -or graphic reminders -for the points I wanted to make about the exhibits. They were displayed like postage stamps against the works. The actual printed catalogue explaining the exhibits was only available when you picked up your coat from the cloakroom, just before leaving. Until then, you had to use the symbols and look at the objects.
HUO: Do you see other ways of using labels to prevent the museum visit from becoming a frozen experience?
CP: In museums, the labels for the objects carry dates, which is not necessarily the case in an art gallery. Imagine that somehow you could make these dates—”a thousand years BC,” “unknown,” “2000″- vanish and then reappear. It is not beyond the possibility of electronics today; a certain switch could be turned on and the dates on the labels would be made visible again.
HUO: That is a lovely idea! Things would appear and disappear.
CP: It has nothing to do with distortion, but is about the announcement of information that you can be, or want to be, fed.
HUO: This leads us to the question of density or non-neutrality. How do you feel about the omnipresent ideology of the white cube?
CP: Obviously it is nonsense. A museum or gallery cannot be a neutral space, because the degree of distortion ensures that it never will be. Why would all the objects be together? This so-called neutral space that people want cannot exist, because of all the coincidences caused by the personal objects.
HUO: Rather than the awkward model of the white Cube, I would prefer to explore your ideas about the urgent need for museums as places of transitional dialogue and cultural production. Could you talk a bit about your time-based project in Glasgow and how that opened up a dialogue between the city and its citizens?
CP: The city hall is in the center of Glasgow. They are very proud of it and people are not allowed in very often, unless they have a complaint against the city. We decided to improve the elevator to the top of the tower—putting a carpet in, installing lovely mirrors, spraying it with perfume—and invited the public in. We did not tell them why; all we said is that they could go to the top of the tower and for free. In the elevator was a tape announcing “Tonight, all the areas which we think should be saved without question will be floodlighted red.” Only parts of the city were lit up, so their attention was focused. You heard comments like: “Well of course that church should be saved” and “Why keep that slum?” The next night, different areas of the city were flooded green, indicating districts they decided should be improved. On the last day, the floodlights were white. The public was invited to tell the city what they should do with the spaces lit in white. There were no “superiors” involved, no architects with patches on their tweed jackets around for miles. The city was saying, ”We’ve thought about it for years and still don’t know what to do with the white areas. You tell us. But don’t tell us next year, tell us within a month, because after that it’s too late. As you go down, pick up a free postcard and mail us your response.”