By DEBORAH KRIEGER, DEC. 2015
Sometimes you see an exhibition that really makes you think less about what is on display and more about how it is on display: how the curatorial choices are affecting your experience of the exhibition, what you would do differently, et cetera. As an aspiring curator, such shows provide invaluable opportunities for me to think about how my own curatorial voice will develop, and to be able to discuss what I like or don’t like about the curation of an exhibition in a way that goes beyond “I just didn’t like it.” Am Ende: Architektur Zeitreisen 1959 – 2019 (In the End: Architecture Journeys through Time 1959 – 2019) at the Architekturzentrum Wien is, for better and for worse, such a show. Am Ende is meant to provide an overview of the development of architecture in the modern and contemporary era, where every new development is both an end and a beginning, as well as to place the work and life of Dietmar Steiner (the founding director of the Architekturzentrum) in context of these changes in architectural approaches to commemorate his upcoming retirement. Yet what the Architecturzentrum has unfortunately done is create a largely incoherent mishmash of information and trivia that is treated with all the grace and charm of a science fair project.
Upon entering the venue where Am Ende is located, there is a spark of hope and interest to be found in simply looking at how the curators have decided to manipulate the space. Located in the Alte Halle, or Old Hall, Am Ende is partially enclosed in a metal cage type of contraption, suggesting the early stages of building, with the exposed brickwork of the walls and barrel-vaulted ceiling still left visible. As far as exemplifying the meaning of the exhibition, the initial layout is promising: the immediate impression one gets is that contrary to popular thought, there is no “end” of architecture, because architecture—much like art in general—is always a work in progress, constantly being built and torn down, refurbished, and expanded.
Taking in the barrage of facts and figures that comprises Am Ende, however, is unfortunately more of a chore than a pleasure. The show is organized along two axes: the vertical display is divided into five sections based on Steiner’s own philosophy of architecture (“material,” “society,” “history,” “theory,” and “law”), while the horizontal display contains various dioramas of different post-1950s architectural styles—models and diagrams and objects that ultimately do not cohere together into anything really satisfying. I previously compared the aesthetic of Am Ende to a science fair rather than an art show, and much of that impression is due to the lack of a lighting concept: the whole exhibition is lit from above by what seemed to be fluorescent lights, and there is subsequently no care given to highlighting or emphasizing particularly salient objects or images, and no sense of an attempt to create an actual atmosphere. Every book, diorama, model, poster, et al is equally bathed in the banal, quotidian lighting, which makes everything seem just a bit duller by degrees.
One of the major problems I had trying to immerse myself in the exhibition is that there is just so much text everywhere, as much text as there are visual elements, which, for me, is not an ideal balance. There isn’t a particular rhyme or reason to the layout of the horizontal displays, with industrial design sections located right next to building models, or ephemera from the movie Blade Runner located kitty-corner to a poster from an architecture competition dating twenty years prior. The vertical display fares better, as it is at least organized along the five principles of “material,” “society,” an so forth, but strangely, and rather inconveniently for me, only half of the extensive text in the vertical section was translated into English. While the main blurbs explaining the ideas behind each individual section was translated, and while all of the text in the horizontal section was translated, a solid third of the text in the exhibition, much of it to do with architectural diagrams and photographs in the vertical section, were only presented in German. While I understand that it’s not ideal for someone who isn’t a native speaker of German to come away from an exhibition disappointed that the text wasn’t in English, the fact that only some texts were not translated, while the vast majority were, gives the impression of a lack of attention to the smaller details. Who is the audience meant to be? Indeed, upon leaving the exhibition I was offered what appeared to be the sole copy of the English-language guide to Am Ende, which did, in fact, have all of the text translated. Why this resource wasn’t made obviously available to people entering the show, or even really signaled to or indicated to, also reveals a certain slippage in these small details of considering the audience’s experience.
Ultimately I was not really able to enjoy Am Ende or even really consider the questions the show itself was posing because the organization itself did not particularly inspire deeper thought, or even really allow for it: I spent so much time trying to understand why the curators had made the choices they made for what should have been a blockbuster show—why, with the clear wealth of information at the institution’s fingertips, they seemed to have stumbled in how best to present it. WM
Deborah Krieger is a graduate of Swarthmore College in Art History, German, and Film and Media Studies. She has been published in the Northwestern Art Review, Hyperallergic, and other art and culture platforms both online and in print. She is a recipient of a Fulbright grant to Vienna, Austria, where she is teaching English, researching contemporary art, and studying at the University of Vienna.view all articles from this author