No Space for Architecture

Wonne Ickx & Ruth Estévez
LIGA 1-10 /Even small spaces start small, Arquine, 2014

1. No Space for Architecture

In Latin America, there is no space for ar­chitecture. That doesn’t mean that there’s no space to erect new buildings or to devel­op and project new opportunities—these are abundant, especially when compared to the current scarcity of alternatives in Europe and the US. The lack, nevertheless, has to do with infrastructures that permit a context of discussion and reflection around the activity of designing and constructing—a body of in­stances, platforms, publications and critical filters that define local practice from their own centers of production, generating the feedback that architects need for their intel­lectual progress. A studio’s success is mea­sured on its entrepreneurial capacity, priori­tizing the quantity of built work instead of its quality, or taking pleasure in the repetition of the same project in commercial journals, as well as its popularity on Facebook. The publication of commissioned monographs (generally paid for by the architecture offices themselves) leaves little room for an objec­tive criticism and confuses the spectrum between those who are doing genuine work and those who are simply “doing well.”

It’s moreover problematic that the dis­course about Latin American architecture is being created abroad. The separation be­tween theory and practice can lead to a se­ries of misunderstandings, exclusions and, basically, a constant trend toward general­ization, as if all production were part of a sin­gle overarching umbrella. The few times that architecture from a Latin American country appears in global debate, is when there is a “developmental” focus, which emphasizes a socially-oriented production concerned with marginalized communities, infrastructural problems or the right to housing. A perfect example of this is the recent winning project at the Venice Biennial, where a dramatized re-enactment of the Torre David in Caracas, Venezuela, received the Golden Lion. When Latin American architects are invited into in­ternational circuits, one expects the central discussion point to be its marginal condition. As a consequence, and from within architecture, a dialogue around known topics emerg­es, such as: the megacity, the border, the fave­la, socio-economic segregation or informal self-build construction, all of which guaran­tee an inclusion based on the “centralized” perspective of the West. The architects whose work doesn’t directly address these regional problematics have few opportuni­ties to find a platform for cultural discussion about their practice.

If criticism is produced elsewhere and is moreover dominated by a tone of paternalist inclusion, it was necessary to found a space that would invert this logic. A space where discussions would emerge with the convic­tion that there is not one single genealogy, but many practices with different interests, yet also with certain common character­istics that shouldn’t be obviated. A space that would allow the invited Latin American practices to reflect on their work without the daily pressure of clients and the real estate market. LIGA-Space for Architecture-Mex­ico City emerged as a non-profit without in­stitutional aspirations, distinguishing itself from a unifying vision, to focus on the small details. It is an intellectual platform that, quite simply, gives visibility to those who don’t have any—that is our statement.

2. Wretched Castrati

Even though the history of architecture ex­hibitions has yet to be written (a hot topic of late), it has been a very fruitful field for inves­tigation and methodological innovation, sig­nificantly extending the conceptual limits of the discipline. Not for nothing, Mies as well as Le Corbusier made their first noteworthy contributions to modern architecture with canonical exhibition pavilions, years before the Villa Savoye or the Fransworth House would make them into modern architecture’s key figures. And that is not even mentioning the studios such as those of The Smithsons, Venturi, Rossi or Koolhaas, where exhibition production has defined their work. The radi­cal studios of postwar Italy, Superstudio and Archizoom, were explicitely founded to participate in Superarchitettura, an exhibition held at the Jolly2 gallery in Pistoia, Italy, in 1966, which even gave Superstudio its own name.[1]

Exhibitions still remain a footnote to ar­chitecture history, but it is precisely in this context where the discourse has been de­fined, on the level of practice, theory and crit­icism. While the mute stone of the built work and its imposing presence can enclose archi­tectural thought, exhibitions are the vehicles par excellence to clarify an author’s position. At the same time, exhibiting always turns out to be complex due to its inherent problematic of representation. Architecture exists in the real world and when brought into the exhibi­tion space, it transforms into the reflection of an absence. French historian Jean Louis Co­hen sums it up using the French distinction between ‘ouvrage’ and ‘oeuvre’: “given that ‘ouvrage’ refers to constructed work, it can’t be physically present in the exhibition space, what is really represented is the ‘oeuvre’... or that intellectual complex of interests, inspi­rations, problematics and techniques that surround the act of construction.”[2] If, in exhi­bitions, the object of desire is physically pres­ent in the gallery (and the entire experience revolves around that presence) exhibitions of architecture are constructed from the ab­sence of the object and from the interior de­sire of being able to reach it. “So, we wretched castrati, never able to put our thing itself on display, are forever condemned to represen­tations (models, drawings and photographs) and simulacra (pretend ‘buildings’ built in the museum) in one form or another,” writes Jeff Kipnis.[3]

The recurring problem of representation is usually illustrated by two strategies. The first approach embraces the theme with satisfac­tion, emphasizing the artistic quality of the drawings, floorplans, photos and models to present them as autonomous, authentic and precious objects. The other is completely opposite and eludes the theme of represen­tation through mimesis, constructing build­ings to a 1:1 scale, or signaling the quality of the exhibition design itself, thus creating a miniature architecture. The first case, which elevates the tools of the architect to an artis­tic and sublime status, dangerously discon­nects the project from practice itself, whose objective has always been closely related with a live context, history and society. The second one, which attempts to hold on to re­ality rather desperately, also misses a crucial opportunity: the possibility to temporarily liberate the discipline of a tight, program­matic and constructive corset. And even though it sounds like a permanent loss, here the great virtue of the exhibition medium re­veals itself; precisely because of the absence, exhibiting architecture is a perfect device of synthesis and abstraction. Here, the object of study itself, with its reality and presence, doesn’t obstruct or stain the discourse con­structed by the curator or architect.

The exhibition practice proposed at LIGA certainly obliges the invited architects to be­come introspective and analyze their proj­ects in order to be able to parse them into smaller pieces. But these minuscule parts aren’t necessarily scale representations, rather, they are schemas of thoughts, inter­ests and even ideals that show us the genesis, references and personal imaginaries of their architecture. During this stage of thinking about an exhibition, an important part of creative thought is fulfilled, thanks to expe­riential jumps that imply leaving behind traditional processes of design and establishing alternative situations that explore the trans­lation of ideas.

3. Little People

The curatorial line and interests of LIGA weren’t set from the beginning. It’s curious that the basic architectural element (the space) would come to define the way—:an irregular, triangular space of a very reduced size on the ground floor of a modernist building. The very limitations of the space, intrusive columns, glass surfaces, the ir­regular form and the minuscule footprint make it difficult to include plans, models or photographs as in a traditional architecture exhibition; instead, they instigate the ex­perimentation with new forms. In an inter­view with OASE magazine, Joseph Grima, former-director of Storefront for Art and Architecture, says something similar about the well-known New York space: “Of course it is true that I shaped the curatorial strate­gy and programme of the institution, but it is equally true that Storefront shaped my own curatorial approach. In fact, the programme was developed to a great extent in dialogue with the building itself. The space of Store­front has a very strong architectural identity: it is ca. 36 m long and 6 m wide, triangularin shape, and opens up directly to the street. It is not a white cube in any sense of the term. (…) Adopting a more traditional curatorial approach (...) was never going to work.”[4]

The curatorial work stems from a close dialogue with the space and automatically converts each proposal into a site-specific installation (taking the term from contem­porary art, which might come as a surprise to the architect for whom site is a tool). As such, the exhibits at LIGA draw a subtle line between art installation and architecture ex­hibition. Similarly, this intrusion in the here and now allows for these exhibitions to exist at the margin of a historical narrative or of the didactic subtext that generally accom­panies architecture exhibitions. The period under discussion is the present and the con­text is precisely the one around the gallery: the buzzing city, with its street vendors and the constant, chaotic traffic on Avenida In­surgentes, not as an exotic and astonishing experience, but as the natural environment of the architectural production. Instead of presenting specific projects, the interven­tions generate an autonomous spatial config­uration connected to the work of the invited architect. This way, the exhibitions at LIGA try to avoid talking directly about the work and return to it afterwards, through different narratives.

In order to explain where this distortion, coming from the non-representation of the object in pro of more subjective views, ini­tiates, one could use as curious point of ref­erence Werner Herzog’s bizarre, subversive 1970 film Auch Zwerge haben klein angefan­gen, (Even Dwarfs Started Small), which in­spired the title of this publication.

For starters, it’s a disputed fact whether this is the director’s masterwork or a gratu­itous accumulation of weirdness. The film was filmed in the arid landscape of Lanzarote at the beginning of the 1970s, with an exclu­sively dwarf (or small people) cast. It deals with a rebellion among prison detainees (al­though one never really understands the rea­son for this strange mutiny). The audience turns into a witness of an orgy of cruelties and cathartic situations, where the dwarfs break windows and plates, wage food wars, organize cock-fights. They interrupt the scenes with meaningless fireworks and sev­eral cruelties that end with the crucifixion of a monkey. This rebellion doesn’t seem to go anywhere outside of this panorama of cha­os and depravation in which the entire film evolves. Nevertheless, there is a particular aspect in the visual construction of the film that, subtly, distorts the story and creates a certain estrangement. Beyond the narrative genesis of the film, the camera position is at the small people’s eye level, which generates a hip vision (hipshot) that makes us see the landscape, architecture, objects and animals in a completely different manner. It is a view that confounds to such a degree that we don’t know whether we are no longer passive ob­servers and have turned into victims partici­pating in the grotesque spectacle. Either way, it functions to present us the filmed reality in an unsettling way.

In an article about Le Corbusier and pho­tography, Beatriz Colomina explains how the device of the camera imposingly replac­es reality with a new product: “In film, light leaves its traces on the sensitive emulsion, imprinting on it permanent shadows. The manipulation of two realities—the superim­position of two stills, both traces of material realities—produces something that is already outside of the logic of ‘realism’. Rather than represent reality, it produces a new reality.”[5]

In a somewhat similar way, the architec­ture exhibitions organized at LIGA don’t reproduce or represent the architecture of the invited parties, but they generate a new reality from their knowledge and work. As in Herzog’s film, there is a need for a distorting and displacing tool so that the new situation obtains its autonomy and can distance itself from the original objectivity. Here, the theme of scale isn’t translated into reduction or en­largement, but rather into the confrontation of different realities: the physical encounter between the exhibition space and its content becomes a crucial theme for the development of the proposals. The action of projecting (in­stead of representing) becomes the method of communication, generating a production context with its own permeable and invasive genesis.



[1] On December 4, 1966, one month after the flash-flood in Florence, Archizoom and Superstudio opened Superarchittetura, an exhibit at the Jolly2 Gallery in Pistoia. Archizoom was created by Andrea Branzi, Gilberto Corretti, Paolo Deganello, Massimo Morozzi , Dario and Bartolini. Superstudio was created by Adolfo Natalini, Cristiano Toraldo di Francia, Roberto Magris, Piero Frassinelli, Alessandro Magris and Alessandro Poli. The actual dates are not specified, but it is fair to say that these groups formalized their production before, during, or just after the Pistoia exhibit (a second exhibit, Superarchitettura 2, was organized in the same venue in 1967). Andrea Branzi and his team played with the connection and the onomatopoeic and poetic reference to Archigram (a British group of architects from the early ‘60s), while Natalini chose the name Superstudio as the logical response to the title of the exhibit and the supporting manifesto. (See LIGA Interlude 03 with Peter T. Lang).

[2] Cohen, Jean-Louis “Models and the Exhibition of Architec­ture” The Art of Architecture Exhibitions, Kristin Feireiss (ed.), Nai Publishers: Rotterdam, 2001, pp. 25-33.

[3] Kipnis, Jeff. “Dear Paula, … “, open letter for LOG 20 (Curating Architecture), Fall 2010, pp. 85-98.

[4] Grima, Joseph. Interview with Tom Vandeputte, “Sites of Experimentation, In Conversation with Joseph Grima” in OASE 88, “Exhibitions. Showing and Producing Architecture”, Nai010 Publishers, Rotterdam, 2012, pp. 62-67.

[5] Colomina, Beatriz. “Le Corbusier and Photography”, in Assemblage, No. 4 (Oct., 1987), pp. 6-23.


Still from Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) by Werner Herzog

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