Process in contemporary Canadian architecture

By | March 6, 2019

The Ottawa Art Gallery, Ottawa, February 6 – April 13

Two concurrent exhibitions emphasize distinct, yet closely inter-related attitudes toward architecture. “Man-Size and Headquarters” consisted of constructions installed in a large, open industrial space by thirteen artists. For “Pentimenti: Process in Contemporary Canadian Architecture,” the work of eleven emerging architects and architectural partnerships was assembled. The theoretically potent works in “Man-Size and Headquarters” engaged the space in which they were exhibited, while “Pentimenti” revealed design and aesthetic sensibilities primarily by showing existing architectural documents.

“Pentimenti,” the Italian plural form of “repentance,” is a term used by art historians to describe painting composed of visible traces of previous layers, indicating the evolution of an artist’s work. For “Pentimenti,” the exhibition, these traces were the record or evidence of the architectural process – drawings, photographs, models, notes. The aestheticization of this evidence prevailed over the exhibition which featured everything from early modernist design formulas disguised as creative innovation to the encapsulation of the personal imagination in a hand-drawn sketch. Although this evidence did relay the approaches of the eleven exhibitors, the installations were crowded and rubbed elbows as if to confine the visitor’s interaction with them.

In featuring the idea of architectural process, “Pentimenti” revealed – perhaps more apparently in the colloquium held in conjunction with the exhibition – a range of ideologies and aesthetic disjunctures. The exhibition resonated with Situationist concerns – diverse things and ideas that function simultaneously and syncretically. “Pentimenti” was a beacon of displacement and shifting architectural discourse.

In Emptying Our Drawers (1994), Kohn Schnier Architects exposed laser-copy stains on layered polyester interfacing to reveal a restrained design sensibility. A different attitude about creative process was present in Bill Pechet’s Whiskers on Mittens (1987-97), comprised of ten sketchbooks brimming with personal and architectural evidence spanning ten years. According to a hand-written comment in one sketchbook, the creative imagination should not be underestimated: “Alchemical sachets . . . will promote fertility if placed in your underwear drawers.” In a manner of displaying curiosities, Atelier In Situ’s B’heivje(r) (1997) was drawn and sectioned upon a plate-metal table. Their project for the renovation of an industrial warehouse evoked the metamorphic heat of amber-coloured forges.

Questions about spatial inhabitation were posed by Atelier Keios’ interactive furniture BOX! 1: Inhabiting the Expanded Field (1997) with its moving and readable parts, Eric Bunge’s topographic investigations and virtual landscapes entitled Fictions & Continuities (1997) and the architectural renderings in which Alain Carle and Francois Rioux programmed spaces hieroglyphically with pictograms. Other works included George Yu’s Some Assembly Required (1997), Atelier Big City’s The black box turned blue (1997), and contributions by Sophie Charlebois and the Winnipeg collective DIN. Francois Gagne’s installation of notes and correspondence, Administration publique (Forget About Venice) (1996-7), expressed and aestheticized the architect’s experience of bumbling through bureaucratic quagmires.

If the exhibitors of “Pentimenti” interrogated architectural practice, the artists featured in “Man-Size and Headquarters” proposed a reformulation of the world by designing their objects and constructions deliberately so as not to describe buildings. “Man-Size and Headquarters” was inspired by the song “Man-Size” by P.J. Harvey. Its lyrics deal with female fantasies about male experience, things like measuring and calculating and the assumptions of such actions. In tweaking the quality of masculinity traditionally associated with architecture, the “man-size” exhibition identified ironies and opportunities for considering alternate modes of cultural production. The striking way each of the works was presented emphasized the clarity of this vision: the exhibition posited architecture as aesthetic reception and questioned assumptions about the human inhabitation of space.

“Man-Size and Headquarters” exhibited constructions that could, as organizer Kenneth Hayes described, be considered either small architecture or large sculpture. By occupying 20,000 square feet in a raw generic space, the exhibition resisted the conventional placement of art in a gallery environment – the blurred separation of work and setting was emphasized, even exploited. The exhibition posited architecture as an event of emplacement by inhabiting an entire floor in a palazzo-type industrial building. The works were organized to reflect the back- and front-of-house condition of the space: the large works of “Man-Size” inhabited the workspace while the finely scaled works of “Headquarters” were apportioned to the front offices.

“Man-Size and Headquarters” was tailored according to installation and site-specific practices. A number of the “Man-Size” works were cast or fabricated on-site. The translucent polyethylene skin that enveloped a column and a wall and its complement, a large gum rubber balloon inflated space, comprised Barry Isenor’s Shrunken room – Inflated room (1997). Adrian Blackwell’s Concrete Shower (1997) was formed by casting concrete over an inflated polyvinyl bag, creating a bizarre phantasmic interior. Part One of Laren Schaffer’s If you lived here, you’d be home by now! (1993) was made of chrome and vinyl chairs attached together in a large circle spanning floor to ceiling, while Part Two encompassed space in a labyrinthine arrangement of office partitions. Both the interior world of Eduardo Aquino’s mirror-faceted Kinematic Cell (1993) and the unfolded world of Alain Paiement’s large photo-mural troubled visual perception through illusion and spatial paradox. Several works dealt more specifically with material simplicity and minimalism, including the plate-glass characters of Kenneth Hayes’ Lenin/Houdini (1997), Joep van Lieshout’s playful fiberglass objects, Six Elements (1996), and Marie-Paule Macdonald’s rockspace (1996)

The intricate works of “Headquarters” were installed in the front offices and provoked a more intimate experience with the viewer. Lucy Pullen’s Perfect Work Sites (1997) engaged the viewer with the hallowed forms inside three books and the scratched Plexiglas templates used as cutting mats to carve them out. Steve Topping’s time-lapse video work Reading Canada Backwards (1996) sped the viewer, with Virilian intensity, across Canada by rail. Works by Kika Thorne and Mark Pimlott were also featured.

The works in “Pentimenti” and “Man-Size and Headquarters” questioned the working practices of architecture. They identified the need for purposeful play in defining the changes in architectural discourse. Many were beauties which strike a sort of melancholy, showing a path which leads to loss, to a sense of abandon. It is perhaps in such an abject condition that architecture, with all its bungling and insecurity, must revive itself.

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