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if you talk about it, they will come. . .

if you talk about it, they will come. . .

October 12
01:56 2017

Architects talk a lot. It’s inevitable in an industry where so much explanation is needed, in the absence of any actual buildings for many years, to persuade anyone to build anything at all. They speak so much, in fact, that they have developed their own, often impenetrable language.

What seems to have changed in recent years is that it isn’t just other architects who are listening. For the second year running, the Frieze Art in Architecture conference, running in parallel with last week’s art fairs, gave architects a platform to discuss their work with a wider public — and the audience the opportunity to hear what some of the world’s most interesting architects have to say. That both years were sold out seems to confirm the growing appetite for such forums.

The phenomenon is not confined to Frieze. Last month the Architecture Foundation hosted a talk by British architect Tom Emerson (co-founder of 6a architectural practice) at the Barbican’s main theatre and, on a drizzly Monday night, sold all 1,500 seats. Previously, cult Swiss architect Valerio Olgiati had sold out the same theatre.

Meanwhile an explosion in the number of architecture biennials and triennials from Chicago (on currently) to Shenzhen, Istanbul, Lisbon and Oslo is supplementing the old guard in Venice and Milan. The talks, lectures, satellite events and parties are rammed, with mostly young audiences straining to hear what the world’s leading architects, educators and curators will say.

Perhaps the biggest clue to this growth lies in the hyperinflation in the ranks of that last category. Until recently there were very few architecture curators. There were architectural historians, academics and theorists but the curators were mainly in art. The decline of traditional media — the once hugely influential magazines and journals that represented the main forum for international architectural discourse — and the exodus from their ranks into curatorship have shifted the debate from paper to institution. The collapse in the editor/filter function, coupled with the exponential growth in digital media, is leading audiences to seek authentic and unmediated voices, live and in person, just as they are in literature and in art.

Interior of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, Cape Town, designed by Heatherwick Studio © Iwan Baan

Last week at Frieze’s conference those voices included the two Sir Davids, Chipperfield and Adjaye, who respectively dissected the inadequacies of the British planning system and explained the creative process, and Thomas Heatherwick, who illustrated his most recent projects. Also on the bill were Pablo Bronstein, with a nuanced appreciation of London’s culture of second-rate neo-Georgian architecture, and Charles Renfro, who mounted a spirited defence of Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s mega-projects, most notably New York’s High Line and the art complex entitled The Shed, currently under construction.

What these Frieze events have managed to achieve is a fascinating symbiosis of architecture and art, one that illuminates the enduring and occasionally difficult relationship between the two. In the year that marks the 20th anniversary of the opening of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao and the 40th anniversary of the opening of Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano’s Centre Pompidou, it seems timely to reflect on the extent to which architecture has shaped art’s place in the city and the broader culture. Whether the setting is the white cube or the reused industrial space (as Johann König’s discussion of the reclaimed brutalist Berlin church that now houses his exquisite gallery illustrated), discourse about art is arguably as much predicated on context as it is on content.

The König Gallery in Berlin

Of course, architecture has long been a subject with popular appeal. As well as the anniversaries of the Pompidou and the Bilbao Guggenheim, 2017 is also the 150th anniversary of the birth of the self-proclaimed greatest architect in the world, Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright used the media assiduously and became a popular figure, selling out lectures and filling halls in a way that few contemporary superstars can. But these Frieze talks, along with the proliferation of other architecture events, have reinvigorated the idea that architecture is a public and a civic discussion.

Chipperfield’s argument last Friday was that the UK planning system disenfranchises the public, deliberately excluding them from the process, and the result is a built environment free of public involvement — except in the negative, when people are able to block something. Disengagement with architectural culture has left many people feeling alienated from it, just as they do about politics. Whether events such as Frieze’s are the remedy is debatable: it could equally be argued that they are expensive, exclusive and, inevitably, self-selecting. But their growing popularity does at least suggest that there is an appetite for public engagement that is only just beginning to be addressed. If more can be done to satisfy it, that might eventually be very good for our cities.

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