Look at it this way

Canadian show explores investigations of architecture beyond building

Cedric Price's and Frank Newby’s collection of promotional and documentary photographs of pneumatic structures and their components.
Cedric Price's and Frank Newby’s collection of promotional and documentary photographs of pneumatic structures and their components.

Commune architecture, architects designing live on television, forensic architecture… all are part of The Other Architect, a new exhibition that considers the work of radicals who chose to develop their ideas through alternative, research-based practice rather than (or in addition to) buildings.

Organised by The Canadian Centre for Architecture, the exhibition aims to explore how this architecture of ideas can shape the contemporary cultural agenda, and in doing so questions the boundaries of what is conventionally considered the role of the architect.

It’s a refreshing topic in this era of iconic buildings, starchitects and mega-projects. We learn how many of those featured took a more fluid attitude to individual authorship, instead establishing networks, collaborations and partnerships with permeable roles. Rather than built output, their work manifested itself in all sorts of forms – letters, t-shirts, manifestos, videos, books, drawings, photographs, questionnaires, buses, boats – of which 700 of the more portable are displayed in the exhibition.

Case studies feature ‘other’ architects dating from the 1960s to the present day, and include several well known provocateurs and their works – Peter Cook’s Art Net gallery (1973-79), Cedric Price’s Polyark bus tour (1973), Peter Eisenman’s IAUS (1967 – 1983) set up to bridge the gap between theoretical and pragmatic aspects of architecture.   

  • Installation of The Other Architect in the gallery.
    Installation of The Other Architect in the gallery.
  • The shared Architecture Machine Group space, which hosted multiple concurrent experiments including many that focused on early forms of artificial intelligence, c 1969.
    The shared Architecture Machine Group space, which hosted multiple concurrent experiments including many that focused on early forms of artificial intelligence, c 1969.
  • Coded index cards used to assemble the Air Structures Bibliography rating each publication according to its usefulness, c 1972.
    Coded index cards used to assemble the Air Structures Bibliography rating each publication according to its usefulness, c 1972.
  • Drawing by Cedric Price of the bus tour circuit indicating participating architecture schools and their potential connections. January 1973, Peter Murray.
    Drawing by Cedric Price of the bus tour circuit indicating participating architecture schools and their potential connections. January 1973, Peter Murray.
  • An architect from Moore Grover Harper at work while on display in the window of the Riverdesign Dayton storefront office, 1976.
    An architect from Moore Grover Harper at work while on display in the window of the Riverdesign Dayton storefront office, 1976.
  • An improvised drawing ('DIY tool box) made by Alessandro Mendini at the Sambuca seminar, 2 November 1974.
    An improvised drawing ('DIY tool box) made by Alessandro Mendini at the Sambuca seminar, 2 November 1974.
  • One of the improbable and dysfunctional design objects made at the 'Body and constraints' workshop at Davide Mosconi's home in Milan, June 1975.
    One of the improbable and dysfunctional design objects made at the 'Body and constraints' workshop at Davide Mosconi's home in Milan, June 1975.
  • Charles Moore drafting live during a broadcast of Roanoke Design ’79, while host Ted Powers and architect Chad Floyd address the camera, 1979.
    Charles Moore drafting live during a broadcast of Roanoke Design ’79, while host Ted Powers and architect Chad Floyd address the camera, 1979.
  • A diagram showing how OMA and AMO implanted themselves into relationships within real and virtual spheres, 2001.
    A diagram showing how OMA and AMO implanted themselves into relationships within real and virtual spheres, 2001.

Plenty of the others may be new to today’s audience but sound well worth getting to know.  I particularly like the sound of the Architects Revolutionary Council (1974-78) an activist group established by Brian Anson and students of the AA, and the Architectural Detective Agency (1974-86). Founded by Terunobu Fujimori and Takeyoshi Hori in Japan, the latter used field research to document unnoticed or abandoned early modern buildings. It’s often colourful stuff. Kommunen in der Neuen Welt (1969-1976) explored the architecture and lifestyles of communes. Design-A-Thon (1976-1984) was an hour-long television show about urban design with live drafting by the firm Moore Grover Harper.

There are some more contemporary participants including the think tank AMO, established in 1990 as a sister research organisation to OMA. The work of Milan-based Multiplicity (established by Stefano Boeri in 2001) included a prescient look at the complexities and conflicts of migration across the Mediterranean Sea. But the selection suggests that radical ‘other’ architects are somewhat thinner on the ground nowadays, and organisers hope that the exhibition, a research project in itself, might encourage more  ‘others’.

Such alternative approaches remain pertinent, according to exhibition curator Giovanna Borasi, who would like to see an expansion in understanding of what architecture is and what architects can do.

‘One way of reading The Other Architect is as a manual for the practice of architecture today. These case studies are all collective endeavours where participants designed a process as they might have approached designing a space,’ she says. ‘The groups represented in The Other Architect remind us that architecture has to do more than just resolve a given set of problems – it has to establish what requires attention today.’

The Other Architect, until 10 April 2016, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal, Canada www.cca.qc.ca