Curating the Immovable

New York

26 July 2016

Can you add a building to a collection? How do you turn the built environment into a museum exhibit? How do you engage in the discipline of architecture while remaining at a distance from its practice?

These are some of questions that inevitably face an architecture curator. While design objects are often able to sit in museums like artworks, architecture presents a rather different proposition – through scale, through function, through the nature of the industry itself. As chief curator of architecture and design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Martino Stierli is no stranger to these issues.

Prior to joining MoMA in 2015, Stierli was a professor in modern architecture at the University of Zurich. As an academic, he worked on topics such as architecture’s representation in media, the genealogy of postmodernism, and transatlantic exchange in post-war architecture. His first monograph, Las Vegas in the Rearview Mirror: The City in Theory, Photography, and Film, was published in 2010.

Parallel to his academic work, Stierli has organised exhibitions including The Architecture of Hedonism: Three Villas on the Island of Capri and Las Vegas Studio: Images from the Archives of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, the former of which was shown at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale.

In the below interview, architecture critic and author of Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities Alexandra Lange speaks to Stierli about the possibility of museums acquiring architecture and the measures that cultural institutions can take to interact with the discipline.

Alexandra Lange There have been a lot of recent articles about whether museums should start buying famous houses. What do you think about that, given that you’ve done a lot of work on Robert Venturi and one of the houses that particularly gets mentioned in this context is the Vanna Venturi House?

Martino Stierli There are two answers. My personal answer is that I would be thrilled if we had houses in the collection; a place like MoMA has a historic responsibility towards preserving. John Lautner’s Sheats-Goldstein House in Los Angeles was just given to LACMA [Los Angeles County Museum of Art], so I’m a bit jealous. At the same time, the idea is very problematic. Firstly, by putting houses in this context you’re taking away their original function as a home for a family or whatever and transforming them into a mere display space. They lose something. Another problem is that if a museum enforces collecting something like this, then you create a market. That’s problematic.

At the same time, there are a lot of pragmatic reasons to speak against it. It costs a fortune to maintain a house and it’s obviously going to be off-site. Of course, Philip Johnson’s Glass House would have been the perfect building for us to get if we were going to. But I totally understand and support the institution in finding that difficult, even if I would personally be very tempted to think in that direction. And in situations like Vanna Venturi House, where you have to be somewhat fearful that the house will not survive or will be altered dramatically, there's other ways that we as an institution can influence, to hope to preserve it the way it should be.

Alexandra What alternative routes are available?

Martino By spreading the news, by trying to find trusted people who might be good preservers and by, if need be, exerting pressure through publicity. There's the Hall of Nations in Delhi by Raj Rewal, which is one of these fantastic structural engineering wonders of Indian independence. That was to be destroyed. I sent the letter to the Prime Minister. You know it’s a letter, it doesn’t mean much, but it does mean something when an institution like MoMA addresses concerns. That's a public responsibility that we should take and we should be taking.

Alexandra In recent years there have been a lot of preservation controversies over modernism and now postmodernism, even just in New York. But I don’t think MoMA has necessarily taken a stand in a lot of those.

Martino That’s true, but to what degree can we? Nothing in preservation theory is sacrosanct.

A contemporary, enlightened preservation approach is aware that cities change over time and appreciates that cities aren’t museums. They’re places where people live. You always have to balance transforming a city into a museum and allowing its development. You want to allow it to flourish as a place that is inhabited. In preservation there’s always conflicting interests to be considered, and there's never an easy answer I don't think.

Alexandra In your original statement when you joined MoMA, you said you wanted to contribute to original architecture and design discourse, locally, nationally and globally. That seems like a big charge. Are there specific ways that the museum, the department, you personally, can contribute?

Martino Locally we are very interested in making the museum a platform for issues and discourses that are relevant to New York City and to the tri-state area more generally, through a variety of programmes. We have this programme from the vault, where we invite usually local designers and architects to pick something from our collections and have a conversation about their very personal approach to an object in our collection and how they think that this specific thing relates to what they're doing.

Or we have book launches. We invite people from elsewhere because we think they have something to say that is of relevance for the local audience. This kind of thing. We are also going to continue our Issues in Contemporary Architecture series, which are specifically geared to engage local architects through workshops addressing really pressing problems that people are thinking about in this city.

And globally we have the Young Architects Program that has international stops on various continents. This is not a way for us to franchise and colonise other places, but to offer a partnership that allows them to do their things while being connected to a larger family. The same thing applies to collecting. We want to be aware of what's going on here and also in parts of the world that have been under the radar of institutions for a long time.