Yesterday, I saw the Chatter: Architecture Talks Back exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago and man was it a bummer. The exhibition illustrates how five architects have considered new forms of communication to create dialogue between “architecture” and the public. The work of one featured architect, John Szot, put me through an emotional roller coaster of hope, excitement, and disappointment.
Given my interest in increasing public involvement with architecture, I approached the exhibition with hopeful eagerness. One of the first sentences I read on the wall reinforced my expectation that this would be a great exhibition:
“Since founding John Szot Studio, he has embraced digital tools to explore how architecture might learn from sources outside the discipline and engage with society in a broader way. […] Szot believes that despite the public nature of buildings, and their importance in society, conversations among architects, architectural historians, and and theorists seldom engage the wider public.”
A man after my own heart!
Szot’s share of the exhibition consists of a short film titled Architecture and the Unspeakable, process illustrations used during the creation of the film, and a bright, LED clad model. The process drawings were really interesting and skillfully crafted, but there was little explanation of how these process drawings related to the film. If I showed them to my mom, she’d say, “Oh those are nice honey!” and then flip her attention back to HGTV.
The film presents three brilliantly animated architecture proposals set in New York, Tokyo, and Detroit. The description on John Szot Studio’s website states, “Through the mechanisms of vandalism, idiosyncrasy, and dilapidation, the buildings raise the possibility that architecture might transcend its practical obligations to become our most potent form of cultural expression.” All in all, the film was entertaining, engaging, and as an architectural academic, I can clearly see how its medium and style can engender broader public interest in future projects, but some explanatory dialogue from Szot would probably make it much more understandable and enjoyable to non-architects.
The model was cool. People were fascinated by the LED display, a technology that can help architects communicate their creative visions. However, the visitors I watched seemed too distracted by the fact the model HAD a display to think about its significance or the implications of new technology in architectural models. A brief explanation would have satisfied me.
Venue stuff. I watched the film from an uncomfortable bench in a room with too much lighting. If anyone else had decided to watch the film, there would have only been enough room for maybe 2 or 3 others to fit snugly on the bench with me. I’m disappointed that an exhibit about architecture, in a museum wing dedicated to architecture and design, wasn’t designed to better accommodate the viewing of a short film. Furthermore, the Art Institute of Chicago isn’t a place everyone has access to or an interest in visiting. A cashier earning $8.25/hr in a Chicago suburb has to work for more than 3 hours to afford a trip to the AIC to watch a 14 minute short film. This exhibition only caters to the relatively narrow slice of population that enjoys visiting art museums.
The exhibition text explains that John Szot endeavors to “engage with society in a broader way.” His unique film approach certainly takes a step toward meeting that goal but the exhibition of his work can be designed to reach a much wider audience.
All things considered, Chatter: Architecture Talks Back, and John Szot Studio’s work in particular, is thoroughly enjoyable from an architect’s perspective and probably very intriguing from a non-architect’s perspective. Szot’s consideration of public engagement is commendable, thrilling, and inspiring. The total package could probably reach more people with more inclusive design choices.