March 23: The Big SHOW-MA at the MO-MA

2016/03/23 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1932 the exhibition “Modern Architecture: International Exhibition” closed.

Curated by Alfred H. Barr and Philip Johnson, the exhibition included photographs and models of buildings that were intended to communicate the idea of a great revolution in architectural design, a global movement in which architects of the nations did a sort of reverse-Babel and responded in kind to the overarching Zeitgeist that called for flat roofs, ribbon windows, non-structural partitions, and no more of that fusty decoration.  Like all exhibitions, it had a clear curatorial point of view.  Like too many exhibitions, that view was skewed in a way that served the interests of the organizers rather than a full, clear and honest presentation of the work itself.

The very manner of presentation posed a technical problem: it’s a black and white world, showing an unfairly dull vision of the Modernism it meant to illustrate: no primary colors in the Bauhaus, no pastels in the Villa Savoye, no rich organic hues in the German Pavilion. Inevitably this led American audiences to imagine that a Modern World must be monochromatic (thankfully this wasn’t always the case: witness the amber hue of the Seagram Building, the turquoise of Inland Steel and the jolly green giant, Lever House).  Also, and more to the heart of the matter, what had been a movement of social dimension in Europe (especially), was labeled a style for the New York audience, with Hitchcock and Johnson explaining its general formal parameters.  This, of course, allowed them to cull projects from around the globe (or at least give it a good college try), although it was a challenge how to fit, say, Frank Lloyd Wright into the narrative (Wingspread was just five years later; not very Zeitgeisty).

There’s no denying that the exhibition introduced interesting and important new architecture to an American audience; although many (although not all) were noteworthy in their day, with the status the exhibition (and related book project authored by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Johnson), they eventually attained an almost cult-like position.  The MOMA show became legend, Johnson & Co. recognized as soothsayers who defined the canon of Modernism and the core of architecture history classes for decades to come–even in (or especially in) those programs which had decided that history was a dumb thing for architects to study.


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