Writing a definitive history of architecture in the second half of the 20th century is no trivial undertaking, but Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen, an associate professor at the Yale School of Architecture, has found a rather nifty shortcut. She has produced a thorough accounting of this period, not as some overstuffed scholarly survey of built work, but rather through the lens of that now-ubiquitous medium, the architectural exhibition.
Exhibit A: Exhibitions That Transformed Architecture 1948–2000 (Phaidon, 2018), reviews the most influential shows of the postwar era. Unlike their landmark prewar counterparts, which Pelkonen argues focused more on completed work, exhibitions in the second half of the century increasingly challenged the established orthodoxy and heralded new frontiers and avenues of research. Here we spotlight some of the most provocative installations that Pelkonen features, which together reflect the rise and fall of the movements and ideas that defined architecture’s postwar period.
Images from the Case Study House program
1948: Case Study House Program
As the need for middle-class housing surged during the postwar boom in California, the Case Study House program offered a sleek and inviting solution. Sponsored by Arts & Architecture magazine and launched in 1945, the program in its initial three years had attracted more than 350,000 visitors to the first six model houses that had been constructed in Los Angeles. Julius Shulman’s photograph of Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House #22, the living room appearing to levitate over the nighttime megalopolis below, would prove to be the program’s most indelible image. But this was not some traditional gallery exhibition, largely captured in two dimensions. Visitors could step inside the actual structures, in their actual locations, and see for themselves how these surprisingly affordable designs heralded a new age of modern living.
1959: American National Exhibition
In the midst of the Cold War, in the heart of Moscow’s Sokolniki Park, George Nelson curated this exhibition as an unabashed act of political propaganda. Funded by the U.S. State Department, and managed by the Cold War–era U.S. Information Agency, the show (intended to inspire cultural exchange between the two countries, with the Soviets hosting a sister exhibition in New York earlier the same year) featured displays of automobiles, consumer goods, farm equipment, and science experiments. Charles and Ray Eames’ film Glimpses of the U.S.A. played under a gold-anodized aluminum dome designed by Buckminster Fuller. Most famously, the exhibition featured a full-scale model of a typical American suburban kitchen—the site of Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev’s celebrated kitchen debate.
1964: Architecture Without Architects
For his doctoral thesis, Bernard Rudofsky analyzed examples of prehistoric concrete vaulting on the Greek Cyclades Islands, and then expanded his research by touring through the Mediterranean to chronicle other examples of vernacular architecture. From his peripatetic studies came this charged and revolutionary exhibition, staged at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. As Rudofsky argued, the profession had completely ignored the rich history of vernacular building, which responded deftly to its local climate and culture, because it lacked official sanction—the signature of a trained modernist architect. As Ada Louise Huxtable wrote in her review in The New York Times: “More than an exhibition, then, this is a protest—a pointed, bitter, desperate broadside from a cultivated, rebellious heart and mind against the sacrifice of the well-built landscape to the urgencies of the industrial, nuclear age.”
1969: The New York Five
If Rudofsky’s exhibition was a broadside against an elitist profession, MoMA’s decision to host the Conference of Architects for the Study of the Environment—or CASE—marked a return to the establishmentarian status quo. Organized by Arthur Drexler, the conference celebrated the work of a group of architects who favored the formal rather than the social dimensions of Modernism, and who would become known as the New York Five: Peter Eisenman, FAIA, Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey, John Hejduk, and Richard Meier, FAIA. The event inspired a book and then an exhibition, which was first mounted at the architecture school at Princeton University in 1974; then in the Castel Nuovo in Naples, Italy; and later at Peter Cook’s ArtNet gallery in London.
"The New World Trade Center" exhibit, first mounted at the Max Protetch Gallery
1978: Max Protetch Gallery
Before the likes of Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA, had courted their first clients, Max Protetch helped these emerging architects earn a living. His gallery in New York, which he opened this year after moving from Washington, D.C., was the first (and perhaps the only) gallery that exhibited and sold architectural drawings. He displayed works by seemingly every major practitioner of the last half-century: Graves, Daniel Libeskind, FAIA, Frank Gehry, FAIA, Robert Venturi, FAIA. In the aftermath of September 11, Protetch mounted his most successful exhibition: “The New World Trade Center: Design Proposals,” which was later displayed at the Venice Biennale.
The original sections of Nolli's map (viewed to the right of the slider) and the modern interventions proposed as part of "Roma Interrotta"
1978: Roma Interrotta
In 1748, as ordered by Pope Benedict XIV, Giambattista Nolli published the Nuova Pianta di Roma—his new plan of Rome, which masterfully depicted the interplay, in stark black-and-white contrast, between the city’s buildings and its streets, its public and private spaces. More than two centuries later, the map inspired one of the quintessential exhibitions of the Postmodern era. “Roma Interrotta” (or Rome Interrupted), was organized by the Incontri Internazionali d’Arte and the Italian architect Piero Sartogo, who invited 11 other practitioners from around the world—including Graves, Colin Rowe, Venturi, and James Stirling—to take a section of Nolli’s map and propose a contemporary intervention. The resulting projects were displayed, alongside a copy of the original map, in Trajan’s Market.
1980: Venice Architecture Biennale
The first independent gathering of architects at the Biennale, the 1980 installment was “a return of the architecture to the womb of history,” as the show’s curator, Paolo Portoghesi, Hon. FAIA, put it. An unabashed paean to Postmodernism, the exhibition—“La Presenza del Passato” (The Presence of the Past)—featured the Strada Novissima, which looked like some sort of surreal stage set. It was composed of a series of 20 façades or storefronts, each designed by a Biennale participant (including Gehry, Stanley Tigerman, FAIA, Venturi, and Denise Scott Brown, Hon. FAIA), and each opening into a small exhibition space where participants showcased their work.
1988: Deconstructivist Architecture
Not long removed from stamping the Postmodern movement with his official imprimatur, Philip Johnson helped identify the next new thing with this exhibition, staged at MoMA. Along with co-curator Mark Wigley, AIA, and inspired by Jacques Derrida and Russian Constructivism, Johnson grouped the work of Zaha Hadid, Koolhaas, Coop Himmelb(l)au, and others under a single umbrella—Deconstructivism—signaling the rise of this post-Postmodernist era in architecture.
1995: Animate Form
If Deconstructivism gave wider play to the destabilizing geometries of Hadid and her fellow compatriots, “Animate Form,” an exhibition mounted by Greg Lynn at Artists Space in New York, took another metaphorical sledgehammer to established architectural constraints. Using computer animation software, Lynn designed faceted and Mylar-covered panels made of vinyl and plastic that evoked continuous movement. His goal: to inspire architects to banish their preconceived limits with the aid of the computer.
1996: U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale
A statue of Mickey Mouse presided over the brightly colored Postmodern creations of the U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, which was appropriately titled ”Building a Dream: The Art of Disney Architecture.” Commissioned by Thomas Krens, then the director of the Guggenheim Foundation, the pavilion featured the work of distinguished architects (Graves, Venturi, Gehry, and more) who had plied their trade for Disney. It was Disney that had dubbed Graves’s Dolphin and Swan Hotels in Orlando, Fla., designed in the late 1980s, as “entertainment architecture,” a reflection of how Postmodernism had been co-opted by corporate America.
The MVRDV-designed Metacity/Datatown, mounted at the Stroom Den Haag, helped usher in the age of big data in architecture. The exhibit featured an imaginary city—400 kilometers by 400 kilometers (the distance a bullet train could travel in one hour) with a population of 241 million—that had no established geography or context and that was defined only by the flow of information it generated. MVRDV described the show as “an attempt to understand the contemporary city at a moment when globalization has exploded its scale beyond our grasp.
2000: PS1 Young Architects Program
MoMA’s Young Architects Program, officially launched at the turn of the millennium, heralded the rise of New York–based SHoP Architects. The firm’s installation in the PS1 courtyard, Dunescape, functioned as an urban beach, an alluring and shaded hangout that was constructed on the cheap. “SHoP’s main interest was translating the digital into the actual,” recalls Gregg Pasquarelli, AIA. “How could an architect extract what was so provocative on the screen and retain this once it’s built? How do you do that on a limited budget without making it look like a school project?” Dunescape reaffirmed the notion of architecture as spectacle: bright, shiny, and sponsorable.
Glimpses of the U.S.A., a film by Charles and Ray Eames that was shown at the 1959 American National Exhibition