Esra Akcan reviews Environments and Counter Environments in JAE

Saturday November 23rd 2013 by Peter Thomas Lang

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IMAGE: Gae Aulenti, Elements, 1972.


Environments and Counter-Environments, a stimulating show at the Graham Foundation in Chicago (September 18-December 14, 2013), returns analytically to another exhibition that took place at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1972, Italy: The New Domestic Landscape, directed by Emilio Ambasz. [1]

Juxtaposing the two concepts in the two exhibition titles would reveal the current curators’ interest in the original show: the domestic landscape and the environment. While the 1972 MoMA exhibit on the domestic was divided into two parts, named as the “objects” and the “environments”,  the 2013 Graham show, curated by Peter Lang, Luca Molinari and Mark Wasiuta, puts forward the continuing relevance of the architects who designed the “environments” that were specifically commissioned for the 1972 revue. In Ambasz’s terminology, the exhibited works from recent Italian design practice could be identified with three non-porous positions that he outlined in his Introduction: “the conformist” position of those who did not question the status quo but merely explored aesthetic quality in design that they defined as an autonomous activity; “the reformist” stance of those who adopted rhetorical modes and played with semantic operations or sociocultural and aesthetic references, but without any ambition for social transformation or ability to cope with the contradictions they found themselves in; and finally, “the contestatory” ones, the favorites of the Graham curators and arguably also Ambasz, who sought for political action, postulation and revolutionary design. The twelve designers of the “environments” belonged to the latter category by virtue of their attitude of contestation against main trends. While some in this category embraced counter-design in the hopes of bringing “structural changes to the society” before design could meaningfully engage the human world, others refused to withdraw totally from the current socio-industrial system. Rather than “passive abstention” they pursued strategies of “active critical participation,” again in Ambasz’s words. [2]

The current curators, then, bring forward the contestatory environments as worthy of another show. Far from recreating these environments in the gallery, they excavate archival documents, drawings, collages, models, photographs of the original exhibit, and movies that accompanied each environment at the MoMA viewing. Equally significant are the associated public events with the curators, Ambasz, and the rare opportunity with 9999’s Carlo Caldini who in his lecture brought in original materials that could as well have been sealed off in the exhibition stands, and passed them around giving all in the audience the delight of being the curious researcher in the archive.

Based on the lectures by Lang, Molinari, and Wasiuta at the Graham Foundation, as well as a discussion session at the Art History Department of the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), it is possible to conclude that the three curators of the current exhibit have different and complementary foci of interest: While Lang and Molinari analyze the 1972 show in relation to the Italian radicals in the 1970s and the country’s architectural history in general, Wasiuta is drawn to its making and influences in the context of the curatorial and architectural discourse in the United States. Ambasz adopted much of the terminology and interdisciplinary interest in environmental design in the US at the time, as evident at Berkeley University where architecture was repositioned as environmental design to secure its engagement with social sciences, or his own Universitas project (a new university of design) at MoMA that brought in intellectuals invested in behavioral psychology, systems theory, communication sciences and semiotics, including such names as Umberto Eco, Henri Lefebvre, Manuel Castells, Christopher Alexander, and Anatol Rapoport. [3] And yet, the choice of Italian design to inject new lifeblood into the contemporary American discussions on the environment must have been far from coincidental. Ambasz must have seen Italy as the place where he could find his ideal designers who engaged with political issues and radical action. Not surprisingly, his own texts emphasized the possibility of the users to relate to the environment in a contestatory mode. While objects exerted power over the users by turning them into passive receptors, environments could mobilize participation and political action…