Looking Obliquely: De-encoding Gallery Architecture

By Ellen Hartwell Alderman.

Published by The International Journal of the Constructed Environment

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Typical exhibition spaces and museum galleries are not neutral structures, as their sparingly adorned walls seem to imply. Contemporary gallery experience is, in fact, highly codified by behavioral and analytic norms. If architecture is implicated in this process, what potentials exist for curators and architects who wish to explore alternate modes of engagement with exhibitions through architecture?
The development of contemporary gallery architecture has evolved alongside twentieth century art. Within this process, architectural conventions have come to reify rationalized systems of knowledge, emphasizing the dominance of standardized techniques of reading meaning. This tendency to objectify-in-order-to-understand is a modern characteristic that early modern cultural theorists were critical of. Writers such as Walter Benjamin, Henri Bergson, Marcel Proust and Sigmund Freud expressed their skepticism of the dominance of this impersonal means of knowing, in favor of a mutual interest in an alternative type of non-rational experience, described in relation to memory, embodiment and the subconscious. The personally meaningful value of this alternate type of experience is a valuable tool that has been diminished in the face of the strictly rational trajectory of modern analysis. Considering the value of this non-rational approach in relation to a synthesis of Irit Rogoff’s performative technique of looking away from prescribed exhibition narratives, and John Biln’s evaluation of Jean Nouvel’s Institute du Monde Arab—an architectural case study in which the materiality of exhibition spaces reflect and disrupt vision, making viewers aware of their own embodied experience—the potential emerges for exhibition architecture to encourage a more subjective type of experience as a supplement to rational forms of making meaning. By using architecture to intentionally obscure the immediacy of a sense of fixed meaning, the self is sensitized to an embodied, and therefore more intimate, experience of environment.

Keywords: Architecture, Embodiment, Materiality, Perception, Walter Benjamin, Irit Rogoff, Looking Away, Looking Obliquely, Modernism, Exhibition Space, Exhibition Practices, Gallery, Museum, Experience, Experiential, Theory of Perception, Jean Nouvel, Gayatri Spivak

The International Journal of the Constructed Environment, Volume 1, Issue 2, pp.61-66. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 763.940KB).

Ellen Hartwell Alderman

PhD Candidate, Architecture, Urbanism and Design, Department of Art History, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA

Ellen is a curator, creative programmer and writer, and is currently a PhD candidate in the Art History Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago with a concentration in Architecture, Design and Urbanism. Her background is in comparative literature, sculpture and metal work, architectural theory, and graphic design. Ellen received an MA in Visual and Critical Studies from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2009, a BA and a BFA from the University of Michigan in the History of Art and Comparative Literature, and Metalwork and Jewelry Design in 2003. She currently holds the position of Program Coordinator at the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts in Chicago, Illinois. In 2011, she founded the experimental exhibition space, Alderman Exhibitions.