Reading of Proposal for a Museum

“Proposal for a Museum”

What type of “reading” is appropriate for this type of image, encountered on the website Archive of Affinities, nearly devoid of context? Cursory formal analysis yields minimal results: a tower made of casually stacked, differently skinned blocks, each covered by a green roof. But the image is too flippant to be taken straightforwardly. It seems to be a jab at “greenwashing,” a joke about the amount of work required for a form to appear to be informal. It’s just a stack of extrusions with texture maps, after all. Only an architect would appreciate it, either for its form or for the joke.

But not just any architect. A certain sensibility is immediately evident, and this sensibility is squarely at odds with whatever meaning we can gather from the project’s few contextual cues. “Proposal for a Museum” appears aesthetically similar to the will-against-the-world sensibility of Pier Vittorio Aureli’s (possibility of an) absolute architecture, but to understand what that’s all about we need the context behind so-called “absolute architecture.” So how are we to understand a project that appears to align itself with that same sensibility, but with neither author nor political context in sight?

“Proposal for a Museum” is not strictly authorless, of course, but it is encountered as an almost free floating image on Tumblr, that quasi-anonymous machine for de-contextualizing images. In that light, the project is best understood as an essay in defamiliarization. “Proposal for a Museum” exposes the incompatibility between two contemporary situations: the status of images in the digital world and the rigor of architectural form. To understand why this might be important, we might consult Claire Bishop on how artists have failed to thematize the digital: “While many artists use digital technology, how many really confront the question of what it means to think, see, and filter affect through the digital? How many thematize this, or reflect deeply on how we experience, and are altered by, the digitization of our existence?” Not many, she says. And she’s not alone in her characterization of the problem at the core of our experience of the digital; the editors at Things Magazine address this problem more precisely, in terms of content: “What’s most interesting—and perhaps troubling—is the way in which the subject matter (the actual ‘content’) is changing in response to the means of presentation.”

We can identify at least three different types of changes in content. First, there are plenty of projects that are “made for the internet” (that is, projects conceptualized around alluring, stand-alone images). These projects have occasioned countless impassioned attempts by architects and critics to distance themselves from digital “vomit” (in the case of Sam Jacob writing on Dezeen) and what ultimately amounts to the same thing, “overly iconic buildings made for magazines” (according to Jacques Herzog). This suggests the second change in content brought about by the digital: projects that are made to not look good on the internet, and are therefore meant to demand an authentic first-person experience or deeper engagement of some kind. In a certain way these architects implicitly thematize the digital, albeit negatively.

The third type of project, exemplified by “Proposal for a Museum,” is about the incommensurability between “vomit” and “architecture.” On the one hand it takes part in the incessant production of cheap, disposable images, the new digital vernacular. On the other, it is the essence of aesthetic judgment, deftly placing itself within architecture culture. The utopian promise of the internet has been to bridge the gap between high and low, instant and deliberate. With “Proposal for a Museum” this promise—this myth—has been made into architecture.

Matthew Allen