The Legend – Architecture – e-flux


Subtitling is anything but a routine curatorial task. There are styles and trends, even existing benchmarks of excellence, with annual awards given out for clarity, brevity and context. Did you know, for example, that there is a “Competition of Excellence in Writing Exhibition Labels”? For the exponent, however, captions are still an open question. Should they instruct the viewer? Do they create an atmosphere? Should they be reduced to a minimum?

Captioning an architecture exhibition may not be so different from captioning works in other types of exhibitions. But since architecture can never be exhibited as such, architectural exhibitions inherently allow for experimental, abstract and conceptual approaches to representing ideas about space.

Some architectural exhibits rely on visual impact or conceptual genius to the extent that captions are effectively negligible. That said, there can often be a lot to read about at architecture exhibits. Or, indeed, not enough. Thus, it seems that there is no “best practice” when it comes to captioning. But the captions are nonetheless at the heart of the experience.

There is an increasing variety of ways in which architectural exhibits are seen, visited and experienced. Technology-infused popular culture and contemporary museum pedagogy are pushing exhibits to be user-centered experiences. There are virtual environments and other digital, sensory, community or creative ways to exhibit architecture.

So captions are certainly not the only way to convey information in today’s era. And from a strictly UX design perspective, some might even consider captions to be antiquated. They are, after all, characters printed on paper, and often designed to be ignored. As exhibit visitors, we’re not even always supposed to read every caption. Maybe it’s just reassuring that they’re there, that everything has a proper label. There are, however, a few simple reasons why subtitles aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Like printed books, they persist because they do their job so well.

Similarly, exhibiting architecture has somewhat limited and fairly similar tools: plans, illustrations, models, photographs. But these media do not do well to explain themselves. In an architecture exhibition, visitors move through displays and search for captions to tell them what they are seeing. This is understandable, but also crucial. Architectural material is not always universally understandable, or even accessible to everyone. Legends rarely tell us why a plan is exposed in the first place. Instead, the relationship between an object and its caption is often quite standard, like:

Ground floor

South elevation

There are also more comprehensive, but equally common legends, such as:

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
American, born in Germany. 1886-1969

Ron Bacardi y Compania, SA, Administrative Building, Santiago, Cuba
Project, 1957
Longitudinal elevations, plan, exterior elevations
Pencil on paper

Mies van der Rohe archive, gift of the architect, 1965

These captions answer the most obvious question: “What am I looking at?” But these are all “collection-centric” examples. They reproduce a description that the object already has in the catalog. And when reproduced, they suggest that they suffice to communicate both the architecture and the exhibits; that what someone sees is what architecture is and looks like. Drought has a meaning.

The tombstone quality of the legends gives them gravity, legitimizing the object in turn. They are convincing in making visitors assume that the objects and their descriptions have a legitimate place in the canon to which they might be referring. Standard legends allow us to focus on a very particular appreciation of architecture seen through the prism of acknowledged authorship and institutional habit. What they’re really saying is:

That’s what an architect can do.

Obviously, that speaks for itself.

And we added the date, because, you know… the story.

But we don’t know who drafted this in the office.

You might not expect to see those types of captions inside a museum or architectural exhibit, but they’re not that different from most of the captions read and produced daily: the jokes, the ironies, the injustices reported on Twitter, or the inspirational, informative and curated memes and comments on Instagram. We’re no stranger to the power of witty subtitles, or the standing chops required to be good at it.

Extending the practice of subtitling has its value. Like any “information” today, the reading of a caption in an architectural exhibition is accompanied by a contemporary ballast. Each recorded expression can be examined or taken out of context later. Even the short, informative, and historically accurate note affixed next to an object has become a primary context where institutional representation and implicit power structures come into play.

So what would it mean for subtitling to be approached in another way? A label affixed next to a photo or drawing can communicate architectural thought beyond the canon of architecture. Legends can tell stories that aren’t based on architectural expertise, but are important to everyone. Captions can show architecture where, in the traditional sense, there is none. Perhaps any exhibition could be subtitled as an architecture exhibition, and vice versa. Captions can deinstitutionalize and, in some form, liberate the object on display from the conventions of architecture and exhibitions.

A Frankfurt kitchen plan, designed in 1926 by Austrian architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky for a social housing project, is touted as the innovation behind all modern fitted kitchens. At only 1.9 meters wide and 3.5 meters deep, its compact and functional design greatly improved the mass housing standards of the time. But the kitchen can also be considered as domestic machinery, intended to be operated by single women: a feeling perhaps accentuated by the single swivel stool (22) near the window. Nevertheless, in one form or another, Frankfurt cuisine welcomes us all back to our homes and apartments even today. Being aware of its historical context can help us to appreciate its extraordinary design, but also to think more openly about how we want to design our homes, kitchens and domestic lives.

Ultimately, redesigning the legend may not be about replacing existing exposure standards. Captions are information referring to objects as well as cultural notes and forms of textual expression. New institutional efforts and systematic approaches to captioning may require new positions on existing policies, unlearning past dichotomies, and radically adjusting our levels of compassion and empathy. Perhaps all it takes to start the process is to experiment with a few speculative legends.

One way to examine National Romanticism more critically is to view its interiors and color schemes as pseudo-ethnic decorating ideas.

Perhaps you already live and work with materials and forms in order to create architectural compositions.

The more varied images we are shown of the most famous modernist objects, the easier it is to see their influence in our daily lives.

Villa Flora in Alajärvi, Finland. A cottage designed by Aino Aalto in 1926, with alterations in 1936. She was the ‘stable rock’ and wife of Alvar Aalto. For a very long time, this was the official version.

Sometimes it is difficult to differentiate the space created by objects in a room from a room as space for objects.

The non-commercial center.

An alternative reading of colors used in constructed objects is that they reflect the cultures of normalcy that surround them.

The qualities of an everyday public space can be studied with everyday photography.

The nostalgia induced by the aesthetics and materiality of the film can have an impact on our perception of architectural monuments.

This stylized, framed illustration depicts the floor plan of the Dr. Nathan Shore dental practice in New York City designed by architect Paul Rudolph in 1967. The print illustrates the constant dilemma of balancing architectural design with its spatial demands , functional and aesthetic. Here, the visual form of the plan has been removed from other media and information. The resulting artwork, popularized as architectural inspiration, is still circulating on contemporary social media platforms, while the original interiors are long gone. When shown here alone, there is nothing to betray its purpose.


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