Architects feeling that their profession is underappreciated would do well to visit the “Design USA: Contemporary Innovation” exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. For although the Cooper-Hewitt’s mandate is to cover all aspects of design—from industrial objects to typography to fashion—it is architects who dominate this super-sized show (it’s so large I will tackle it in parts).
Visitors start in a sort of mini Hall of Fame, where the 10 winners of the museum’s Lifetime Achievement Award are featured—half of whom are designers of buildings or landscapes.
Up first, Paolo Soleri, who won in 2006. At first glance, visitors might be decidedly underwhelmed by what’s on display: just a handful of photographs and a drawing of a single Soleri project. (Any guesses as to which one? Bingo, that’s right, Arcosanti.)
But wait, there’s more—because what is supposed to be this exhibition’s most compelling and unique feature is that each guest is handed an iPhone with which to tour the show. The physical objects used to illustrate the styles of the dozens (and dozens) of designers and firms included in the show are meant to be only the tip of the iceberg—visitors are encouraged to dive into the digital realm to explore the work in greater depth—with slideshows, audio interviews, and video.
Installation view; photo by Matt Flynn
Overall, the iPhone definitely does enhance the experience, but the digital extras vary widely from designer to designer, from minimal to monumental. With Soleri, for example, we only get a few more slides on Arcosanti.
The next Lifetime honoree is some guy named Gehry, the very first to snag the honor, back in 2000. What do we see from, for my money, the best architect named Frank? Actual photographs of some of his greatest hits—Bilbao, Vitra, Disney—and, again, just a few more slides on the phone (one of the big pluses of the Apple device: the ability to zoom in on image details is a lot more user-friendly than pressing one’s nose up against the photographs on the wall and drawing the ire of guards).
Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall; photo by John MacLean
I.M. Pei (2003) and landscape architect Dan Kiley (2002) likewise get the photograph/digital slideshow treatment of their masterworks. All 16 digital slides from Pei are of his newest project: the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar. (Look soon for a video from us on one of Kiley’s signature places—the garden inside the Ford Foundation’s NYC HQ.)
Where the iPhone really pays off in this first room of the exhibition is with Antoine Predock, whose Lifetime Achievement recognition came in 2007 (on top of AIA Gold in 2006).
Predock's Austin City Hall; photo by Jody Horton
We get an audio interview with the American West wonder—and what we learn:
• What Predock finds most satisfying is a project that offers “an extraordinary site” whose “cultural context” gives him “deep strata to investigate”—and whose landscape offers a “connection to geologic time” and encourages an “X-ray vision” of its buried layers.
• The gestural aspects of Predock’s work satisfy the painter’s side of his personality, while the way his work facilitates bodies moving through space connects to his role as co-director of a dance company.
• And besides buildings, what Predock would look to design is, well, “anything—hats, watches, baby cribs.”