In “Uncomfortable Afterthoughts: Continuity, Autonomy, History,” Johnston and Rodriguez exchange views on curating in architecture. Find an extract of their conversation featured in NESS 1 The Dossier section titled “Between Cosy History & Homey Technics.”
Florencia Rodriguez: For this first issue, the subject proposed for The Dossier is related to the biennial and other phenomena of the architectural culture that I’ve been trying to decode for a while. I am specifically talking about this ‘history-comeback’ that seems to have gotten so popular in the last years, and, on the other hand, a renewed trust in technics. These two ways of what I would describe almost as a kind of faith seem to be supported by the belief in some fundamental, authentic, and hard knowledge. It really caught my attention … and I’ve been trying to interpret the causes of this contemporary disciplinary romance, rehearsing different ideas in group discussions, at school with my students, and in certain texts I previously wrote. That’s why I got really interested in your statement for the biennial and those ideas of modernism, history, and oppression. I think it can be natural to justify a collective recovery of historical relevance after the complex social processes of the first half of the 20th century for which the modern pioneers needed to declare the obsolescence of the past. But now we truly are in such a different time! So much is juxtaposed, or at least coexisting—some in peaceful simultaneity, others in a terribly conflictive friction. That’s why I tend to think that we are not only immersed in a cyclical dialogue but that there is no actual consciousness of the political meaning of this phenomenon. I want to throw this on the table and ask you, why do you think a very particular and canonical history—to qualify it in a way—is so present? When in the title I implied history as a coziness provider, I’m implicitly suggesting that it might be working as a discipline refuge or even as a trend … Or are we collectively urging the discipline to constitute itself as such again? What do you think about that?
Sharon Johnston: We came to this subject from the perspective of our own practice and observations of a generation of colleagues working around the world. When we began thinking about the biennial and the role of artistic directors, we also thought it was important to reflect on work and themes of the first biennial in Chicago. We wanted to build continuity between the first exhibition and the 2017 program, and perhaps uncover certain ideas that might be picked up in future shows. Especially for such a nascent program, it was essential for us to build upon the ideas of the first biennial, where we saw projects in which history and the contemporary were intertwined in productive ways.
Cozy history is a nice term because we are in an era when imagery and material information is so present and accessible; how we look back, how we engage the past in our contemporary world is very different today than it was with the most recent and notable return to history of postmodernism. Today there’s much more fluidity between how architects are dealing with the past in contemporary discourse, and our understanding of cities today. In the evolution of our discipline there have been certain moments to look inward and take stock of where we are. Participants in the biennial share an interest in engaging with history as a way to operate in contemporary contexts. These architects are not necessarily starting from points of rupture or an obsession with newness as it relates to innovation in a way that generations before us might have. There’s an idea about continuity as being almost inherited in the way we think about our work in the contexts in which we build. At the same time, autonomy, as it relates to buildings embodying a level of resistance, is also relevant today.