There is a fundamental paradox to the architecture museum. Any exhibition that you look at is destined to reduce architecture, or at least to transform it into some other medium, whether that includes drawings, models, videos or, rarely, fragrances of architecture. Here I am coming all this way to experience architecture, and all that I get are things that are at least one order removed from the reality of building or habitation. Except, of course, for the fact that I am indeed in a building -- and a highly structured architectural environment -- as I look at the representational artifacts.
The current exhibit at the Heinz Architectural Center, You Are Here, dwells on some of these paradoxes of architectural experience in the museum and the real world. More specifically, the show, assembled by architecture curator Tracy Myers, displays the work of filmmaker Cyprien Galliard and photographer Candida Höfer.
Wall text for the show expands upon Winston Churchill's famous quote, "First we shape our buildings, then our buildings shape us." The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Pat Lowry has shrewdly reminded us that Churchill made this epigrammatic statement as part of an exhortation for the British Government to rebuild the Houses of Parliament to their previous design, not a new one, after the German bombings of World War II.
Indeed the notion of wholesale destruction of architecture or shelter emerges powerfully in Galliard's 29-minute video, "Desniansky Raion," which is projected continuously in one of the exhibition galleries. In one segment of the film, he shows a nighttime sequence of moving figural lights that are projected onto an otherwise-banal suburban Russian housing-tower slab, from which fireworks also launch. The festive lights provide a stark contrast to our now-entrenched expectations about the apparently low quality of life in such an unrelenting building. We presume these are warehouses of anonymity or worse.
Do the lights reinvigorate and redeem the alienating building? At the end of the show, KABOOM. The structure implodes. The moment is both delightful and troublesome. Was this the joyous culmination of an entertaining audio-visual spectacle -- or the collapse from utter failure of a generation of dehumanized housing? Elsewhere, Pittsburgh-based filmmaker Chris Ivey has explored similar issues in his East of Liberty films documenting the removal of similar structures here. Your view may depend on whether you are on the inside or the outside. Whether you rely on a given structure for shelter or simply ponder its aesthetic qualities from a distance.
Candida Höfer's photography, too, is a rumination on emptiness in architecture, but it comes from a contrastingly privileged, intricate perspective. Indeed, Myers' juxtaposition of Höfer and Galliard is a brilliant study in alternately foreboding and luxuriant brands of melancholy.
Höfer's permutation comes at a curious cusp of self-reference, because most of her best photographs, displayed here as large-scale chromogenic prints, depict some kind of exhibition space, whether of actual art or some other type of landmark interior, such as an historic library or royal palace. Here is the Florence Academy, with Michelangelo's David seen head-on. There is the Louvre, with a view of the Rubens Room, where heroically dimensioned canvases are nearly stuffed into an architecturally compact gallery.
In each case, people are conspicuously absent. The viewer has a more palpable desire than usual to step through the boundary of the picture frame and inhabit the space. Höfer's stunningly nuanced photographs seem to capture mustiness and yearning, the delight of the exhausted traveler who has finally arrived after a very long walk to a centuries-old spot that seems eerily well suited particularly for her.
Or maybe that's not it at all. "Curators have a way of dictating point of view," Myers explains in an interview. She prefers that visitors have a chance to understand the works on whatever terms they choose, "not have someone preach at them about what they should learn."
Perhaps that's why one of the best lessons of this show remains unprinted. Both of these artists present delightful works of art that are well suited to the gallery, but perhaps even better for inspiring the viewer about how to experience the real world afresh, from both moral and aesthetic viewpoints.
YOU ARE HERE continues through May 29. Carnegie Museum of Art, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. 412-622-3131 or www.cmoa.org