MoMA’s Pedro Gadanho defends ugly architecture

The MoMA curator’s unorthodox hunger for architectural styles, slums, punk, and pop, from Document's Spring/Summer 2013 issue.

What sound does an architectural curator make?

When it comes to Portuguese-native Pedro Gadanho, hired by the MoMA just over a year ago to oversee its contemporary exhibitions and the yearly Young Architects program in conjunction with MoMA PS1, it’s akin to a global reconnaissance satellite. Never mind a loquacious stream of insights on what’s happening in architecture now (Gadanho blogs, tweets, publishes and lectures), his international travel schedule since arriving at MoMA, including stops in Istanbul, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paolo and Inhotim, Brazil, makes the case.

One part realist, two parts futurist, a touch fanciful and apocalyptic, Gadanho’s message seems aimed at zapping his audiences into a creative awareness of their built environment. One leaves his recent pocket exhibition at MoMA, “9+1 ways of being political” (September 12, 2012–June 9, 2013), thinking architecture today isn’t taking real risks anymore, or is taking them for all the wrong reasons.

A graduate of `90s London (while studying at the Cant Center of Art and Design). Gadanho can talk counterculture as much as columns. Architecture is not just nuts and bolts, housing and shelter, he argues, “it’s imbuing the city and shelter with thinking.” The lover of medieval and renaissance cities, Pedro Gadanho tells Document about his latest urban fascination, the challenges of taking a desk job at MoMA and why ugly architecture is good.

Pedro Gadanho: I want to explore how megacities are evolving. I’m very interested in Rio, Buenos Aires, or Johannesburg how these cities present problems and solutions of the future. In Rio, there has always been an intention to have the city grow in the right way. Rio is beautiful all the way to the favela, which have some of the best views. Mumbai is the only other place where you feel the presence of slums in such a powerful way. The big difference is that in Mumbai they are tearing the slums apart in the face of gentrification while in Brazil, by law, you cannot expel people from their homes; they plan how the slum will evolve in a much more careful and effective way, which I think is the only acceptable model. In the end it’s not so different from what Europe did with its medieval cities. That’s why I see Rio as the city of future, and they have the opportunity to demonstrate now.

Alex De Looz: When you consider Brazil’s crucial role in the global economy, at all levels, and that it has started to divert revenue from new oil pro- duction for social causes including slum urbanism, it speaks to this civic ambition.

Pedro: There is also a belief in democracy and growing into a more equal society. Because it’s so bad, that’s the only possible way to move forward; and in political terms, they have created programs that are lowering the poverty level, whereas in Europe we may be more equal, but our trajectory is slowing down.

Alex: When it comes to keeping pace, MoMA historically has been a soapbox for good, middle-class taste and what it means to be mod- ern and American. Your background is Portuguese—how does it a effect what you bring to the job?

Pedro: It relates to my pleasure in discovering the world. I think that MoMA until very recently was still very focused on the American reality—although it had represented many modern European architects. There is willingness now to change this focus on modern western history. That has been my trajectory in a way, because Portugal, being a small country, is very open, with connections to Brazil, Africa, Europe, Latin America and Asia with Macao; there is something genetically open to the world.

Alex: When the MoMA underwent its major renovation nearly a decade ago, it emerged more willfully modern and set in its ways then it had been in recent history, as if announcing an era of neo-modernism. Is this attitude changing?

Pedro: That’s an aspect that I think we are overcoming. Our role is to select and show the different directions in which culture is evolving. The current moment in architecture is actually quite interesting because there is so much happening that explores possibilities of architectural expression. I’m talking about work that is characterized by an anti-formalistic approach, which totally rejects the language of modernism or star architects. People I think of as “performance architecture,”— like Raumlabor, EXYZT and Didier Faustino for example— are using ideas that are less about form than integrating performance into their work. There is also “pop-architecture,” if you will, appearing here and there with the return of ‘70s super-graphics. With people like FAT in England and others, you also have an ironical return to architecture’s post-modern languages.

Alex: Isn’t architecture today in an extended DJ mix on post-modernist turntables?

Pedro: My next exhibition is actually about collage culture because I think that’s what’s happening at the moment. We are a culture that has assumed all these layers as part of the possibilities that we work with, and architects are finally embracing that without their old style wars.

Alex: Are you saying architects are not as it might appear totally confused about style; they are in fact freer than ever?

Pedro: They feel freer to choose the language they use to express their ideas. They don’t feel so constrained by the idea that they have to be neo-modernist or post-modernist. And by the way that’s part of why I think it’s interesting to connect architecture culture with lifestyle and visual culture in general. Architects have tended to think they’re outside the realm of trends, the movements of fashion and so on. Still, in any case, it’s important to retain the idea that architecture is a cultural production not a commercial one, necessarily. You don’t have to sell out.

Alex: How do you do that? How do you talk about architecture as part of popular culture but not also part of capitalism and buying one’s self a good time.

‘For me, the important thing is to bring meaning to trends, so they become readable for a larger audience. Otherwise, it’s just a collection of different individual attitudes, which is what the internet creates.’

Pedro: One theory is that everything you do will be absorbed by capitalism. Capitalism is the most plastic thing, always absorbing all the positions that rise up against it. Myself, I was in influenced by British independent pop, punk and post-punk. Punk has been absorbed by capitalism as punk chic. But I think the historical message of punk, as a resistance to the mainstream culture, is still relevant even though it was absorbed stylistically.

Alex: Part of your role as a curator might be exactly this, to keep these radical historical messages alive. But, today the role of the museum and its responsibility towards a creative eld like architecture is completely different, just given the media revolution. How do you see the museum competing with the Internet?

Pedro: From the mumbo-jumbo of everything that is out there, the curator is selecting, bringing people together, pointing out shared characteristics. This connects the profession of the curator with trend analysist, because it’s like identifying trends that are not so obvious, that people may be seeing and have recognized but have not yet figured out what they mean. For me, the important thing is to bring meaning to trends, so they become readable for a larger audience. Otherwise it’s just a collection of different individual attitudes, which is what the Internet has created: everyone is a curator; everyone curates his own collection of favorites, which can be very uncritical

Alex: But the Internet can also be the most ferociously critical, most political context to debate ideas, while at the museum aren’t you beholden to the institutional point of view?

Pedro: My position is to work with what is possible and available to me even within the constraints of the institution and the big production machine that is MoMA, to bring out readings and positions that I think are relevant at this moment.

Alex: Are they supportive of you?

Pedro: Yes, actually MoMA is trying to reposition itself as an institution that has something to say on the contemporary, rather than just doing retrospectives on established artists. I certainly have some difficulty considering that if I were to propose a big exhibition today that I will be given space only in 2015 or 2016. Given the way I work, it is difficult to predict what will be important then. I have had second thoughts, because I came from an independent career. Changing to a 9-to-5 is quite radical. And getting into the institutional way of working is quite hard for me. There is a limitation with working only with materials from the collection, for example, but then at the same time there is the challenge of how to activate the collection so as to produce a message that is contemporary.

Alex: What would you say are MoMA’s strongest holdings from its architecture collection?

Pedro: What I consider the most interesting and radical material at MoMA comes in great part from one collection, the Howard Gilman Collection. This represents a major holding of all the radical architects of the `60s and `70s, and that one donation totally changed the nature of MoMA’s archive. Until then only the most important master builders were followed through every move of their career.

Alex: Are you doing any acquisitions yourself ?

Pedro: When I was considering ways of being political for my recent exhibition, I thought one would be to deal with areas of social discrepancy and inequity within the city, the way the city is built for some but not for others or the way social housing stigmatizes the people who live in it. But, I didn’t find much material that could represent this logic looking through the collection. So actually most of the pieces that are in that section of the show are recent acquisitions, some of them brought in by me, like work from Alvaro Siza from the `70s, Didier Faustino and Raumlabor. And the work of the Spanish architect Andres Jaque, which is the first performance piece in the realm of architecture to enter the collection.

Alex: Why is it so important that architecture be political?

Pedro: I started to become more interested in politics over the last two or three years, maybe because I was affected by the way the economic crisis has been changing society. More and more there are savvy people who have an interesting way of producing an aesthetic statement, like Didier Faustino, but at the same time are criticizing the current state of consumption and politics. At a certain point I decided in my own activity as an architect, not to build anything other than interiors. Western society is so full of buildings—especially in European cities there is so much recyclable space—and because of poor distribution of resources some own empty houses and others are living in the streets. I produced an article titled “Stop Building” in 2009 which defended the idea that architects should be the first ones to tell society to stop building and start processes of reusing, re-doing the city, learning ways to transform existing structures and occupied lots. This coincided with my idea that doing interiors was a political statement, because it resumed to refusing larger commissions to build anew somewhere. Interiors can also carry powerful messages especially when you use the media. The house I designed, the GMG house, for example, has been through this media circus in an amazing way— it surprised me. It spread like wildfire on the web. I think this phenomenon of how architecture is taken up as an image is fantastic and amazing. And critical.

Alex: Does politics stop at the image?

Pedro: The image is like a mating call. I do believe in this subversive way of using a sexy image to provoke thinking because eventually, if people dig in, there are ideas that are interesting. Fiction can also carry messages. The short story is a format that people still enjoy to learn something of human reality. I started what I call a bookazine, titled Beyond, thinking that we should go back to the idea of excellent writing and fictional techniques to communicate architectural ideas. The third issue was on trends and fads and started with a philosophical essay by Georg Simmel analyzing fashion, because if you don’t understand fashion then you don’t understand most of the things you do. It was a provocation to architects who consider themselves immune to fashion. What are the values that we cherish? What are the values that we transmit in architecture? It’s a much more philosophical take on how architecture is a form of culture, and is expressing what is happening.

Alex: But what is the world of architecture portraying now?

Pedro: In part, performance architecture, for example, is anticipating a potential impoverishment of the world. We have to learn new ways to position ourselves as architects. Maybe we will no longer build objects but we will teach people how to build what they need. Architects may be part of a larger process, as orchestrators, as informers, as people who translate a certain technical knowledge for people to use. The favela is the ultimate example of where you can apply that sort of knowledge. I see performance architecture as preparing us to face a certain reality that is dominated by the informal.

Alex: If cities are getting bigger, riches more unequally spread, and resources scarcer, then does fiction become even more crucial?

Pedro: Fiction is important already because it is trying to picture what is coming. It is trying to tell us truths that we don’t want to accept otherwise, or that we face as very difficult. We want to maintain our lifestyle; we don’t want to regress. But, it’s not rational that we can keep it. We have had colonialism and resource exploration to support our levels of consumption until now. And technology. But, will we really be able to produce all we need with technology? The kind of technology and social media that will be available in the future will produce a very different reality. That future might be impoverished in terms of material life, but it could be very rich in terms of ideas and creation. That’s where I think architects, designers, artists may be even more important than they are now.

Alex: It sounds like you are inaugurating a priesthood of practical thinking. If architects are so focused on all these very serious issues, will they lose their tradition of form making?

Pedro: I don’t like to see myself included in the world of preppers. The aesthetical is one of the powerful aspects of our activity. That’s why I say a project is successful politically when it’s also successful aesthetically. What do I mean by that? I mean that that project is also relevant to the architectural field. It’s relevant to aesthetic innovation in the field. And then it has an effect on the world at large. Things have to be an aesthetic attraction to be really effective. You will not relate to an ugly or a bad work, bad in the sense of bad form, badly organized or conceived. That’s why I think Raumlabor when they produce these things that look like they are made of out of garbage, which they are, that I and have a very powerful beauty. It’s not only an aesthetic shift. People have been discussing this especially in the world of design, which is appreciating ugliness as the new aesthetics. And this happens in the world of fashion as well. The fact that we adapt to the idea of the ugly as the new beautiful is actually preparing our old system to accommodate new solutions for problems that we can no longer achieve with notions of purity and modernist balance.