Call her the accidental curator. Beatrice Galilee trained to be an architect at Bath University, failing her second year while realizing that her strengths were in writing and editing. She served as the architecture editor for Icon magazine from 2006 to 2009 before moving to Beijing to co-curate the 2009 Shenzhen Hong Kong Bi-city Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism. Next she joined the curatorial staff of the 2011 Gwangju Design Biennale in South Korea, and then went on to be the chief curator of the 2013 Lisbon Architecture Triennale. The Metropolitan Museum of Art took note of her work and came knocking, naming Galilee as the first Daniel Brodsky associate curator of architecture and design.
As one of the co-founders of New York-based interdisciplinary design studio Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Elizabeth Diller was responsible for the design of over 60 projects worldwide—in architecture, visual arts, and performing arts—including the High Line park and the Museum of Modern Art expansion in New York, and the newly opened museum The Broad in Los Angeles. DS+R earned the prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, becoming the first recipient in the field of architecture. In addition, Diller is a professor of architecture at Princeton University. The pair discuss their careers, exhibiting architecture in museums, and architecture’s role in society.
I get so stressed about some architecture thing, and then I realize it’s not actually that important. But then again, it actually could be important if we do it the right way. The Met has six million visitors a year and a website that has 30 million a year—it’s a platform like no other.
Elizabeth Diller—For most of your career, you’ve worked as a journalist and editor. How does that affect your curatorial thinking?
Beatrice Galilee—There are a number of journalists and critics who have moved into museums in the past years. That trend is largely regarded as a reflection of the decline of architecture and design magazines as a forum for critical thinking and the rise and plurality of blogs and websites, which publish up-to-the minute images of new buildings and products. As a result, the museum is a forum for much more thoughtful contemporary discourse than it was before. Before, I was curating biennales, which by their nature are kind of a snapshot of contemporary practice. Bringing the biennale format into the museum is what I hope to do. It can be a new way of trying to have a dialogue with the discipline—to think about exhibitions and public programs as magazines in terms of pace, the type of people, and the type of work. This way of presenting the “new” comes from my editorial background.
Elizabeth—Typically, curators feel the need to situate a contemporary position within a historical context or a broader debate. Do you feel the responsibility of providing context to the audience? Should curators assume they are joining an ongoing conversation?
Beatrice—The way I see curating at the moment will probably change as my career and perspective of museology develops. I have an interest in presenting something new—not necessarily in dialogue with a previous conversation, but an addition, a new thought or direction. I like to be at the beginning of a conversation about producing architecture, to give opportunities and voices to younger architects, and to take on a commissioner-patron type role, especially with individual projects at biennales. That’s changed a little now, because I am inside a museum. But there’s still a sense of giving architects the space to think about a particular topic and work together to develop something new for that person’s work.
Elizabeth—You say you want to bring the freedoms offered by the biennale format to the museum, a complicated and often slow machine. You certainly picked one of the largest and most powerful institutions for your platform for newness and spontaneity.
Beatrice—[Laughs]. It’s an interesting time for the Met, moving into a consolidation mode. We now have an entire building—the Breuer building, which we are calling The Met Breuer—for modern and contemporary ideas, and rotating conceptual exhibitions.
Elizabeth—Is the temporary location more forgiving?
Beatrice—Absolutely, but it’s just a different frame. The building itself is a modern icon. I keep casually referring to the building as a temporary acquisition of modern architecture for our department—like we have temporarily acquired a building for eight years. Everyone is like, “No, it’s not yours.” [Laughs]. But to me it feels like this is a piece of influential modernism. Whatever we do in there can exist within this context of a building that is about the new—a hermetic volume for newness to take place.
Elizabeth—In a way, you’re not only inheriting buildings, but active projects: the Breuer building, of course, as it’s adapted to its new owner, but also the new wing, as it gets designed, constructed, and occupied. What is the role of an architecture curator in an institution that is actually building a new work of architecture?
Beatrice—I’m entering at a moment when architecture is important at the Met, which is wonderful. I have an exciting role. Every department has its moment in the sun, and right now it’s modern and contemporary with architecture situating itself quite importantly within that. It’s a fascinating opportunity for self-reflection and for the museum to use in-house expertise in real time and real space, a moment at which museology and the museum meet.
Beatrice—As an architect working on museums and museology, how has your relationship to curatorial practice changed?
Elizabeth—We started in the era of the institutional critique and chose to work outside the walls of the museum. After a while we stepped inside those walls, designing installations and curatorial projects, but always with a critical voice. Eventually, we found ourselves designing the walls of those institutions. Our guard is still up, but we’re comfortable inside, outside, and straddling the walls of the museum. But wait… who is interviewing whom? Let’s get back to you. How do you work with artists and architects? Do you put a problem on the table and walk away? Or do you meddle?
Beatrice—It’s banal, but what I always say about curating is that it comes down to the ability to work with people. If you can work with someone and can fully draw out and understand their best intentions, then you will always get something great out of it. I never really have a particular process other than that. The first big show I did was the 2009 Shenzhen Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture. I moved to Beijing from my job as architecture editor of Icon magazine in London and had no curatorial experience. I had no idea what I was doing. I just had the idea that if we were going to do an architecture show in China, we should make loads of architecture. The theme was city mobilization—about the way cities in China have transformed so radically and how people are moving from the rural into the urban. The chief curator had a slightly different interpretation in relation to the connotations of mobilization—which is quite a particular term in the context of the Maoist era of China, all about mobilization in a political sense.
I wrote this vague brief—I wanted people to respond to the strange conditions of urban China, but I didn’t really mind how they responded. I got back the most incredibly diverse array of ideas, from parkour artists to installations and moving pavilions. It was an exciting way of performing architecture in the city. Two years later, for the 2011 Gwangju Design Biennale in South Korea, which was curated by Ai Weiwei and Seung H-Sang, I had this idea that we should do an exhibit about open-source architecture. I went to Architecture 00 who decided to invent a downloadable house, an open-source house. We made all the software, we worked with some engineers, and then it actually became a thing. They managed to fold in some other people and now they have a business—an office called WikiHouse. In the end, there is not really any connection between me and that project apart from that I gave them the chance to do it. But you can see how I feel quite proud, almost. I have a lot of enthusiasm for bringing those kind of experimental projects into the world. I know that I sometimes have good ideas, even though I’m a bad architect.
Elizabeth—You’re a bad architect, why? You went to architecture school, right?
Beatrice—Yes, but I was terrible at design. I instantly subcontracted everything related to my projects to other people: “Can somebody make this model, because I can’t.”
Elizabeth—Directing a team of people is a great skill to have. It’s what architects actually spend most of their time doing.
Beatrice—I tried to make that case to my professors. I failed my second year, but I was the year representative, the head of the architecture society and the school’s RIBA representative—all this ephemera related to architecture. The actual work repelled me; I didn’t know what I was doing. I wasn’t lit up by it, but loved the topic, reading books and magazines. I knew I wanted to write about it.
Elizabeth—That’s another way of being an architect.
Beatrice—I totally believe that. We did a show in Lisbon called the Institute Effect. It was about the idea that the realm of architecture production is not in the hands of architects, but also the realms of other forces. We had institutions, politics, and public space. We invited 12 institutions to come present their work of how they are enabling architectural thinking or commissioning new things, being influential to architecture. We had a bit of a mixture: Fabrica in Milan, Salt in Istanbul, Storefront in New York, a couple publications.
Elizabeth—When engaged in this interdisciplinary introspection, do you think about whether or not architecture still matters?
Beatrice—Yes, and it’s difficult. We don’t save lives. Sometimes I have to remember to put things in perspective. I get so stressed about some architecture thing, and then I realize it’s not actually that important. But then again, it actually could be important if we do it the right way. The Met has six million visitors a year and a website that has 30 million a year—it’s a platform like no other. It’s an opportunity to say something that could be heard. That is something that one shouldn’t take for granted. There is certainly some weight on my shoulders. What are my acquisitions? What will be permanently in this institution forever? We don’t deaccession, so what are we doing? What am I saying when I want this to be a part of this museum’s history and part of the history of architecture? So yes, sometimes I think, “Okay, maybe this does matter a bit.”
Elizabeth—Previously writing for magazines like Icon or Domus, you had a very focused readership. Even the biennales, which expand the audience a bit, appeal mostly to academics and an art-going public. But at the Met, you’re facing a cross section of the population that may have never considered architecture as important. How do you use that platform? I understand that the Met has a mission to “give a voice to architecture.” What is your mission within the Met’s vision?
Beatrice—Architecture and design is something that every single person is already forming opinions about. People make decisions about design and architecture every day—which curtains to buy, which sofa—and yet they don’t feel like they get to have an opinion about the discourse. I think this is because the discourse is inaccessible, especially in America. In Europe it’s a little more down to earth. I would like to make people feel they’re allowed to care about architecture, or not like it, or have an opinion about it.
Elizabeth—Architecture doesn’t hold a strong a place in the cultural consciousness of Americans. Unlike most Europeans, the average American is unlikely to be able to name a significant architect or building.
Beatrice—When I moved to New York, I’d visit an apartment and couldn’t believe that it was for sale or for rent—it’d be so badly taken care of: no light, terrible aesthetics, a window that looks over a brick wall. It’s different in Europe. The standards are higher—people know they are entitled to have natural light in their home; it’s pretty basic in terms of living. Perhaps through constant exposure to the highest levels of architecture through museum exhibitions and conversations, developers would choose better architects because there’d be a sense that people care about architecture more—a shared aspiration for quality of life related to architecture.
Elizabeth—It’s a great first objective for architecture at the Met to make people conscious of space. If you go one step further, do you think you could take on an activist role using the influence of the museum to push for higher living standards?
Beatrice—I plan to be here for a while, and so I want to try to do several things in parallel. Acquisitions, for one, and also a public program that starts small and gradually grows—a platform to allow people who have something to say and want to be heard. My role isn’t necessarily about making my opinion heard; it’s more about elevating voices in the discipline that have a direction. I am interested in the plurality of architectural practice, so that means I have to accept different voices that I may not find super interesting alongside people I find fundamentally important. The idea is to keep a discourse running that will amp up as time goes by. I’m also developing ideas for a few shows—commissions as well as theme-based exhibitions.
Elizabeth—Let’s zoom out for a moment. What are the most urgent issues for the discipline?
Beatrice—Architecture is having a bit of an identity crisis. There is a lack of certainty about the profession in terms of its civic role. In London there is a real passion in young architects doing civic projects and working in public space, yet there’s a “ceiling” where you can’t run a practice and get a few thousand dollars from the local council, because you need to already have a portfolio of substantial projects for them to give you the job. I haven’t been in America long enough to know if this holds true here, but in London there is this worry that architects designing government-led projects should not be in those positions. Their duty is not to the community—it’s to their client, to keep their salaries going in the firm, or other issues. Studios have to reinvent the discipline. They invent other practices, create businesses, invent products, design strategies and government polices, because the actual product of architecture is out of their reach.
Elizabeth—Architecture is unfortunately still seen as a service profession. Ultimately it’s up to all of us to expand the agency of the architect. We should strive to be entrepreneurial—to invent new programs and logics rather than simply inheriting what’s come before.
Beatrice—As a teacher and leader of the profession, do you feel a sense of responsibility towards the next generation: guiding, teaching, and setting a good example?
Elizabeth—I think of teaching as an extension of my work and a form of provocation. I don’t bring the actual work of my studio to the classroom, nor do I seek to teach students a fixed body of knowledge. Instead, I assign problems for which I have no answers. If I can push students out of their comfort zones and implant doubt in their minds, I’ve succeeded. Also, I try to show them that architecture is most interesting when intersecting other disciplines.
What I was always drawn to about architecture before I studied it was its ambiguous role: is it about history or art, is it about analytics, structure, technology, material culture? What is it? It could be so many different things and involve so many different people.
Beatrice—What I was always drawn to about architecture before I studied it was its ambiguous role: is it about history or art, is it about analytics, structure, technology, material culture? What is it? It could be so many different things and involve so many different people.
Elizabeth—Clearly beyond bricks and mortar. Yet, you will soon be situated in an institution with fixed walls and a permanent address. As a curator, do you want to push outside of those walls? Will the Breuer building be your home, or just your home base?
Beatrice—I started off thinking that I’d commission things outside the building around the city. Then I thought: I could do an exhibition in the Breuer and then I can do another exhibition in the same place but maybe slightly better. And you never get to do that as an architect, and you don’t get to do that with biennales. You get one shot, that’s it. People like it or they don’t.
Elizabeth—The strength of biennales is that they engage sites scattered across the city, and that is also their weakness. It asks a lot of the audience to connect the dots between locations.
Beatrice—Right. At the Met I get to build, and keep building. Not bricks and mortar, but people, intelligence, and culture. I’ll learn a lot. But I’m interested also in the Breuer building as it changes. So it’s this interesting topic of post occupancy—what does that building mean to the public after the Whitney Museum moved out? It looks the same, it is the same, but is radically different—it’s both a singular building, part of architectural history and New York history, but is also part of this huge global entity that is the Met. That’s also interesting from an architecture perspective.
Elizabeth—It will be like observing a new tenant in your old apartment, maybe even a cousin. It’s unusual to have one modern and contemporary art museum succeeded by another.
Beatrice—I wanted to ask you about museums in New York. What is a museum and how do you see the role of museums as someone who had worked on many cultural institutions?
Elizabeth—There is no simple answer; the range of our current work represents the range of my thinking. On the one side, we’re working on the MoMA expansion, a well-established institution with a great legacy that carries the weight of the history of modernism on its shoulders. We’re helping them to find new opportunities to expose their vast collection and challenge the way that the history of the last century is told. By contrast, we’re working on the Culture Shed, a new platform that breaks down disciplinary barriers and the distinction between high and low culture. This new organism will be a piece of infrastructure responsive to the changing needs of artists, and less dependent on philanthropic dollars. These two concurrent projects couldn’t be more different: one tweaks the inherited institution; the other is a start-up that tests a new paradigm. What about you—is there hope for the museum?
Beatrice—Even at the Met there are conversations about virtual reality museums. What will the future be? Our website gets so much traffic, way more than the physical space. It’s not just people looking at visiting hours. They’re looking at the collection—at videos, activities, art-history timelines. When does the virtual space become more important or equally important, not just as an auxiliary supporting structure but as a primary museum space. What do you do with that? You get into a whole realm of science fiction. I used one of those virtual-reality headsets recently. If someone told me I could sit at home and go through the Hermitage in Russia, I would say great.
Elizabeth—Even with online museums where you can see the world’s treasures at the click of a mouse, people still go to museums in person—statistically, now more than ever. This has prompted a backlash about how gallery crowds compromise the art experience. Often, this opinion comes from a place of xenophobia and elitism—an example of how the political left that once criticized the elitist museum has veered to the right, behaving like the snobby aristocrats they once rebelled against. Today’s crowds might be moving at warp speed through the galleries, but along the way someone might see a great tapestry or sculpture that will stick with them. How could that be bad?
Beatrice—Tourism is going to get big, especially when the middle classes of China and India get moving. That is an interesting challenge for museums. I was actually surprised by how many people have been talking about the Wolfgang Tillmans show that we have up right now, Book for Architects. I bumped into Wolfgang at Heathrow Airport. He said that the response he is getting and the amount and type of people going through it is extraordinary.
Elizabeth—Though, mass popularity also has its problems: everything adequate is going to feel a bit too small, and architects will have to constantly be several steps ahead, solving space needs.
Beatrice—There’s an anecdote that Alastair Parvin from Architecture 00 told me about a school he designed—his firm was asked to design this extension for a school because during the lesson changes, the corridors were so crowded and jammed. Instead of designing something new, they told the client to change the schedule. Just ring the bell at a different time. If the right person asks the right person a question, I believe they can open unexpected doors.
Elizabeth—Space is a four-dimensional problem. I wanted to touch on the specific advantages of exhibiting architecture within an encyclopedic museum. You have the opportunity to work laterally across disciplines, histories, and geographies. Will you exploit that?
Beatrice—One very long-term plan is to do some deep research: through all the collections to gradually build a database to get a sense of what the Met has in terms of architecture. I know we have Piranesi drawings—first edition books: the Temple of Dendur, the Tomb of Perneb, an entire Spanish courtyard. We have the column of the Temple of Artemis. The museum itself is part of architectural history. We could nearly document the history of architecture just from the permanent collection and it would be extraordinary.
Elizabeth—That’s a great step one: introspection.
Beatrice—I’ll pop up out of the basement in five years time, slighted wizened.
Elizabeth—Curating the collection through new lenses is how new knowledge will surface. I started getting a sense of the vastness of the Met when we were doing the Charles James show, just being overwhelmed by the collections storage. It’s amazing. The public sees only a tiny fraction of the Met’s holdings.
Beatrice—Yes, it’s like we’re looking at the wisp of foam from the surface of the ocean that is the Met. There’s just so much.
Elizabeth—With this near focus on the treasures within these walls and your distant focus on emerging voices, it seems like architecture is in good hands.
Special thanks to Charles Renfro.