Sarah Hearne is an architectural historian, curator and educator currently based in Los Angeles. Hearne graduated from the University of Technology, Sydney and practiced at Ateliers Jean Nouvel in Copenhagen and Paris. She is currently completing her doctorate at UCLA while also teaching and working on curatorial projects. She has a particular interest in alternate forms of architectural production. Her research focuses more broadly on the procedures and protocols of art and architectural production, and technologies of representation.
Anna Tonkin and Beatrice Myatt caught up with Hearne over coffee when she was in Sydney late last year. Shifting between the historical and the contemporary, the conversation covered the information infrastructures of Architecture Biennials to the production and use of architectural drawings in the 1970s. Whilst the scale and temporality of a biennial seems disparate to the physicality of a historical drawing, Hearne’s interest and specific approach to unpacking the systems that inform architectural production draws them together. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Anna Tonkin (AT), Beatrice Myatt (BM), Sarah Hearne (SH)
(AT) You were the associate curator of the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial which ended in January this year. Could you tell us about that experience and the processes behind making the event?
(SH) Yes I was working with the artistic directors Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee (Johnston Marklee) and joined the team in November last year. They borrowed the title from an Ed Ruscha art book that was published in 2009. It’s this thick brick-like book, but all 600 pages are blank. The point was to invite a contribution but also that of course, a blank page is never ‘empty’ because you approach it with the full weight of what has come before. In the end, the show was oriented to the relationship of practicing architects to their study and use of history. We invited 140 architects with an artistic statement, which was pretty open. The list included a cohort of Johnston Marklee’s peers that were identified as engaging with diverse aspects of ‘history’.
(AT) How did the overarching theme translate into what work was included and then how it was exhibited?
(SH) I would say that there were two big moves; the first was a spatial idea about site specific transformations of the Chicago Cultural Centre venue into viewing typologies like arcades, hypostyle halls, salons, and lounges. We invited different artists and architects to engage with these typologies so we had BLESS customising a lounge of artek furniture, or AGENdA making a marbled velvet arcade of curtains. Curatorially, alongside the invited pieces from various firm’s existing work, there were two collective projects where we invited two groups to respond to shared briefs. The first brief was the Vertical City project that invited new takes on the 1922 Chicago Tribune Tower competition. These were built as huge 18 foot models that were laid out in a grid that created a hypostyle hall of model tower ‘columns’. The other collective project was Horizontal City that invited 18 architects to choose and respond to a photograph of a canonical interior as a large scale model, which inverted many of the interests that were in the other collective room.
(AT) Who would you say was the audience of the Biennial?
(SH) The interesting thing about the Biennial is that it’s held in the former Chicago Public Library building, which since the 1990s has been the main free-entry Cultural Centre for the city. It’s very well used, it has a big lobby with tables and chairs and you have people meeting in there, kids getting tutored after school, it’s an important day time shelter for people who live homeless in the city. In some way it does bring a public audience (who we like to imagine in architecture that we're engaging with) in contact with the Biennial. In fact, I would say after the vernissage that many people who passed through the Biennial never specifically came to the Cultural Centre to see it, but bumped into it on their way to municipal offices or perhaps just to avoid the cold.
(BM) That seems to be the criticism of every Biennale – that it's not speaking to enough people. Yet critics will say that the role of an exhibition is for architecture to speak to a wider audience.
(SH) Yes, in this case we had the audience but perhaps that led to some criticism about the insularity of the work – which was by nature discipline-oriented.
(AT) The critique might also come from the context of what’s happening politically in America right now. There’s so much going on, it seems like so many people are engaging with political issues and the push for architects to consciously engage with politics is greater than ever. Despite this context, the Chicago Biennial seemed isolated and that there was no relevant political position.
(SH) Definitely and I think it has something to do with the artistic directors’ position that these real world problems are more systemic than our disciplinary agency. Which perhaps is an idea that is being challenged right now in many ways. Funnily enough the biennial we got compared to the most was Aravena’s ‘From the Frontlines’ in Venice which was very much oriented toward real world problems and architectural agency. In some ways one might question the biennial format as well if the two poles can fall to the same criticism.
(AT) Do you think it’s important that the exhibition engages a wide audience through addressing broader concerns or is there value in presenting work that is more introspective towards the discipline?
(SH) I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. In fact, the better works managed to convey disciplinary interests in very unexpected ways. I would also say this about a biennial as a format; One thing that surprised me was how much emphasis the participant list had, and the fact that a lot of reviews of the show were coming out before we'd even opened – the reviews were based on the list alone. I think there is an expectation with the biennial format that one of most important things is the group of people you bring together. The list was also groomed over by the PR for metrics and stats. There was an incredible sense of stocktaking or accounting. The first Chicago Biennial in 2015 took the form of a survey of contemporary architecture. I think the question there is how do you represent ‘everybody’, which is what a survey promises. What does it mean to set the survey up as a format for architecture? How does one put together this list? There was – rightly so – a lot of scrutiny if you claim to represent everybody. Whereas ‘Make New History’ two years later got some heat for repeating many participants from the 2015 list, because perhaps the first edition had set an expectation for the survey and therefore a whole new list of participants. But I think the idea was not to survey but to take on some common interests already seen in the first biennial and push it toward a more thematic focus. Perhaps along similar lines as the critiques before the show opened, the temporality of a biennial is a curious one. It seems to begin long before the doors open and is very much related to the ‘content managers’ who are not often seen but who (largely) before the event regulate the lines of communication. We had Consortia who consult on web content. There was the PR firm who were connecting the architects with journalists more directly. So it was really unlike any other exhibition that I have worked on with just the enormity of managing content. There seemed to be a constant need for us to feed information, which was like a full time thing in and of itself.
(AT) But that's also interesting because you have the biennial as the event itself, and if people are critiquing it beforehand and if there's a relationship with the PR agency, the ‘event’ almost began when Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee were first announced as the curators.
(AT) And how do you make it an exciting exhibition if you have to set something up so early and be consistent and accurate with it, even though things might change?
(SH) Consortia was dealing with that. They were basically planning out aspects of the exhibition or particular architects’ projects that they could publish and the PR kept asking, "What can we announce?" (laughs). And the catalogue which I was working on, also had to go to print in four months, which is an incredibly tight turn-around to begin so as you can imagine it had to go out before the work that we were showing was even confirmed. So even the format of a catalogue, which traditionally documents the event and the work had to be reconsidered to fit with the temporality of a biennial. I suppose what this all points to is the difficulty of finding the limits of the biennial as an event, exhibition, and the information infrastructures of them. There was an almost provisionary nature to information in this environment because it had to get out at a speed that was immediate, so there were media rooms for instant online reporting. All the reviews – as someone pointed out – had at least one error, almost every one; people getting left off, misattribution, spelling, little things. The mentality seems to be that you correct and edit after you publish rather than checking before. You’d really want to start thinking about what this means for the permanent record or documentation of the show, speaking of making new history!
(AT) Could you discuss your current research, particularly in terms of the construction of the image in relation to architecture?
(SH) My interest in drawing is to provide a counter history of the ways that authority was constituted and managed through the architectural drawing set and its reproduction and circulation. Right now I’m looking mostly at the 1970s when architectural drawings became very visible with a series of exhibits, and many people were writing about the market around selling drawings. The drawings that were exhibited are kind of a mixed bag as everyone tries to sort out the new context. Some of them are intermediary, or sometimes quite elaborate drawings. They weren't necessarily operating to communicate to an audience or toward a building, so some of them were (to use Eisenman’s term a little later) more project oriented. There’s a sense that working in this way would have been closer to some idea of ‘architectural autonomy’ in that they were not to connect with the world of real estate and development per se. Drawings for drawings sake… but I'm also looking at ‘working’ drawings in that time as well, and the ways that the artful and production drawings diverged. And the anxiety in offices about these useless (non productive) drawings.
(AT) That’s really interesting – these different types of drawing sets being produced for different audiences and the links between them. In terms of renderings that were produced for commercial reasons and then the more artful drawings that were produced for a disciplinary audience, do you think there was anyone crossing between these types? Or were they too separate?
(SH) Yes, well, renderers or illustrators. But also it's probably just about how the architects divided and managed the drawings that were circulated – the way you saw them and how you then associated that back to their signature. On that note, one important aspect of my research is looking at the terminology of how drawings were labelled and organized into a sequence. In the most traditional tellings, you’d have the sketch on a napkin (if you’re a modernist), it's immediate, you are putting down your first idea. And then there would be design development, where the drawing would then march towards becoming construction drawings in a sense. Right now I’m looking at how those phases were determined, and how their labelling starts to shape the ways that they circulated, were stored, exhibited or collected. What you start to see post-war was the category of ‘working drawings’, meaning those that were developed for building production becoming increasingly problematic. There were studies into working practices that claimed architects were effectively mimicking the shop drawings that fabricators were also making, and adding extra aesthetic touches like hatching that needn’t be there. So there was some consternation about what information needed to be on the drawings that is more endemic to the organization of labour behind the building production.
(AT) So in a way, elements of these functional working drawings were actually more useless than say the ‘useless’ (non productive) exhibition drawings themselves?
(SH) Absolutely. The problem at that time was that the regulation and organization of building production became more and more fragmented and complicated – you had to communicate to more and more distributed groups of people. Drawing sets ended up larger and larger. There's an idea that every audience needed a little bit of different information. So on the one side there's a lot of discussion in the period around use; the use of the drawings, or the uselessness in the case of those that floated off into the gallery context. If you look at the reviews in the 1970s you have someone like Reyner Banham looking at the proliferation of exhibitions around architectural drawings at that time, and pointing out that even though the production of architecture no longer necessarily required architectural drawings, the architects kept going through the motions of making drawings regardless. It’s sort of a very similar lament to today with BIM and so on.
(BM) That's interesting though. With the shop drawers, and the need to have authorship over the drawing in order to legitimise the profession.
(SH) I guess the biggest point to be made would be that architectural drawings have always been collaboratively produced often with anonymous contributions. Maybe what’s more interesting about the 1970s is that because of the sudden attempts to make drawings valuable as sale items the need to re-attach an artful authorship became a priority. The re-assertion of value in drawing which tended to involve arguments around the artistic autonomy of work on paper, is a disciplinary throwback to architectural intellection over the more manual aspects of building. But I would argue, that if you start to look at the tools you’ll get stationery stores, the tool manufacturers, paper types that allowed for certain types of drawings. Or if you look at the institutional side of things, you’ll see the drawing training, the professional regulation of drawing types and their marks and templates. So you'll start to see, it's just as embedded and absolutely entangled with the so-called real world, as everything else. You know, it's a fantasy that it was somehow otherwise.And that's why the 1970s is the perfect time then, because these guys are investing in the idea that you could produce a drawing and that it somehow is autonomous. Architecture for architecture's sake.