Lab Specimens

When the World Trade Center came down, architects were suddenly thrown into the public spotlight to offer insight, and many of their imaginations ran wild.

In contrast, the Canadian Centre for Architecture’s “Laboratories,” on display until mid-September, tries to achieve public catharsis through introspection. The CCA chose six Montreal firms, each less than 15 years old, to construct installations that express architecture’s potential to create spaces and places we can still love in the wake of the September 11th collapse.

Is architecture just an object, one that shouldn’t elicit feelings? This is the question that underlies the show currently sprawling over the museum’s galleries. Four installations bring that search to the fore.

The first is by Atelier BRAQ. In “Typical Wall: An investigation into the wall, the site of architecture,” the firm dissolves the building art into its most basic element: a single, violently disruptive wall.

“Test Chamber,” the installation by Atelier in situ, echoes this thought by building a box. And yet Atelier in situ also hints at the added something that transforms walls into places to which we feel attached. Their “Test Chamber” is actually composed of sliding doors which visitors can experience opened and closed, possible and impossible, by a mere flick of the wrist. In this case architecture gains meaning as humans interact with it.

Pierre Thibault emphasizes the importance of the human presence with “Writing Memory.” His work fills his part of the gallery with an agora where personal written testimonies are displayed.

A similarly human note is struck by “Bosses Design Contraption” which incorporates other sensory stimuli, like smell and sound, into the spatial experience.

Two other firms, Atelier Big City and BUILD, chose to express the dizziness and lack of comprehension of a post-9/11 world. BUILD’s “Code Zero” mixes a narrow hallway with rugged angles to effect the viewer’s unbalance. Atelier Big City’s installation, entitled “Interchange,” is a structure of varying levels and axes that also confuses.

Undoubtedly Laboratories, like other gallery shows that have responded to the tragedies, is somewhat self-promotional and something of an exercise in navel-gazing. By excluding architecture firms from outside Montreal, the CCA could be accused of little home-city boosterism.

But Laboratories does prove one significant point; it ultimately proclaims that architecture is nothing without people to use it and interpret it. This is not the high-profile artwork that will put it in the history books, but its emphasis on the importance of community—at a time when we’re desperate to find our own—warrants a visit.

Categories: Cities